Commentary

A weekly look at the mid-major scene

Originally Published: January 24, 2011
By Mark Adams | Special to ESPN.com

Here's a look around the mid-major scene at the teams and players you might not know much about (but should):

What you might've missed

Three of the top four assist men in the country hail from the Chicago area. D.J. Cooper (7.9 assists per game) of Ohio, Aaron Johnson (7.8 apg) of UAB and Demetri McCamey (7.1 apg) of Illinois all played their prep hoops in and around the Windy City. Cooper learned to be unselfish from his parents. "They sacrificed a lot for me," Cooper explained. "My dad has always told me to get everyone involved." In case you're wondering, Iona's Scott Machado of Queens, N.Y., leads the nation in assists per game (8.1).

[+] EnlargeCooper
Stew Milne/US PresswireThe Chicago area has produced some of the premier assist men in the nation, including Ohio's D.J. Cooper.
Mickey McConnell, the leading scorer for Saint Mary's, is the son and grandson of coaches and his name is from pretty good stock. Mickey's dad, Rick McConnell, has won more than 500 games as the head basketball coach at Dobson High in Mesa, Ariz. Rick's father, Dick, is the winningest high school basketball coach in Arizona state history.

Think back to 2008 when Jake Kelly left Iowa to transfer back to his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., to play for Indiana State. His mother had died in a plane crash and he wanted to be closer to home. While injuries have been a constant for Kelly, things seem to be looking up these days. He hit the game-tying shot and the game-winning free throw with less than one second to go to defeat Missouri Valley unbeaten Missouri State. With that win, the surprising Sycamores ascended to the top spot in the MVC before losing a triple-overtime thriller at Wichita State on Saturday night.

Army won at Lehigh 75-72 to improve to 7-5 on the road as the Black Knights set their sights on Mike Krzyzewski's 1976-77 team, which won 10 road games. Army is rewriting history as the Knights have now assured themselves of five consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since a 10-year run from 1963 to 1973 under coaches Tates Locke, Bob Knight and Dan Dougherty.

Lehigh's C.J. McCollum is now the first sophomore in the country, and second-fastest Patriot Leaguer ever, to reach 1,000 career points. McCollum averages 21.7 ppg and leads all sophomores nationally. McCollum hit the 1,000-point mark in his 51st game. McCollum and Colgate's Adonal Foyle (1994 to 1997) are the only Patriot Leaguers ever to reach 1,000 points in their sophomore season.

Santa Clara had lost 10 straight home games to Gonzaga. Head coach Kerry Keating was 0-8 against the Bulldogs. But Kevin Foster blistered Gonzaga for 36 points, with 24 of those points coming in the second half. As a result, the Broncos finally beat Gonzaga 85-71 on Thursday. Foster hit six of 14 long-range bombs to blow up the Zags' defense.

While Lamar has the best record in the Southland at 3-1, there are eight other teams with only two losses. Good luck figuring out this competitive and balanced conference.

The Northeast Conference has five teams bunched at the top, with Long Island leading the way at 6-2. Then Central Connecticut State, Wagner, Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's all check in at 5-3 in a tight conference race that promises to be the definition of "parity" throughout the NEC championship race.

Buffalo was down by 18 points at halftime on the road at Ohio on Saturday but still found a way to win 73-68. Buffalo is now 3-2 in the MAC East. Zach Filzen drained six 3-point shots for the Bulls and none of the six ever touched the rim.

Valparaiso had won six straight until Sunday's home loss to Green Bay. The Crusaders are tied for first place at 7-2 in the Horizon League with Cleveland State and guess who's coming to town next? The Butler Bulldogs, at 6-2 in HL play, will come a-calling on Saturday.

Conference USA is a murderers' row these days. Six of the 12 programs are ranked in the top 72 RPI rankings as of Sunday. I watched the Memphis at UAB game on Saturday. I observed a young Tigers team with a coach who looks more like my paper boy than a Division I head coach. I also observed the guts and toughness of a mature team and a time-tested coach. Pastner will continue to cherish those boyish good looks as long as the outcomes continue like the hard-fought 76-73 OT win over Mike Davis and UAB.

VCU is on a roll at 15-5 overall and is now tied with Hofstra for first place in the CAA (both 7-1). The Rams have won eight of their past nine and are on a collision course with the Pride, who have won 12 of their past 15 games. And then there is George Mason hovering, followed by James Madison, Old Dominion and Delaware. You get the picture.

What you shouldn't miss

Wednesday: Bucknell at Lehigh -- This is a battle of two of the best sophomores in the country. Bucknell's Mike Muscala and Lehigh's CJ McCollum are both player-of-the-year candidates in the Patriot League.

Wednesday: Long Beach at Pacific -- Yes, the 49ers are 6-2 and leading the Big West, but they have lost two conference games in a row. Pacific has won three of four contests, but that loss was at Long Beach. Time for revenge?

[+] EnlargeMcConnell
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMickey McConnell and Saint Mary's have a big game against Gonzaga on Thursday.

Thursday: Saint Mary's at Gonzaga -- The Gaels are 5-0 and can virtually eliminate Gonzaga from WCC title contention with a win in Spokane. The Zags are 3-2 in the conference.

Thursday: Hofstra at VCU -- Both teams are 7-1 and tied atop the CAA. The more I watch the CAA, the more confused I get. This is a high-quality league with a lot of depth and talent. Hofstra's Charles Jenkins (23.1 ppg) is the most productive player in the CAA. VCU counters with Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess, Brandon Rozzell and Joey Rodriguez.

Thursday: Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic -- Florida Atlantic is undefeated at 7-0, and is getting ready to run away and hide in the Sun Belt East. Coach Kermit Davis and his Blue Raiders (4-3) need to make a stand now, and they are capable of doing it after already knocking off both Denver and North Texas over the past two weeks.

Thursday: Tennessee State at Morehead State -- A few months ago, I didn't think that this would be a big game, but it is just that … a very big game. Tennessee State (7-2) is a huge surprise and John Cooper is the early leader for coach-of-the-year honors in the OVC. Morehead State is 5-4 and needs this win desperately after the rare home loss to rival Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. Morehead had won 24 straight at home until that setback.

Friday: Columbia at Harvard -- Harvard is on a six-game winning streak and boasts a 2-0 Ivy League record. Columbia, also 2-0, has won four straight and eight of its past nine games. This is an early Ancient Eight showdown worth watching.

Saturday: North Texas at Denver -- Denver (6-1) is one game up on the Mean Green (5-2) in the Sun Belt West. It has won eight of its past nine games but lost at Middle Tennessee State 59-49 in its last outing.

Saturday: Indiana State at Creighton -- This is a rematch of one of the best games I have seen this season. In the first game, at Terre Haute on Jan. 16, Indiana State won in dramatic, buzzer-beating fashion 61-59. The Blue Jays want revenge and their fans in the Qwest Center will be at fever pitch.

Saturday: Butler at Valparaiso -- If Valpo, or anyone else, is going to unseat the Bulldogs as Horizon League champions, then this is a must-win game for the Crusaders. Valpo lost at Butler 76-59 on Jan. 1. This time Homer Drew Court will be surrounded by rabid Crusader fans, but the game will be settled on that wooden slab. Can Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson raise their games and get enough help to knock off the championship Butler veterans Matt Howard, Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack? Check this classic out if you can.

Saturday: UTEP at Tulsa -- Tulsa is 3-2 in C-USA and needs to hold serve at home against the Miners, who are in a first-place tie with Memphis at 4-1.

Saturday: Northern Colorado at Weber State -- If the Wildcats are going to hold up the preseason predictions for a Big Sky championship, they better win this one over the 7-0 Bears.

Who's hot

Texas State's Ryan White scored 22 points and dished 11 assists in a 95-91 win over Sam Houston State last week. It was the 25th 20-point, 10-assist game in Division I men's basketball this season. White is a rare commodity who is willing to come off the bench for the good of the team. He went for 21 and 11 off the bench earlier in the season, as well. Talk about a depth charge.

Damier Pitts, who missed the first semester due to academics, went for 25 points in the 75-71 Marshall win against in-state rival West Virginia in Charleston last week. Tom Herrion, the former Pitt assistant and now head coach of the Herd who was hit under his eye with a quarter thrown from the stands in Morgantown last season, escaped with the victory and zero welts on his face.

Northern Arizona's Shane Johannsen leads the nation in field goal percentage (74 percent, 74-of-100). For his career, he has shot 76.5 percent as a freshman, 72.7 percent as a sophomore and 62.9 percent as a junior.

Northwestern State's William Mosley leads the nation with 4.5 blocks per game.

While talking defensive leaders, let's give some props to Anthony Nelson, who is the best pickpocket in college basketball. He's averaging 3.4 steals per game for Niagara.

And then there is Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, who continues to pull down an NCAA-best 13.3 rebounds per game.

Belmont has won nine straight and with a victory on Sunday at second-place East Tennessee State, it is now officially a runaway race in the Atlantic Sun. Belmont is 10-0 in the Atlantic Sun, and ETSU dropped to 8-2. Six of Belmont's last 10 games will be on the road in conference play, but this is a team that appears ready to run the table.

Oakland has won seven straight and is 9-0 in the Summit League play with a full three-game lead on the pack. This is a team that keeps on getting better. The Grizzlies played a brutal nonconference schedule, which includes a win at Tennessee when the Volunteers were a top-10 team. Oakland just swept a tough three-game road trip at South Dakota State, North Dakota State and IPFW by convincing margins. This team intrigues me because I see the same pattern developing that I saw from Butler last season.

Utah State has won 13 straight games with its most recent victory coming over New Mexico State 59-49 in Logan on Saturday night. Coach Stew Morrill has won nearly 76 percent of his games in 13 seasons as head coach of the Aggies. Every year Morrill produces a new team leader. This season it is Tai Wesley, who went for 18 points and five rebounds in the win over NMSU.

Wofford was only 3-8 in its nonconference schedule, but apparently that tough slate is paying off as the Terriers are now 7-1 in the SoCon. I love Noah Dahlman, who averages 19.6 ppg and shoots 61.4 percent from the floor. The Terriers take on Furman (6-2) on Monday night in a big one.

Bucknell has won eight in a row and 12 of its past 13 games. The Bison are undefeated in the Patriot League at 5-0. Sophomore Mike Muscala is putting up MVP numbers with 15.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line.

Tennessee State has won four straight and is 7-2 and in a first-place tie with Austin Peay on top of the OVC standings. It is led by Kenny Moore, who is a big guy with long-range shooting skills (44.6 percent from 3-point line).

It's been a dramatic week in the Valley. Let's start with Missouri State, which lost 70-69 on a last-second shot and free throw by Jake Kelly at Indiana State. The Bears then found a way to win at home over Creighton 67-66 on Saturday to hold on to first place in the Valley at 8-1. Indiana State defeated Creighton 61-59 on Jan. 16 on a last-second tip-in by Carl Richard. The Sycamores followed that up with the late-game heroics of Kelly in the win over Missouri State and then followed that up with a triple-overtime loss at Wichita State 93-83. Want to keep going? Wichita State fell in the last 11 seconds at home to UNI 77-74, before beating Indiana State in three overtimes. By the time Arch Madness arrives in St. Louis, coaches and fans might not have any fingernails left.

Ball State has now won seven in a row and 10 of its past 11 games. There is something special going on in Muncie, Ind., for the MAC West leaders. Jarrod Jones is impressive and has my early vote for player of the year in the MAC. Ball State will get its first taste of the tougher MAC East division as Kent State invades Muncie on Thursday.

Fairfield has won 14 of its past 15 games and is 8-1 and in first place in the MAAC. Second-place Iona had won five in a row until falling at Canisius on Sunday 75-73. Mark Feb. 4 and Feb. 27 on your calendar as the Stags and Gaels will be battling it out for the regular-season MAAC championship.

Harvard keeps on rolling with six straight wins and is 13-3 overall. Keith Wright leads the Crimson with 14.3 ppg and 8.3 rpg.

UTEP is 4-1 and tied for the top spot in C-USA with Memphis. Randy Culpepper is an All-American in my book. He is a true go-to guy. Just ask Houston. Culpepper made every big play down the stretch to clinch a 57-52 win over the Cougars on Saturday, their seventh win in the past eight games.

Coastal Carolina has won 16 straight, and the Chanticleers are dominating the Big South. Pack your bags for a trip to Conway, S.C., for the Big South tournament. My only question is who the Chanticleers will play in the NCAA tournament after the beach party in Conway.

Mid-major unbeatens: (minimum five league games)

Atlantic Sun: Belmont (10-0)
Big Sky: Northern Colorado (7-0)
Big South: Coastal Carolina (9-0)
MAC: Ball State (5-0)
Patriot: Bucknell (5-0)
SWAC: Texas Southern (6-0)
Summit: Oakland (9-0)
Sun Belt: Florida Atlantic (7-0)
West Coast: Saint Mary's (5-0)
WAC: Utah State (7-0)

Who's not

UCF: After winning their first 14 games, the Knights are now 1-4 in Conference USA after losing four straight, at Houston and Southern Miss and at home to East Carolina and Rice.

Navy: The Midshipmen went just 1-of-25 from 3-point range in a 71-50 loss to Holy Cross. That's just four percent.

Ohio: Many picked the Bobcats to win the MAC, but they're just 1-4 in the East division and have lost four straight at home. All may not be lost, however. This team was an 8-seed going into the MAC tournament last season. It not only won it, but knocked off Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Tussle at the top

I report on all but eight conferences in Division I basketball. I do not report on the power six or the Atlantic 10 or Mountain West. Well, I'm breaking the rules just this once because I'm really excited about Tuesday night's 7 ET game on ESPNU when Richmond invades Dayton's Decibel Dungeon, otherwise known as the UD Arena. I scouted Richmond last week as I was there on other business and watched two of the most exciting players in the country in Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson. Both are NBA prospects. Meanwhile, Dayton boasts one of the best wings in the A-10 in Chris Johnson and his wing man is the high-flying and rim-rattling Chris Wright. I'll be there with our ESPNU broadcast team and 13,000-plus Flyer fanatics in an A-10 game with a lot riding on it.

Spotlight on Maine

The Black Bears have never been to the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeTed Woodward
Matt Cashore/US PresswireTed Woodward has Maine atop the America East standings with a 6-1 mark.

They have never won an NCAA Division I conference championship, either. In fact, since 1979 Maine has finished as high as second place only one time in its various conference affiliations.

When you hear someone mention Maine, you probably think they're talking about hockey, lobsters or even Cindy Blodgett, who was a legendary women's basketball player for the Black Bears from 1994 to 1998.

Ted Woodward ascended to the head-coaching job at Maine in 2004 when his boss, John Giannini, left to accept the head-coaching position at LaSalle.

In Woodward's first four seasons, the Black Bears went 45-73. At many schools that would simply not be good enough and termination would soon follow. Not at Maine, where Woodward is well respected and the administration stayed the course. It turned out to be a very good decision.

Woodward led Maine to 19 wins last season, which was the third-best victory total in school history. Now the Black Bears are 12-7 overall, 6-1 in the America East and all alone at the top of the conference standings.

Recruiting can be a challenge, as the state of Maine is not exactly on the normal recruiting rotation for most college basketball coaches. There are six Maine products who play Division I basketball and three of those athletes are Black Bears.

One of those guys is Troy Barnies, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound senior forward out of Edward Little High School in Auburn, Maine. He started part-time for three seasons and even averaged 7.7 ppg as a sophomore.

But that's not the case this year. "He's come out of nowhere," Woodward said of Barnies, who averages 13.9 ppg and 7.3 rpg this season.

Woodward described his surprise player with noticeable enthusiasm. "Troy is playing like a senior is supposed to play. He is hard to guard because he is so versatile, and no one competes harder than Troy. He has great low-post footwork, and he can face and shoot it or put it on the floor and make a play."

Gerald McLemore is a first-team all-America East player. While he struggled at times early in the season, he has put up consistent numbers over the past seven games, averaging 15.4 ppg and knocking down 41 percent of his 3-point attempts.

This is not a two-man team as Woodward substitutes liberally, with 10 players averaging between 12 and 31 minutes per game. Sometimes it looks like a hockey substitution pattern, as a new line is always ready to jump into the fray.

"We are deep, and we don't change our rhythm when we bring guys off the bench," Woodward explained. "I've never been around anything like it."

Neither have Black Bears basketball fans.

Mark Adams is a contributor to ESPN.com. He is a game analyst on the ESPN family of networks and was a college basketball coach for 17 years, including a head-coaching stint at Central Connecticut State and assistant jobs at Idaho State and Washington State. For more of his insight, check out www.enthusiadams.com