The Full 353: Climbing Out of the Coffin

Over the course of this season at Palestra Back, the Full 353 will cover every ounce of college basketball with one clear and stated goal:

We’re going to try to mention every single men’s Division I basketball team.

This is a lofty goal that I’m certain I will struggle to meet. If we don’t get there by March, we’ll scratch and claw as far as we can. In the end, no matter the final number, I hope that this effort brings you a deeper, more complete, and more enjoyable experience here at the blog. We’ll count along in (bold) to track our progress through the season.


A quick aside to start:

This project is a bear. I’m making one change to the rules to help make it a tad easier. I want to write about every team in college basketball here at Palestra Back this season, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be in one of these Full 353 columns. They’ll need a pretty substantial mention elsewhere, like being the focus of another blog post, but when they get discussed on this website, we’ll count it. Scanning back to the season’s open, that ups our total to 47.

Getting back to the teams that have made headlines this season, let’s talk about West Virginia (48). The Mountaineers are back!

From 2015 to 2018, Bob Huggins’ teams finished the season in the top 25 of KenPom’s rankings all four years and made three Sweet Sixteens. Last season was a clear speed bump in Morgantown. The Mountaineers finished below .500 overall and in conference for the first time since 2013. There was clearly an adjustment period required after losing the leadership and production of Jahvon Carter.

Huggins has rebuilt his program in the last two years thanks to a bout of strong recruiting. Each of the last two years, Huggins has reeled in a top 65 recruit, by ESPN’s recruiting rankings. In the 2018 class, that was four-star center Derek Culver. In 2019, it was four-star forward Oscar Tshiebwe.

Those are now the Mountaineers’ two leading scorers and rebounders, with both averaging a double-double this season. Tshiebwe has been especially tantalizing this year, posting the third best offensive rebounding rate in the nation. He’s grabbing more than four boards per game on the offensive end of the floor with more than 20 percent of his looks at the rim coming on putback opportunities (per Hoop-Math.com).

Like any Bob Huggins coached team, West Virginia is winning games defensively. The Mountaineers rank first in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency, absolutely strangling opposing offenses. West Virginia has allowed more than 1.0 points per possession just once this season, in their opener versus Akron. Conversely, the Mountaineers have limited their opponents to under a measly 0.85 points per possession nine times. 

It’s made them one of the toughest teams to beat in college basketball. To date, the Mountaineers are 14-2, with the losses coming in true road games at Kansas and St. John’s. West Virginia has nine top 75 wins on the season and has played the 5th toughest schedule in the nation, per KenPom.

Without adding any eye-popping names to his roster, Bob Huggins has turned a team that went 4-14 in the Big XII to a Final Four contender in just one year. The guy can coach, even if he can’t dress. He’s got his Mountaineers back from the dead:


You Love to See It

These are the teams, players, and concepts that looked good this week.

Rutgers (49)

Over the past two decades, there’s a succinct and logical argument that Rutgers has been the worst program in college basketball. Add in the qualifier of “worst power conference program” and the Scarlet Knights are the clear runaway choice.

Since 2000, Rutgers has won more than 15 games just three times. All three came before 2006. The school’s best record since 2006 came in 2013, when the Knights were just 15-16, and 5-13 in the final season of the former Big East conference.

Deeper analytics are no kinder to Rutgers, having finished in the top 100 of KenPom’s rankings just five times this century. The Scarlet Knights have not finished the season as a top 70 team in any of the past 20 seasons.

Just five years ago, the program hit rock bottom. On March 5, 2016, Rutgers had lost 17 games in a row. The Scarlet Knights were 0-17 in the Big Ten. Rutgers was just 6-24 on the season, with the wins coming over 5 teams ranked 280th or worse and a Rutgers-satellite campus team (who they only beat by 13). KenPom ranked Rutgers as the 307th best team in college basketball at the time. They won that night, saving an ounce of dignity in avoiding the winless conference season, but the damage was done.

In 2020, second year head coach Steve Pikiell has things trending in the right direction. The Scarlet Knights are 13-4, winning their 13th game in January for the first time since (again) 2006. In its first four years as a member of the Big Ten, Rutgers averaged 2.25 conference wins per season. Pikiell coached the Knights to a 7-13 Big Ten record last season, setting a new high watermark. It was their first season with 7 conference wins since….2006.

This season, Rutgers is 4-2 in the Big Ten so far, with recent wins over Indiana and Penn State. KenPom pegs the Scarlet Knights as a top 30 team (with a top 10 defense) and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi slots them as a 9-seed. That’s a huge deal considering the program has not reached the Big Dance since….1991! That was the first NCAA Tournament that I was alive for AND NOW I HAVE A WEBSITE. It’s been a while for Rutgers.

Clemson (50)

So maybe your football team ran into the Joe Burrow buzzsaw? So what!

Clemson bounced right back the night after the college football championship game with a monster win on the basketball court, beating highly-ranked Duke. This was fresh off the Heels of Clemson’s first ever win at North Carolina, following 59 unsuccessful tries. The Tigers hadn’t beaten Duke and Carolina in the same season since 1996.

Unlike their gridiron counterparts, these Tigers will be bubble-bound all season long. That’s a tough place to sit in a challenging ACC, but Aamir Simms is a great player, able to go toe-to-toe with the conference’s best.

South Carolina (51)

Down the road, the Tigers’ hated in-state rivals refused to be outdone. You beat Duke at home? We’ll beat Kentucky. On a banked 3-pointer at the buzzer too.

Unlike Clemson, the Gamecocks have little to no shot at the Big Dance, but could make some noise in the SEC.


You Hate to See It

This is the section you want to avoid. If you’re in here, you had a rough week.

Ohio State (52)

On December 28, the Buckeyes were the top team in the country according to KenPom and sat at No. 2 in the AP Poll (poised to steal the top spot on the next ballot). They had just one loss all year, a true road game at The Barn in Minneapolis. Ohio State had convincing wins over Penn State, Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Villanova on its resume.

The Buckeyes were the best team in college basketball.

Since then, they have not been. They haven’t even looked like the same team. Ohio State lost four in a row before stopping the bleeding in a home win over lowly Nebrasketball. In those four losses, the Bucks have 72 made field goals and 64 turnovers. The Ohio State offense has sputtered to a total stop. The Buckeyes’ opponents shot better from outside (38 percent) in those four games than the Bucks shot from the entire field (34 percent, yuck).

There’s still a good team within Ohio State, yet there is no rest for the weary in the Big Ten. If they can’t straighten out their offensive issues, the Buckeyes will lose games and see themselves slide down the conference standings and see their potential seed in March tumble.

Temple (53)

It was an expected rebuilding year in North Philly, with longtime head coach Fran Dunphy handing the reigns to former NBA Sixth Man of the Year and Temple alum Aaron McKie.

More importantly, the Owls have desperately missed the scoring and creation ability of former point guard Shizz Alston, who graduated after last season. Without Alston in the lineup, this team has been dreadful offensively. The Owls rank 217th in offensive efficiency and their 40.6 percent field goal shooting is good for 318th in the nation. Temple moves and shares the ball (27th in assist rate nationally), yet doesn’t have the shot-making talent to score against competitive defenses.

DePaul (54)

I could write 2,000 words about DePaul and for the sake of this blog post, let me be very brief (with a promise to cover the Blue Demons in my next post here at PB).

DePaul would be on the short list of programs to challenge Rutgers for all of the negative superlatives I laid upon the Scarlet Knights a few paragraphs ago. This year, things seemed different. An influx of talent resulted in the most intriguing DePaul team in years. They nabbed early season wins over BC, Texas Tech, Iowa, and Minnesota. The Demons entered conference play 12-1. DePaul has finished only one of the last 12 full seasons with 12 wins (and it was last year). The program was on the way up!

In recent weeks though, the wheels have fallen off. DePaul is 0-4 to start Big East play, with tough losses to St. John’s and Providence. Even an overtime loss at Villanova is tough to mine for a silver lining, as the Blue Demons blew a 13-point first half lead and trailed by 12 in the game’s final minutes before a fluky comeback.

This should be an NCAA Tournament team. And yet, on their current trajectory, that is looking less and less likely. Like I said, I could go on for days. So I will. Stay tuned for more DEPAUL TALK here at Palestra Back. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.


The Grab Bag

If we’re going to talk about all 353 teams, we need to be forced into a few. I generated three random numbers that corresponded to three teams alphabetically in the list of Division I teams. Let’s look at what these squads are up to (and hope that the computer doesn’t waste this section on a big name or interesting team)

Austin Peay (55)

The Governors are off to a surprising 4-0 start in Ohio Valley Conference play. That’s a league that has been dominated of late by Murray State (56) and Belmont (57), who are both right near the top again this season. Murray State is also 4-0 to start. Belmont isn’t far behind at 3-1, but a nonconference win over Boston College proved the Bruins will be tough to beat again.

Peay is led by Terry Taylor, a junior guard posting 23 points and 9 rebounds per game. His 37 point, 16 rebound performance versus Southeastern Louisiana should have opened some eyeballs in the OVC. If you were planning on another Belmont-Murray State title game, hold your horses. It might be time to Peay.

Indiana State (58)

The Sycamores might not be the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference (that’s Northern Iowa), but they could be the most dangerous. Indiana State is 9th in the nation in 3-point shooting, hitting better than 39 percent from long range. Ask Air Force, who allowed the Sycamores to shoot 15 of 26 from outside the arc. That’s a scary weapon. Any team travelling to Terre Haute might face an avalanche of deep balls.

St. Francis (NY) and St. Francis (PA) (59 and 60, respectfully)

The random number generator chose the New York version, but I can’t pass up the chance to check off two boxes at once here.

The New York version (the Terriers) are the inferior team. They rank outside the top 300 in offensive efficiency and oodles of other statistics. But they do have a player named “Unique McLean” and I swear I didn’t make that up.

The Pennsylvania version (the Red Flash) should compete for the Northeast Conference crown. They took Richmond to OT in Richmond and have wins over St. Joe’s and William & Mary.

And yet, when these two teams played one another, it was dead even for 40 minutes. That is, until…

YES! PENNSYLVANIA FOR THE WIN!

This should happen every time these two face-off. They meet again in Brooklyn Heights on January 25.


The Fun Stuff

Looking at stats and highlights, these were the goofier or quirkier things we found this week. 

    • How about some recognition for the Lafayette (61) Leopards? After a run of dominance to close the 1990s, Fran O’Hanlon’s program has reached just one NCAA Tournament this century. The last several years have been a downturn, with an average of just 8.8 wins per season over the last four years. The Leopards are off to a great start this year, already eclipsing their final win totals in the last four seasons at 11-5. Lafayette’s most recent win came over league favorite Colgate (62), in a game played at 11 am local time. Lafayette hosted a hoard of Easton, PA elementary and middle school children in the stands, making for one of the youngest student sections in college basketball history. It worked, with the Leopards sealing a close win down the stretch. The Patriot League is getting wild, with six of the conference’s ten teams within a game of first place.
    • Last season, I made a habit out of tracking the nation’s perfect free throw shooters. This year, we’re already running low on perfection. There are 67 players who have attempted a free throw without missing one so far this season. Many of those, however, aren’t exactly a valid sample size. One for one is nice, but we want to recognize greatness here! So our cutoff is players who attempt at least one free throw per game. Last year, only Matt Frierson of The Citadel (63) finished the season perfect with one attempt per game. That qualifier leaves only three players this season, though there is still time for other perfect shooters to increase their foul shots per game above my required threshold.
      • Lucas Siewart, Colorado (64): 16-16
      • Myles Dread, Penn State: 20-20
      • and the current King of Perfection….Lamont West, Missouri State (65): 23-23

 


Final Tally: 18

Season to Date: 65

We’re getting there? Should my goal have been 100? NO, WE’RE GONNA DO 353.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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