New kids on the court

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Welcome, Knights and Trailblazers, Texans and Tritons.

The Division I college basketball world is growing once again as Bellarmine, Dixie State, Tarleton State and UC San Diego are beginning their transitions from Division II this season.

Bellarmine — the Knights, from Louisville, Ky. — have joined the Atlantic Sun Conference after making 11 straight Division II tournaments and winning a national championship (in 2011) under head coach Scott Davenport.

UC San Diego, which joined the Big West, raises the number of Division I schools in California to 25, most in the country. The Tritons were 30-1 in Division II last season before the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to their national title hopes.

Tarleton State and Dixie State are the newest members of college basketball’s Island of Misfit Toys, the WAC.

The Texans include a familiar face: former Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech coach Billy Gillespie.

Gillespie’s Division I rehabilitation project begins after five years at the junior college level that followed a disastrous 2011-12 season at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders went 8-23, and Gillespie resigned, citing “health concerns,” after allegations that he mistreated players.

The Dixie State Trailblazers replace Southern Utah as the closest Division I school to UNLV.

The foursome — comprising the 354th through 357th Division I schools — follows Merrimack, which went 20-11 in 2019-20, its first season at the top level, and Cal Baptist and North Alabama, both in their third year in Division I.

And there will be another addition next season after the NCAA in July approved St. Thomas’ unusual move from Division III directly to Division I.

This season’s freshman teams won’t be world beaters anytime soon. But they aren’t necessarily at the bottom of the college basketball barrel.

UC San Diego, especially, could be competitive in its new conference immediately.

The Tritons, who don’t even play their first game until New Year’s Day at Cal Poly, are the fourth-best team in the Big West (No. 188 overall), according to KenPom.com.

Dixie State is 4-1 with wins over North Dakota and Denver. The Trailblazers have a 10-day break before they get a rude introduction to big-time college basketball: at No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 29. Bellarmine has a 21-point win over Howard, and Tarleton State led Texas A&M late before falling by seven.

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It’s not too soon for these four schools to start dreaming of being selected as a 15th or 16th seed when they’re eligible for the NCAA Tournament beginning in 2025.

Wednesday

Rutgers at Ohio State, total 140: The Big Ten figures to be the best conference in the nation this year. Of the 14 teams, only Nebraska (No. 120) ranks outside the top 58 at KenPom.

And Rutgers has been especially impressive, with its past three wins coming against Syracuse, Maryland (on the road) and Illinois.

The Scarlet Knights, who are ranked No. 11 in this week’s AP top-25 poll, shoot the ball well from the floor — although, surprisingly, not from the free-throw line — and don’t commit a lot of turnovers. They’re not overly dependent on the 3, although they could have success from deep against the Buckeyes. A battle of top-25 KenPom offenses should produce points. OVER

Saturday

Houston -8 at UCF: One of the keys to the Golden Knights’ impressive win over Florida State on Saturday was their ability to limit the Seminoles on the offensive glass.

In its first two games — a win over Auburn and a blowout loss to Michigan — UCF allowed its opponents a 39% offensive-rebounding rate. Florida State managed just eight of 30 on offensive rebound chances.

The Golden Knights also got a huge game from 6-foot-5 senior Brandon Mahan, who had 32 points on 8-of-9 shooting. Mahan was also 10-of-10 from the free-throw line to bring his season total to 19 for 19. He is one of five players who have yet to miss from the line for UCF, which is No. 3 in the country in free-throw shooting.

Houston is a perfect 5-0 and ranks in the top 20 on both offense and defense, but they haven’t left the state of Texas yet this season. If the Golden Knights can limit the Cougars’ second-chance points, they can keep this close. UCF

Sunday

Drake -1 at Indiana State: Since pulling away late in an 80-70 season-opening win over Kansas State, the 8-0 Bulldogs have seven straight blowout wins and look like a serious contender in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Drake is a very efficient shooting team that could have its way with a subpar Sycamores defense, and Indiana State has not been efficient on the offensive end. DRAKE

Monday

Mississippi Valley State at Western Kentucky -34: As noted above, there are now 357 Division I teams, and the Delta Devils just might be the worst of all of them.

They’re 355th in offensive efficiency and dead last on defense, according to KenPom’s numbers.

Mississippi Valley State has traveled to six different states for their seven losses. But the Delta Devils’ closest game was a 96-69 loss to the Hilltoppers on Dec. 6, one of two games in which they’ve covered the spread — they were getting 42.5.

The Delta Devils will enter Monday’s rematch having played just once in 18 days. Maybe the rest will help. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

Last week: 3-0

Season: 11-0-2

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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