Five to Watch
Early January is key for these slightly off the radar teams
It's late December and you've got a winning record. Unfortunately, nobody outside of your own fan base seems to care. Welcome to life just off the edge of college basketball's radar, where it's possible to feel good about yourself but not necessarily great.
Five teams - Georgia Tech, Santa Clara, Seton Hall, NJIT and Loyola Chicago - are hovering there right now. These squads are all trying to get on that radar and stay there until March, with the common goal being postseason play.
The rub for all of the aforementioned is that all of them face stern tests just after the calendar flips over into 2013. If you want to keep playing into March then you have to win a few that you're not supposed to, and early January will provide ample opportunities for each team to do just that.
Georgia Tech (8-2)
Tech's two losses to this point were to Cal in Anaheim and on the road at Illinois, neither of which was a prosecutable offense. Following his 11-20 debut season in Atlanta, Brian Gregory needs to increase that win total by 7 or 8 to show that he's gaining some traction. Upcoming tilts with Fordham and Chattanooga will yield victories, but then Tech begins ACC play with back-to-back games against Miami and NC State. Later in the month come consecutive road games with Duke and North Carolina. The Jackets need to steal one of those early ACC contests to stay on track for that 18-win mark.
Santa Clara (11-2)
The Broncos are sitting pretty right now following a 24-point drubbing of Wagner to take the Cable Car Classic title. Kerry Keating's team has been extremely proficient at harassing the opposition so far, resulting in a healthy turnover margin of 6.6 per game. But things will get interesting in a hurry for the Broncos: the next two weeks include a cross country trip to Duke and WCC tilts with Gonzaga and BYU. A bad stretch there could derail all the momentum's Keating's squad has built up the past two months.
Seton Hall (10-2)
As of this writing, Seton Hall is the only Big East team with a double digit win total that isn't currently ranked. That's what losses to a couple of mediocre teams (Washington and LSU) will do to you. Junior Fuquan Edwin has blossomed into a terrific swingman for Seton Hall, upping his scoring average by almost 7 (up to 19 ppg this season) while forcing 2.6 steals a contest. The Pirates will need him to REALLY show out once Big East play starts, with early January bringing a brutal four game stretch of Notre Dame, Louisville, Providence and Marquette.
Over the last three seasons, NJIT has a record of 7-45 in games played in November and December. But so far this campaign, the Highlanders have fashioned a 6-5 mark with none of those losses coming by more than 9 points. Can Jim Engles take this program all the way from a 1-30 record in his debut season to a Great West title in five years? Seeing as how the league is stripped down and on life support, it's looking like a solid bet. But if the Highlanders get tripped up on their January 5 trip to Utah Valley, the Great West might turn out to be a tougher slog for NJIT than I'm anticipating.
Loyola Chicago (8-3)
The Ramblers are well on their way to exceeding expectations with an 8-3 start, which is one win more than the team tallied all of last season. Forward Ben Averkamp has been solid coming off his second-team All-Horizon campaign and he currently leads Loyola in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg). Can a team picked by some publications as finishing last in the Horizon stay near the top of league standings? A January 2 clash at Horizon heavyweight Valparaiso will tell us a lot about where the Ramblers are headed.