Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gimme Five - the state's top teams (Jan. 6)

All statistics through games of Jan. 4.

1. Virginia Tech 
(13-1, 1-0 ACC, RPI: 44)

The toughest team to score on in Division I? So far these Hokies can make a heck of a case for that title as they rank first among 344 D-I scoring in scoring defense (45.3 ppg) and second in field goal percentage defense (30.6). By the way, for you efficiency lovers, the Hokies are also first in defensive points per possession. On Sunday, Boston College became the latest team to be smothered into submission by the Hokies' D (20 percent shooting in a 58-33 loss). To be fair, Tech has only played three teams inside the RPI top 125 (BC, Georgetown and Tennessee), and 11 of the Hokies' 14 games have been at Cassell Coliseum. This is why it will be extremely interesting to see how the Hokies fare this week when they leave home for the first time in more than a month for games Thursday at Louisville (10-5, RPI 41) and Sunday at Syracuse (11-3, RPI 40). The encouraging news for Tech is that tough defense typically travels well.

Spotlight on: Australian-born senior Hannah Young, who after three years of being a merely decent 3-point shooter is now making like Steph Curry beyond the arc in her final campaign. Young hit 7 of 10 3-pointers last week in victories over Furman and Boston College and is connecting at a potent 47.7 percent clip. That's 20 percentage points higher than her best mark from deep in any of her previous three seasons (27.6 percent as a sophomore).

Next up: Thursday at Louisville (10-5, 2-0 ACC). The Cardinals dropped four of their first five games but have gone 9-1 since. The latter stretch has included victories over Michigan State and Florida State.

2. Virginia 
(11-4, 1-0 ACC, RPI: 57)

With its 76-56 demolition of Miami on Sunday in the books, Virginia has now played eight teams inside the RPI top 100. When the Cavaliers have forced 20 or more turnovers, they're 4-0, with none of their opponents shooting higher than 40.8 percent. When they've forced 19 or less, they're 0-4. The lowest opponent's shooting percentage in these games was 44.2, and the other three were 52.7, 53.7 and 56.1. Now, we understand that wins and losses involve a lot of factors and can't necessarily be tied to one statistic. But in this case, the evidence seems clear - when the Cavaliers create lots of turnovers, they've been very good. And when they don't, they've been vulnerable.

Spotlight on: Senior guard Faith Randolph, who has blossomed from scorer to playmaker/scorer. Against Miami, Randolph tied for the team high with 16 points but also dished out eight assists. "She's done an unbelievable job of finding balance in her game," Cavaliers coach Joanne Boyle said. "Her giving up points here and there has made us better."

Next up: Thursday vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (13-1, 2-0 ACC). Sunday's 65-55 victory at Pittsburgh doubled as the 800th career win for Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw (712 in 29 seasons at Notre Dame, 88 in five seasons at Lehigh).

3. VCU 
(12-2, 1-0 Atlantic 10, RPI: 73)

The Rams rank eighth among Division I teams in scoring defense (51.3 points allowed per game) so it was encouraging to see them win a relative shootout Sunday at UMass (74-66). In addition to scoring defense, VCU also leads the A-10 and ranks among the nation's top 50 teams in steals, turnovers forced, turnover margin, field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense. Other than that, they're not doing much.

Spotlight on: Senior guard Adaeze Alaeze, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the UMass victory. Now, a 22-point game is healthy production on any team but it represents a veritable scoring feast from these remarkably balanced Rams. It was the second time this season Alaeze cracked the 20-point mark; push those two performances to the side and no Ram has scored more than 17 points in any game so far.

Next up: Thursday vs. Saint Louis (10-4, 0-1 Atlantic 10). The Billikens got off to a 7-0 start but are just 3-4 since. On Saturday, George Mason won at Saint Louis in overtime.

4. William and Mary 
(10-2, 1-0 CAA, RPI: 119)

Can't say we saw William and Mary's 65-59 overtime victory over JMU on Sunday coming - the Dukes had won 10 straight in the series and romped by 42 in the 2014-15 regular-season finale. Granted, this isn't nearly that same JMU team. Still, we're attaching no asterisks to what can only be considered a milestone victory in the Tribe's rapid progression in Year 3 under coach Ed Swanson. Like Virginia Tech and VCU, William and Mary has made itself a difficult team to score on. They've also excelled at the sweet combination of forcing a lot more turnovers (19.3 per game) than they commit (14.3). Now there's plenty of season left, including a Feb. 19 trip to Harrisonburg to face a Dukes team that traditionally has had an excellent memory. So don't expect the Tribe to start talking big-picture. But that's OK, we'll do it for them. The hope used to be that the Tribe could develop into a darkhorse Colonial Athletic Association contender. After Sunday, scratch the word "darkhorse."

Sporlight on: Junior forward Alexandra Masaquel. We used to think of her as a useful player, a do-a-bit-of-everything type. We now recognize her as an impact player, a do-a-lot-of-everything type. Exhibit A came last week, when she served up two-game averages of 15 points (on 60.9 percent shooting), 12 rebounds and 3.5 steals en route to CAA Co-Player of the Week honors.

Next up: Friday at Towson (4-8, 1-0 CAA). A classic trap scenario for the Tribe as this game is sandwiched between the JMU win and Sunday's home date with Drexel, But it wasn't that long ago that W&M wasn't winning enough games to create potential traps. So, more progress!

5. JMU 
(7-5, 0-1 CAA, RPI: 93)

The Dukes shot 26.3 percent from the field against William and Mary (4 of 25 from 3) and surrendered 33 points off turnovers. Yet they still were in position to win up four with less than 45 seconds remaining in regulation. With virtually everyone on the roster still adjusting to a new and/or expanded role, consistency from game-to-game remains an issue. But this group still has a pretty high ceiling.

Spotlight on: Junior forward and Hampton Roads homegirl Da'Lishia Griffin, who grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds against the Tribe. It was the sixth-highest single-game total in program history.

Next up: Friday vs. Charleston (5-7, 0-1 CAA). The Cougars have dropped two straight games and five of their last six.

Previous rankings
Dec. 8
Nov. 30
Nov. 23

Dribbles and bits

   - Big game on tap Wednesday night at the Robins Center as Richmond (8-6, 1-0 Atlantic 10) hosts struggling perennial A-10 power Dayton (7-5, 0-1). The Flyers have lost four of five since point guard Kelly Austria suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Dayton has also played its past two games without leading scorer Amber Deane (knee injury). Still a talented bunch, though...

   - Talk about earning one's scholarship - Malia Tate-DeFreitas leads Division I in minutes per game (39.4) and is second in shots attempted (302) for Hampton (3-11, 1-0 MEAC). As for her team, after playing Division I's toughest non-conference schedule last season, the Lady Pirates just finished 2015-16's sixth-strongest out-of-league slate with Sunday's loss at Princeton. But don't be surprised if these guys get on a roll from here - their remaining opponents have a combined record of 33-111.

   - Don't look now, but Longwood (5-9, 2-3 Big South) has won two straight - both on the road - and is 4-3 since its exam break. Last year, an injury-ravaged Longwood won just four games all season (4-26). The Lancers' latest victory came Monday night when they forced 20 turnovers and held Coastal Carolina to 25 percent shooting in a 56-48 decision. Forward Eboni Gilliam and guards Daeisha BrownDeborah Headen and Micaela Ellis all played big roles in the victory. Also, head coach Bill Reinson was quoted four times in the school website game story, so you know he must have been happy. The Lancers will try to keep it going Saturday at home against Campbell (6-7, 1-3).

   - Liberty center Catherine Kearney, given starter's minutes after an injury to Lady Flames star Ashley Rininger, responded with her third 20-point performance in four games - all victories - during Monday's win over UNC Asheville. The 6-6 redshirt senior is averaging 17.0 points during Liberty's four-game streak; Kearney was at 4.3 ppg after the Lady Flames' first 10 games. Liberty (7-7, 4-1 Big South) has also benefited from the return to form of junior forward Mickayla Sanders, who missed the first eight games with a wrist injury. Sanders is averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in her last two games. Rininger, the Big South's Preseason Player of the Year, suffered a left knee injury on Dec. 17 against Duke. She underwent surgery and was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

   - Old Dominion's Jennie Simms earned Conference USA Player of the Week honors after averaging 26.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in a pair of games last week. Simms went for 18 and 9 in Sunday's 71-49 win at Charlotte that tipped off conference play. The Lady Monarchs (5-8, 1-0 C-USA) will try to make it two in a row when they host their historical twin Louisiana Tech (5-7, 0-1) on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Constant Center.

   - George Mason (6-8, 1-0 Atlantic 10) played four overtime periods in its last five games, starting with a double OT win at Delaware on Dec. 7 and continuing through last week's overtime loss at Arizona and Saturday's stirring OT win at Saint Louis. The Patriots appear to be playing their best ball of the season, which works out well because on Thursday they'll host one of the hottest teams in the country in Duquesne (13-1, 1-0 Atlantic 10). The Dukes are riding a 12-game winning streak and are coming off Sunday's 89-58 dismantling of Dayton. That game featured a 17-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist triple-double by Dukes senior lead guard April Robinson.

   - Last week Radford (6-7, 2-2 Big South) confirmed that freshman point guard Jen Falconer does indeed need ACL surgery and will miss the rest of the season. Falconer suffered the injury on Dec. 18 at Wofford. Highlanders coach Mike McGuire might have know what he was getting in Falconer, but to us she was a revalation - a player who could not only start straight out of high school but also run a Division I team, play 30-plus minutes, guard the opposing team's top perimeter threat and hit the 3-pointer. We remember McGuire talking about how tough and competitive she was. It reminded us of that kid in gym class that, no matter what sport you were playing, you always picked them first because you knew they'd figure things out. Falconer's injury is yet another tough break for a Highlanders team that already had to absorb the loss of guards Brittany Allen and Claudia Quevedo to ACL injuries during the preseason.

   - Norfolk State forward Siobhan Beslow, a graduate transfer from La Salle, is the reigning MEAC Defensive Player of the Week. Beslow leads the Spartans in scoring (11.5 ppg) and rebounding (a MEAC-leading 9.3 rpg). Despite Beslow's efforts, the Spartans (0-12, 0-2) remain one of three Division I teams still in search of a victory (Air Force, Boston University are the other two). The hunt resumes Saturday at home against Florida A&M (7-8, 1-1 MEAC).

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