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Wayne Cavadi | | January 7, 2019

DII basketball: Here’s what we learned in the season's first half and who to watch as the NCAA tournament nears

Bellarmine Athletics Bellarmine has been No. 1 from the opening tip of the DII basketball season.

The first half of the DII men’s basketball season is in the books. That left us with many a first impression on players and teams who seem ready to make a run in March come tournament time.

MORE: We picked a starting five based on the first half stats

Let’s take a look at some takeaways from the first half and what to watch for as the postseason picture begins to focus. 

Northwest Missouri State is insanely good

We knew the Bearcats were going to be good, but just how good they are is impressive. This is a team that not only lost arguably its best player in program history in Justin Pitts but one of DII basketball’s all-time great scorers. Add on the loss of Chris-Ebou Ndow and Brett Dougherty, and three of the 2017-18 Bearcats top scorers were gone.

Apparently, that hasn’t bothered Northwest Missouri State one bit.

The Bearcats are the only team in the DII basketball top 20 in both scoring average (88.9 points per game) and points allowed (62.9 points per game), giving them a DII-best 27.2 points per game margin of victory. While redshirt-freshman Trevor Hudgins is as steady and reliable as it comes in scoring, Ryan Hawkins has become a DII star. He’s averaging nearly a double-double (17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds per game) and has set, and then re-set, his season-high in scoring in two consecutive games with 29 and 31 points. Seems like the sophomore big man may be just getting started.

MORE: Track the remaining undefeated DII men’s basketball teams

Jim Crutchfield’s system works at Nova Southeastern, too

Neither the NABC nor the D2SIDA poll had Nova Southeastern in the top 10 coming into this season, but we did. While the Sharks weren’t even a tournament team last season, the 11-win improvement under the first-year tutelage of offensive guru Jim Crutchfield just seemed like a harbinger of things to come.

Crutchfield made his name at West Liberty with an intense style of play on both sides of the court that led to scoreboards lighting up at mind-boggling rates. His last five seasons in West Virginia saw the Hilltoppers finish first in scoring average three times and second twice. Now, in just his second season in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Sharks are atop DII, dropping 107.3 points per game and off to a perfect start on the season. For what it’s worth, West Liberty, now led by Crutchfield’s top assistant Ben Howlett, is second in DII with 106.3 points per night.

Don’t forget about the reigning national champion Ferris State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs entered their title defense with quite a bit to overcome. The loss of some big players from the run had this team off to a slow start while they adjusted to a new look team. On top of that, the team’s leading scorer DeShaun Thrower was away from the hardwood for the bulk of November and December play while he chased the DII football national championship on the gridiron.

Now, the Bulldogs are getting back in form, despite a six-game winning streak snapped by a very tough Davenport defensive squad. It should come as no surprise with Thrower back in the mix. Ferris State is now 6-2 with him in the lineup. The Bulldogs last loss before the streak was to undefeated Ashland in a 91-88 heartbreaker, the 88 points being the most allowed by Ashland all season. While a loss stings, the Eagles own the No. 4 scoring defense in DII basketball, so Ferris State is certainly back on track.

MORE: Here are the games to watch in January

Bellarmine is as good as advertised

The Knights entered the season at No. 1 and they have given little reason yet to expect they won't finish there. Bellarmine is simply fundamentally sound and very well balanced, leading DII basketball with a remarkable 56.3 percent team field goal percentage. 

Adam Eberhard is putting his name in the hat for DII Player of the Year honors, leading the Knights in points (224), rebounds (66), assists (59), and doing it all at an efficient pace, shooting 65.7 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from 3. Their most recent victory, an overtime thriller against Maryville capped off by an Eberhard dunk, showed they have the moxie to fight back even on their worst nights.

The Knights finish the season with nine more home games in Louisville, Kentucky. Bellarmine has been unstoppable at Knights Hall, having not lost at home since Dec. 13, 2014, to then-No. 3 Florida Southern by five in overtime. 

Exciting conference battles to watch in the second half:

The MIAA is already shaping up to be an intense battle down the stretch. The Bearcats lead the way, but nine teams already have at least eight wins. The Lone Star Conference is also once again one of the tightest with West Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Commerce, and Tarleton already with at least 11 wins each. The Northeast-10 may turn into an intriguing showdown. There is still a rematch between 10-1 Saint Anselm and 13-1 Bentley on the horizon, and Stonehill and Merrimack are two under-the-radar teams to monitor. Lastly, the NSIC has eight teams in double-digit wins in January. The 2018 national runner-up Northern State is on top of the North Division. This conference placed four teams in the 2018 bracket, so this tight race is certainly worth monitoring.

Teams to watch in the second half:

Ashland: The Eagles posted their second-best season of the ten-year John Ellenwood era, but still missed out on the NCAA tournament. Ashland, who has just one NCAA tournament appearance since the 1990-91 season, look like the front-runners for the GLIAC, off to a perfect 13-0 start and inside the top 10 after starting the season unranked.

Daemen: Don't let the road loss to a very good St. Edward's team fool you. The Wildcats opened the new year with a win over No. 4, and then-undefeated, Saint Anselm. In fact, Daemen had a run of three victories in a row over 2018 tournament teams. The Wildcats aren't simply winning, they are beating quality teams. Yes, the loss to the Hilltoppers hurts, but that's a team really hitting their stride. It will tell a lot to watch how the Wildcats rebound.

Lee: The Flames began the season 1-5. That's in the rearview mirror, however, as Lee has fired off eight-straight wins, including a thrilling victory over Gulf South favorite and nationally-ranked Valdosta State, and a big 15-point victory against a very tricky Christian Brothers team.  Go ahead and say it. The Flames are red hot. 

Players to watch in the second half:

Cam Martin, Missouri Southern: The Lions have stumbled the last two times out, but Martin is playing extremely well. Missouri Southern made the tournament last season for the first time since 2014, handing Northwest Missouri State two of its four losses on the season. Martin will keep the Lions in the hunt, and hopefully find a spot in the bracket.

Harrison Cleary, Minnesota Crookston: Cleary is the Golden Eagles leading scorer, averaging 22.6 points per game as one of the nation's most prolific 3-point shooters at 52.7 percent. Crookston has won three in a row, and Cleary has gone for 33, 28, and 29 in those wins. They already have 10 wins, which is the same as last season and two better than 2017. The Golden Eagles definitely need more signature wins, but Cleary has them trending in an interesting direction. 

Tommy Bolte, Concord: Bolte had a monster 2018, leading DII in scoring. Despite dropping 31 points per game, the Mountain Lions could only get 17 wins and missed out on the postseason. Now, Bolte is scoring 27.0 points per game, but Concord is 9-2, and more importantly, 5-1 in the MEC. Concord still has Fairmont State and West Liberty ahead of them, but right now, this looks like a team looking to make the tournament, and Bolte will lead the way.

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