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GOOD HOOPS BEYOND TV LAND
January 13, 2006

SCS.com Gonzaga. Bucknell. Nevada. Northern Iowa. These names have been on the lips of many a college basketball expert for most of the season. Many reveled in Bucknell's so-called "upset" of Kansas last year. It is ironic that if the two played now, just nine months later, Kansas beating Bucknell would be considered the upset. The truth is that Bucknell was a fine basketball team last year, and they are even better this year.

What is also true is that Holy Cross, their Patriot League counterpart, was probably as good or pretty darn close, but had no shot at an at-large bid. Such is life in the Patriot League and about twenty or so other conferences in Division I college basketball.

There are 334 teams playing D-I basketball this year, and the casual fan will be lucky to see one-tenth of those teams on television this year. Serious fans might see a third of those teams and only the most insane of us will breech the 50% mark. Of the fourteen games televised on the ESPN family of networks and FOX Net this week, only one involved teams not from a "Big Six" conference (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, SEC, Pac-10). That was Wednesday night's midnight tip between New Mexico and TCU, which the Lobos won 56-54.

The Big Sixers have tremendous recruiting advantages from BCS money and other funds, more alumni, more boosters, and more American Express commercials. Because of these factors, they have more perceived television marketability. This leads to more games on television which leads to easier recruiting. It is a vicious or wonderful cycle, depending on your world view. Twenty of Duke's thirty games are on the ESPN family of networks.

Let that sink in for minute. Another three are on CBS. Another three are in FOX Sports Net's prime Sunday Night Hoops slot. That leaves four games, all televised by Raycom/Jefferson Pilot. Duke is an extreme example, but that also means that all of their opponents are getting nationally televised games as well. To put it another way, it is going to be hard to catch Canisius or North Texas on CBS's Road to the Final Four.

So, who are this year's Bucknells? Bucknell is even out-Bucknelling themselves this season with their gaudy RPI (#26 as of today) and wins at DePaul, at Syracuse, and at home over Saint Joseph's. Here are some quality teams that most fans are not going to see on television this season and will not be talked about by in-studio halftime crews. So, Bucknell, Nevada, UW-Milwaukee, Southern Illinois, Creighton - we love you, too, but the word is out on you guys. Let us have a look at the best "unknowns" by regional affiliation.

EAST

Iona (10-3 overall; 4-1 MAAC; RPI 46)
The Gaels made serious noise early by routing Iowa State in Ames by 17, so they may be the most known of this unknown list. But, although that was several weeks ago, the Gaels have continued to roll. They have won at Fresno State. They narrowly lost to Kentucky and took a loss at Seton Hall. Their only conference loss is to Manhattan (see below), who is also a very good team. No one seems to be talking about Iona as a possible at-large NCAA team, but they have a couple of quality wins and will likely roll up a monster record by season's end. They roared back from a double digit deficit at fellow MAAC contender St. Peter's Wednesday night to win by eight.

Manhattan (8-4; 4-0 MAAC; RPI 36)
Another contender out of the MAAC, the Jaspers gained a leg up on Iona by defeating the Gaels on their home court last week. Bobby Gonzalez's crew lost their first four games (Rhode Island, Seton Hall, Syracuse, and George Mason), but have ripped off eight in a row since that skid. Gonzalez is one of the top coaches in the country, and the Jaspers are always a dangerous team late in the season.

George Mason (10-4 overall; 4-1 Colonial; RPI 41)
As mentioned before, they have beaten Manhattan and have gotten off to a great start in the highly competitive Colonial. They lost in overtime at Wake Forest, lost to Creighton, and lost at both Mississippi State and Old Dominion; all respectable losses. The Patriots have won six of their last seven and should present a formidable challenge to preseason CAA darling Old Dominion.

SOUTH

Western Kentucky (10-4 overall; 2-0 Sun Belt; 48 RPI)
The Hilltoppers have been a bit inconsistent, but their good stretches have been coming more often recently. They hammered a solid UAB club by sixteen in Birmingham and took Arizona to overtime in Tucson. They also defeated Virginia last Monday and are currently riding a four-game winning streak. Sophomore guard Courtney Lee is a superstar in the making.

Winthrop (8-4 overall; 2-0 Big South; 57 RPI)
The Eagles will be a nightmare draw come Selection Sunday, provided they win their conference tourney. Currently, I would rank them as the most likely to win their conference. They are clearly the dominant team in the Big South. They have beaten Marquette, and their four losses were at Alabama, at Memphis, at Auburn, and at South Carolina. The South Carolina game was the only one in which they were easily handled. They only lost at Bama by three and Auburn by two. This team came within a whisker of knocking Gonzaga out of the NCAA Tournament last season.

Northwestern State (10-5 overall; 3-0 Southland; 32 RPI)
The Demons have played eleven of their fifteen games on the road and have still managed a good record. Furthermore, they have done it against brutal competition, coming away with wins at Oklahoma State and Mississippi State, and losing at Missouri, Iowa State, Wichita State, Hawaii, and Texas A&M. Like Winthrop, some Big Six conference coach is going to break into a cold sweat on Selection Sunday if NW State's name is paired with his school.

WEST

Montana (12-2 overall; 2-0 Big Sky; 93 RPI)
The Grizzlies do not have the lofty RPI of many teams on this list, but they have a couple of nice wins over Stanford and Santa Clara. Since losing their opening game, they are 11-1 with the only loss coming to a surging UW-Milwaukee team. They are clearly the class of the Big Sky this season.

Missouri State (11-3 overall; 4-2 MVC; 23 RPI)
The Bears seem to be getting lost in all of the hubbub over the MVC's success this season. SIU and Creighton have been mainstays for years and are once again excellent clubs. Wichita State and Northern Iowa have staked their claim this season and have received some press. But, MO State has been slighted a bit. Let us not forget that the Bears dispatched both Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois in the MVC tourney on their way to the MVC title game last year before falling to Creighton. The Bears are still looking for that signature win (narrow losses to Arkansas and Creighton), but they have a higher RPI than SIU, Creighton, or Wichita State and are right in the thick of the MVC race at 4-2.

Hawaii (8-4 overall; 2-0 WAC; 76 RPI)
Has any team ever destroyed a top five team and gotten less mileage out of it? On November 19, the Rainbow Warriors obliterated then top-five Michigan State by 22 points, and it's like it never happened. They also have beaten aforementioned Northwestern State and Nevada. Hawaii enjoys a terrific home court advantage against nearly everyone, but travel to the mainland is tough for them as well. They are 0-2 in road trips to UNLV and UW-Milwaukee, so they need to cash in some wins this week when they travel to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State. A couple of road wins could really boost their RPI and get them into the NCAA at-large discussion.

WILD CARD

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (11-6 overall; 178 RPI)
Okay, their RPI is mediocre and TAMU-CC has no chance of making the NCAA because they are an Independent, but they will be a nice addition to a conference someday. They Islanders went 20-8 last season, and they upgraded their schedule this season. They did lose to a struggling Tulsa early, but their other losses are to Missouri, Missouri State, St. Mary's-CA, Maryland and Houston, all on the road. They have won at South Florida and on a neutral court against TCU. Amazingly, this team is doing this after losing four starters and eighty percent of their scoring from last season. Hopefully, the Islanders will have a home in the near future.

I have given you ten teams to watch this season. I exhort you to dig through conference standings and the RPI this season and uncover more teams that will not have the pleasure (or displeasure) of having Dickie V call one of their games on ESPN. There is a lot of good basketball being played outside of the TV Land.

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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