Wednesday, February 11, 2015

So, how's my team doing?

A breakdown of how Virginia's Division I teams stand as we head down the home stretch of the 2014-15 season:

(20-2, 11-0)
RPI: 21
CAA standing: 1st
Remaining schedule: Thursday at Towson (10-14, 6-6); Sunday vs. Delaware (12-11, 7-5); Feb. 19 at UNCW (8-14, 4-7); Feb. 22 vs. Hofstra (14-9, 7-5); Feb. 27 vs. Northeastern (4-18, 1-11); Mar 1 at Delaware (12-11, 7-5); Mar 4 vs. Charleston (4-18, 2-9)

   - Let's see....the Dukes have a four-game lead with seven to play in a league where their average victory margin is 19.4 points. Let's just say we like their chances. Now, would the Dukes get an NCAA at-large bid if the hard-to-imagine happens and they don't win the CAA tourney? Tough to say. One might think a Top-25 RPI would make JMU a shoo-in, and the folks that do mock brackets seem to agree. But actual selection committees have historically placed a premium on wins over NCAA tournament-caliber teams, and frankly we're not sure we see even one such win for these Dukes. Fortunately for JMU fans, if the Dukes keep playing to the standard they've set so far, they'll take the decision out of the committee's hands.
   Star turns: CAA Preseason Player of the Year Precious Hall (21.0 ppg) has so much looked the part one tends to forget she averaged just 13.5 ppg last year. Lady Okafor (13.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Muff Mickens (7.6 assists per game, third in Division I) are also on first-team All-CAA trajectories. The Colonial hasn't had three all-league first-teamers from one squad since the 1999-2000 season, when Lucienne Berthieu, Natalie Diaz and Hamchetou Maiga all made it from Old Dominion. Should it happen again, it would represent yet another parallel between this era's JMU and the Wendy Larry-led ODU dynasty.

(18-6, 14-1)
RPI: 91
Big South standing: 1st
Remaining schedule: Saturday at Presbyterian (12-12, 7-8); Feb. 17 at Longwood (3-21, 3-12); Feb. 21 vs. Charleston Southern (5-18, 1-13); Feb. 24 vs. Winthrop (13-10, 9-5); Feb. 28 at Campbell (14-9, 9-5)

   - The Lady Flames have a three-game lead on second-place Radford with five to play. Given that they've already swept the season series with Highlanders, this race is all but done. Clinching the regular season would guarantee Liberty at least a WNIT bid; last year the Lady Flames weren't invited to that tournament despite a 20-11 record and an RPI in the 130s. But it will be a major disappointment if this loaded Lady Flames team winds up in that tournament. Liberty will also be prohibitive favorites to win the league tournament and invite itself to the NCAAs. And given that this is an uncommonly deep team with oodles of weapons, the Lady Flames' fun might not stop with simply getting an invitation.
   Star turns: The Lady Flames' success has come in such a balanced fashion it's conceivable the team could win the league race by five games yet not place a single player on the All-Big South first team. Ashley Rininger and Karly Buer can make the best statistical cases, but everyone on this team sacrifices minutes/stats for the greater good. We hope folks have also taken notice of the much-improved Sadalia Ellis, who for stretches has looked like the best two-way guard in the entire conference.

(15-8, 7-3)
RPI: 93
Atlantic 10 standing: Tied for 4th (Duquesne)
Remaining schedule: Wednesday at Dayton (17-5, 8-2); Saturday vs. La Salle (12-11, 3-7); Feb. 18 at Duquesne (15-8, 7-3); Feb. 21 at St. Joseph's (8-14, 4-6); Feb. 26 vs. George Washington (21-2, 10-0); Mar 1 at VCU (5-6, 14-10)

   - A Top-4 seed in the A-10 tourney - and the double-bye that comes with it - is clearly within reach, but it won't come easily given a grueling closing stretch that begins tonight at Dayton. Nothing has come easily for these Spiders, and this won't either. Then again, any team that can spot its opponent the first 20 points and still win, as the Spiders did Saturday against Saint Louis, figures to be capable of just about anything.
   Star turns: Janelle Hubbard (15.8 ppg, 91.7 FT percentage), Lauren Tolson (14.4 ppg) and Gen Okoro (11.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) have led the way, but no one player ever really goes off for this team. Like Liberty, the Spiders thrive through the collective strength of several.

(12-11, 8-2)
RPI: 96
MEAC standing: 1st
Remaining schedule: Monday at Morgan State (9-13, 6-4); Feb. 21 vs. Delaware State (5-17, 2-7); Feb. 23 vs. Coppin State (3-18, 2-8); Feb. 28 at Howard (3-20, 3-7); Mar 2 at Delaware State (5-17, 2-7); Mar 5 vs. Norfolk State (8-14, 7-4)

   - Two uncharacteristic stumbles aside, the Lady Pirates remain in their accustomed role as league frontrunner. It's going to be hard to move them off that spot, too, as of their remaining opponents only Morgan State and Norfolk State seem likely to provide anything more than token resistance. That Hampton-NSU season finale should be interesting, though. Brace yourselves, Spartans; we have a feeling the Lady Pirates will be just a bit focused for this contest.
   Star turns: The conference leader in points (21.9 ppg) and steals (3.7 spg), Malia Tate-DeFreitas is on the short list of MEAC Player of the Year contenders. Backcourt mate Kyani White is also making a push for All-MEAC honors, and the much-improved Ryan Jordan continues to a solid contributor.

(15-8, 5-5)
RPI: 97
ACC standing: Tied for 8th (Pittsburgh)
Remaining schedule: Thursday vs. Duke (18-6, 9-2); Sunday vs. Florida State (22-2, 9-1); Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh (15-8, 5-5); Feb. 22 at Virginia Tech (10-14, 1-10); Feb. 26 at North Carolina (19-5, 6-4); Mar 1 vs. Louisville (20-3, 8-2)

   - A year ago, the Cavaliers finished sub-.500 and even didn't qualify for the WNIT so it's definitely progress that this team is comfortably within range of a bid. That said, given the resources the school devotes to women's basketball, that's not the tournament this program shoots for. As we write this the Cavaliers have no NCAA tournament resume to speak of. But with four games against sure-fire NCAA qualifiers remaining - and the prospect for more in the ACC tournament - we may not have heard the last from the Cavaliers in this regard yet. Obviously the kickoff game of this stretch Thursday night against Duke is huge - here's hoping Cavs fans show up and do their part.
   Star turns: Faith Randolph ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring (16.9 ppg), Sarah Imovbioh is among the league's top rebounders, Breyana Mason has taken a big step forward as a sophomore and Mikayla Venson is an impact freshman with a big upside. Several nice pieces; just need one or two more.

(14-10, 5-6)
RPI: 121
Atlantic 10 standing: 7th
Remaining schedule:  Saturday at George Mason (12-11, 4-6); Feb. 18 vs. George Washington (21-2, 10-0); Feb. 22 vs. UMass (8-14, 2-8); Feb. 25 at Davidson (5-19, 1-10); Mar 1 vs. Richmond (15-8, 7-3)

   - The Rams have lost three straight, but their RPI still has them on pace for an at-large WNIT bid (historically eligible teams with RPIs of 130 or better have gotten bids). The remaining schedule is also shaped to allow the Rams to establish some winning momentum heading into the A-10 tournament, particularly if they can close by avenging last week's loss to rival Richmond.
   Star turns: Adaeze Alaeze and Isis Thorpe have been key contributors.

Old Dominion 
(13-8, 6-4)
RPI: 135
Conference USA standing: 4th
Remaining schedule: Thursday vs. UTSA (11-12, 6-5); Saturday vs. UTEP (9-11, 4-7); Feb. 19 at Southern Miss (15-7, 8-3); Feb. 22 at Louisiana Tech (11-11, 6-5); Feb. 26 vs. Rice (7-14, 2-8); Feb. 28 vs. North Texas (3-18, 2-8); Mar 5 at Marshall (14-8, 6-5); Mar 7 at Western Kentucky (20-4, 9-2)

   - Last season, something clicked in for the Lady Monarchs in mid-February - they closed the season on a five-game winning streak, won their C-USA tourney opener and knocked off Navy in WNIT first round. They could use a similar surge now as for the third year in a row the team hits the business end of its schedule in a bit of a gray area in terms of at-large WNIT prospects. The good news is the schedule provides plenty of opportunities to enhance their status, and possibly even make a legitimate push for the conference title. League leaders Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State, while strong, have at least shown some vulnerability in conference play. And even if the Lady Monarchs can't catch those teams, hanging onto a Top-4 seed would put ODU on equal footing with the frontrunners in the conference tournament. The question is, can Old Dominion beat the caliber of team it'll need to beat to make a late run possible? To date, ODU's best RPI win came against VCU (121); 11 of the team's 13 wins have come against teams with RPIs of 176 or beyond - in other words, the bottom half of the Division I pool. We're not saying ODU isn't capable of beating teams in the RPI Top 100. They just haven't done it yet.
   Star turn: Jennie Simms, who lit up Florida International for 45 points a couple weeks ago, has been the focal point of the team all season and is a strong first-team All-C-USA candidate.

William and Mary
(11-12, 5-7)
RPI: 139
CAA standing: 7th
Remaining schedule: Friday vs. Delaware (12-11, 7-5); Sunday vs. Charleston (4-18, 2-9); Feb. 22 at Elon (14-8, 7-4); Feb. 26 at Charleston (4-18, 2-9); Mar 1 vs. Northeastern (4-18, 1-11); Mar 4 vs. Towson (10-14, 6-6)

    - If teams were ranked by how dramatically their contests unfold, the Tribe would be a Top-25 squad, maybe even Top-10. At this rate, we suspect Ed Swanson's hair to look like Steve Martin's by season's end. And things could get even more exciting if the Tribe can finish strong. A .500 or better final record could merit serious attention from the WNIT selection committee. It would also set them up as a dangerous CAA tournament team - especially if they can be in the opposite bracket of JMU. Of course, every team in the CAA wants that.
   Star turns: We're huge fans of Jazmen Boone, a high-motor/high IQ player whose impact on games extends far beyond what can be gleaned from a stat sheet. Also, the more we watch the Tribe, the more we notice how many good things sophomore Alexandra Masaquel does. Newcomers Jenna Green and Abby Rendle are building strong all-freshman team cases.

(14-10, 11-4)
RPI: 189
Big South standing: 2nd
Remaining schedule: Saturday at Charleston Southern (5-18, 1-13); Feb. 17 at Winthrop (13-10, 9-5); Feb. 21 vs. Campbell (14-9, 9-5); Feb. 24 vs. UNC Asheville (7-17, 6-9); Feb. 28 at High Point (15-10, 11-5)

   - The youthful Highlanders, who went 5-15 in conference last year, already have more conference wins than any season since 2010-11. If they can hold onto second place, they can leave themselves in great position for at least a WNIT bid (if Liberty won the Big South tournament, the league's automatic WNIT slot would go to the next-highest regular-season finisher). They're also on pace to show up at that tournament with just as good a shot as anyone not named Liberty of taking the crown (actually, they gave Liberty all they could handle when the teams met the first time, although the Lady Flames rolled in the rematch). In short, the rebuilding of Radford isn't on schedule; it's ahead of schedule.
   Star turns: Radford's "A Team" - Aisha Foy and Ayana Avery - are on track for all-conference honors. Radford's "J Team" - Janalya White and Jayda Worthy - are top candidates for all-freshman recognition.

Virginia Tech
(10-14, 1-10)
RPI: 205
ACC standing: Tied for 13th (Wake Forest, Clemson)
Remaining schedule: Thursday at Pittsburgh (15-8, 5-5);Sunday vs. Syracuse (17-7, 7-4); Feb. 19 vs. Louisville (20-3, 8-2); Feb. 22 at Virginia (15-8, 5-5); Mar 1 at Boston College (10-13, 2-8)

   - The struggle to gain consistent ACC traction continues. In fact, this year it's actually been a bit harder to find. I mean, Tech's last two ACC seasons (4-14 two years ago, 4-12 last year) could hardly be classified as breakthroughs. But if you looked carefully enough you could detect small signs of improvement. This season, though, Tech seems to have ceded the modest ground it appeared to have gained gained relative to its ACC foes. But enough about what Tech hasn't done. With five games left, here's what the Hokies can do. Even the least-successful Tech teams in recent years have managed to play above themselves and knock off one power team, a Vanderbilt, a Maryland, a North Carolina, a Florida State. Such a feat is still out there for these Hokies. Also, Virginia Tech has lost 17 straight games to archrival Virginia, a stat that must gall Tech fans everywhere. Wouldn't it be something if, after so many setbacks, this was the team that finally snapped that streak?
   Star turns: Frankly, ACC play has been tough on most of the Hokies. Vanessa Panousis, Taijah Campbell and Sidney Cook have all had their moments, though.

George Mason 
(12-12, 4-7)
RPI: 216
Atlantic 10 standing: Tied for 8th (Saint Louis, St. Joseph's)
Remaining schedule: Saturday vs. VCU (14-10, 5-6); Feb. 18 at St. Joseph's (8-14, 4-6); Feb. 21 at Saint Louis (11-12, 4-6); Feb. 25 vs. Fordham (17-7, 9-2); Mar 1 at George Washington (21-2, 10-0)

   - Wednesday's 85-79 overtime loss at UMass, a game the Patriots at one point led by 12, had to sting. Still, by the standard of a 2013-14 season in which the Patriots won just one regular season conference game, this campaign is already a success. And the remaining schedule offers some realistic opportunities to make even more noise. Then there's this - No George Mason team has finished a season with a winning record since 2003-04. Even after Wednesday's setback, these Patriots have a legitimate chance of breaking that streak.
   Star turn: Taylor Brown is averaging a league-leading 20.6 ppg in Atlantic 10 play. Best of all, she's specialized in producing must-have points down the stretch, something she displayed yet again Wednesday when, with 26 seconds left, Brown drained a 3-pointer UMass knew she wanted to take to force overtime. At this point it's hard to see anyone except George Washington's Jonquel Jones taking A-10 Player of the Year honors. But even if the Patriots don't finish in the top half of the league, Brown should be an easy choice for the All-A-10 first team.

Norfolk State 
(8-14, 7-4)
RPI: 288
MEAC standing: 3rd
Remaining schedule: Saturday at Morgan State (9-13, 6-4); Feb. 21 at Coppin State (3-18, 2-8); Feb. 23 vs. Delaware State (5-17, 2-7); Mar 2 at Howard (3-20, 3-7); Mar 5 at Hampton (12-11, 8-2)
   - Considering this team had a 2-11 record when it tipped off at Florida A&M on Jan. 10, the fact that the Spartans are in nominal contention for a MEAC title ranks up there with the turnarounds at Radford and William and Mary among the most pleasant developments in the state this season. Realistically, the Spartans will be hard-pressed to catch a Hampton team that is two games ahead in the loss column. But the top three seeds in the MEAC tournament earn first-round byes. If the Spartans can get one of those, in a tournament being played a Cardale Jones throw from campus at the Norfolk Scope, well, who knows?
   Star turns: Like Hampton's Malia Tate-DeFreitas, NSU's Rae Corbo is having a MEAC Player of the Year-caliber season. Meanwhile, freshman Kayla Roberts, who had 26 points and 25 rebounds against Hampton, looks like the frontrunner for Freshman of the Year honors. Also, in MEAC-only games, Jazamine Gray leads the conference in assists (6.0 apg).

(3-22, 3-13)
RPI: 346
Big South standing: 10th
Remaining schedule: Saturday at Coastal Carolina (10-13, 4-10); Feb. 17 vs. Liberty (18-6, 14-1); Feb. 21 vs. Presbyterian (12-12, 7-8); Feb. 28 at Charleston Southern (5-18, 1-13)

   - Key injuries short-circuited Longwood's 2014-15 season just when it was getting started. Credit the remaining Lancers for hanging in there and making opponents earn whatever they get over the past several weeks. A healthy Longwood team will be a handful next season.
   Star turn: Quiet as it's kept, in Big South play Raven Williams ranks third in the conference in scoring (15.2 ppg) and minutes played (34.5), fourth in assists (3.31), sixth in free throw percentage (75.0), seventh in steals (2.13) and 10th in 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage. Other than that, opponents have pretty much held her in check.

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