Oakland Leads Pack of Battle-Tested 'Dogs
After giving Illinois a mild scare and Michigan State a pretty severe one, Oakland was facing Tennessee Tuesday night. It marked the third time in a six-day span that the Golden Grizzlies were facing a ranked team. Two of them were in the Top 10. Two games were on the road while the other was at a "neutral" site -- though it was basically a duel-home game for both MSU and Oakland, being in Auburn Hills.
The Grizzlies' 89-82 win over the Vols was hardly surprising to those who had paid attention to the recent string of games. And now No. 2 Ohio State is on the schedule next week. Plus, Oakland has already played at Purdue.
That means before the turn of the calendar, Oakland -- of the Summit League -- will have played five ranked teams, three of which were in the Top 10 when the Grizzlies played them (assuming Ohio State doesn't stumble before next week). Not many other teams in the country have faced that kind of a murderer's row thus far. In fact, I believe only two teams outside the major conferences have faced anything comparable (you'll see below).
Assuming the Grizzlies play up to their capabilities in league play, this is all something to keep in mind come March. We all like hitting that pick that busts the brackets of others.
This isn't to say Oakland is alone in testing itself against a Goliath when it comes to the Davids of the world.
Even if the so-called little guy doesn't win the games against the big conference teams, playing the games early in the season can give them an edge on their conference competition and then when it comes time to face a big boy in the Big Dance, the team won't be intimidated. Take Butler from last season. The Bulldogs lost to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB in non-conference play before running the table in the Horizon League. After dropping the game to UAB, the next Butler loss wouldn't come until the national championship game.
Here are a baker's dozen small schools that are enduring strong early schedules. You'll notice some familiar names on the list, which shouldn't be surprising. Just don't forget any of these come March -- obviously to different degrees.
[Note: We have eliminated every team from a top-10 conference, according to KenPom.com, because we're searching for the true little guys. The excluded 10: Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, SEC, Mountain West, Conference USA, Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley.]
Butler - The defending runners-up have had a disappointing start, but the Bulldogs will be ready for the Horizon League after facing the likes of Duke, Louisville, Xavier, Stanford and Utah.
Gonzaga - These Bulldogs are just 4-5, but the losses have come against: No. 11 San Diego State, No. 6 Kansas State, No. 12 Illinois, No. 24 Notre Dame and Washington State. Gonzaga has also won against Marquette and still has games coming against No. 9 Baylor, Xavier, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest. It's probably a more brutal overall slate than Oakland.
Saint Mary's - Just two blemishes thus far, and each was to a ranked team from the Mountain West (BYU and San Diego State). Plus, the Gaels have taken on competition from the Big East (St. John's) and Big 12 (Texas Tech).
Murray State - The Racers won a game last March and nearly took down Butler in Round 2. So far this year they've played such big-conference teams as Mississippi, Stanford and Oklahoma State while also having lost to No. 22 UNLV.
Long Beach State - Only San Diego State is ranked from the teams the 49ers have played thus far, but you'll also see Clemson, Iowa and North Carolina on the schedule. Arizona State and Saint Mary's remain on the non-conference slate, too. This is UC Santa Barbara's main competition in the Big West.
Miami-Ohio - The RedHawks are with Gonzaga as the only teams that can rival Oakland's non-conference stretch. They have played the Top 2 teams in the country (Duke and Ohio State) and it will soon be the Top 3, as Kansas is their opponent on Jan. 2. Also, Miami has played San Diego State, Xavier and Dayton. Cincinnati is on the schedule for next Tuesday, too.
Portland - The Pilots are 8-3, with losses to Kentucky, Washington and Washington State. With Saint Mary's and Gonzaga, they form a nice trio atop the WCC.
Wofford - The Terriers are 2-6 out of conference but already 2-0 in Southern Conference play. It makes sense. The losses were at the hands of Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, Air Force, Xavier and South Carolina. They never got blown away either, with a 15-point loss to Georgetown being the worst one. Three of the six losses were in single digits. The test will be getting by Charleston, but if it does, Wofford won't be a pushover in the NCAA tournament.
Utah State - The Aggies have just two losses, a six-pointer to BYU and a relative blowout at the hands of No. 15 Georgetown. They do own a win over Utah and are 7-2 overall. Expect them to dominate the WAC.
Lipscomb - The 6-2 Bisons have only lost to North Carolina and No. 9 Baylor. Before the 2010 year ends, they'll be traveling to both Alabama and No. 18 Memphis, too. I like Lipscomb's chances in the Atlantic Sun, though Belmont will be tough.
Drexel - It hadn't yet been tough going for the Dragons, but they went into the KFC Yum! Center Tuesday night and became the first team to beat Louisville in its new home. The Cardinals had already beaten Butler and UNLV there, but Drexel took them down. Next week, the Dragons (7-1) get a chance at Syracuse. It's going to be a nice battle atop the Colonial Athletic Association between Drexel and George Mason.
Western Kentucky - The Hilltoppers have dropped five games, but there's little shame in the losses to Minnesota, Memphis, Vandy, South Carolina or Davidson. Winning the Sun Belt Conference will be a tad bit easier than the opening 10 games for WKU.
Vermont - Only UConn and BYU have beaten the Catamounts. As weak as the majority of the America East Conference is, things should be smooth sailing quite soon.