Forces, Frauds, and Fruitcakes: Sorting Out NCAA Basketball, Pt. 1

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IJanuary 20, 2009

After a little over two months of the college basketball season, there is now enough information, including a few conference matchups, to make some early judgments on where the teams stand vis-a-vis their preseason expectations.

After looking at the major and many of the mid-major conferences, I have concluded that nearly every one of them has at least one "force," one "fraud," and one "fruitcake" (a team that would make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde proud).

The definitions are as follows:

The Force: This is a team that much is or was expected of, and they are delivering on those expectations. They are not just winning now; they will continue to win. They must be a legitimate threat to win the regular-season conference title. They need not have been a preseason favorite, but they need to have proven that they are "the real thing."

The Fruitcake (pictured above): This is a team that you don't want to place any wagers on. One day, they might take down a top-5 team; the next, they may lose to a mediocre team from the Atlantic 10. They are the Jekylls and can never be sure which team will show up on any given day.

The Fraud: This is a team that either has a gaudy record because they have been beating up on inferior opponents or has been thoroughly underwhelming not because they lack the talent, but because they were overrated to begin with. They may or may not have been exposed yet, but are candidates for a one-and-done in March, if they are playing in the NCAA tournament at all.

In order to prevent any accusations of bias (especially the evil scourge of "East Coast Bias"), the conferences included will be listed in alphabetical order. In this edition, I will take a look at the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, and Big South. Part II will examine the Big Ten, Big XII, CAA, and Conference USA.

Atlantic Coast Conference

The Force: Duke Blue Devils (16-1, 3-0)

Wake Forest (16-0, 3-0) is undefeated and No. 1 in the country, so why does Duke get the nod? As detailed in a previous article, I believe the Devils have more staying power than the Deacons. They have faced a more challenging schedule and have dominated (not just defeated) all the currently ranked opponents they have faced. 

The Blue Devils have faced six teams that have been ranked at some point in the season to Wake's four and have looked extraordinary in those wins, while Wake had a tough time putting away Clemson and UNC (no shame in that) in the second half.  Make no mistake: Wake Forest is no fruitcake or fraud and Jan. 28th witnesses a clash of these two titans in Winston-Salem.

The Fruitcake: Maryland Terrapins (12-5, 1-2)

Maryland has a blowout of Michigan State on their resume (at a neutral court) as well as a home win over Michigan. The Terps are five points from a 3-0 record in the ACC, suffering a two-point loss at Florida State and a three-point loss to Miami (FL), two quality ACC opponents. 

Nevertheless, the games are losses and devastating ones at that.

Maryland has just one bad loss, but it's a doozy. They fell 66-65 at home to Morgan State and will likely need a minimum 9-7 conference record, complete with a couple of quality wins over the top teams in the ACC, to be dancing in March.

The Fraud: Boston College Eagles (13-6, 1-3)

I thought Virginia Tech (12-5, 2-1) would be pencilled into this slot given their preseason expectations, but Boston College has gone out of their way to prove themselves more worthy of the "fraudulent" label.

How do you squander the poll standing you gain after handing North Carolina a shocking loss in Chapel Hill? Follow it up with a 12-point home loss to mid-tier Ivy League school Harvard and three additional losses, including to the aforementioned Hokies.

The Eagles will be looking at the NIT in March, assuming they manage to stay a couple of games above .500.  What a shame for phenom Tyrese Rice.

Atlantic 10 Conference

The Force: Xavier Musketeers (15-2, 4-0)

Look, someone had to be the force. Xavier may not have proven themselves to be among the elite teams in the country, but they are far and away the best in a weak conference. Their only losses are a blowout at Duke and a subsequent loss to Butler, one top-10 team and one top-20 team.

Xavier should run through the vast majority of their conference schedule with ease and have at least garnered wins over Missouri, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and their best opponent, Memphis.

The Fruitcake: Massachusetts Minutemen (7-9, 2-1)

Oh, where to start. Apparently, this team has a set of robots that occasionally come out to play well (or, conversely, it might be robots during the losses, judging from the manner in which they stand still playing defense).

They have recent wins over Temple (9-7, 1-1) and Dayton (16-2, 2-1), but they also own recent losses to St. Louis and Vanderbilt (by 30!). Earlier this season, they edged Kansas on the road after losing six in a row to teams that included Toledo, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Jacksonville State.

If you're thinking of placing money on a Minutemen game, keep your wallet in your pants (or purse).

The Fraud: Dayton Flyers (16-2, 2-1)

Dayton has not been fully exposed yet, but a 18-point loss to Creighton and a more recent 13-point loss to UMass have helped pull the curtain back.

Their lone marquee victory came a full 13 games ago when they upended Marquette, but that is about the only decent competition they have faced. 

The Flyers may very well ride a gaudy conference record and a pathetically weak non-conference slate (which includes a three-point win over Wofford and a one-point win over SEC weakling Auburn) to a decent seed in the NCAA tournament, but they are a prime candidate for a one-and-done when (or, rather, if) they get there.

Big East Conference

The Force: Connecticut Huskies (16-1, 5-1)

The Huskies get the nod over Pittsburgh due to their strength of schedule, their play in the most recent games, and the comparison of common opponents. In league play, UConn hammered Rutgers (9-9, 0-5) 80-49 while Pittsburgh struggled to a six-point win against the weak Scarlet Knights.

Pittsburgh earned wins over substantially inferior opponents during their non-conference slate while the Huskies were garnering victories over the likes of Wisconsin, Miami (FL) and Gonzaga.

These two teams are very close but will not play until February 16th, the first of two showdowns that could very well determine a No. 1 seed in March.

The Fruitcake: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-5, 3-3)

There are certainly multiple candidates for this particular slot, but Notre Dame has recently proven themselves to be quite the fruitcake.

They have wins over Texas and Georgetown to go with recent back-to-back losses to Louisville and Syracuse, fellow fruitcake nominees.

It is the inexplicable loss to St. John's that remains the most frustrating for Irish fans, however. With consecutive upcoming games against Connecticut, Marquette, Pittsburgh and a non-conference tilt at UCLA, the next six games will define the Irish season. The best bet is that they'll go 3-3 to cement their fruitcake status.

They have the talent to be a top-ten team but the results to fall out of the rankings entirely. Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney need to return to their early-season form, and they need substantially more help from their teammates.

The Fraud: Villanova Wildcats (14-3, 2-2)

Don't be surprised if this currently ranked team gets left out in March or is one of the last teams in. Villanova is 14-0 against unranked opponents and 0-3 against those in the top-25 (Louisville, Marquette, and Texas). The toughest opponent in their non-conference schedule was Temple, and that is not saying much.

The next eight games feature Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Marquette and West Virginia, with the "easy" games being Cincinnati, Providence and South Florida, all of whom are capable of playing with Villanova.

The Wildcats have hands-down one of the easiest schedules in the Big East (they only play UConn, Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville and Georgetown once each), and that might be the nail in their March coffin if they don't reel off a few wins against quality opponents.

They may be ranked in the top-20 in some polls. Don't believe the hype.

The Big South

The Force: None

That's right.  No one gets nominated, including Virginia Military Institute (14-3, 6-1).  Yes, the opening season 111-103 win over Kentucky was impressive, but it was just that: an opening game.

Since then, VMI has just been an above-average Big South squad in a conference that lacks any real "force." Their 91-80 home defeat to Liberty eliminated some deluded fans' belief that they would roll through the conference undefeated.

The Keydets usually score a ton of points, but their thin resume includes a 3-point win over Richmond, a four-point win at Gardner-Webb, and a one-point home victory over Coastal Carolina. They rarely have looked dominant and that win over Kentucky feels like years ago. It will to the Selection Committee as well.

The Big South remains a one-team conference at the moment: the team that wins the conference tourney.

The Fruitcake: Liberty Flames (13-6, 4-3)

A loss to Clemson is forgivable. Losses at DePaul and St. Louis are understandable, if disappointing. Losses to UNC-Asheville, Presbyterian and Winthrop are downright embarrassing. And for those of you that think Winthrop is the team they were the last couple of years, keep in mind that they are now 4-12 overall and 3-4 in the Big South.

The wins over CAA leader George Mason, ACC foe Virginia and VMI make Liberty hard to figure out. Guard Seth Curry (Stephen's brother) has the potential to ignite this squad on any given night, and Liberty's youth makes them a frustrating team to pull for.

If they can improve their consistency as they gain experience, they should provide a stiff challenge to VMI for the conference championship and Seth Curry will make them a dangerous first-round matchup in March if they do so.

The Fraud: Radford Highlanders (9-9, 6-1)

They may have earned a conference mark of 6-1 thus far, but their next three games are against VMI, Liberty, and Gardner-Webb, and the Highlanders are likely to be underdogs in all three.

It was nice while it lasted, but this team has neither the talent nor the depth to challenge the best of the Big South. They will be fortunate to finish with a .500 mark in the conference. They do not own a win over a Division I school with a winning record.

I hope you enjoyed this first installment. I estimate that there will be three more in order to cover a decent range of conferences, and not just the ones that attract the most media attention.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. This article can also be found on my UNC blog at Carolina Tar Heel Blue.


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