St. Thomas 4-0, 8-0, #7 nationally, defending regular season champ, pre-season favorite
Gustavus 4-0, 6-2, last team other than St. Thomas to win outright regular season title
Carleton 3-0, 3-3, defending playoff champ
St. John's 2-1, 6-2, pre-season #2
St. Mary's 2-1, 4-1
St. Thomas 4-0, 8-0, defending playoff champ, pre-season favorite
Concordia (Moorhead) 3-0, 5-0, 3rd last year at 17-5
St. Ben's 3-1, 6-1, regular season champs 8 of the past 9 years
Gustavus 3-1, 4-3, defending regular season co-champ at 18-4
St. Mary's 2-1, 4-2
Among the men, St. Thomas is in fact seeking a record-tying 7th straight regular season title (Hamline won 7 from 1946-47 to 1952-53). But the ranks of the unbeaten will be diminished (I guarantee it) early in 2011 as the Tommies host Carleton and then Gustavus, back-to-back, on Wednesday, January 5 and Saturday, January 8.
Among the women, the going also gets tough starting January 8 as Gustavus travels to St. Thomas and Concordia to St. Ben's.
That's not to say there haven't been some small surprises so far. Among the men, Augsburg was rated #5 in the pre-season coach's poll but has stumbled out of the gate at 1-3 (5-3 overall). But 2 of the losses were to Carleton (56-52) and St. Thomas (65-61), but those were followed by an upset loss at Hamline (102-98).
Among the women, Snelling Avenue rivals Hamline and Macalester were a combined 26-18 a year ago but have started out 1-6 between them.
But on the plus side, you may have noticed St. Mary's at 2-1 in both the men's and women's standings. The women have won just 22 games while losing 86 over the past 5 years. The men have lost 150 games while winning 50 over the past decade, and have not had a winning record since 2000.
St. Mary's Cardinals
So, are the Cardinals for real? The men, in a word, Yes. The women: Frankly, we're in wait-and-see mode.
The men have improved each year under coach Todd Landrum, now in his 3rd season in Winona. He was fortunate to inherit guards Lukas Holland and Will Wright, who as freshmen in 2007-08 scored 13 and 17 points per game, respectively. In 2008-09, that increased to 16 and 19. And last year, as juniors, the two scored 14 and 18 points per game.
Last year, Landrum added forward Chris Palmer to the mix. As a freshman, the Faribault Bethlehem Academy grad averaged 14 points and 8 boards.
This year the Cardinals' Big 3 are scoring 18 (Wright), 17.5 (Palmer) and 15 points per game. Palmer already has a 38 point game vs. Bethel and is the current MIAC player of the week.
Still, much will depend on the supporting cast which is essentially Michael Burfiend, Pat Freeman and Gary Seifert. The 3 are all playing 17 to 22 minutes and scoring about 5 points per game, while Freeman (from Champlin Park) is the #2 rebounder behind Palmer's 9 with about 5 per game. (Burfiend is from Lewiston-Altura, MN, HS.)
Unfortunately, the Cardinals came up short in their toughest MIAC test to date, a 73-64 home court loss to Augsburg. And they'll get Carleton, St. Thomas, St. John's and Augsburg, all on the road, before the end of January. So we'll find out how much Landrum and his Cardinals have improved pretty quick. But a #5 or #6 finish and a first-ever trip to the MIAC post-season is not out of reach despite a tough January schedule.
The women started with a pair of road wins before losing to Bethel and Concordia. The Concordia loss was a particular jolt of reality as the Cobbers held St. Mary's to a 19.6 FG shooting percentage on their own home court. And, make no mistake, shooting remains a concern. Last year the Cards shot just 38 percent while giving up 43 percent. This year, the Cards' percent is down to 35 percent (and down from 30 percent to 27 percent from 3-point land).
But the defense appears to have improved, as opponents are shooting just 31 percent so far. St. Mary's is still getting beaten off the boards but by a margin of just 1 board versus 4 last year. And after being out-scored an average of 62-56 last year, the Cards are averaging 58 this year while giving up 56.
Improvement was expected, of course, with 4 returning starters, though the coach's poll only foresaw a rise from last place (tied for 11th and 12th) to 9th. After all, 3 of the returnees are seniors who've had little success in the past, and none of the 4 is shooting over 40 percent from the field. The improvement, then, has been among the role players. Last year only 3 Cards scored more than 4 points a game.
This year, in addition to starters Jess Miller (from Chaska) (11 points), Cherie Kulig (10 points) and Jess Thone (from Woodbury) (8 points), you've got 2 players scoring 6 points and 2 more scoring 5. And 6 + 6 + 5 + 5 may not seem like much, but compared to 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 it adds up to exactly the 6 extra points the Cards are scoring this year. These valuable role players are senior Kim Kaminski and sophomore Jamie Stefely (6 points), and junior Brittany Begrowicz and freshman Courtney Eurele (from Litchfield) (5 points each).
Still, the poor shooting and the lack of an obvious go-to shooter bodes poorly looking forward. Still the Cards appear to be improving their roster and their performance, albeit slowly, under coach Mandy Pearson.
Interesting things are happening at St. Thomas, were pre-season player of the year choices Tyler Nicolai and Rachel Booth have not even been the best players on their own teams or even at their own positions. Guard Alex Healy is out-shooting Nicolai 53 to 46 percent (39 to 34 from 3-point land) and out-scoring him 14 points to 12. The 3rd returning starter at guard, Teddy Archer is struggling at 33 percent and 3 points per game while junior guard Peter Leslie is finally finding his groove, shooting 64 percent and scoring 8 points.
Two years ago, Booth was the post-season MVP in the Division 2 NSIC. Last year she did the same at St. Thomas while scoring 17 ppg (2nd in the MIAC) with 9 rebounds (#1 in the conference). So far this year she's been eclipsed by freshman post Maggie Weiers (from New Prague). Playing just 17 minutes, Weiers is shooting 56 percent and scoring a team-high 9 points per game. Booth is playing 22 minutes, shooting 46 percent and scoring 8.6 ppg.
Meanwhile, the Tommies even more highly-regarded frosh, Taylor Young from Edina, is playing 20 minutes, shooting 39 percent and scoring 8 ppg.
So the leading player of the year candidates are no longer from St. Thomas. Here are the top players so far.
All-MIAC Men (as of 12-15)
Aaron Burtzel, St. John's .689 FG%, 5.75 assists, 8 reb, player of the month
Alex Healy, St. Thomas 14 ppg
Jeremy Sutherland, Carleton 12 ppg, 5.2 assists
Chris Palmer, St. Mary's 19 ppg, 9 reb, .667 3-pt FG%
Eric Hipp, Hamline 16 ppg, 10 reb
All-MIAC Women (as of 12-15)
Laura Kalbfell, St. Kate's 20 ppg, 11 reb, player of the month
Mary Wilkowski, Hamline 20 ppg
Mackenzie Wolter, St. Olaf 12 ppg, 2.5 steals, 3 assists
Amy Stifter, St. Ben's 16 ppg
Erica Nord, Concordia 14 ppg
Coaches of the Month--Todd Landrum and Mandy Pearson, St. Mary's