After Strange Season, a Strange D2 Poll
In the world of college basketball, it usually is all about, “what have you done for me lately?”
For example, Northwest Missouri State is the top-ranked team in the National Association of Basketball Coaches poll. The Bearcats deservedly own the top spot after winning five games in the NCAA Tournament by an average margin of 24.8 points last season and crowning themselves National Champions.
However, the global pandemic created unprecedented scenarios across college basketball, especially at the Division-II level. Two teams appeared in this season’s top-25 after playing a combined three games in 2020-21.
Nova Southeastern did not suit up once last season, but are ranked 13th in the NABC poll. Indiana (Pa.) owned a winning record in 2020-21, winning two and losing one, and grabbed the 18th spot in the poll.
Why are these two squads garnering so much respect despite hardly seeing any action since 2019-20? How can a Northern State (S.D.) team find themselves sandwiched between those two teams at 15 after finishing 2020-21 ranked second? The Wolves were beating eventual-national champs Northwest Missouri by 11 points with 3:01 to play in the Sweet 16 this March. Now the Wolves are looking up at a Nova Southeastern team that has played in fewer basketball games (zero) than Udonis Haslem (two) has played since 2020-21.
In 2019-20, Nova Southeastern went 23-6 and earned an at-large bid into the tournament as a two-seed. Slated to play Embry-Riddle in the Round of 64 before COVID-19 ruined the national tournament, the Sharks were also the 20th-ranked team after losing in the Sunshine State Conference championship, 118-109.
The Sharks broke 100 points 15 times during their last season of action. Nine players weathered the basketball-less season and rejoined the Sharks this year. However, their leading scorer, Mark Matthews, is no longer on the roster which promotes Nick Smith to take the lead offensively. Smith, from Pittsburgh, Pa. averaged 13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 2019-20.
Sekou Sylla joins the Sharks after transferring from the College of St. Rose. Sylla averaged 21.9 points in 2019-20, the second-best mark in the Northeast-10 and was a second team all-conference selection after leading the league with 11.6 rebounds per game. It will be interesting to see how Smith, Sylla, and the Sharks live up to expectations after missing out on a full season of hoops. They are off to a good start after only falling to Division-I Miami by 11 points earlier in October.
At least the Hawks at IUP got some run last season. The Hawks came into the 2020-21 season ranked fifth in the D2SIDA Media Poll. However, after splitting with Gannon and narrowly beating Clarion at home, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference cancelled the season.
Almost the entire roster returned for this season. Dylan Benton is the only player not to return from 2020-21, but he did not play last year. Four of those returners transferred in from Division-I schools. However, the Hawks’ leading scorer from the past two seasons, Armoni Foster, grew up two hours away from IUP and has spent his entire career as a Hawk. Foster is averaging 13.7 points per game in an IUP uniform, including leading the team with 19.8 in 2019-20. Foster was able to lead his team to a conference championship in 2019-20,unlike the Sharks.
Clearly, Nova Southeastern and IUP have the talent to make the tournament this season despite not playing much if at all last season. Several teams will be eyeing up the Sharks and the Hawks, trying to prove those teams do not deserve national recognition before suiting up in 2021-22.
For example, Lincoln Memorial is looking up at the Sharks and only one spot above the Hawks despite being one buzzer beater away from a National Championship appearance last season. The Railsplitters carried a 39-game winning streak into 2020-21, but lost out on a South Atlantic Conference championship run after back-to-back losses to Newberry and Tusculum and forfeiting their last two games due to COVID.
No. 20 Alabama Huntsville was ranked 12th in the final poll last season, which is one spot ahead of where the Sharks are now. As mentioned before, Northern State fell below the Sharks despite owning the second ranking in the final NABC poll in 2020-21.
The Sharks and Hawks really should not be punished for having their seasons cancelled, but a lot of teams are seeing green looking at their national rankings. However, neither team currently has a top-25 matchup on their schedule. These two teams must be on thin ice, especially early on in the season as they play out-of-conference opponents. One false move and these teams, without any success last season to stand on, may find themselves quickly on the outside looking in.
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