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TGS COLLEGE HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...MID-MAJOR ALERT PART I
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We're only a couple of weeks into the 2011-12 college basketball season, but already we see serious indicators of a mid-major uprising this campaign.

In fact, the delineation between "major" and "mid-major" is likely to become more blurred than ever this season, especially with a recently-dominant league such as the Big East not looking as overwhelming as it has in recent years.

Beginning in December, we'll be adding some new twists to our college hoops coverage at www.goldsheet.com, with a weekly "Mid-Major Top 25" along with periodic "Bracketology" updates that our readership has enjoyed the past few years. We're still a few weeks away from our first look at the brackets for next March's Big Dance but promise we will have one of those for you as an early Christmas present next month.

We'll also be previewing several conferences as the season moves into December and league play begins in earnest in January. Hang on for the ride!

But first, as promised, our look at the mid-majors who have caught our eye in the early going of the just-commenced campaign. Part II of this annual early-season exercise comes next week.

Cleveland State...Underestimate CSU coach Gary Waters at your own risk. Waters, who once upon a time put together a powerhouse program at Kent State, has found his perfect niche in the Horizon League at nearby Cleveland State after an ill-advised adventure at Rutgers. While some observers believed the Vikings might be in for a downturn this season following the graduation of do-everything G Norris Cole (21.7 ppg last year), it was worth noting that Waters returned every other starter from last year's 27-win team that reached the second round of NIT play. And the Vikings can still run their 3-guard offense with a collection of experienced backcourt performers led by D'Aundray Brown, who subjugated some of his scoring instincts for Cole in recent years while focusing more on the stop end, where he became a member of the Horizon League's all-defense team before sitting out last year with a finger injury. Now back in the lineup, and with Cole departed, Brown is looking for shots once more and is scoring at a better than 16 points per game clip. Along with vet backcourt mates Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery, the Vikings can be pests, as highly-ranked Vanderbilt found out when committing 20 turnovers, which were converted into 22 CSU points, in the Vikes' stunning 71-58 win at Nashville on Nov. 13. CSU also has a nice win vs. nearby MAC contender Kent State, 57-53, under its belt. Waters has some size at his disposal with big, thick 6-9 C Aaron Pogue a rugged presence in the paint. With Butler apparently falling back to the pack, this is perhaps the team to beat in the Horizon; watch these guys.

Coastal Carolina...Covenant, Methodist, and Spalding sound like a collection of religious items plus a golf ball, but instead those are three of the Chanticleers' first five victims this season. So why are we getting excited about Coastal Carolina? Because their other two wins have come against LSU and Clemson, the latter on the road in dramatic fashion on Nov. 22 when F Chris Gradnigo tipped in his own missed shot at the buzzer, giving the Chants a 60-59 win. CC has been plenty formidable the past few years in the Big South for veteran coach Cliff Ellis, who has previously taken South Alabama, Clemson, and Auburn to the Big Dance and almost did the same a year ago with the Chants, who were the conference reg.-season champ and settled for an NIT berth instead. The return of PG Kierre Greenwood, who went down with a knee injury late last season, has been a boon in the early going for CC, which owns a potent backcourt due to Greenwood and 2-G Anthony Raffa, scoring at a healthy 17.6 ppg clip thus far. The appearance of the aforementioned Gradnigo, a transfer from UL-Lafayette who was a double-digit scorer for the Ragin' Cajuns and is pumping home better than 14 ppg for Ellis, has been another revelation. The Chants have dates vs. board teams Florida International and East Carolina coming up in the next few weeks, but file these guys away for future reference in the February BracketBusters as well as tourney action next March. We'll hear from them again.

Eastern Washington...Flying way under the radar in the Big Sky is Eastern Washington, although regional hoop aficionados have alerted to keep an eye on the Eagles. New HC Jim Hayford is extremely well-respected in the coaching ranks, doing an apprenticeship several years ago under noted NAIA coaching legend Bill Odell at Azusa-Pacific before going out on his own at Whitworth University, a Division III school in Spokane, where he took the Pirates to six D-III tourneys and won 20 or more games eight times. EWU opened some eyes in the first two weeks by taking Gonzaga and Oregon to the wire on the road, notching handy pointspread covers each time, and several more chances exist to go with EWU in the coming weeks (UC Davis, Idaho, Washington State, UCLA, CS Fullerton, and Saint Mary's all on tap in December). Hayford's ace-in-the-hole is 6-6 juco swingman Collin Chiverton, who arrived in Cheney from O.J. Simpson's old City College of San Francisco, which won the California state JC title a year ago. Chiverton, who prepped at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, had originally enrolled at Saint Mary's, redshirting a year before transferring out, so the upcoming game vs. the Gaels will be a big one for him. Chiverton, at 19.5 ppg in the early going, rates as a recruiting steal for Hayford, as Chiverton could easily be excelling at higher-profile programs on the west coast.

Harvard...This doesn't look like a typical Ivy League team that HC Tommy Amaker has put together in Cambridge. Several of the talents on the squad could have ended up on A-10 or even Big East rosters; Amaker might have pulled a little sleight of hand to get some of these guys into Harvard. But, considering what goes on elsewhere in the world of college hoops, why not let the Crimson have a little fun? Basketball has never enjoyed the adulation that football has often earned on campus over the decades, and it's worth noting that last year's Ivy co-championship (with Princeton) was Harvard's first-ever league crown. But the Crimson had all offseason to sit and wonder about what might have been had the Tigers' Doug Davis not scored at the buzzer to beat Harvard in a one-game playoff for the Ivy NCAA berth. Now Amaker returns all five starters from that near-miss team that ended up a bit deflated and lost in the first round of the NIT. But 6-8 sr. PF Keith Wright (14.3 ppg) is one of those talents that could easily be at a higher-profile hoops school, and there is plenty of depth and firepower in the backcourt led by Gs Oliver McNally (14 ppg) and Laurent Rivard (13 ppg). Harvard has a few interesting dates lined up in December at UConn and Boston College (a game in which the Crimson should be a considerable favorite) and has already passed a tricky road test at Loyola Marymount by a 77-67 score. Expect to hear more from Amaker's team throughout the season.

UC Santa Barbara...Quietly, HC Bob Williams continues to get the job done at Santa Barbara, including NCAA tourney appearances the last two years. Williams, who had another NCAA entrant back in 2002 among a series of strong squads, might have his best team yet this season, especially with the electric sr. backourt duo of 6-7 James Nunnally (20.5 ppg in the early going) and 6-5 Orlando Johnson (20.2 ppg the first four games), whose size and versatility makes them headaches for opposing defenders. The fact Williams employs both means that opposing teams are less inclined to use the sorts of gimmick defenses they might if only one were in the Gaucho lineup; commit too many defensive resources to one, and teams risk getting burned by the other. Along with 6-2 soph dagger-thrower Kyle Boswell (50% triples) and a legit inside presence in 6-9 Jaime Serna (10.2 ppg and 78% from floor in the first five games), without whom the Gauchos struggled for a six-game stretch when he was injured last season, there are plenty of dimensions on Williams' UCSB roster. Along with Long Beach State, conqueror of Pitt last week, it looks as it the Big West could warrant multiple Big Dance bids for the first time in several years.

Weber State...Most of the Wildcats' games are going to be "added" ones on the daily pointspread board, including those in the Big Sky this season. Still, plenty of non-conference opportunities exist with the Wildcats, who have broken quickly at 3-0 and are rated as the team to beat in the Big Sky. The return to action of jr. G Damian Lillard, who scored 19.9 ppg in 2009-10 before missing last season with a foot injury, has proven a big boost to Randy Rahe's squad, which advanced to the CBI even without Lillard a year ago. Lillard looks better than ever, scoring 23 ppg in the early going, with backcourt mate Scott Bamforth hitting an un conscious 82% (!) from beyond the arc in the early going en route to his own 21 ppg (and Bamforth is not just taking one or two triples pg; he's firing nearly 6 per contest, along with the nine pg by Lillard). The warning shot that Weber means business came in its 73-63 win over Stew Morrill's Utah State on November 15. Upcoming games to watch include December dates vs. San Jose State, BYU, Cal, and Utah.

Mid-Majors Alert Part II next week...


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