O26 Power 13: New Year, New Order, Same Teams on Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 4th, 2017

With 2017 now upon us and conference play ramping up, let’s take a step back and reexamine the best of the best across the O26.

1. Gonzaga (14-0) West Coast. Despite its cast of untested newcomers, chemistry and balance have not been an issue for Gonzaga this season. The Bulldogs have cruised to a 14-0 start behind a lineup whose top six scorers all average between 9.3 and 13.8 points per game. In fact, only two players—Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski—get more than 30 minutes per night, thanks largely to the effectiveness of bench players like Zach Collins (10.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Killian Tillie (4.6 PPG). Mark Few’s club has been equally excellent on both sides of the ball, ranking among the top 12 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That well-roundedness helped the Zags notch three neutral court victories over KenPom top-30 opponents, giving them a non-conference resume that should hold up very well in mid-March. A win or two over Saint Mary’s would only strengthen the cause. The Zags are once again a legitimate Final Four contender.

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary's opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary’s opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

2. Saint Mary’s (12-1) West Coast. Since its jarring, 14-point home loss to UT Arlington on December 8, Saint Mary’s has held five straight opponents under 0.90 points per possession. That’s a positive sign for a unit that has often struggled to win games when its offense goes cold. The Gaels—with victories at Dayton and Stanford—have also proven their ability to win on the road, which is not something they could claim last season (the NCAA Selection Committee took notice). With one of the nation’s elite point guards (Emmett Naar) and a center, Jock Landale, who currently ranks second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, it’s hard to imagine this team slipping much in WCC play. January 14, Saint Mary’s first tilt with Gonzaga in Spokane, can’t come soon enough.

3. Wichita State (12-3) – Missouri Valley. The Shockers’ 100-66 dismantling of Bradley on New Year’s Day perhaps best captures this team’s identity. Sixteen different players saw action (Wichita State leads the country in bench minutes); ball movement was crisp (25 assists on 34 made baskets); and the physicality was unrelenting. Put simply, Wichita State is going to pummel a whole bunch of inferior opponents in Missouri Valley play. With an already-tenuous at-large resume, however, one major question remains: can the Shockers avoid losing more than one or two games in the conference? With Illinois State and Missouri State both surging, nothing is guaranteed.

4. Dayton (11-3) – Atlantic 10. The Flyers can’t catch a break. First, Bradley transfer Josh Cunningham tore an ankle ligament two games into the season. Then, with reserve Darrell Davis already sidelined, Charles Cooke (18.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG) –Dayton’s top scorer and rebounder—suffered a lower back injury against LaSalle that subsequently kept him out versus Saint Bonaventure on Tuesday night. The good news? Archie Miller’s resilient group hit 14 threes and still managed to thump the Bonnies in their own gym. A win over Rhode Island on Friday would put Dayton in the early conference driver’s seat. A healthy Cooke would help.

The Rams need a healthy Hassan Martin. Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams need a healthy Hassan Martin. (Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)

5. UT Arlington (12-3) – Sun Belt. The Mavericks didn’t merely beat Saint Mary’s in early December—they dominated the Gaels in their own gym. The 14-point beatdown marked Saint Mary’s worst home loss since March 1, 2014, the product of dreadful shooting and outstanding ball-line defense on the part of UT Arlington. The Mavs’ balance, depth and experience—they are the 14th-most experienced team in college basketball—has enabled the Sun Belt favorites to reel off 11 straight victories. With Kevin Hervey rounding into form (16.5 PPG, 12.0 RPG last four games) and zero road contests against KenPom top-200 opponents until February 18expect that streak to continue.

6. Rhode Island (10-4) – Atlantic 10. An uneasy feeling began to set in after Hassan Martin (16.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.9 BPG) missed his fifth straight game over the weekend, especially for a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1999. In Rhode Island’s first game without him on December 10 against Houston, the Rams surrendered 1.22 points per possession—their most since March 3, 2015. Luckily, the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year returned against Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday night, blocked four shots, and helped his team win by 30 points. The Rams own wins over #22 Cincinnati, Belmont and Old Dominion, with no bad losses to their name. A victory at Dayton on Friday would go a long way towards a drought-ending March.

7. UNC Wilmington (13-2) – Colonial Athletic. The Seahawks missed an opportunity at Clemson on December 28 and will now have to blow through their CAA schedule in order to receive at-large consideration — which isn’t necessarily out of the question. UNC Wilmington ranks 48th overall in KenPom, largely the result of hyper-efficient offense near the basket: Kevin Keatts’ uptempo unit ranks seventh nationally in two-point percentage (57.5% 2FG). In fact, sophomore forward Devontae Cacok—who has made 59 of his last 65 shot attempts—leads the country in offensive rating (149.2 ORtg). The Seahawks’ trip to defensively-stout College of Charleston on January 19 will be fascinating.

Reggie Upshaw scored 34 points again UAB on New Year's Day—a great sign for the Blue Raiders. (Photo: HELEN COMER/DNJ)

Reggie Upshaw scored 34 points again UAB on New Year’s Day—a good sign for the Blue Raiders. (Photo: HELEN COMER/DNJ)

8. Virginia Commonweath (11-3) – Atlantic 10. The Rams appear to have their mojo back. After a poor home loss to Georgia Tech on December 7, VCU has since won five straight games, including a home triumph over Middle Tennessee State and road wins at Old Dominion and George Mason. JeQuan Lewis has firmly established himself as the team’s leader in the process, averaging 19.4 points and 4.0 steals per night. The Atlantic 10 is without a clear front-runner this season, so there is no real reason to think VCU cannot still make a title run.

9. Middle Tennessee State (11-3) – Conference USA. Losing a close game at VCU is understandable but an eight-point home loss to Georgia State? That’s disappointing, especially for a team well on its way to at-large consideration. Luckily, the Blue Raiders are still really good, evidenced by their eight KenPom top-150 victories. If Sunday’s victory over reigning Conference USA champion UAB is any indication, Middle Tennessee State remains on track to rule the league this season. Whether it can reach March without any other unforeseen hiccups, of course, remains to be seen.

10. Valparaiso (11-3) – Horizon. Any hope for an at-large bid likely fell by the wayside after Valparaiso’s double-overtime home loss to Santa Clara on December 22. Which is a shame, because with wins over Alabama, BYU, Rhode Island and Missouri State, the Crusaders were beginning to make a strong case. Still, with Alec Peters (25.0 PPG, 10.4 RPG) putting up monster numbers and shooting more efficiently, Matt Lottich’s group remains the clear Horizon League favorite.  This Friday night’s home game against top challenger Oakland will be an interesting bellwether for both teams.

The Mountain West may be a mystery, but Cameron Oliver's talent is not. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Mountain West may be a mystery, but Cameron Oliver’s talent is not. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

11. Brigham Young (11-4) – West Coast. Despite injuries to starters Elijah Bryant (14.2 PPG at Elon in 2014-15) and Kyle Davis (8.8 PPG), BYU has won six of its last seven games, including a home win over Colorado. Beating Saint Mary’s in Moraga this Thursday might be a stretch, but—with Bryant eyeing a January return (Davis’ career is over)—the fast-paced Cougars still remain on track to finish third in the WCC. Forward Eric Mika (20.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG) is a legitimate WCC Player of the Year candidate.

12. Nevada (12-3) – Mountain West. The Mountain West is a one-bid league this year, and Nevada might be it despite losing at Fresno State on Saturday. There aren’t many inside-outside duos better than Cameron Oliver (14.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG) and Marcus Marshall (20.9 PPG), an offensively-gifted tandem that perhaps give the Wolfpack an edge over league favorite San Diego State. The Aztecs visit snowy Reno on Wednesday night, so we should learn more about this race very soon.

13. College of Charleston (11-4) – Colonial. With teams like Chattanooga, Monmouth and San Diego State slipping, it’s time for College of Charleston to get some love here. The Cougars have played five straight road games dating back to December 15, going 4-1 and holding their opponents to 0.87 points per possession on average in the process. That’s stingy. Earl Grant’s unit boasts a top-30 defense and should challenge UNC Wilmington atop the CAA standings.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Illinois State (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (Mountain West), Chattanooga (Southern), Monmouth (Metro Atlantic), Arkansas State (Sun Belt), East Tennessee State (Southern), Saint Bonaventure (Atlantic 10), Davidson (Atlantic 10), Akron (Mid-American), Oakland (Horizon).

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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