While there are numerous big matchups in the season's opening month, particularly in the championship games of assorted preseason tournaments, the majority of the November college basketball slate is jam-packed with blowouts waiting to happen. Prior to the Jayhawks' trip to Las Vegas for a Thanksgiving weekend tournament, they don't face a team ranked higher than 168 in last year's final KenPom rankings. Even upon arriving in Vegas, their first game is against an Ohio University team that, while pulling off what I consider to be the upset of the tournament by demolishing Georgetown, ranked only 93rd coming out of the MAC.
Basically, these are tune-up games. Games to get Marcus and Markieff Morris back in the swing of things while slowly acclimating Jeff Withey and Josh Selby to the speed of college basketball, at least if Selby ever becomes eligible. Games to re-acclimate the Kansas fan base to actually winning sporting events. Games where the main point of contention is whether the home squad can hit triple digits and how many points the walk-ons manage to tack on at the end. Fun games for the whole family.
The fun starts a short 16 days away from today when Longwood takes a trip into the confines of Allen Field House. Let's take a look at these teams far closer than the eventual point spread.
Longwood Lancers (12-19, KP Rank: 297)
The Lancers do not belong to a conference, firmly entrenching them at the bottom of collegiate basketball circles. However, just because are effectively without an athletic home, they still are the lucky players who get to walk out on the court of Allen Field House and open the 2010-11 basketball season. In addition to opening up the Jayhawks' season, they open up this set of non-conference previews all of us writers here at RCT are about to unveil.
- Absolute Dearth of Height -- Let's put it this way. Of the people who played enough to enter onto the Longwood team page over at KenPom, there is only one returning player who comes in taller than my 6'3" frame. Antwan Carter, with his astounding 6'6" frame, is the tallest returning Lancer. Naturally, this led to them ranking 9th-to-last in the country in actual height of all of the players on a team. In effective height, however, or in terms of the height of the players actually performing, they ranked dead last in the country, giving up on average 4.5 inches a player per game.
- Grab it and Go! -- As one would expect, there is a strong correlation between a lack of height and certain statistics like Block%. However, there also is often a tendency for smaller teams to play at a faster pace, and Longwood is no exception. They played at the 6th fastest tempo in the country last season, including playing 7 games with more than 80 possessions.
- Don't Foul Me, Bro! -- Despite being a small team, they weren't totally in love with the three-point shot, ranking just above average in three pointers taken. They did, however, shy away from any-and-all contact ranking 332nd in free throws attempted/field goals attempted. They didn't have such a fear of the free throw line on the other side of the ball, however, ranking near the bottom in number of free throws allowed. That's typically not a winning formula.
In terms of Lancers, there is no bonafide star. Aaron Mitchell is the only returning starter, but he isn't anything to write home about, considering he can't shoot much and is mostly a distributor with average rebounding numbers for a point guard. Antwan Carter is likely the Lancers' best player actually taller than me, as he steps into the starting lineup following a monster rebounding season in 2010. He also is an effective scorer around the basket and a pretty solid defender, particularly considering he has to match up against people much larger than he is down low. Despite missing last season, Durann Neil is the leader of the Lancers according to coach Mike Gillian, while also possessing a solid three-point shot and some distributing ability. Earl Gee shot extremely well off of the bench last season, and should see an increase in minutes considering last season's performance. Martiz Washington will likely start over him, though, considering he's a better overall player despite his struggles actually putting the ball in the basket at times. In the cool name department, look out for Jan van der Kooij, a 6'7" sharpshooter from the Netherlands. On the incoming talent front, the big name and big frame is 6'8" Josh Havenstein who will likely enter into the frontline rotation from day one.
As a team, the Lancers figure to be about the same team they were last year. A 12-19 independent team which played one legitimately good squad, Maryland, and lost to them by a not-so-close score of 106-55. It might not be a victory by such a wide margin due to the fact it's the season opener and all, but it should not be much of a game for long. Simply put, the Lancers do not have the size or the horses or the pure talent to hang with the Jayhawks.
Valparaiso Crusaders (15-17, KP Rank: 174)
Just like with the Longwood preview, I will be examining the Crusaders first by taking a closer look at three statistical oddities and then walking through their roster. Unlike the Lancers, the Crusaders do actually belong to a conference, belonging to the Horizon League following their recent departure from the Summit League, which was the Mid-Continent League while the Crusaders were a part of the conference. They've struggled since the move up an echelon of conferences, but did nearly finish .500 last season picking up an extra 6 wins over the 2008 campaign.
- Mike Leach's Kinda Team -- There are numerous paths to a .500 season, which is essentially what the Crusaders accomplished last season. There's the perfectly mediocre path, and then there's the mediocrity which is found when one combines a strength with a weakness. The Crusaders' strength is clearly their offense, while their defense was all around subpar last season. No stat shows this disparity so obviously than eFG%, where Valpo ranked 36th on offense and 317th on defense. That's a startling difference. All together, a shot had about a 52.6% chance of going in in a game involving the Crusaders last season, a fairly remarkable stat. It doesn't much matter your team makes over 52% of their attempts if your opponent makes an even higher percentage.
That Drew Magic -- As I'm sure all of you know, Homer Drew is the coach of the Valparaiso Crusaders. His son, Bryce Drew, is one of his assistant coaches and eventual successor. This is the same Bryce Drew, as I'm sure you know, which made that one three-point against Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament. One of the greatest shots in recent memory. And of course all of them are related to Scott Drew, the coach of Baylor. All of this means nothing as far as the game goes, but I just think all of the Drew-ness is interesting. Also, if you do want to connect it back to the 2010 Valpo squad, the team was a solid three-point shooting team. Bryce Drew, three-pointers, team's good at them. You get the connection.
- Yet Another Short Team -- While not as preposterously small as the Lancers, the Crusaders also tend to land on the severe side of short, ranking 6th-to-last in effective height last season. Looks like another game for Marcus and Markieff and all of the other big guys to dominate against overmatched, undersized competition.
Brandon Wood is the star of the Crusaders, an all-around offensive machine who can play some defense as well. He is solid from deep, but thrives when he is drawing fouls and effectively using the large amount of possessions he scoops up for himself. He also is a solid rebounder, although not nearly as effective as Cory Johnson. Johnson is also an incredibly efficient scorer in addition to his rebounding abilities, as well as drawing a bundle of fouls. Howard Little is a subpar shooter but a shutdown defender, and he rarely turns it over. Ryan Broekhoff, despite being one of the taller Crusaders who sees the floor, is known for his long-range shooting, but is actually an excellent rebounder as well, and is certainly the most underrated player on the squad. Matt Kenney is an intriguing athlete who can shoot the ball a little as well with Michael Rogers and Tommy Kurth rounding out the rotation. Rogers is bigger, and thus a better rebounder, while Kurth is a superior on-ball defender due to his quick hands. Both are competent from long range, a common thread among all Crusaders. In terms of incoming talent, all of it is within Richie Edwards, a big-bodied 6'8" that will immediately become the enforcer for the Crusaders. He's a JUCO transfer so he should be available from Day One, and will almost certainly appear in Allen.
Valparaiso is sure to be a step up from the hapless Longwood Lancers, but they still should not pose too much of a problem. Brandon Wood is a very good player, and the Crusaders have a couple more interesting pieces (particularly Broekhoff and Johnson), but they simply don't have the horses to keep up with the Jayhawks. They are only losing a single contributor from last season, however, in G Brandon McPherson, leaving the door open for a solid improvement for Valpo. Perhaps even enough improvement to make a game out of it.
Part Two on Wednesday