Here's the fifth in our series of power rankings, breaking down the six Division 1 teams in Massachusetts (Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Holy Cross, Northeastern, UMass) and the University of Connecticut. While UConn could likely beat every other team in the region 95 teams out of 100, we'll try to keep the rankings interesting by taking into account how teams have been playing lately, a team's chances at making the NCAA Tournament and any other mitigating factors. Yes Holy Cross fans, that means even the Crusaders can make some major moves in our rankings.
1. UConn Huskies (8-1): UConn is back in the top spot after a two week hiatus and it will take a lot for someone to knock them off the top of the precipice. In Thursday’s win over Harvard, the Huskies received strong performances from their top six players and held a double digit lead for most of the game in Storrs. If Andre Drummond and Tyler Olander continue to develop as the season goes along, Jim Calhoun cannot only boast one of the nation’s top backcourts, but a frontcourt that’s should be good enough to matchup with most top teams in the country. Right now the biggest concern for Huskies fans should be the team’s lack of contributions from its role players. Talented swingmen Roscoe Smith, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey haven’t made much of an impact and were invisible against the Crimson.
2. Harvard Crimson (8-1): A win over the Huskies wasn’t in the cards, but the Crimson showed how far they’ve come in the 67-53 loss. The team’s stifling defense held the Huskies seven points below their season average and the Crimson were in the game for the full forty minutes, a far cry from last season’s 81-52 thrashing by the Huskies. Not surprisingly Harvard struggled on the boards and the team’s poor 3-point shooting cost them a chance at the upset, but it could have been far worse. Saturday’s impressive performance against Boston University wasn’t enough to keep the Crimson in the national rankings but it showed the team’s ability to bounce back. Harvard let the Terriers stick around for 13 minutes before going on a 20-3 run to end the half. The Crimson won without a dominating performance from senior forward Keith Wright. The team’s best player has been relatively quiet this season, despite winning the Battle 4 Atlantis MVP. Wright’s numbers can partially be attributed to the team’s fantastic balance and depth, but look for him to put up bigger numbers as the Crimson enter their conference season.
3. UMass Minutemen (8-3): One game, one win, it’s hard to dock UMass for taking care of business against Siena Friday night, even if the they struggled for the first 20+ minutes. Then the one weapon that separates UMass from any of the teams below them took over. Chaz Williams scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half to beat a rebuilding Siena squad and keep UMass undefeated in the state of Massachusetts. Expectations were high for the talented sophomore transfer, but he’s exceeded all of them, leading an entertaining UMass offense to new levels, at least when they’re hitting their threes. The question is how much better are the Minutemen than preseason projections forecasted? UMass was picked twelfth out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the team can’t compete with the conference’s elite, but can they be a top-6, top-8, top-10 team? Williams and UMass’ last three games before New Years, all against mid-majors, will help shed more light on the pesky Minutemen.
4. Northeastern Huskies (3-4): With no games this past week, this is as good a time as any to breakdown the differences between last year’s 11-20 squad and the potentially improved 2011-12 Huskies. Give Bill Coen credit, first and foremost, for bringing in the personnel to compete on the boards, Northeastern averaged 28.9 rebounds per game last year, finishing at -3.9 boards per game. This season the Huskies are averaging almost 10 rebounds per game more (38.3), and have pulled down 4.2 more rebounds per game than opponents. Defensively, the Huskies have markedly improved as well; opposing team’s shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc have plummeted and the Huskies have more than doubled their block totals. Unfortunately, with leading scorer Chaisson Allen gone, the team’s shooting numbers have also taken a dive, leading to more chances for opposing teams to score: opponents scoring averages are identical from the two seasons. Northeastern will get back to action this week, playing three games in five days for the first time this season.
T-5. Holy Cross Crusaders (4-6): I couldn’t put the Crusaders fully ahead of the Terriers, but the Crusaders are one of the few teams that has shown significant improvement since the season started and that deserves rewarding. Friday night the Crusaders took down Sacred Heart 71-60 behind a big performance from Devin Brown. The senior guard poured in 22 points on 7-of-14 points and reached the 1,000 point milestone for his career. Milan Brown has four players who are liable to go off at any time and Holy Cross is out-shooting opponents by a wide margin. If the Crusaders were slightly better on the boards or from the free throw line, they easily could be sitting at 6-4. Four of the team’s losses have been by single digits and the Crusaders haven’t backed down from anyone. Will all that continue against UConn Saturday? No. But Holy Cross should be able to compete in a stacked Patriot League once January hits.
T-5. Boston University (4-7): Boston University didn’t drop a spot this week because of two losses to superior competition; they dropped a spot because they rolled over in consecutive blowouts. The Terriers sport their second big losing streak of the season, after playing some of their best basketball heading into the month of December. Against Harvard, Joe Jones tried to send a message to his starters about the need to hustle and play with determination for a full 40 minutes, by benching them for much of the second half. Unfortunately the message didn’t seem to settle in against Villanova Tuesday. After a fantastic first half in which the Terriers led the entire way, the Wildcats went on a 19-1 run and Boston University had no answer. Double-digit, second half deficits are extremely familiar to the Terriers, but failing to get back into the game, is a new problem. Boston University’s strength all season has been their resiliency and determination, which is why the past two efforts are so concerning. A full 10 day break hopefully will be enough for the team to get back on track, as the Terriers won’t take the court till next Thursday against Bucknell.
7. Boston College Eagles (3-7): The Eagles had their strongest week of the season with their first double digit win of the season and a strong showing at Providence. Yes, die-hard Boston College fans, I know that sentence stings. German sensation Patrick Heckmann had a big week averaging 15 ppg and 4.5 rbg and freshmen bigs Ryan Anderson and Dennis Clifford both posted solid numbers as well. Sunday against Stony Brook, the Eagles held the Seawolves to 11 first half points, a Conte Forum record, and finished the first half on a 22-0 run. But to me the team’s performance against the Friars was a much better sign for the team’s progress long-term. Boston College went on the road and kept the game within single digits the entire way. Six different players scored six points or more for the Eagles and the team showed they might have a good young core coming together with the improved play of Jordan Daniels and Lonnie Jackson. If Heckmann and Matt Humphrey can provide a little more offensive firepower, the Eagles could reach five or six wins before the ACC seasons starts.
Starting Five (Top 5 Players in the Region Thus Far)
Chaz Williams (G-UMass)
Kyle Casey (F-Harvard)
Shabazz Napier (G-UConn)
Jeremy Lamb (G-UConn)
D.J. Irving (G-Boston University)