The Conference of Clearing Skies
Notre Dame, Maryland, others seeing brighter seasons
Call them the Conference of Clearing Skies. Ten teams that have seen much brighter skies this season than the frequent gray days of 2013-14.
Here, then, are the mid-season candidates for the All-Improved list.
Last year: The Irish went 15-17, the first losing season in Mike Brey’s 14 years. They finished 6-12 in the ACC, tied for 11th.
This year: Notre Dame is 17-2 and in second place in the league at 5-1. You have to go back to Digger Phelps’ salad days in 1978-79 to find a start that good.
Why: The efficient Irish are the Swiss watch of college basketball, first in assist-to-turnover ratio and second field goal percentage. At least four players have scored in double figures in 16 of the 19 games. This considerably helps in tight squeezes, as their past four ACC victories have come in overtime, and by one, three and five points. Jerian Grant is leading the team in scoring and assists. In January of 2014, he was in academic timeout.
``We’ve made big steps from last year,’’ guard Demetrius Jackson said. ``But we have a lot more improvements to make.’’
Last year: The Terrapins said goodbye to the ACC from back in the pack, finishing tied for seventh with a 9-9 league record and 17-15 overall.
This year: The 17-2 Terrapins have said hello to the Big Ten from the front of the line, taking the early lead with a 5-1 conference record, and already beating Michigan State twice.
``No matter whether you’re in a new league or an old league, whenever you can get off to a good start in the league is huge, because it’s so hard to win in league,’’ coach Mark Turgeon said. ``Everything’s new. Thursday will be a different thing for us going to Indiana. It is what it is. But starting out well has really helped things.’’
Why: Four of the top six Maryland scorers are new this season, starting with freshman Melo Trimble, who is averaging 16.1. He has mixed well with holdover veterans Dez Wells and Jake Layman – the trio is producing nearly 45 points a game -- and so far hasn’t seemed unduly frazzled.
``You don’t think about all the other stuff that everybody else thinks about when you’re young. You just go play,’’ Turgeon said. ``He’s got really good players around him, and Melo trusts them.’’
The locals’ reaction to this ascension in the Terps’ new conference? ``I think people are excited,’’ Turgeon said. ``And they should be.’’
Last year: And the Horned Frogs thought their first lap in the Big 12 in 2012-13 was rough at 2-16. They followed that by going 0-18, with 14 of the defeats by double figures. They finished 9-22 overall.
This year: Beware the Frogs. Their 13-2 start was the school’s best since 1952, and they are now 14-3 going into Monday night’s game with Texas. TCU is no longer a pleasure cruise for Big 12 cousins. The Horned Frogs are 1-3 in the conference, but Kansas State barely held them off by five points and Baylor needed overtime for the victory.
Why: Defense. TCU’s 33.9 field goal percentage allowed is second best in the nation and only four opponents have broken 60 against them. The Horned Frogs’ 62-42 win at Texas Tech represented the lowest total they have given up in a road game since 1958. Senior Kyan Anderson is the only TCU player who averages in double figures, but a gaggle of new arrivals, led by Trey Zeigler -- who has played at Pittsburgh and Central Michigan -- have helped the cause.
Last year: More blue days for the Blue Demons, who finished 12-21 and 3-15 in the Big East, making them 10-98 in the league the past six years.
This year: No more Mr. Nice Guy. DePaul is 10-9, and off to a 4-2 start in the Big East.
Why: With his job security in question, Oliver Purnell has put his fate in the hands of native sons as five of the top six Blue Demons come from the Chicago area. Billy Garrett Jr. and Tommy Hamilton took their punishment as freshmen but have developed as sophomores. Illinois transfer Myke Henry has arrived to share scoring leadership with Garrett.
Last year: The Aggies were 9-22 and 4-12 in the league, which earned them a master key to the cellar of the Big West.
This year: Look who’s gone from worst to first with a 4-0 conference mark and 14-3 record overall. Included was the school’s first 6-0 start in 102 seasons.
Why: Bombs away, baby. UC Davis leads the entire college basketball speaking world with a 44.3 percentage in 3-pointers, and has outscored opponents by 120 points from long distance.
Last year: Talk about wounded Pride, Hofstra was 10-23, and 5-11 in the CAA.
This year: The Pride is back, at 13-6, with Coa 4-2 league mark. As of late last week, Hofstra led the nation with seven true road wins.
Why: Two years ago, Joe Mihalich took over a program that had four athletes. He had to find players in a hurry and two of them were Ameen Tanksley and Juan’ya Green; who grew up as best friends in Philadelphia, went to Niagara together, and then transferred as a pair to Hofstra to play for Mihalich. Now they’re 1-2 in scoring. Brian Bernardi is third, and he transferred in from SMU. That’s 49 points a game sitting out last year waiting to become eligible.
Last year: The only things big about the Big Red were their nickname and loss total. They finished 2-26, and one of the wins was against Division III Oberlin.
This year: Cornell is 8-9, and the improvement of six wins leads the nation at this point. It could be even better. Four of its defeats have been by three or fewer points, or in overtime.Why: Leading scorer Shonn Miller is back from knee surgery. Forward Galal Cancer took a year off from basketball but has come back to start every game. Devin Cherry has made a splendid switch to the point. And the defense has been refurbished. Last year, Cornell was 341st in the nation in field goal percentage allowed. Now, the Big Red are 26th. They’ve gone from 331st to 62nd in points allowed.
Last year: The Skyhawks went 8-23, and 3-13 in the Ohio Valley.
This year: They’re 11-6, and 3-1 in the conference.
Why: New coach Heath Schroyer was an assistant at UNLV, and he brought Deville Smith east with him. Smith now leads in scoring, and junior college transfer Twymond Howard is second. Tennessee Martin has managed to make its move despite losing top forward Myles Taylor to a knee injury in December. Before he went down, the Skyhawks were one of five teams in the nation with all five starters averaging in double figures.
Last year: How long could it go? The Cardinals went 4-26, giving them seven lonely victories in two seasons. Tic Price took over from Pat Knight as coach in mid-February.
This year: It’s Price’s job now and Lamar is 9-8 going into Monday’s game with Southeastern Louisiana, winning more games in two months than it did in two years.
Why: Lots of new Cardinals in the rotation. Among the nine top scorers are two freshman and four junior college products, including Tyran de Lattibeaudiere, who is averaging 14 point and 7.5 rebounds. Also, senior Anthony Holliday has averaged 20 points in the first five Southland games.
Last year: The Owls went 9-22, and 4-14 in the American. Not much to hoot about.
This year: The 12-7 record includes a rather stunning 25-point shellacking of Kansas.
Why: Five of the top nine Temple scorers are new, including Jesse Morgan, averaging 13 points after transferring from Massachusetts. Maybe the ROTC boot camp the players attended in September helped, too. Three consecutive losses have slowed the momentum and makes this resurgence day-to-day. But then, isn’t everyone’s?