O26 Weekly Awards: New Mexico, Jeremy Ingram, Donnie Tyndall & ECU…Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 26th, 2014
Think about it, folks: this time next week, it will be March. Let that sink in for a minute… Now let’s take a step back and give some recognition to several of last week’s top performers and performances.
O26 Team of the Week
New Mexico. If the Lobos made one thing abundantly clear last week, it’s this: They are every bit the team we thought they were back in the preseason (they are who we thought they were!). While San Diego State has captured the lofty rankings and national media attention for much of 2013-14, New Mexico — once favorites to win the Mountain West — has lurked under the radar for the better part of three months, amassing plenty of wins but not many headlines. But after a pair of statement victories in a four-night span, over two of its biggest rivals? That all changed in a hurry.
Entering last Wednesday’s game at UNLV, head coach Craig Neal was confronted with the challenge of having to focus his team on the task at hand without looking ahead to Saturday’s enormous tilt against San Diego State. Not necessarily an easy task, but an especially important one considering that the Runnin’ Rebels had more or less handled New Mexico in its own gym just one month earlier. Lucky for Neal, he never had to worry much at the Thomas & Mack Center — his senior point guard Kendall Williams took any possible questions about “focus” and immediately extinguished them with a flurry points. Williams nailed a three in the first minute of the contest to give the Lobos an early lead, then helped his team maintain that advantage for the remainder of the night by notching 29 points — including 17 in the first half — along with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. The outcome was never in question, and what made the 68-56 final even more impressive was the fact that New Mexico, not especially known for its defense, held UNLV to a paltry 31.7 percent from the field. Now the Lobos could look ahead.
And why not? With the Aztecs visiting the Pit on Saturday night, the stage was set for an enormous match-up — New Mexico with the chance to pull even atop the Mountain West standings; San Diego State with the chance to put a stranglehold on the conference — and not even Neal was about to downplay its importance. “My guys will be ready. My guys will be focused. My guys have been waiting for it,” the coach said bluntly after Wednesday’s game. And boy, were they ever. With former head man Fran Fraschilla in the house calling the game for ESPN2, the Lobos simply dominated the sixth-ranked Aztecs for much of 40 minutes, pounding the rock inside to Cameron Bairstow — who Fraschilla continuously touted as one of, if not the most-improved players in the country — and limiting Steve Fisher’s club to a season-low 0.75 points per possession. The Aussie big man finished the game with 26 points and eight boards, while San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, likely Bairstow’s main competition for Mountain West Player of the Year, shot 3-of-15 from the field and scored just seven points. The win was a huge one, not only evening the league race and catapulting New Mexico back into the AP Top 25, but likely improving its eventual seed line on Selection Sunday. Another performance like that on March 8 in San Diego, and the Lobos might very well end this regular season like they did the last: as Mountain West champs… Right where we thought they’d be.
Honorable Mentions: Boise State (2-0: @Colorado State, vs. UNLV); San Diego (2-0: vs. Portland, vs. Gonzaga); Western Michigan (2-0: @Ohio, vs. Eastern Michigan).
O26 Player of the Week
Jeremy Ingram – North Carolina Central. It’s time to give North Carolina Central, and specifically its best player, some serious love. The Eagles are an impressive 21-5 — which is no joke, considering some of their non-conference opponents — and the 6’3’’ Ingram is a huge reason why. He’s been a scoring machine this season, averaging 19.9 points per contest and delivering several monumental individual performances that have enabled his team to remain competitive against really good competition. The guard dropped 36 in a victory over Appalachian State back in November. He nailed seven threes and finished with 37 in a non-blowout loss to Wichita State in December. Oh, and on the road at North Carolina State, just before Thanksgiving? Ingram scored 29 points, including 19-of-21 from the free throw line, as NCCU shocked the Wolfpack by 10 in Raleigh. And then this past week, with his team on an 11-game winning streak and looking to stay hot on the road — never an easy task this late in the season — the senior again took over offensively, scoring 38 points at Savannah State on Monday and 30 at North Carolina A&T on Saturday. All told, Ingram played nearly the entirety of the two games (78 out of 80 minutes), reached the charity stripe a combined 32 times, and knocked down 27 of his attempts. Most importantly, the Eagles won both contests. One among a slew of upperclassmen who make up the fourth-most experienced club in the nation, Ingram is a big reason why NCCU looks like the next MEAC bunch poised to shock the world in March.
Honorable Mentions: Javon McCrea – Buffalo (20 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists vs. Akron… 31 points, 11 rebounds @Kent State); Mikh McKinney – Sacramento State (19 points, six assists vs. North Dakota… 29 points, 11 rebounds, six assists vs. Northern Colorado); Ousmane Drame – Quinnipiac (14 points, 13 rebounds @Canisius… 26 points, 18 rebounds @Niagara).
O26 Coach of the Week
Donnie Tyndall – Southern Miss. Tyndall’s Golden Eagles had dropped two of their previous three games, looked overmatched at home against UTEP, were facing a considerable halftime deficit, and were without their best… and second-best… and third-best players because of injuries and foul trouble. It looked ominous on Saturday night, and perhaps beyond. And then things suddenly turned. In a game dubbed ‘The Showdown in Tyndalltown,’ the namesake head coach dialed up his defensive pressure early in the second half against the Miners, forcing a swell of turnovers and enabling his team to climb back quickly. And once the crowd at Reed Green Coliseum turned up the volume, there was no turning it down as Southern Miss grabbed hold of the lead at around the 12-minute mark and never let go. The most impressive part, however, might not have been that the Golden Eagles won, but that without Michael Craig, Daveon Boardingham and Neil Watson for large chunks of the contest, Tyndall managed to cobble together a lineup good enough to survive and thrive. He squeezed the most out of his guys, like Aaron Brown and Matt Bingaya, who entered the night averaging under 13 points between them but went off for 24 and 21, respectively — both career highs. Throw in the fact that Tyndall is recently on record as saying that, unlike last season, he will lobby for his club to make the NCAA Tournament if they’re in at-large contention, and the second-year head man has done enough to earn our award for Coach of the Week.
Honorable Mentions: Rex Walters – San Francisco; Bill Grier – San Diego; Archie Miller – Dayton.
O26 Upset of the Week
Louisiana Tech over East Carolina, 75-68. Is anyone interested in winning the Conference USA championship (Tyndall’s bunch, included)? Because it certainly doesn’t look like it. A week after UTEP suffered an inexplicable home loss to Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss got drubbed twice on the road, Louisiana Tech — in great position to win the league — went ahead and dropped one at East Carolina last Thursday night. And convincingly so: The Pirates never once trailed over the game’s final 33 minutes. Entering the contest with an 81.2 percent win probability, the Bulldogs’ usually-stingy defense ended up being a liability, allowing their three-happy opponent 1.15 points per possession. Worst of all for Michael White’s squad (aside from dropping in the conference standings), its once-promising at-large hopes probably went up in flames as a result of the 75-68 defeat. Middle Tennessee State might have been the biggest winners in the upset — now the outright C-USA leaders — but Tech will get the chance to regain control against the Blue Raiders this Thursday night in Ruston. I mean, someone has to eventually step up and win this league, right?
Honorable Mentions: San Diego over Gonzaga (69-66); Bucknell over Boston University (63-53); San Jose State over Nevada (66-64).