O26 Weekly Awards: Saint Louis, Billy Baron, David Carter & PortlandPosted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2014
Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.
O26 Team of the Week
Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.
It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.
Honorable Mentions: Nevada (2-0: @UNLV, vs. Utah State); IPFW (2-0: vs. North Dakota State, vs. South Dakota State); Cal Poly (2-0: vs. Hawaii, @ UC Santa Barbara)
O26 Player of the Week
Billy Baron – Canisius. There might not be a player in the entire country more important to his team’s success than Baron. The 6’2’’ guard — son of head coach Jim Baron — leads the country in percentage of minutes played at 95 percent and ranks within the top 200 in percentage of shots and possessions used. But what makes him so impressive is the consistently high level of play he brings to the table amid all that usage, and this week was a glowing example. After scoring 27 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a tough loss to Marist on Monday, Baron put together one of the best individual performances of the year against Rider on Friday night, scoring a career-high 38 points (including 10 in the second overtime period), gathering seven rebounds, dishing out seven assists, and hitting his second buzzer-beater of the season. He made it sound so simple after the game: “When he gave it back to me I just let it go.” Yet there is nothing simple or easy about Baron’s game — he is versatile, efficient and largely unmatched in the MAAC — and he was able to follow his best performance of the season with another exemplary outing on Sunday against Monmouth, where he finished with 26 points, eight rebounds, six assists and zero turnovers. The ridiculous 189.0 offensive rating was his best of the season and the Griffins won by 20, moving them to 5-1 in conference play. To recap: In three games, Baron amassed 91 points, 22 rebounds, 17 assists and turned the ball over just four times. Those are Player of the Week numbers right there, folks.
Honorable Mentions: Tyler Haws – BYU (35 points vs. Pepperdine… 31 points vs. Loyola Marymount); Karvel Anderson – Robert Morris (36 points, 6-7 3FG @Sacred Heart… 32 points @Bryant); Ike Azotam – Quinnipiac (18 points, 15 rebounds vs. Iona… 17 points, 18 rebounds vs. Manhattan… 16 points, 14 rebounds @Saint Peter’s), Keifer Sykes – Green Bay (21 points, 9 assists @Chicago State… 34 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists @Milwaukee)
O26 Coach of the Week
David Carter – Nevada. The Mountain West did not give a warm welcome to Carter and his newcoming Wolf Pack last season: Nevada went 3-13 in the conference (including eight losses in a row to end the year) and finished with a record of 12-19 overall, Carter’s worst mark since becoming head coach in 2010. Things were beginning to look equally as precarious this season after his team suffered eight early non-conference defeats, including losses to Cal State Bakersfield, Morehead State, Nebraska-Omaha and Long Beach State. Needless to say, the outlook was bleak entering league play. So Carter, then, deserves a ton of credit for shaking off the losing, refocusing his players after the New Year — including dynamic guard Deonte Burton — and feeding off early MW wins over San Jose State and Wyoming. When Burton exploded for 29 points and the Wolf Pack upset UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday night, people began paying attention. A near-wire-to-wire victory over Utah State three nights later officially put the conference on notice — Carter and his players are poised to be a factor in the Mountain West this season. Instead of going further south, Nevada has instead turned the ship around and discovered newfound confidence over the last two weeks. That’s good work by its coach.
Honorable Mentions: Jim Crews – Saint Louis; Zach Spiker – Army; Tony Jasick – IPFW
O26 Upset of the Week
Portland over Gonzaga, 82-73. Gonzaga entered the game with a 78 percent win probability that proceeded to immediately and precipitously drop from the opening tip onward. Portland had not beaten the Zags since 2003 — a long streak of 20 games — and hadn’t won at home against the Zags since 1996, so when the Pilots gained the early advantage, they made sure to never let go. After the Bulldogs cut the deficit to four early in the second half, it looked as if the perennial kings of the WCC might take control and win their 23rd straight league contest, but Portland responded with a series of big shots by Thomas van der Mars and Alec Wintering to re-extend the lead and squash the comeback, at one point going up by as many as 16. Eric Reveno’s team never trailed in the game, thoroughly outperforming the one league opponent the coach had yet to beat in his seven-plus seasons at Portland. It was a heck of a way to end a streak:“I enjoy beating a good team, darn straight,” the coach said afterward —and enough to earn our award for O26 Upset of the Week.
Honorable Mentions: UT-San Antonio over Charlotte (85-77); Penn over Princeton (77-74); Florida A&M over North Carolina Central (63-60)