Pac-12 Notebook: Josh Hawkinson, UCLA Offensive Woes, Utah…

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

Here are some news and notes from the Pac-12’s opening conference weekend.

  • We’re, what, two months into the college basketball season, and I’m not sure I’ve written the name Josh Hawkinson yet this year. Consider this blurb my official apology for such an egregious oversight. Last year, he played in all but three of Washington State’s games, but never more than 13 minutes, never scoring more than six points, never grabbing more than six boards. This year, he’s averaging 31 minutes per game and has only once had an outing where he failed to score at least six points or grab at least six boards. Over the weekend against the Bay Area schools, he was the best big man on the floor, and that came against frontcourts featuring senior bigs like Stefan Nastic and David Kravish. (By the way, the fact that Jordan Railey had his best pair of games in his career does not bode well for Cal and Stanford’s frontcourt defenses). Hawkinson is not going to amaze you with his athleticism. He’s not what you would call a visionary passer. He’s a decent face-up shooter, but by no means the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki either. He just gets it done. He’s got a great motor; he understands the game; he’s tough on the boards; and he has completely bought in to Ernie Kent’s philosophy. He’s on the short list of players in this conference who have made the biggest jump in production from last year to this one.
Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12's Most Improved Player

Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12’s Most Improved Player

  • To say that it was not a good weekend for UCLA basketball is to engage in annoyingly obvious understatement. The Bruins went to Colorado on Friday night to face a struggling Buffaloes team without its best player, and despite Colorado’s best efforts to fluff up UCLA’s offensive confidence early in the game via a series of turnovers leading to breakaway layups, the Bruins offensive woes continued. Against Utah on Sunday, it was even worse. The gold standard for UCLA offensive ineptitude was their 44 points against Kentucky on national TV. In that game, the Bruins scored those points on 68 possessions, good for 0.647 points per possession. Their 39 points on 60 possessions in Boulder works out to 0.65 points per possession. So, um, progress? In all seriousness, UCLA just has absolutely no offensive confidence right now. Norman Powell is a mess. Kevon Looney can only get so far on effort alone. And Tony Parker can’t seem to get out of his own way, earning only 20 minutes per game this weekend in part due to his continuing problems with dumb fouls. And then there is Bryce Alford. Yikes. For the weekend he was 2-of-26 from the field, 0-of-13 from deep, with five turnovers against nine assists. And let me tell you, those Rocky Mountain scorekeepers were generous in only giving him five turnovers. Now, that’s only one bad weekend, and we’re not going to write off all the other good things he’s done to this point — but with UCLA’s offensive struggles, you’ve got to start with the quarterback, right? The shooting thing? That’s mostly an aberration. Still, Alford is definitely earning a reputation as a guy willing to take bad shots. And on a team with a fragile personality right now, launching wild early-shot-clock bombs while the rest of the team stands around and watches is not going to build much cohesion. Alford is plenty capable of shooting his team into games, but as the point guard, he’s also in part responsible for how the guys around him perform. There were numerous times this weekend where he delivered a beautiful dime on the run that bounced off the hands of a guy like Thomas Welsh, Noah Allen or Tony Parker. But you know what? Alford’s got to know that those guys aren’t really capable of making those kinds of catches and play to his personnel accordingly. This 0-of-13 shooting from deep is not going to continue, but for the Bruins to regain their confidence, Alford’s got to find ways to get Powell, Looney, Parker and Isaac Hamilton good looks on a regular basis, especially early in games. He’s got to be the facilitator, first and foremost.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Improvement, Surprises and Disappointments

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2015

With conference play tipping off tonight, it’s time for our half-way edition of Burning Questions, where we’ve asked our panelists five different questions looking back and looking ahead. Adam Butler, Kevin Danna and Andrew Murawa offer up their opinions below on which teams and players are waxing and waning in the Pac-12.

Which team can improve the most between now and March?

  • Adam Butler: Maybe this is silly but I maintain it can still be Arizona. There have only been a handful of games in which everything has clicked for this team. I think the Wildcats are still figuring things out offensively and a part of that is in still trying to figure out their rotation. The urgency and impact of conference play will tighten that up and ensure that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is playing maximum minutes. I believe this will behoove Sean Miller’s team immensely.
While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top Ten, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Arizona Are Ranked In The Top 10, There May Be Improvement Still On The Way (Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star)

  • Kevin Danna: It’s gotta be UCLA. They have so many talented freshmen (granted, not all of them are playing) that things are bound to eventually click for this group. The 39-point loss to Kentucky looked ugly, but hey, I’d rather lose by 39 to Kentucky than lose by three to Cal State Bakersfield.
  • Andrew Murawa: On the basis of new players improving alone, I’ll give the edge to Oregon. First, the Ducks’ only legitimate big man – 6’10” JuCo transfer Michael Chandler – is finally on the court for the first time this season. Meanwhile, freshmen Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Ahmaad Rorie and Casey Benson are getting more comfortable by the game and as they improve and pick up their weight, senior star Joseph Young won’t feel quite the same pressure to do everything. The Ducks have all the hallmarks of an NCAA Tournament-caliber squad.

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O26 Weekly Awards: GW, Christian Wood, Benjy Taylor & Pac-12 Upsets

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 30th, 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

George Washington. While many folks were drinking eggnog and caroling and having holiday fun, George Washington was in Hawaii stringing together three impressive, defensive-minded victories in a row to win the Diamond Head Classic. In doing so, not only did the Colonials establish themselves as the Atlantic 10’s second-best unit, they also picked up a resume-defining non-conference victory that should work wonders come Selection Sunday.

George Washington beat Wichita State and won the Diamond Head Classic. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)

George Washington beat Wichita State and won the Diamond Head Classic. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)

Mike Lonergan’s club entered last Monday with essentially zero quality wins of note, having dropped all three opportunities against KenPom top-100 units – including a 13-point handling at Penn State the previous week – and running out of chances. Luckily, the trip to Hawaii offered a few finals shots before A-10 play, and the effects from that contest in Happy Valley (especially defensively) were apparently left on the mainland: GW opened the tournament by holding Ohio to 15 points in the second half and steamrolling the Bobcats, 77-49. Big man Kevin Larsen finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds and the Colonials allowed their MAC opponent a mere 0.77 points per possession – a dominant defensive effort that continued into their next two games. Against Colorado the next night, Lonergan’s group limited the Buffaloes to just 50 points on 36.5 percent shooting, their second-worst offensive output of the season. Then, on Christmas night, GW notched its biggest win (and probably the A-10’s biggest win) of the young season by storming back from eight down against Wichita State, grabbing the lead with under five minutes to play and holding off the Shockers for a 60-54 triumph. Lonergan’s decision to switch to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half enabled GW to limit Wichita State to its fewest points per possession since February 2, 2013, and helped spark the game-clinching, 20-6 run late in the contest. In fact, over the course of three games, the Colonials allowed just four (total!) double-figure scorers and never surrendered more than 0.90 points per trip – a stretch of defensive excellence that puts them firmly in the NCAA Tournament at-large discussion, likely from now until March.

Honorable Mentions: Loyola-Chicago (2-0: N-Texas Tech, N-Boise State); Stony Brook (2-0: vs. American, at Washington); UNLV (2-0: vs. Arizona, vs. Southern Utah); Iona (2-0: vs. Florida Gulf Coast, at Drexel)

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RTC Top 25: Week Six

Posted by Walker Carey on December 29th, 2014

Much like week two of the season, last week was defined by a number of intriguing upsets. This trend began on Monday night when #14 Kansas was blown out by 25 points at Temple. It continued on Tuesday, as both #5 Arizona and #10 Texas fell to unranked opponents – the Wildcats losing at UNLV and the Longhorns losing at home to Stanford. Christmas Day spelled trouble for #15 Wichita State, as it was upset by George Washington in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Finally, Sunday saw previously unbeaten #22 Washington fall at home to America East darling Stony Brook. With conference play fully set to begin this week in most conferences, we bid farewell to the stunning non-conference upsets that have been a major part of the college basketball season thus far. Upset enthusiasts should not worry too much, though, as we all know by now there is no such thing as an easy win in conference play. Strap in and get ready because it is going to be a fun two-month ride from here to March.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump….

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.04.11 AM

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Back and Forth: Great Xmas Week Moments

Posted by David Harten on December 24th, 2014

Each week, RTC columnist David Harten will profile some of the week’s biggest upcoming games by taking a look back at some relevant history relating to the match-ups. This is Back And Forth.

We’ve reached the point in the college basketball season when things are in transition. Non-conference games are nearing a close and conference play is about to begin. The Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu provides one last non-conference tournament to watch into the wee hours of the morning, and Christmas week has produced some solid games and individual performances over the years. As we all wind down the year with holiday obligations this week, let’s take a look at a few memorable college hoops moments of the yuletide season.

December 24, 2010 – Christmas Eve Brawl

Renardo Sidney’s career in Starkville was an absolute disaster. He had attitude problems throughout his two-plus years on campus and was a major factor in head coach Rick Stansbury eventually losing his job. On Christmas Eve of his debut season, he added to that list of problems. While he and his teammates were watching a game from the stands of the Diamond Head Classic, Sidney and Elgin Bailey decided to go after each other. It ended with both players serving suspensions and depicted Sidney as a hothead at that point. Bailey eventually transferred out of the program to Southeastern Louisiana, while Sidney lasted another painstaking year in Starkville before going undrafted in the 2012 NBA Draft.

December 25, 2012 – A Block Saves Arizona

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Marching to Vegas: On Arizona and the Road

Posted by Adam Butler on December 23rd, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

One of the major factors of future success is margin of victory. It plays significantly into the predictive work of Dan Hanner as he algorithmically computes future outcomes and it also helps us lay people. Kentucky demolishes Kansas by 32 and we conclude, “Yup, those ‘Cats are good.” Pure science. So you can perhaps understand that it was becoming cause for concern as my beloved Wildcats (the Tucson genus, not Lexington) were beating the Manhattan genus of Wildcats by just four. And San Diego State by only a pair. Or what about at deficit to UC Irvine with as little as seven minutes remaining? Perhaps this is spoiled complaint, but as the Dukes and Kentuckys were demolishing the opposition – and elite competition at that – Arizona was being left behind in the conversation.

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind

Arizona Appears To Be Starting To Click, But The Road Can Be Unkind. (Getty)

Now, we’re still in that glorious time of year where narrative and hype drives the conversation. Our sample sets are minimal at best by which to forecast the next three months. Teams are just now learning about themselves, freshmen have barely broken out their winter coats from under their bunks. But even Arizona’s best win evoked toughness from the Zags. The vaunted Arizona defense wasn’t what it was a season ago and Stanley Johnson was neither Aaron Gordon nor Nick Johnson. Perhaps this Arizona team wasn’t quite the dominant force we thought they’d be?

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Five

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 23rd, 2014

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Washington

Nigel Williams-Goss and The Huskies Are Beginning To Make Believers Out of Pac-12 Fans (USA Today)

Nigel Williams-Goss and The Huskies Are Beginning To Make Believers Out of Pac-12 Fans (USA Today)

Given the way the past three seasons have gone in Seattle, it has been perfectly reasonable to remain skeptical of the Huskies thus far. Yeah, they won the Wooden Legacy tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, but San Jose State, Long Beach State and UTEP were not exactly a murderer’s row there. Now, three weeks later, we look back on that and instead see a tough neutral-court win over those Miners (who just gave Arizona all it wanted) a little bit more impressive. Then, two weeks ago, there was an ugly, ugly, ugly Sunday night win over San Diego State, which was easily written off as little more than a horrific shooting night by the Aztecs, followed up by a come-from-behind victory against a middling Eastern Washington team. Any of those things in a vacuum elicits more yawns; but taken as a whole, we’re starting to get somewhere. Then on Saturday evening in Last Vegas, the Huskies turned in their first masterpiece of the season in a win over Oklahoma, delivering a superb offensive first half before getting to the finish line on the strength of strong defense and timely buckets. We’ll get to some of the Huskies’ specific performances shortly, but a neutral-site win over a quality Sooners’ team gets the Huskies recognition as our first unanimous Pac-12 Team of the Week.

Player of the Week: Nigel Williams-Goss, Utah

You’re not often going to see the Huskies’ floor general put up massive numbers, but he does a little bit of everything for this team. Always calm and under control, Williams-Goss is a master at getting his players the ball in the places where they can make the most positive plays for the team on the offensive end, and sticking his nose into trouble wherever he can on the defensive end. In three games this week (including Monday night’s win over Tulane), Williams-Goss averaged 10.3 points, 8.7 assists and 5.7 boards per game, numbers that only begin to hint at the impact he has had for his team.

(Also receiving votes: Brandon Taylor, Utah)

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Best of the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 17th, 2014

We’re a little more than a quarter of the way through the season now, so it is time to roll out our first edition of Best in the West. We’re going to take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography here – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams as of today. But rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide them up into tiers, mostly because I don’t think putting Gonzaga at #2 when they played Arizona into overtime in Tucson feels right to anybody.

Here are our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall ranking is in parentheses), with descriptions of what the teams in each tier have in common as well as brief comments on each school.

The Best of the Best  – In a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – There have been some growing pains for the Wildcats, but with an unblemished record and wins over Kansas State, San Diego State, Gonzaga and Michigan, they’ve still got a ways to go before they tap out on their potential.
Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal

Arizona and Gonzaga Played A Fun One A Week Back, Proving Themselves Nearly Equal. (AP)

  • Gonzaga (#2 overall, WCC #1) – Really, the Zags are more of a #1A in this tier. An overtime loss at Arizona in which they didn’t play all that well and let some good chances slip away bodes well for their upside. Read the rest of this entry »
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O26 Game of the Week: Hawkeye State Showdown, Harvard-Virginia & SDSU-Cincy…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 17th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Northern Iowa (9-1) vs. Iowa (8-3) – 7:30 PM ET, Big Ten Network, Saturday.

Northern Iowa has a knack for playing in really good basketball games this season. The Panthers upended Stephen F. Austin by two in overtime during last month’s Tip-Off Marathon, ending the Lumberjacks’ 33-game home winning streak; they squandered a big second-half lead against George Mason earlier this month before escaping in overtime; and on Saturday, Ben Jacobson’s group lost its first game in one of the best games of the season, a double-overtime thriller at VCU. So what does UNI have in store this week, bumping up against intrastate foe Iowa in Des Moines? Probably another barnburner.

Seth Tuttle and the Panthers look to take down Iowa on Saturday. (UNI Athletics Communications)

Seth Tuttle and the Panthers look to take down Iowa on Saturday. (UNI Athletics Communications)

KenPom currently ranks the Hawkeyes and Panthers 29th and 31st overall, respectively, which – on a neutral floor – results in a virtual coin-flip projection. Iowa is one of the nation’s top-30 fastest teams offensively (15.9 seconds per possession), while Northern Iowa is among the 30 slowest (20.4 seconds), yet the Hawkeyes’ strong suit has been its defense thus far this season, while the latter unit has been more offensively proficient. The Panthers, despite their preferred snail’s pace of play, demonstrated an ability to get out and run against VCU, so they should have no problem adjusting if Iowa’s uptempo pace wins out. The Hawkeyes’ most notable strength is its frontcourt, which provides much of the team’s scoring and prevents easy looks on the interior – which might actually suit Northern Iowa just fine, considering the majority of its points come from behind the arc and at the free throw line. This match-up may come down to Jacobson’s guys hitting perimeter shots – they went just 3-of-16 from distance in the game two years ago – and whether Fran McCaffery can get quality production from his backcourt. This should be a really good, really close contest either way.

More to Watch

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RTC Weekly Primer: Don’t Sleep on Mid-December Games

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 16th, 2014

Every Monday (sometimes Tuesday), Henry Bushnell will provide a look ahead at the week to come. He’ll discuss the week’s top storylines, preview the three most prominent and compelling games, put a giant or two on upset alert, and decide which teams are in desperate need of a big week.

It’s a cold, dark Monday night in December. The holiday scent is in the air. Subpar football unwillingly seeps out of a TV. Winter threatens to envelop us – if it hasn’t already done so. On this cold, dark Monday night in December, college basketball doesn’t really matter. Or at least it seems like it doesn’t. The Monday evening slate is tinged with irrelevance. Duke sleepwalks over Elon, and not many take note. The sport still lurks in the distance. Lenses are still out of focus.

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

But this, my friends, is a time as important as any in college basketball. When the final weekend of February rolls around, we’ll be scrutinizing teams inside and out, but December matters too. Just ask a team like Cal, which barely missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Analysts rued their March losses to Arizona State and Utah, but how about that December loss to UC Santa Barbara? That hurt too. Or ask Southern Miss, which built up a solid résumé, but was left to wonder what might have been if it hadn’t slipped up against Western Kentucky during the week before Christmas. On that same day, December 18, 2013, NC State toppled Tennessee. The Wolfpack made the field as one of the last four teams in. That’s not a coincidence.

Don’t ignore this week. Even with those lenses somewhat out of focus, the results will come into plain sight soon enough. It doesn’t matter how you win; your performance doesn’t have to be aesthetic. Just get the job done. Statements can be made. They will not be forgotten.

Three for the Money

North Carolina vs. Ohio State | Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS

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And Then There Were 10: A Look at the Remaining Unbeatens

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 12th, 2014

We are exactly four weeks – four eventful and enthralling weeks – into the 2014-15 college basketball season. And while at times the non-conference season can get a bit monotonous, this time around it’s been anything but. Most of the top teams have challenged themselves, and we’ve already had several marquee match-ups that gave us a telling look at some squads that we assume will be contenders come March. As far as the hunt for a perfect season goes, there have already been significant casualties. Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak was shot down in overtime by Utah. Top 10 teams Wisconsin and Kansas fell to Duke and Kentucky, respectively, in two titanic clashes. A strong Gonzaga team also came up just short against Arizona, which is easily the best team the Zags will play all season.

Ten teams now retain unblemished résumés through the first 28 days of action. And whereas in many seasons there are multiple mid-majors who feast on weak teams and get through the first month without a loss, that’s not the case this year. Two of the 10 come from non-power conferences, but neither is a fluke – both are decent bets for an at-large bid come March (if they don’t win their conference tournaments, of course). And only one of the 10 might be considered a total fluke. Let’s now take a look at these 10 teams, their remaining schedules, the biggest threats to their unbeaten records, and their chances to progress into January, February and beyond, unscathed.

Note: teams listed in order of KenPom probability of an undefeated regular season as of December 11, 2014.

Given Kentucky's Talent, Coaching and Conference, the Wildcats Easily Have the Best Shot to go Unbeaten (credit: USA Today)

Given Kentucky’s Talent, Coaching and Conference, the Wildcats Easily Have the Best Shot to Go Unbeaten (credit: USA Today)

  1. Kentucky (10-0) | Probability of perfect regular season: 4.6%

“Kentucky” and “undefeated” have been appearing in the same sentence a lot ever since the Wildcats demolished Kansas in Indianapolis in mid-November, and the Wildcats are by far the most likely team to accomplish the feat. KenPom’s model in fact probably undersells their chances. The biggest potential impediment to the notion might actually be the three-game stretch that begins this weekend in Lexington with a visit from North Carolina. Kentucky then plays UCLA in Chicago next weekend followed by a true road game at Louisville. The third of those three games is particularly tough, but John Calipari will have a week ahead of time to prepare for his team’s biggest rivalry game. And with the SEC down this year – like, waaaaay down – if Kentucky can get through these next three, the possibility of an unbeaten regular season is quite real. A February 7 trip to Florida could present a challenge if the Gators correct some of their current issues, but other than that, the toughest other conference games are either at Georgia, at LSU or at South Carolina. I’d put Kentucky’s chances to run the table somewhere around 15 percent.

  1. Duke (8-0) | Probability of perfect regular season: 1.1%

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O26 Game of the Week: Gonzaga in Tucson, UTEP-Colorado State, More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 3rd, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Gonzaga (7-0) at Arizona (6-0) – 5:15 PM ET, ESPN, Saturday

Following the Wildcats defeat of San Diego State in the Maui Invitational, this weekend’s Gonzaga-Arizona matchup might now be the unofficial showdown for ‘Best in the West’ – the outcome of which could go a long way in determining the region’s top-seed come Selection Sunday.

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Both teams have notched impressive early-season victories – SMU and St. John’s for the Bulldogs, Kansas State and SDSU for the Wildcats – both possess seven-plus-foot frontcourt players, athletic wings and veteran point guards, and each squad is led by a coach who’s won a bunch of games over the past decade. Sean Miller’s group pounded Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs are a much different, much deeper unit in 2014-15; Kevin Pangos is back to full-health and Mark Few added transfers Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer in the offseason, along with impact-freshman Domantas Sabonis (12.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG). As a result, it seems doubtful the Zags will turn the ball over 21 times like they did in March, nor are they likely to be as overwhelmed athletically. Then again, this year’s iteration does take place in Tuscon, against a Wildcat team thanks to the return of 6’8’’ forward Brandon Ashley (Arizona has not lost with him in the lineup since 2012-13) and the addition of an eventual lottery pick, freshman wing Stanley Johnson (13.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG). Considering the individual talent on both rosters, it’s hard to say exactly who or what will dictate the outcome – does the frontcourt battle between Przemek Karnowski and Kaleb Tarczewski decide things? Or will it be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s energy, or Pangos’ hot-shooting? – but regardless, the game is sure to be among the biggest and most impactful non-conference tilts this season.

More to Watch

  1. Wichita State (4-0) at Utah (5-1) – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Wednesday. Does Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak end in Salt Lake City? The Shockers have not looked prone to defeat so far in 2014-15, having drubbed New Mexico State, Memphis and Tulsa by an average of 17 points per game, but knocking off Utah on its home floor should prove much more difficult. The Utes boast one of the best all-around guards in America, 6’5’’ junior Delon Wright, and are markedly tougher in the Huntsman Center – they were a couple of two-point, overtime losses against Oregon and Arizona from going undefeated at home in 2013-14. Luckily, Gregg Marshall has a pair of experienced, All-America type guards in his own right – Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker – who should hold their own in the hostile environment. KenPom has this one pegged as one a near-coin flip (54% in the Wichita State’s favor), and if the Shockers can emerge victorious, their impressive streak might persist well into the New Year.
  2. UTEP (5-1) at Colorado State (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Colorado State won the Great Alaska Shootout and UTEP nearly won the Wooden Legacy over the holiday weekend, punctuating a very good month of November for both units. Even with the Miners falling to Washington on Sunday night, each group appears talented and capable enough to be in the at-large discussion by season’s end – making Wednesday’s game in Fort Collins an important opportunity for both. The Rams, led by senior point guard Daniel Bejarano (13.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and forward J.J. Avila (14.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG), have been very proficient from deep so far in 2014-15 (40.5% 3PT) and are the fifth-most experienced team in the country, while UTEP – paced by athletic, versatile forward Vince Hunter (five straight double-doubles to begin 2014-15) – boasts one of college basketball’s largest front lines.
  3. Wyoming (7-0) at SMU (4-3) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPNews, Friday. This is an important bellweather game for Wyoming, which has gotten off to an excellent start in 2014-15 – including a dominant victory over Colorado – but has yet to play a game outside of Laramie. The Mustangs, despite a rocky start without their best player, Markus Kennedy, are a good, well-rounded team that’s always tough inside Moody Coliseum. The Cowboys have found great looks near the basket this season (66.2% 2PT; second-best in NCAA) and SMU’s interior defense has been less dominant without Kennedy, so Wyoming’s ability to patiently run its sets in a road environment might be the key to success.
  4. Virginia (7-0) at Virginia Commonwealth (5-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday. VCU edged Illinois State on Tuesday night, but the Rams still seek a marquee victory after two disappointing losses last week. This home contest against newfound in-state rival Virginia provides that opportunity. In what should be an exercise in contrasting styles – VCU plays frenzied, uptempo basketball, whereas the Cavaliers like to grind on both ends of the court – the outcome may depend on whether Shaka Smart’s group can force Virginia into turnovers with any kind of regularity. If not, the preseason Atlantic 10 favorites – who already struggle to score in the half-court – could be in for a long night against Tony Bennett’s defense [See: Rutgers game].
  5. San Diego State (5-1) at Washington (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Pac-12 Network, Sunday. In another very good west coast showdown, the Aztecs will have to play without guard Aqeel Quinn (9.7 PPG), who broke his finger against Arizona last week. The Huskies have the advantage at point guard with Nigel Williams-Goss (14.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG) – important against an aggressive defensive unit like SDSU – but the Aztecs have more athletic wings, and both squads possess plenty of size underneath. Should be close.

Other Notables

  •  Northeastern (5-1) at Harvard (4-1) – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday.
  •  Long Beach State (4-4) at Stephen F. Austin (4-3) – 8:00PM, Friday.
  •  Boise State (4-2) at Saint Mary’s (5-0) – 11:30 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.
  •  Florida Gulf Coast (6-1) *at Massachusetts (5-3) – 2:00 PM ET, Sunday (*Springfield, MA).

Upset Special

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Yale (6-2) at Connecticut (3-2) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Friday. There are plenty of reasons why this upset can’t happen – I mean, we are talking about the defending National Champions…playing at home – so how about one reason why it can: Huskies guard Ryan Boatright might miss the contest with a sprained ankle. If he does sit out, Connecticut will be without the guy who leads it in scoring (20.8 PPG), assists (4 APG) and steals (1.6 SPG), who  plays virtually every minute of every game, who shoots almost one-third of the team’s shots while on the floor, and who racks up fouls in bunches. Yale, which looked good in a hard-fought loss to Providence last weekend, has bodies to bang with Connecticut on the glass and should do a better job taking care of the ball (turnovers have been a problem) against the Boatright-less Huskies. If Javier Duren, Jack Montague and Armani Cotton get hot from behind the arc and Justin Sears (15.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG) stays out of foul trouble, the Bulldogs have a chance.

Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups

  • Green Bay’s Kiefer Sykes at Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow – 7:00 PM ET, Thursday. Both Sykes (18.5 PPG) and Harrow (20.3 PPG) are small, explosive point guards who thrive on their quickness and ability to penetrate. They also happen to be two of college basketball’s best players, on two of the better teams at the mid-major level. You won’t want to miss this battle.
  • William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton at Richmond’s Kendall Anthony – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Another pair of talented scoring guards go at it tonight, as Thornton (17 PPG) and Anthony (15.3 PPG) square off in Richmond. At just 5’8’’, Anthony gives up a full eight inches to his William & Mary counterpart, so it seems doubtful they will actually wind up guarding each other. Either way, expect a bevy of points from these two guys and a hard-fought game between quality intra-state foes.
  • Valparaiso’s Alec Peters vs. someone(s) on Eastern Kentucky – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. This game is projected to be a toss-up, but I’m not sure who on the Colonels is going to stop Peters. The 6’9’’ forward has been nothing short of exceptional so far this season, averaging 19.3 PPG and shooting 55% 3PT. With that combination of size and shooting ability, Eastern Kentucky’s best hope might be to exploit Valpo’s weakness at point guard, turn the Crusaders over and limit Peters’ touches as much as possible.
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