After a two week hiatus for Mullenix’s Musings, I’m back. The holidays are behind us, conference play is in full swing and there are some things I’ve got to get off my chest around the country from the Big Ten to the Missouri Valley Conference. Let’s hop right in.
Michigan is 5-0 in Big Ten play. Yes, their schedule has been fortuitous, but it’s still impressive.
Juwan Howard and Penny Hardaway were hired for similar reasons. They’re cooler than pretty much any other coach that is going to walk into a recruit’s house and they have connections that come with that that most coaches just aren’t going to have. The difference, however, is that Hardaway is clearly not a great coach and Howard has turned his recruiting advantage into on-court success very quickly. As of Jan. 8, the Wolverines are eighth at KenPom, seventh in offensive efficiency and top 20 on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve been impressive and Hunter Dickinson is one of the best freshmen in the country, averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
Michigan is 5-0 in Big Ten play with wins over Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota. The Wildcats and Gophers are both ranked but neither team was supposed to be inspiring this season. With that being said, the Wolverines have been impressive and just ask Wisconsin (who lost to Maryland at home) about beating all the “bad” teams in the conference. It’s just not that easy.
The other thing to consider here is that Michigan’s Big Ten schedule isn’t all that difficult, relatively speaking. They only have three more road games against ranked teams and two of those are against Michigan St. and Minnesota. The Wolverines only play Iowa and Illinois once and they get to play both of those games at home. This is the reality of a conference schedule that isn’t a true round robin and Michigan definitely got the better end of the stick. I’m still not quite to the point that I’m going to pick them to win the conference because Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin have also gotten off to good starts, but the combination of Michigan’s performance and their remaining schedule have to put them square in the conversation. 10-5 over their next 15 conference games is very doable and the thought of a team going 16-4 to prevent them from at least getting a share of the B1G title, in this scenario, seems pretty unlikely.
The Wolverines have done this before. They’ve been a middle of the road Big Ten team that is still undefeated into the early stages of conference play looking like a top 10 team. I just didn’t expect a Juwan Howard led team to do it this fast. We’ll see how they perform as the schedule gets tougher, but Michigan is definitely better than anyone thought they would be.
Drake is 13-0.
The Bulldogs are 13-0 and receiving votes in the AP Poll so let’s give them some love. Liam Robbins left Drake to transfer to Minnesota. He was a 2019-20 All-MVC member averaging 14.1 points, 7.1 points and 2.9 blocks for Darian DeVries’ team. He left and the Bulldogs, almost inexplicably, got better. They’re smallest margin of victory is a seven-point win on the road over Indiana State. They haven’t won a game by less than 10 points other than that.
The Bulldogs have one of the most efficient offenses in the country and have four different players in the top 165 of KenPom’s individual offensive rating rankings. They’re sixth in effective field goal percentage and third in 3-point percentage, shooting a ridiculous 43.5% from deep as a team. ShanQuan Hemphill is leading the way averaging 14.2 points and 5.2 rebounds with Roman Penn and DJ Wilkins also averaging double-digits per contest. They’re the 19th team in MVC history to start 13-0 and they have a date with Loyola-Chicago, the other best team in the MVC, this weekend.
The Drake job is not easy and getting to the NCAA Tournament literally almost never happens. The Bulldogs went in 2008 after going 28-5, but lost in the first round. The last time they went to the tournament other than that was in 1971, a year before my parents were born. Just four years ago, Drake was fresh off its third straight season of nine or fewer wins and about to move on to its seventh coach since 2000. Now, they’re 13-0 and have put themselves in the conversation as the best team in the MVC that could represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The Missouri Valley Conference was good in nonconference play, so an at-large bid is still in play if Drake has a near spotless record without a conference tournament win.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Des Moines. This isn’t a perennial mid-major that is always good and always finds a way to be one of the best teams in its conference. This is Drake and DeVries is doing something that is largely uncharted territory. At the very least, it’s territory Drake fans are not familiar with at all.
The NCAA’s NET Rankings were not nearly as controversial in their first form as I was hoping.
It would’ve been incredibly amusing if the NCAA released rankings on Jan. 4 (rankings that play a major role in NCAA Tournament decisions) that didn’t have Gonzaga and Baylor first and second. But they did and the rest of the top 10 made a considerable amount of sense featuring teams like Tennessee, Illinois, Iowa, Villanova and Texas. However, there were some rankings that made me snicker. Teams 12-14 in the rankings were Saint Louis, Boise St. and Colorado and the Kansas Jayhawks checked in at 27th behind USC. Since we’ve been talking about Drake, the metrics like them and currently have them at 13th in the NET rankings.
I’m not a bracketologist, nor do I pretend to be. So, I don’t have any major takeaways or predictions of seeding for the NCAA Tournament. If you want that, check out Lukas Harkins on Twitter, @hardwiredsports, but it’s nice to see the metric that decides the 68-team field makes some sense even in this weird season. By the end of the season, the outliers that make me scratch my head will mostly work themselves out and we’ll get a logical NET Rankings. I just wish we got some more transparency on how things are done, but it’s the NCAA so that will never happen.
That’s all I’ve got, for now. If you’re looking for good college basketball this weekend, my three favorite games are as follows: Clemson @ North Carolina, Minnesota @ Iowa and Loyola Chicago @ Drake.
Photo by: Marc-Gregor Campredon / Wikimedia Commons