O26 Weekly Awards: SMC, D.J. Balentine, Kyle Smith, Incarnate Word…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 16th, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.

Saint Mary's pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.

Honorable Mentions: Wichita State (2-0: vs. Seton Hall, at Detroit); Colorado State (2-0: at Colorado, vs. Arkansas Fort Smith); Gonzaga (2-0: vs. Washington State, at UCLA); South Dakota State (2-0: at Saint Louis, vs. Idaho)

O26 Player of the Week

Evansville's D.J. Balentine is our O26 Player of the Week. (Evansville Courier & Press)

Evansville’s D.J. Balentine is our O26 Player of the Week. (Evansville Courier & Press)

D.J. Balentine – Evansville. Evansville split games against the Ohio Valley’s two best teams last week, beating Belmont in Nashville on Tuesday and narrowly falling at home to Murray State on Saturday. So while the Aces’ week was merely ‘good’ – the Belmont win was impressive, the loss to Murray State an opportunity lost – Balentine was something closer to ‘great.’ Against the Bruins, the junior guard scored 25 of his team’s 65 points (including a few Kobe-esque step-back jumpers), helping his team surge back to win after trailing by three possessions at halftime. Over the weekend, he poured in a season-high 31 points – the seventh time in his career he’s eclipsed 30 – and made four huge free throws to tie things up at 79 in the game’s closing seconds. The Racers ended up winning, but Balentine – who shot 13-of-15 from the charity stripe – did not make it easy. If Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are the Missouri Valley’s two best guards, Balentine (21.7 PPG) can’t be too far behind.

Honorable Mentions: Kyle Wiltjer – Gonzaga (21 points vs. Washington State… 24 points at UCLA); Cam Payne – Murray State (32 points, eight assists at Evansville); Gabas Maldunas – Dartmouth (13 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks at UMass-Lowell; 27 points, 10 rebounds vs. Jacksonville State); Jerome Hill – Gardner-Webb (28 points, 19 rebounds vs. Furman)

O26 Coach of the Week

Kyle Smith's coaching prowess was on display in Lexington. (Columbia Athletics)

Kyle Smith’s coaching prowess was on display in Lexington. (Columbia Athletics)

Kyle Smith – Columbia. Columbia did not care that it was in Rupp Arena, playing the top-ranked Wildcats and facing impossibly long odds on Wednesday night. Smith’s team jumped out to an 11-0 lead and remained committed to slowing things down offensively and limiting Kentucky’s transition opportunities. The Lions came in running the fourth-slowest offense in the country – averaging a grueling 22 seconds per possession – and were unwavering in their game plan, limiting the first half to just 25 possessions and carrying a two-point lead into the locker room. Kentucky ended up pulling away in the second half, but it took more than 30 minutes before its lead was greater than two possessions. And if Columbia’s threes had kept falling the way they did early on, it may have taken even longer. Despite playing without Alex Rosenberg – the Lions’ best player, who is sitting out 2014-15 because of injury – Smith had his team fully prepared to give the nation’s best, biggest and most talented unit everything it could handle in Lexington. As a result, the 45 year-old head man is our Coach of the Week.

Honorable Mentions: Zach Spiker – Army; Jim Hayford – Eastern Washington; Billy Donlon – Wright State

O26 Upset of the Week

Incarnate Word shocked the Huskers on Wednesday. (ESPN.com)

Incarnate Word shocked the Huskers on Wednesday. (ESPN.com)

Incarnate Word over Nebraska, 74-73. The only reason Providence and Michigan (again) are spared an appearance on our Upset of the Week is because Incarnate Word – playing just its second Division I opponent of the season, in only its second year at the Division I level – overcame long odds (11.1% chance, according to KenPom) and shocked the Huskers in Lincoln. Ken Burmeister’s group hung around all night long on Wednesday, never allowing Nebraska more than a 10-point lead and whittling a late seven-point deficit down to just one with seven seconds to play. That’s when Kyle Hittle (18 points) became a hero, nailing a heavily contested, fall-away baseline jumper to put the Cardinals up in the game’s closing moments – an impossible shot, according to his coach. “It looked to me like it was over the backboard, and he got hit pretty good,” Burmeister said afterwards. “When the ball went in, that was happy. That was happiness.” Only five players scored on the night, but all reached double figures, a balanced effort that enabled not-yet-NCAA-Tournament-eligible Incarnate Word to upset the NCAA Tournament-caliber Huskers.

Honorable Mentions: Brown over Providence, 77-67; Eastern Michigan over Michigan, 45-42; Wofford over North Carolina State, 55-54; Western Kentucky over Ole Miss, 81-74 

O26 Finish of the Week

Wofford over North Carolina State, 55-54. Not only was the Wolfpack stunned by Wofford after leading for most of the night, but its fans felt double the disappointment when Trevor Lacey’s apparent buzzer-beater – a runner that would have won the game for NC State – was waved off.

Honorable Mentions: Southeast Missouri State over Southern Illinois, 55-54

O26 Ankle-Breaker of the Week

South Dakota’s Tyler Larson makes Creighton dude look silly. The Coyotes were unconscious in Omaha late Tuesday night and nearly upset the Bluejays before falling in double-overtime. Still, Tyler Larson’s shot at the end of regulation was flat-out filthy. Just look at that Creighton defender…

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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