O26 Weekly Awards: Toledo, Jerrelle Benimon, UTEP & Chicago State…Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 22nd, 2014
The rigors of conference play began taking its toll last week as several O26 league favorites discovered just how hard conference road games can be. Some teams dealt with these hurdles better than others, the results of which ranged anywhere from surprising upsets to crazy comebacks to clutch shots. Let’s pass out a few awards to the performers who handled themselves best during the O26 week that was.
O26 Team of the Week
Toledo. First it was the expected-but-still-disappointing loss to Kansas followed by a forgettable defeat at Western Michigan, and all of a sudden the Rockets — once unbeaten and the talk of the mid-major world — were in serious jeopardy of losing their groove. Some teams might have become deflated, lost confidence and continued to slide, but not Toledo. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk remained calm after falling to the Broncos, noting “We didn’t play well in two games all year. This is one of two… we’ll be fine.” His team has responded in similar fashion, handling Central Michigan with ease two Saturdays ago before collecting a pair huge wins this past week to remain the MAC West kings. First was a home contest against surging Buffalo, a squad on a four-game winning streak that looked poised to make it five in a row. The Bulls jumped out to a quick lead in the opening minutes that it wouldn’t hand over until midway through the second half, even then not backing down from the Rockets. A big reason for that was because Javon McCrea was his usual beastly self, finishing with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and enabling his team to keep pace and ultimately knot things up at 59 with a minute and a half to play. But just when the game appeared to be headed for overtime, Toledo point guard Julius “Juice” Brown made the magic happen, capping off an eight-point, 90 second stretch by receiving the second pass off a full-court inbounds play, hoisting from just inside the arc, and nailing a buzzer-beater to win the game, 67-65. It was one of the most exciting finishes you will see all season and an emphatic completion to an important win for the Rockets.
Despite the mid-week heroics, though, it was Saturday morning’s match-up at Akron that was supposed to provide the drama, with two teams pegged to win their respective divisions in the preseason and each featuring first-team all-conference talent. But as the game wore on, it became more evident that this was not going to be the hotly contested battle many thought — Toledo thoroughly and resolutely outplayed the Zips for much of the 40 minutes, pounding them on both ends of the glass and putting the game completely out of reach midway through the second half. Brown finished with his second straight 20+ point outing, while former Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon — who has emerged as a vital paint presence in recent games — scored 20 points and secured a game-high 14 rebounds. The win was something of a statement for the Rockets, an assertion of dominance over a club predicted by many to win the league and return to the NCAA Tournament this season. Now 15-2, Kowalczyk’s group has regained its status as one of the more dangerous non-power conference teams in America, a position it hopes to maintain through MAC play and into the postseason. The wins over Buffalo and Akron were key steps on that path and important demonstrations of resiliency, earning Toledo our award for Team of the Week.
Honorable Mentions: George Washington (2-0: vs. VCU, @St. Bonaventure); Towson (2-0: @Drexel, @College of Charleston); UTEP (2-0: @Middle Tennessee State, @UAB).
O26 Player of the Week
Jerrelle Benimon – Towson. Everyone assumed Benimon was going to put up big numbers this season, and he certainly didn’t disappoint in the first two months — I mean, the guy had 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. But the preseason CAA Player of the Year was often not getting the support he needed from teammates in non-conference play, at times forcing him to shoulder more of the load than head coach Pat Skerry probably would have liked. And the team was turning the ball over way too often, Benimon included. In recent games, though, the Tigers’ complementary parts have stepped up and Benimon’s already-tremendous numbers have become even more impactful on the results. Take Tuesday night at Drexel, where he turned in one of the more complete outings you will see all year, pouring in 27 points on an efficient 10-of-14 from the field, ripping down 13 rebounds and leading the team with seven assists. The Dragons, known for their stingy defense, could not faze the dominant Benimon as he controlled the game from all areas of the floor en route to a 12-point victory. Then, on Sunday at always-difficult College of Charleston, the 6’8’’ forward delivered an encore performance — a winning performance — to the tune of 21 points, 11 rebounds and just three turnovers — a great sign for a team with the third-worst turnover percentage in the country. Towson has now won five straight games and Benimon has amassed a ridiculous nine straight double-doubles. Skerry’s team appears back on track to compete for the conference title, with Benimon’s continued excellence being the main reason why.
Honorable Mentions: Julius Brown – Toledo (20 points, six assists vs. Buffalo… 25 points @Akron); Alec Brown – Green Bay (24 points @Wright State… 23 points @UIC… combined 17-of-22 shooting); Ousmane Drame – Quinnipiac (15 points, 21 rebounds, seven blocks vs. Monmouth… 14 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks vs. Niagara).
O26 Coach of the Week
Tim Floyd – UTEP. It was supposed to be a banner season for the Miners, with the combination of talented players and a softer, Memphis-less Conference USA making Floyd’s third year in El Paso his best shot yet at reaching the NCAA Tournament. And even after suffering a slew of losses in non-conference play, the prospect of UTEP competing for a league title in the second half of the year still seemed very much alive. Then the bad news hit: On January 7, schools officials announced that three players, including leading scorer McKenzie Moore had been kicked off the team for gambling on sporting events. “I’m crushed personally that this is happening,” Floyd said. Two nights later, his club lost its first C-USA game of the season at home against Charlotte. Things were certainly unraveling fast. So when this past week rolled around with road games at Middle Tennessee State and UAB on the docket, the idea of the Miners mustering a win, much less two, seemed doubtful at best. But after various roster adjustments by Floyd and surprising contributions from former role players like C.J. Cooper and freshman Vince Hunter, that’s exactly what they did. UTEP managed to hold its opponents to under one point per possession in both games and generate just enough offense — 63 points in each — to walk away with a pair of impressive victories and improve to 3-1 in the league. In the face of devastating news and with a shorthanded squad, Floyd deserves an enormous amount of credit for the turnaround. There’s still a pulse in southwest Texas.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Lonergan – George Washington; Monte Ross – Delaware; Pat Skerry – Towson; Donnie Tyndall – Southern Mississippi.
O26 Upset of the Week
Chicago State over New Mexico State, 86-81. New Mexico State lost twice last week and both games were obvious contenders here, but we’ll go with the first of the two for our Upset of the Week. Chicago State came in ranked #280 in KenPom — having already suffered five defeats of 20-points or more — and entered the contest with less than a 17 percent chance of winning this game, even at home. Sure the Aggies were still without Sim Bhullar (the tallest player in D-I hoops), but plenty of superior talent remained on the court for the heavy WAC favorites. Truly, no one could have seen this coming, especially when they grabbed a slight lead inside of three minutes and the inevitable better-team-pulls-away moment seemed destined to take hold. Remember — this was the 58th ranked team facing the 280th. But the Cougars were unwilling to let the rare moment of relevance slip away, and after Quinton Pippen nailed a three-pointer to put them ahead with 1:25 on the clock, they sank several clutch free throws in the closing seconds to put away the larger, vastly more talented Aggies. The final score was 86-81, an outcome that perhaps appears less shocking after New Mexico State lost again to UMKC over the weekend. But consider this: Chicago State turned right around and got hammered by 23 points at home on Saturday night against a 5-14 UT Pan American squad with one of the worst offenses in the entire country. Now that’s WAC.
Honorable Mentions: Fairfield over Manhattan (71-67); UMKC over New Mexico State (68-66).