New Mexico State Could Wind Up a Scary #16 Seed in March

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2015

To call New Mexico State the class of the WAC would probably be an understatement; Marvin Menzies’ team ranks 162 spots higher in KenPom than its next best colleague and possesses visibly superior size and athleticism. In 2013-14, the Aggies demonstrated their ability to essentially sleepwalk through conference play and then out-talent the rest of the league (a shell of its former self) when it matters most, in March. In fact, they have now reached the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row — last year taking San Diego State to overtime in the Round of 64 — and the story should be much the same this time around. That is, except for one major difference – whereas New Mexico State did enough to earn a #13 seed in the three years prior, it’s in no such position this season. With several key players just getting healthy and virtually zero opportunities left to build on an empty resume, the Aggies could wind up an intriguing case on Selection Sunday: an uncommonly tall, uncommonly talented #16 seed.

New Mexico State would be a unique #16-seed. [Getty Images]

New Mexico State could end up a unique 16-seed on Selection Sunday. (Getty Images)

The beginning of December was not kind to New Mexico State. In a matter of a couple days, the Aggies lost preseason all-conference forward Tshilidzi Nephawe for one month with a foot injury, reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings for eight weeks with a broken finger, and learned 7’3’’ center Tanveer Bhullar – who hurt his ankle before the season started – would miss an additional six weeks of action. The team went on to lose six of its next eight contests (four without Mullings and all without Nephawe) to fall to 5-9 overall. And while several of the losses were surprisingly competitive – and none really all that bad – the overall dearth of quality wins has left Menzies’ team with little to hang its hat on; currently the Aggies have zero wins against teams ranked within the RPI top-100. As a result – unlike last year, when it could point to a road triumph at New Mexico – its own RPI (currently 176th) has suffered irreparable damage. Since no other WAC team has an RPI better than #242, and half the league sits below #300, the Aggies’ chance of significantly improving their number is slim. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects the Aggies as a #16 seed in one of the First Four play-in games, a position that could improve depending on what happens in other leagues, but one that could also get worse; with several guys still finding their legs and a recent loss to Seattle already on the books, there is no guarantee New Mexico State wins out.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 27th, 2015

Team of the Week

Wyoming – The Cowboys only played one game, but boy was it a doozy. They hosted New Mexico on Saturday and prevailed in dramatic fashion in a game where the win probabilities swung dramatically on a regular basis, not including a Larry Nance three-quarter court shot at the regulation buzzer that seemed to go halfway down before rattling out. Still, not to be denied, the Cowboys won the game on a steal and dunk at the end of overtime that was dramatic and amazing. With every game that gets checked off the schedule, Dunk Town Laramie is beginning to look like a team of destiny.

Larry Nance's Slam Just Before Time Expired In Overtime Sealed A Stunning Win For Wyoming (Wyoming Athletics)

Larry Nance’s Slam Just Before Time Expired In Overtime Sealed A Stunning Win For Wyoming (Wyoming Athletics)

Player of the Week

Hugh Greenwood, Sr, New Mexico – A week ago in this column, I wrote negatively about Mr. Greenwood for what I’m sure must be the first time. Since then, he posted his second- and third-highest scoring games of his career and became a national phenomenon in shooting down a hateful and small-minded Twitter troll in a postgame press conference. For the week, the averages are 22.5 points, six boards, a couple assists, 11-of-17 shooting from three and an 82.7% eFG in a pair of games that were just a joy to watch. And were it not for little mistakes late against Wyoming, it would have been a darn near perfect week. But in the grand scheme of things, Greenwood’s week hit all the buttons we love in college sports. A senior leader bouncing back from a slump to help his team to a hard-fought road win in the middle of the week in the face of personal issues far more important than anything having to do with a silly old game. And then, on the weekend, in another hostile road environment in what will surely go down as one of the handful of regular season games I recall fondly from this season, Greenwood was a major factor in just about every key play down the stretch of regulation and on through overtime. In the end, it didn’t go his team’s way. But there was nobody in the country who was more fun to watch this week.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Albany, Saah Nimley, Ben Jacobson & Dartmouth…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 27th, 2015

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

Albany. Last Monday, Albany learned it would be without leading scorer Peter Hooley indefinitely following the junior’s decision to return home to Australia to be with his ill mother. While the move was understandable and even encouraged by head coach Will Brown, it left the Great Danes – in the thick of an America East title race – without one of their most important players… just in time for a road trip to Stony Brook. With the preseason conference favorites on deck before games at Hartford and against UMBC, the week suddenly spelled ‘gut-check’ for Brown’s group. And boy, did they respond.

Without its top scorer, Albany grabbed control of the America East. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Without its top scorer, Albany grabbed control of the America East. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Not only did the Danes beat Stony Brook in the face of long odds (KenPom gave the home team an 82.3% win probability), they did so convincingly, jumping out to an early 10-point lead and never looking back. The team’s other top Australian, forward Sam Rowley, stepped up with 16 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three blocks – outworking America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney underneath – and Albany scored 19 of its 64 points at the free throw line. Defensively, Brown’s 2-3 zone baffled Stony Brook all night long, holding the Seawolves to a season-low 0.77 points per possession. The final margin: a whopping 17 points. “I thought it was a gutsy effort tonight,” Brown said after the dominant victory.

But the week (and the winning) was far from over for the Danes. Next up was a trip to Hartford on Thursday to battle a talented-if-underachieving Hawks team also vying for a top-four seed. That game, tabbed as a coin-flip, played out much the same for Albany; Rowley was excellent (22 points, eight rebounds) and the team rolled, 62-53. The cherry on top for Brown’s short-handed unit came on Sunday, at home against UMBC, when four players scored in double-figures and the Danes again won big, topping the Retrievers by 14. A week that began with difficult news and could have gone in the opposite direction – again, Hooley leads the team in scoring – ended with Albany standing alone and undefeated atop the standings, in prime position to grab the America East Tournament’s top seed – a spot that means more than ever in 2014-15.

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Hey Look, Stephen F. Austin is on Another Winning Streak

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2015

Stephen F. Austin lost to East Tennessee State last season on November 23 — falling to 3-2 overall — then proceeded to win 29 straight games on its way to the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. Not only did the program record its first-ever victory in the Big Dance – an improbable comeback win over VCU – but Brad Underwood took home the Joe B. Hall National Coach of the Year honors as the top first-year head man in college hoops. As for this season? Things are looking awfully familiar. The Lumberjacks were blown out by Baylor on November 24 — falling to 1-3 overall — and, you guessed it, haven’t lost a game since. With tremendous team balance, a pair of match-up nightmares and 14 straight wins already in hand, the question must be asked: Can Underwood’s bunch again streak into March? Considering SFA’s track record and the overall dearth of legitimate Southland competition, it’s becoming a stronger and stronger possibility – one that may ultimately come down to Saturday’s trip to Sam Houston State.

Is Stephen F. Austin bound for another long streak? Sam Houston State could stand in the way. (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

Is SFA bound for another long streak? Sam Houston State could stand in the way. (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite losing their top scorer from last season (Desmond Haymon), the Lumberjacks’ excellent balance and spread-motion attack – predicated on finding the highest percentage shot via heavy ball-movement – means they haven’t missed a beat offensively. Upwards of 10 guys play 10 or more minutes per game and six different players average between 6.7 PPG and 13.9 PPG, including four newcomers. Those new faces – two JuCo transfers, Samford transplant Clide Geffrard, Jr., and freshman Ty Charles – have adapted well to Underwood’s offensive approach, each capable shooters willing to swing the ball around and work for the best look. In fact, the defending conference champs have recorded assists on a whopping 64 percent of their made field goals so far this season. Still, the biggest problem for opposing defenses is trying to handle Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup, the team’s versatile leading scorers. At 6’6’’, Parker (the reigning Southland Player of the Year) technically plays the four or five in most games, but possesses guard-like quickness off the bounce and exceptional accuracy from behind the arc, currently shooting an absurd 46 percent from three. Likewise, Walkup is an undersized forward who serves as the Lumberjacks’ grittiest banger in the paint (6.1 RPG) and one of its best passers (3.2 APG) while leading the team in scoring. Both players are multi-faceted ‘tweeners who present unique match-up problems on a nightly basis, enabling SFA to become an even more efficient offense this season.

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How Can Saint Mary’s Beat Gonzaga?

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 22nd, 2015

According to Ken Pomeroy’s latest prognostications, Gonzaga is better than a 90 percent favorite in 10 of its 12 remaining games. The two games in which that is not the case come in late February when the Bulldogs travel to Saint Mary’s (February 21) and when they host BYU in the final game of the regular season (February 28). Tonight, Saint Mary’s gets its first crack at the Zags and, despite being a 15-point Vegas underdog and the Gaels having just an eight percent chance of winning this game, this is a match-up between teams that are a combined 14-0 in West Coast Conference play. Furthermore, the Gaels have been the only team in recent history to seriously and regularly challenge the Bulldogs’ spot atop the conference. Still, the Bulldogs have won all six games in this series in the past two seasons, and in several cases, decisively. So, the question becomes: What can Saint Mary’s do to beat Gonzaga?

Brad Waldow Will Need To Shine Against The Big Gonzaga Front Line (Getty Images)

Brad Waldow Will Need To Shine Against The Big Gonzaga Front Line (Getty Images)

As those Pomeroy odds indicate, the Gaels’ actual chances in tonight’s game are not strong. We could point out several minor data points – like the fact that the Zags won at Pepperdine by only two points while the Gaels won by nine there; or those unblemished conference records – to convince ourselves that this game of WCC titans is bound to be a battle. But the fact is that there isn’t a lot on St. Mary’s resume this season to suggest that it’s got the horses to win in Spokane tonight. The Gaels beat BYU on Saturday night in what easily represents their best win of the season, with wins over Pepperdine, UC Irvine and a fading Creighton team really the only other things of substance (note: “substance” used with great looseness here). But more than anything else, the Gaels have winning experience going for them. Of their seven players who factor most significantly into their rotation, they’ve got five seniors – four of those who have spent time at other schools before landing in Moraga. All of these guys have played plenty of road games against elite teams and rivals many times before, so when they roll into The Kennel tonight, they won’t be scared.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 21st, 2015

Believe it or not, we’re only six weeks from March. The Mountain West has six teams within one game of the top of the standings, so let’s dig into this week’s awards and power rankings.

Team of the Week

Boise State – Following an 0-3 start to conference play, as part of a four-game slide, with senior star Anthony Drmic lost for the season due to injury, things looked bleak in Boise. But this week, the Broncos rebounded in a big way, scoring an overtime home win over UNLV, then going on the road to The Pit and scoring a big win away from home and putting themselves back in the conversation. Head coach Leon Rice got big contributions from up and down his roster (as you’ll see below) and, with the schedule easing up a bit this week, Boise State has a chance to begin its climb back up the standings.

Derrick Marks Has Always Been A Good Scorer, But He's Taken His Game Up A Level As A Senior (AP Photo)

Derrick Marks Has Always Been A Good Scorer, But He’s Taken His Game Up A Level As A Senior. (AP Photo)

Player of the Week

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – In the wake of the Drmic injury and the announcement that he would be done for the year, not only did Marks have to remake his role on this roster, but he had to do so at a time when he was dealing with his own injury. Now, he’s apparently back to full strength and, goodness is he playing well. He’s without a doubt, the conference’s best pure scorer. And that’s saying a lot when guys like Marvelle Harris and Larry Nance and Rashad Vaughn are roaming Mountain West courts. Last year, in this selfsame space, we regularly ripped Marks for settling for jumpers and launching too many threes that he couldn’t hit and failing to create for teammates. All of those apparent weaknesses in his game appear to have been fixed. He’s attacking more and getting midrange jumpers; when he does take the three, he can hit it now (oh boy, can he ever – 49% on the year so far); and while he’ll never be a true point guard, he’s regularly drawing defenses and kicking the ball to the open man. His improvement this season has been stupendous. And this week was the culmination, as he average 29.5 points and 3.5 assists while shooting a 54.8 eFG%.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Boise State, Mikh McKinney, Jay Spoonhour & Appalachian State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 21st, 2015

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

Boise State. When senior leader and preseason all-conference guard Anthony Drmic was ruled out for the season in late December, it looked as if the wheels might come off at Boise State. The Broncos, which were picked fourth in the preseason in the Mountain West, lost four straight games to begin the New Year – including its first three conference contests – and only once managed to score over a point per possession without their 6’6’’ wing. “The margin for error is really slim without Anthony,” head coach Leon Rice said before his team welcomed UNLV to town on Tuesday. With the talented Runnin’ Rebels on deck before a tricky road trip to The Pit on Saturday, it looked as if things might get worse for Rice’s club before they get better. Luckily, Derrick Marks and James Webb III had other plans.

Star guard Derrick Marks helped lead Boise State to a stellar week. (Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports)

Star guard Derrick Marks helped lead Boise State to a stellar week. (Brian Losness/USA TODAY Sports)

In a game broadcast remotely by ESPN, Marks gave Boise State offensive life against UNLV, scoring 28 points (on a whopping 26 attempts) and responding to any would-be Rebels’ runs with big shots of his own. After the visitors grabbed a late two-point lead, the senior calmly attacked the lane, stopped on a dime and hit a turnaround jumper with 13 seconds left to send the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Broncos – which had dropped their last three contests that were decided by six points or less – came up with enough winning plays, including a flurry of steals at around the two-minute mark, to eke out an 82-73 victory. “That monkey has been flipped off our backs and thrown to the ground, no question,” Rice said of his teams relieving victory. Webb, an athletic forward whose minutes have picked up dramatically in Drmic’s absence, added 12 points and 15 rebounds in the win, including a high-flying breakaway dunk in overtime. Read the rest of this entry »

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Atlantic Sun Race Interesting Even Without Cinderella

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 16th, 2015

Dunk City’s Sweet Sixteen run, Mercer’s post-victory Nae Nae dance… I don’t have to explain – you already know the Atlantic Sun’s recent March achievements. The conference has produced arguably the NCAA Tournament’s most iconic moments for each of the past two seasons, enormous upsets featuring even larger personalities. Yet it’s also endured some serious change since the Bears knocked off Duke last spring, and almost none of it has been good. Both Mercer and East Tennessee State, traditionally two of the league’s best programs, bolted for the Southern Conference and no other team has stepped in to fill the void. With just eight teams remaining – one of which (Northern Kentucky) remains NCAA Tournament-ineligible until 2016 – the question now becomes whether the depleted conference has a team even remotely capable of crashing the Dance. The answer to that probably lies somewhere between “unlikely” and “maybe,” although the A-Sun showed moments of promise during non-conference play. As for the race to get there? With Florida Gulf Coast looking vulnerable and a pair of challengers on the rise, the next two months should be better than expected.

The Atlantic Sun race will be better than expected this season. (Naples Daily News)

The Atlantic Sun race will be better than expected this season. (Naples Daily News)

North Florida made something of a statement on Wednesday night. After switching to zone and overcoming an early deficit against Florida Gulf Coast, the Ospreys turned a flurry of threes and several key steals into a 16-2 second half run that put the Eagles away for good – the team’s first victory over its avian foe since 2012. “We talked before the game there would be obstacles and adversity and all those kinds of things, and you’ve just got to fight your way through it,” head coach Matthew Driscoll said afterward. “And they did.” Not only was it a blowout victory over the league’s overwhelming favorite, but the result propelled North Florida ahead of its rival in KenPom for the first time all season. While that may seem insignificant – sure, odd results and blowout wins/losses can skew rankings – it’s important to keep in mind that the Ospreys have climbed almost 100 spots since the season began. Driscoll’s three-point heavy attack, led by reigning Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year, Dallas Moore (27 points on Wednesday), has been reliably explosive through the first couple months and very difficult to beat when shots are falling. In fact, UNF has a chance to become the most efficient offensive unit the conference has seen since Belmont left in 2012. Yet the Ospreys aren’t alone in their emergence as a legitimate challenger to FGCU. USC Upstate – which lost two of its top three scorers and rebounders, including all-conference forward Torrey Craig – has also managed to drastically improve on its preseason metrics. Despite their offensive production taking a dip, the combination of guard-heavy lineups and Eddie Payne’s match-up zone has enabled the Spartans to force turnovers in bunches (12th highest rate in America) and markedly improve their defense from a year ago. That improvement has manifested itself in 13-5 record and the conference’s highest overall ranking (#148) – also nearly 100 spots higher than where it began the year. What does that mean for Dunk City? Even with Brett Comer (11.2 PPG, 7.0 APG) and Bernard Thompson (14.4 PPG) in tow – one of college basketball’s most productive backcourts – the Eagles’ run at the league title will be much more difficult than figured.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 13th, 2015

Team of the Week

Wyoming – Two tough games and two hard-fought wins over Colorado State and Boise State bring the Cowboys’ record to 15-2 on the season and 4-0 in conference play, putting them along atop the Mountain West standings. They’ve won seven in a row now, and have been rewarded with a spot in the AP poll for the first time since March 15, 1988, back in the days of Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. No surprise then that, with apologies to Theo Ratliff, the Cowboys may have their best individual player since those days in Larry Nance, who continued his fine play with averages of 16.5 points, 8 boards, 3.5 assists, and 2 blocks on a 70.6 eFG%. He’s not our player of the week this week, but he’s beginning to gain some separation on the Conference Player of the Year front.

Larry Nance and Dunk Town Laramie Sit Atop The Mountain West Standings (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Larry Nance and Dunk Town Laramie Sit Atop The Mountain West Standings (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Player of the Week

Marvelle Harris, Jr, Fresno State – A 40-point game in the much more high scoring NBA is a feat worth talking about. A 40-point game in the ever-slowing game of college basketball? Forget talking, let’s throw a party. Harris played all 40 minutes in Reno on Saturday afternoon against Nevada, and gave his Bulldogs a show to remember. He was 14/23 on the night from the field, including five three-pointers in the mix. He scored 16 of the Bulldogs’ first 18 points of the second half, helping to turn an eight-point lead at half into a 13-point margin, and then knocked down clutch free throws down the stretch to help his squad hang on. He’s now gone for 20 or more six times this season, and for the week averaged 29 points, five boards and four assists, while shooting a 66.2 eFG%. Best yet, he’s doing it as a part of a winning streak.

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Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on January 13th, 2015

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

How Last Week’s Games Determined Which Teams to Watch

Games last week confirmed that three undefeated teams — Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton and Rhode Island — have emerged as the teams to beat, while three others –Fordham, St. Louis and Saint Joseph’s — will struggle for the next nine weeks. For our three winless teams, the fact that each has played at least one contest against the group of VCU, Dayton and Rhode Island means there is a clear separation between those three and the other 11 teams in the conference. Saint Joseph’s third loss was, for example, to Duquesne, which carries two losses of its own (Dayton and Rhode Island). Phil Martelli’s squad may spring a surprise or two in February, but the youthful Hawks still have a lot to learn. Saint Louis lost a lot to graduation but a preseason shoulder separation to forward Grandy Glaze took even more experience away from Jim Crews’s team. Glaze had surgery last week to correct the separation and will not play again this season. Fordham’s points for/against margin is running at -36 through three games (-12 per game), a clear indication that the Rose Hill Rams are still “rebuilding” well into Tom Pecora’s fifth season. Their prognosis is not good.

Archie Miller might be the most important returnee of the entire A10 conference. (AP)

Archie Miller’s Dayton club in right in the mix. (AP)

Virginia Commonwealth, which beat Davidson last weekend, faces a road challenge at Rhode Island this week and it will also get a visit from George Washington before the end of the month. Those three games represent the Rams’ biggest tests until the middle of February. Win those two and it is reasonable to think that the Rams could be 11-0 in conference play when they pay GW a return date. Dayton beat St. Bonaventure by 17 points, negating the Bonnies’ height advantage with a scorching 14-of-24 night from beyond the arc. The Flyers will face a Davidson squad on January 20 that also lives and dies by the three. A win at Davidson and at UMass beyond that would mean coach Archie Miller’s team could also enter February undefeated (8-0) in conference play and in good shape for an NCAA bid. Rhode Island, the least experienced of the three top-tier teams (average 1.4 years of experience, ranked #267 nationally), has the toughest path through the rest of the month, with games versus VCU and Massachusetts this week followed by a home date with George Washington on January 31. Win those three and the chances are good that the Rams will also sport an 8-0 conference record going into February. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Weekly Awards: Pepperdine, Keifer Sykes, James Whitford & Miami (OH)…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 13th, 2015

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

Pepperdine. Entering last week, you know how many WCC teams had beaten BYU in the Marriott Center since it joined the conference in 2012? Four, and Pepperdine wasn’t one of them. In fact, the Waves had lost their previous three contests there by an average of 25 points per game. So when Marty Wilson’s team went to Provo and beat the Cougars in wire-to-wire fashion on Thursday night, yeah, it was kind of a big deal. The six-point win turned heads and garnered Pepperdine some positive national attention for the first time in a long while (the game was on ESPNU). And as for the Waves’ encore victory at San Diego on Saturday? That win may have propelled Wilson’s club into the upper echelon of the conference.

Pepperdine stunned BYU in the Marriott Center on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Ian Maule)

Pepperdine stunned BYU in the Marriott Center on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Ian Maule)

Defense has been Pepperdine’s M.O. this season and it put that stinginess on full display against BYU. The Waves, which entered the contest tops in the country at taking away the three-point line, held the oft-scorching Cougars (15-of-28 threes in their previous game) to just 23 percent (6-of-26) from behind the arc. BYU’s high-scoring, hyper-efficient attack had trouble finding consistent offense all night long, ultimately winding up tied for its lowest point total of the season (61 points). “We talked about our discipline and our toughness and we showed that from the tip,” Wilson said afterwards. Yet, his best coaching move of the night had nothing to do with an instilled mindset or strong defensive principles. Instead, it was probably his decision to bring top scorer and rebounder Stacy Davis (15.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG) off the bench for the first time. The 6’6’’ junior responded with a 23-point, eight-rebound performance that included a couple big free throws to ice the game. “They got us a little bit out of rhythm and they got us to take tougher shots out of our sets,” BYU guard Anson Winder said after the game, summing it up perfectly. “They scored on the other end and it’s hard to beat a team when you can’t stop them from scoring.”

But Pepperdine wasn’t done. Despite having not won back-to-back WCC road games since 2007, the Waves promptly travelled to San Diego two days later, put forth another excellent defensive effort and beat the Toreros by 12. No San Diego player – not even Johnny Dee, the conference’s fourth-leading scorer – ended up with double figures, as Bill Grier’s crew mustered only 0.75 points per possession. In a matter of three days, the team that had been picked seventh in the preseason outdid the second and fifth-place picks in their own gymnasiums. Now at 4-1 in WCC play and cracking the top-100 in KenPom, Pepperdine appears to have staying power among the top half of the WCC.

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Imbalanced America East Makes for Crucial Battles at the Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 13th, 2015

Vermont and Stony Brook have finished first and second in the America East for three straight seasons and neither has beaten the other at home (in the regular season) since 2011, so it goes without saying that the Catamounts’ 71-57 victory in Burlington on Saturday was fairly important. For John Becker’s club, it was a key win against this year’s preseason favorite and validation of the program’s resiliency after graduating the bulk of last year’s starting five. For the Seawolves, the loss was a missed opportunity and fifth-straight defeat in Patrick Gymnasium, but the outcome might end up carrying even more importance than it would have in previous years. Not only do the conference’s top four seeds host preliminary games in its postseason tournament for the first time since the mid-1990s, but there are few leagues in the country with a more substantial dropoff in quality between its top and bottom than the America East. With Vermont, Stony Brook and a few others jockeying for position — and the rest of the league offering minimal competition on a nightly basis — regular season battles among its handful of contenders are more important than ever.

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

First, the top. Three America East teams – Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany – currently rank in the KenPom top-200, with the Seawolves standing above the rest at 113th. Boasting the league’s best player in Jameel Warney (16.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG), and wins over Washington, Western Kentucky and Columbia (x2), Steve Pikiell’s crew certainly looks like the class of the conference. Still, Vermont reaffirmed its contender status over the weekend, and Albany – the league’s NCAA Tournament representative in each of the last two seasons – has enough talent and experience to challenge anyone, especially at home. At the bottom, on the other hand, it’s a far different story. UMass-Lowell, Binghamton, UMBC and Maine, the league’s four worst teams, are each currently ranked 290th or below, and although Pat Duquette’s River Hawks have had their moments this season, the latter three squads are especially bad, coming in at 337th, 342nd and 343rd, respectively – ranking among the 15 worst teams in college basketball. To date, they’ve combined for just five total wins on the year, and as a result, the chasm between the top three teams and the bottom four teams is so large that Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany are each favored – in many cases heavily – to win the vast majority of their league contests (outside of each other) for the remainder of the season. And while that does not mean there won’t be the occasional slip-up, the fact that the Seawolves (43%) and Catamounts (38%) each have a very real chance of going undefeated against the bottom four from here on out speaks volumes about the significant imbalance.

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