This is the latest installment of a weekly series looking at the college-basketball scene in Michigan.
It's been the standard line for college-basketball coaches for a long time, and one I've heard repeated by new fewer than four local coaches this week. The holiday break comes at the "perfect time," especially for those teams dealing with injuries.
Michigan's seven men's Division I programs are enjoying an extended break right now, with no games from Saturday through Tuesday. And when things get rolling again later this week, most teams will be jumping into conference play -- while, after the New Year, Michigan and Michigan State will be jumping back into conference play.
So, now seems like the perfect time to take a quick glance at the state of each program with the action about to heat up.
MICHIGAN STATE (12-1)
Observations: This, obviously, is one of Tom Izzo's better teams -- but it's not exactly started like a typical Tom Izzo team. The Spartans often show their warts early and get better as the season goes along, but this team has been mighty impressive in the early going, particularly in blowout wins over highly-ranked North Carolina and Notre Dame teams. They're easily the cream of the crop in what's going to be a better Big Ten Conference than most expected, thanks to the return of Miles Bridges and the arrival of Jaren Jackson Jr. Known for defense throughout Izzo's career, this team's defense might be his best yet. They're length is so impressive, they're darn near impossible to score on in the paint. It'd be stunning if they don't earn a No. 1 seed and start the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena. If Izzo is going to get that elusive second national championship, this might be his last, best shot.
Best wins: North Carolina, 63-43; Notre Dame, 81-63
Worst loss: Duke, 88-81 (it's the only loss)
Observations: The Wolverines have been a bubble NCAA Tournament team quite a bit in recent years, but that shouldn't be the case this year. The team is better than expected, with quality early wins over VCU, UCLA and Texas, thanks to the arrival of Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and the continued development of Moritz Wagner. (Sidebar: How likable is Mo Wagner? In a poll, he might finish second, behind only Santa Claus, and even then, just barely.) Wagner's ankle injury is a bit of a concern, keeping him out of the last two games. But it doesn't sound overly serious, and he should be back when Michigan restarts Big Ten play Jan. 2 at Iowa. Zavier Simpson finally is starting to make his mark, and Jon Teske is showing promise. They could use more from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, however. Defensively, this is an impressive team, holding seven foes to 60 points or less, including VCU, Texas and Detroit Mercy.
Best win: UCLA, 78-69 (OT)
Worst loss: Ohio State, 71-62
Observations: Expectations coming into the season were sky high for this mid-major, and Greg Kampe did nothing to temper them, calling this perhaps his most-talented team in 30-plus years. And he's had some good ones. With so much veteran talent, it's a dangerous team, as Michigan State learned, again, last weekend at Little Caesars Arena, before pulling out another narrow victory in what's become a riveting rivalry. There always were going to be early losses, with Kampe scheduling Syracuse, Kansas and Michigan State. But Oakland wasn't at all competitive in the first two games, because of a series of injuries to several key players, most notably Kendrick Nunn, who was diagnosed with ankle tendinitis that will have him playing in pain for at least another three weeks. Still, they're starting to get healthy, beating good Towson and EMU teams before the break, and are heavy favorites in a very-down Horizon League.
Best win: Western Michigan, 78-73
Worst loss: Toledo, 87-74
CENTRAL MICHIGAN (10-2)
Observations: The Chippewas were picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division, and that makes sense, given they were losing Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson, who averaged a combined 51.2 points a game last season (CMU, as a team, averaged 88.3). But a crazy thing has happened -- the Chippewas found out they have much more balance and depth, led by transfer Shawn Roundtree, Cecil Williams and David DiLeo. As many as eight guys could score in double figures any given night, compared to the two-man show a year ago. Most notably, though, CMU's defense has been much improved, allowing 64.8 points a game, compared to 87.7 a year ago. That's unbelievable. Coach Keno Davis said his team has won consistently with defense this year; he's not sure they won once with defense a year ago. Conference play will tell the story here, though. The nonleague scheduling wasn't great, outside of Michigan, which CMU played tough.
Best win: Tennessee Tech, 74-69
Worst loss: Southern Utah, 86-80
WESTERN MICHIGAN (7-5)
Observations: While Central was picked last in the MAC West, Western was picked to finish first. The Broncos still have to be considered the favorite, given they have one of the best players in the state in Thomas Wilder, who's averaging 18.9 points after briefly flirting with the NBA earlier this year. The MAC is no joke this year, though, especially among the teams from the state of Michigan. Consider this little factoid, courtesy of coach Steve Hawkins: Four teams in the country have every team over .500 entering Christmas Day -- the AAC, Big 12, Big East ... and the MAC. Western is coming off a darn fine win at Milwaukee, but has had some stinker losses, too. Injuries haven't helped. Their 7-footer, Seth Dugan, has been out most of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg, but should be returning for the start of conference play. Brandon Johnson also has a badly sprained ankle. There's that break, coming at the right time.
Best win: Saint Louis, 65-61
Worst loss: Idaho, 82-52
EASTERN MICHIGAN (8-3)
Observations: This could be a big year for seventh-year coach Rob Murphy, who's had some talented squads in his tenure but hasn't quite gotten over the hump. With a new athletic director and two years left on a contract -- a deal that adds a year automatically every time he wins 20 games and/or qualifies for the postseason -- he could be feeling the heat if this team doesn't win the MAC and get the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. The talent is there, led by James Thompson IV (17.7 points, 12.4 rebounds), a legit star, and Elijah Minnie (18 ppg), Paul Jackson (17.0) and Tim Bond (10.4). The depth isn't great, but the front-line is impressive, as evidenced by a win over Oakland in Ypsilanti and a near-amazing comeback over Oakland in Rochester, where the Golden Grizzlies held on for dear life at the end. A big test is coming Wednesday, when Eastern Michigan visits Syracuse, before it starts MAC play after the New Year.
Best win: Oakland, 95-89
Worst loss: North Florida, 84-81
DETROIT MERCY (4-9)
Observations: Athletic director Robert Vowels didn't mince words in two separate conversations with The News this year. He expected marked improvement from Bacari Alexander's first year (8-23), with a .500 record the low-bar mark. It'll take quite a turnaround to get these Titans to .500, as they entered the holiday break on a seven-game losing streak. That's flat-out embarrassing for a team that never was going to seriously challenge for the Horizon League regular-season title, but still has far too much talent -- Jermaine Jackson Jr., Kam Chatman, Corey Allen, Jaleel Hogan, Josh McFolley -- to be reeling as it is. Detroit Mercy thought getting Hogan academically eligible would be a huge boon, but he was behind the eight-ball from a training perspective and still is out of shape, and only is averaging 15.6 minutes. Add to the struggles the Alexander suspension saga, and things are understandably quite tense in the walls of Calihan Hall these days.
Best win: Saint Louis, 72-70
Worst loss: Seattle, 102-71
THIS AND THAT
* Ferris State’s men gave Michigan State all it could handle in a preseason exhibition, and turns out that was no fluke. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 5 in Division II, are 13-1, their lone loss to Lake Superior State, 79-74, last week. Lake Superior State (11-1) is ranked No. 18.
* Few folks are more excited for conference play than Detroit Mercy women's third-year coach Bernard Scott. It's an opportunity to turn the page, and start from scratch. The Titans were 0-11 in nonleague play -- and even lost an exhibition game to Lawrence Tech.
* Big game coming up for Michigan Tech women's basketball (11-1), ranked No. 15 in the latest Division II poll. The Huskies host top-ranked Ashland (12-0) on Jan. 4.
* Oakland’s women won a pair of games in Las Vegas, and Jeff Tungate only lost $80. That's a wildly successful trip to The Strip, coach.
* Western Michigan women's coach Shane Clipfell won his 100th game, when the Broncos routed Goshen College, 87-36, on Tuesday.
STATE POWER RANKINGS
1. Michigan State, 12-1 (last week: 1)
2. Michigan, 11-3 (2)
3. Oakland, 8-5 (5)
4. Central Michigan, 10-2 (3)
5. Western Michigan, 7-5 (6)
6. Eastern Michigan, 8-3 (4)
7. Detroit Mercy, 4-9 (7)
1. Michigan, 11-2 (1)
2. Michigan State, 10-3 (3)
3. Central Michigan, 8-3 (2)
4. Oakland, 7-4 (6)
5. Western Michigan, 7-5 (4)
6. Eastern Michigan, 4-7 (5)
7. Detroit Mercy, 0-11 (7)
* Men's RPI rankings: Michigan State 7, Michigan 36, Oakland 87, CMU 109, EMU 161, WMU 170, Detroit Mercy 246.
* Men's KenPom rankings: Michigan State 2, Michigan 33, Oakland 106, EMU 150, WMU 174, CMU 180, Detroit Mercy 306.
* Men's Sagarin rankings: Michigan State 2, Michigan 26, Oakland 110, EMU 151, CMU 167, WMU 171, Detroit Mercy 283.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
* Charles Matthews, Michigan, Jr., G: It was an emotional week for the transfer from Kentucky, attending his grandmother's visitation last weekend before hopping on a plane to join the Wolverines just before tip-off against Detroit Mercy at Little Caesars Arena. He barely warmed up, but heated up quickly in-game, finishing with 20 points in the 90-58 rout. Then, this week -- granted against a super-soft opponent in Alabama A&M -- he scored a career-high 31 on 12-for-15 shooting in the 97-47 victory. With each passing day, Matthews is looking like the impact player the Wolverines were searching for after Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin graduated after last season. Now, if he could just get those free throws figured out (32-for-61).
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
* Sidney Crooks, Michigan State, F: One of the most-prized recruits in Suzy Merchant's successful tenure with the Spartans, Crooks had a big game in Michigan State's 83-64 win over Mississippi Valley State in New Orleans, with 12 points, three blocks and five rebounds -- and all in just 19 minutes. The 6-foot-4 forward, who was the prep player of the year in Wisconsin last year, also had eight points in Michigan State's earlier win in New Orleans, 83-73 over No. 22 USF. MSU has won five straight, after getting through the meat of its schedule (No. 1 UConn, No. 2 Notre Dame).
STAT OF THE WEEK
* Bacari Alexander hasn't won a game this season. Not even an exhibition game. After losing to Wayne State (again) in preseason, then Virginia Tech in the regular season opener, Alexander was suspended for a reported verbal altercation with a player. He ended up missing seven games, during which interim coach Jermaine Jackson compiled a 4-3 record, with a decent victory over St. Louis. The Titans now have lost seven consecutive games, including five since Alexander returned from his in-house punishment. Given the behavior and the losses, that seat's gotten hot in a hurry.
TOP GAMES OF THE WEEK
* Wednesday: Men, Eastern Michigan at Syracuse, 7
* Thursday: Men, Oakland at Milwaukee, 8
* Saturday: Men, Detroit Mercy at Milwaukee, 7
* Dec. 31: Women, Michigan at Iowa, 4
* Dec. 31: Women, Rutgers at Michigan State, 4