O26 Weekly Awards: Wyoming, Billy Baron, Brian Wardle & George Mason…Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014
We are officially less than one month from Selection Sunday (hooray!), so standout performances (and dreadful upsets) are now more impactful than ever on conference races and NCAA Tournament aspirations. Let’s pass out some awards to the best of the best from the O26 last week.
O26 Team of the Week
Wyoming. The Pokes began the week with their biggest home win since joining the Mountain West in 1999, and ended it with their greatest defensive effort in that same span. On Tuesday night, Wyoming notched its first victory over a top-five team in Arena Auditorium in 16 years by defeating San Diego State, 68-82, to end the Aztecs’ 20-game winning streak and prompt a well-deserved rushing of the court. Not only did the Cowboys out-shoot, out-defend and out-energize Steve Fisher’s club, but they did so with style, eschewing open jumps shots (their offense is predicated on burning the shot clock and finding the best look possible) in favor of wide open dunks, time after time down the floor. At one point, as they opened up a double-figure lead midway through the second half, the team was exuding such high-flying swagger and cool confidence that it became hard to tell if you were watching this year’s Wyoming club or last year’s Florida Gulf Coast. And when SDSU made a late charge to pull within four at the under-one minute mark, in a moment where it seemed the league powerhouse was going to exert its will, Nathan Sobey went ahead and threw down a transition slam — what else? — to bury the Aztecs for good. The last time Wyoming knocked off a team that highly ranked, the year was 1998, the opponent was Rick Majerus-led Utah, and the Cowboys’ head coach was… Larry Shyatt. The first time around.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Wyoming’s week, though, was not actually the upset itself, but the way the team responded after experiencing such an emotional high. Four days removed from taking down the cream of the conference in front of their raucous home crowd, the Cowboys traveled to San Jose State to play a dismal Spartans squad without a Mountain West victory yet this season. It was the type of match-up that had all the makings for a letdown, at least in terms of effort, simply because it’s hard to generate that same kind of intensity in back-to-back games, especially on the road against a feeble opponent. But not so. Instead, Shyatt’s team played such dominant defense from the opening tip to the final buzzer that the veteran coach was left downright astonished by game’s end. After Wyoming held SJSU to nine — that’s right, nine — total points after halftime, Shyatt remarked, “In 40 years of coaching, I’ve never been part of a team that played harder or smarter on the defensive end in the second half.” All told, the Pokes allowed SJSU just 38 points on the night — the fewest the program has ever given up in conference play — and surrendered a minuscule 0.69 points per possession. Offensively, Riley Grabau had his second straight big game, scoring 18 points, including four threes, to go along with nine rebounds. Now 7-5 in the conference and 16-9 overall, Wyoming suddenly looks like a group to be taken seriously in next month’s Mountain West Tournament. Aztecs and Lobos beware.
Honorable Mentions: Green Bay (2-0: @Youngstown State, @Cleveland State); Middle Tennessee State (2-0: vs. Tulane, vs. Southern Miss); Eastern Michigan (2-0: @Ball State, vs. Toledo).
O26 Player of the Week
Billy Baron – Canisius. This is Baron’s second time receiving our award this season, and it might not be his last. The guy is in contention just about every single week. So what did he do this time around that was so darn special, considering he puts up monster numbers with such regularity? Well, his numbers were even more monstrous, and his stellar play enabled his team to stage two comeback victories over the weekend. On Friday night at Buffalo-area rival Niagara, Baron overcame a bit of hard physical contact from the Purples Eagles (his face was bloodied in their first meeting last month) to rack up 34 points, six rebounds and five assists as Canisius made a second-half push to come back and win. Even after missing some free throws earlier in the contest — a rarity, for him — Baron demanded the ball in the closing minute and sealed the game with six straight makes from the stripe. Two days later, at Siena, the Griffins again found themselves facing a second-half deficit, and again, Baron was enormous down the stretch. The senior poured in a career-high 40 points, including 18-of-19 from the line, along with 10 rebounds and five assists. Nine of those points came in the third overtime period, and all of them were necessary in producing the final outcome, a 92-88 Canisius victory. On the week, Baron averaged an absurd 37.5 points, eight boards and five dimes per game. Award-worthy numbers, no doubt.
Honorable Mentions: Taylor Braun – North Dakota State (19 points @Western Illinois… 31 points, 15 rebounds, five assists @Nebraska-Omaha); Tyler Harvey – Eastern Washington (16 points vs. Sacramento State… 37 points, seven rebounds vs. Northern Arizona); D.J. Balentine (38 points, six rebounds, five assists vs. Illinois State…19 points, four assists vs. Wichita State).
O26 Coach of the Week
Brian Wardle – Green Bay. This time last week, Green Bay appeared to be struggling. The team had just been thoroughly beaten at home by a solid-but-inferior Milwaukee bunch, and star center Alec Brown seemed not himself since returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him against Valparaiso a couple weeks earlier. Moreover, the metrics showed the Phoenix to be slipping on both ends of the court. Confidence might have also been slipping, not that any measurement would prove it. So credit Wardle, then, for the sharp turnaround that came next: Thursday night at Youngstown State, Green Bay responded to the loss by absolutely manhandling the Penguins by a whopping 31-point margin. Wardle’s club held preseason Horizon League Player of the Year Kendrick Perry to just 10 points — one of only two players to reach double-figures — and didn’t allow YSU many second chance looks at the basket. Brown, meanwhile, was back to his excellent self, scoring 24 points on 10-fof-14 shooting and swatting three shots. The 71-40 final was a categorical beat-down, by any metric.
Saturday, though, was the big test, on the road at surging Cleveland State. Although the Vikings were without leading-scorer Bryn Forbes, Green Bay still came in as a slight underdog at the Wolstein Center. The game was huge, the stakes were high… and whatever Wardle said to his guys beforehand worked incredibly well. The Phoenix smacked Cleveland State right out of the tunnel, jumping to a 16-2 lead in the opening seven minutes and never allowing the Vikings to get within 11 points the rest of the way. It was the definition of a wire-to-wire thrashing, putting to rest questions about Green Bay’s confidence, Brown’s health, and whether Wardle’s team is the best in the league — it most definitely is. The coach deserves a nod for re-energizing and refocusing his talented bunch as it heads into the final month of the season.
Honorable Mentions: Larry Shyatt – Wyoming; Kermit Davis – Middle Tennessee State; Rob Murphy – Eastern Michigan.
O26 Upset of the Week
George Mason over UMass, 91-80. What happened here? The Minutemen hadn’t lost at home all season and looked to be once again rolling after a bumpy start to February. The Patriots, on the other hand, came in at 1-8 in conference play with just a single victory over a KenPom top-100 team in 2013-14. Sure, George Mason had been on the wrong end of some close losses in recent weeks — it hasn’t exactly been the luckiest of squads — but that still doesn’t account for what took place on Wednesday night in Amherst. And frankly, maybe it’s not even worth trying to figure out. As much sense as it would make to analyze the defeat and drum up a narrative — like, “why Wednesday’s upset to Mason portends trouble for the Minutemen…” — maybe it’s better to just chalk it up to an off night, and leave it at that. Because after suffering from poor three-point shooting (7-of-25) and sub-par defense against the A-10’s last place club, UMass turned right around on Saturday and beat George Washington in D.C. to grab its 20th win of the season and regain its mojo. As for the forgettable upset earlier in the week that flew in the face of Mullins Magic and an 89 percent win probability? Perhaps head coach Derek Kellogg put it best: “We got beat tonight and that’s pretty much it.”
Honorable Mentions: Wyoming over San Diego State (68-62); Florida Atlantic over UTEP (71-69); Troy over Georgia State (85-81).