Increasingly Balanced WCC Could Have Bright Future Ahead

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say… Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than it has in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15.

That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished eighth in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga managed to narrowly escape the Broncos’ challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the WCC Tournament title this week, but are these more balanced days here to stay and flourish in the WCC?

The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the WCC Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI and KenPom ranking of #9 is the best since the 2004-05 season, and there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post, honestly), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of its core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting improved teams to return in 2014-15.

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O26 Superlatives, Part II: CAA, C-USA, MAC, MEAC, MVC, SoCon, Summit & WCC…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2014

In Part II of our three-part series, we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from eight different O26 conferences: CAA, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, SoCon, Summit and WCC. In alphabetical order:

Colonial Athletic Association

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

  • Team of the Year – Delaware (22-9, 14-2). Not even early– and late-season suspensions of two of Delaware’s best players could stop the Blue Hens’ run to a CAA regular season title. Monte Ross’ up-tempo club raced off to an 11-0 start in conference play, amassing a large enough lead that preseason favorite Towson was never able to catch up.
  • Player of the Year – Jerelle Benimon – Towson. You want beastly numbers? How about these: In 32 games, the 6’8’’ Benimon averaged 18.9 points, 11.7 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, recorded an NCAA-best 20 double-doubles and reached the free throw line 258 times, good for sixth in the country.
  • Coach of the Year – Monté Ross – Delaware. Ross found a way to keep things together, to keep winning after guard Devon Saddler – the team’s leading scorer – missed seven games due to suspension early in the season and Jarvis Threatt – the team’s third-leading scorer – was suspended for the entire month of February.
  • Upset of the Year – Northeastern over Georgetown, 63-56. In the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, miles from Boston or Washington D.C., Scott Eatherton and the Huskies pounded Georgetown in the paint and pulled off an unexpected upset. Alas, it was another full month before Bill Coen’s bunch wound up back in the win column.
  • Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Johnathan Burroughs-Cook – College of Charleston. Burroughs-Cook cares not that you are D-II school or that he is playing in a preseason game—he will still annihilate your attempt to draw a charge.

Conference USA

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Conference Tournament Primer: West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on March 6th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Tournament Preview

There are some new contenders, some elevated expectations and the hint of upset in the air. But, in the end, will it add up to someone other than Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s winning the WCC Tournament title next Tuesday and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? Those two have played in the championship game for the past five years – Gonzaga winning three – and the first change in 2014 is that they will not repeat that engagement. The Gaels and the Zags are in the same half of this year’s bracket; their clash, if it comes, will be in the semifinals on Monday, and only one will emerge to contend for the championship.


The replacement of Saint Mary’s by BYU as the tourney’s second seed and the emergence of San Francisco as a legitimate championship contender is the first major change in the tournament makeup. BYU and San Francisco tied for second place behind Gonzaga in the conference standings, with BYU earning the second seed by virtue of a sweep over San Francisco, and Saint Mary’s limped in at fourth. The other major change is a requirement that all teams in the tournament play at least three games. Gone is the WCC’s controversial practice of granting the first and second finishers a bye to the semifinal round. For the last five years, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s had only a semifinal game to contend with before squaring off for the title.

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O26 Storylines: Harvard, the SWAC’s Strange Setup, Watch Green Bay, and Bid Thieves…

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 4th, 2014

It’s finally here. The first week of conference tournaments is now underway as we start to whittle down the number of teams with a “shot” at winning the NCAA Tournament. Let’s take a look at five major O26 storylines this week. (Note: Wichita State’s unbeaten season is undoubtedly the biggest storyline, but we’ll have a longer post on the Shockers up Thursday as Arch Madness begins in Saint Louis.)

Will Harvard be the first team to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament?

Will Harvard be the first team to clinch its NCAA Tournament berth? (Getty)

Will Harvard be the first team to clinch its NCAA Tournament berth? (Getty)

The Crimson will be the first official entrant to the Big Dance. Harvard gets two chances to pick up a win and clinch the Ivy League’s regular season title and automatic bid. The first opportunity comes Friday at Yale. Remember the Bulldogs are the only team to beat Harvard in league play this season, earning a 74-67 victory AT Harvard in early February. Yet the Crimson have come on strong as of late, winning six straight games to take a commanding two-game lead in the standings with two games left. Yale, on the other hand, has faltered down the stretch, losing two of three games. If Harvard fails to beat Yale, the Crimson can wrap things up Saturday at Brown. Ken Pomeroy gives Harvard a 71 percent and 70 percent chance to win those two games, respectively. If Harvard somehow gets swept this weekend, and Yale completes a weekend sweep versus Dartmouth, it will go to the one-game winner-take-all playoff. That seems like a long shot, though. Harvard will be able to pencil its name into the big bracket as soon as Friday night.

What the heck is going on with the SWAC?

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 27th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

Perris Blackwell is pulling down rebounds for Washington, De’End Parker is leading Cal State San Marcos to the top of NAIA ranks, and Cody Doolin is plotting his comeback next year at UNLV. But Rex Walters has commanded a resolute Gang of Six anchored by senior forward Cole Dickerson to propel San Francisco to the brink of second place in the WCC with an outside chance of tying for the title. By holding off hapless Saint Mary’s and still-struggling Pacific at home last week, the Dons moved to 11-5 in conference play and into a virtual tie with BYU for the second spot (the Cougars have a half-game lead by virtue of having played one more game). If the Dons sweep Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount this week in Southern California and BYU and Gonzaga stumble in their final contests, Walters’ embattled troops will have pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in WCC history.

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could record an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could earn itself an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

Gonzaga paved the way for this potential outcome by dropping both its road contests last week, first to an aroused BYU in Provo, and then to a scrappy San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. The Zags’ lack of depth was a factor in both losses, as Mark Few has narrowed his rotation to exclude anyone besides Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, Jr. in the frontcourt. Providence transfer Gerard Coleman, Louisville transfer Angel Nunez and two freshmen are anchored on the bench as the Zags plow unsteadily towards another conference championship and a top seed in the WCC Tournament, opening March 6 in Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Resume Review: BYU, Saint Joseph’s, Stephen F. Austin Up; Gonzaga & Dayton Down…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 27th, 2014

It’s hard to believe that we’re just several days from the start of the O26 conference tournaments. While most of those first-week tourneys feature one-bid conferences, the West Coast Conference is hoping that it won’t fall under that category for the first time since 2011. Selection Sunday is just over two weeks away, so let’s take a look at the O26 teams that helped and hurt their at-large candidacies this past week.



BYU is right back in the mix. (Getty)

  • BYU (20-10, #33 RPI): BYU got the win it desperately needed. The Cougars were living on a strong non-conference schedule — 27th-best according to Ken Pomeroy — and strong wins against Texas and Stanford. But BYU was taking hit after hit in WCC play, with losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Portland and Pacific. The Cougars picked up a huge resume win last Thursday night with that 73-65 victory against Gonzaga. Sure, 10 overall losses and five losses in conference play isn’t inspiring, but BYU now boasts three wins over probable NCAA Tournament teams. The Selection Committee has to find 36 at-large teams to fill out the field somehow, and BYU now looks to be in position to earn a bid. There are certainly stumbling blocks the rest of the way, as BYU closes the regular season Saturday at San Diego, no easy place to win this season. KenPom gives BYU a 61 percent chance of winning that game, but a loss there and/or an early exit in the WCC Tournament would cause things to look dicey again. If the Cougars win out until the WCC Tournament championship game, though, they’ll go dancing. Projected seed for now: #12 Read the rest of this entry »
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Morning Five: 02.27.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on February 27th, 2014


  1. Coming into the season if you would have guessed that Ole Miss would have a significant discipline problem you probably would have guessed it was coming from Marshall Henderson. It has turned out that Henderson has behaved relatively well and it is instead sophomore guard Derrick Millinghaus, who was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules yesterday. Millinghaus was averaging 7.2 points and 2.4 assists per game this season so his absence will certainly be felt, but fortunately for the Rebels they have enough depth in the backcourt that they should be able to withstand his loss.
  2. Barring a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana will not be back in the NCAA Tournament this season and at most will be looking at a lower-level post-season tournament. So it was surprising to see Tom Crean announce that Hanner Mosquera-Perea was back on the team after missing just 11 days and two games following his DUI arrest on February 14. As you can see from the comments on that post even the Indiana fan base appears divided on Crean’s decision. To be honest we cannot really understand why Crean would let Mosquera-Perea come back to the team this season unless he was concerned that Mosquera-Perea might transfer if he was held out for the rest of the season.
  3. The BYU Honor Code made national headlines with its restrictions in particular the case involving Brandon Davies. Now it appears that the school is changing the way it deals with its Honor Code in relation to how much it discloses to the media. The school will now only release information on the violations if it is a matter of public record or if the student-athletes initiates the conversation on the violation. The new rules regarding disclosure of information certainly makes sense since the old policy would appear to violate the student’s right to privacy. This obviously won’t address the issues some people have with actual Honor Code, but it is a big step in the right direction in terms of the student-athlete’s privacy rights.
  4. Duke might be taking the crown for this year’s top recruiting class, but that is not stopping John Calipari from already starting to put another ridiculous recruiting class next year. His latest 5-star addition is Chicago junior shooting guard Charles Matthews  who committed to Kentucky yesterday. Matthews, ranked 12th in ESPN’s class of 2015 rankings, chose Kentucky over Illinois, Kansas, Marquette, and Michigan State. Obviously, it is very early in that recruiting cycle (only 10 of ESPN’s top 60 recruits have committed so far) and Matthews is Kentucky’s first commitment for the class of 2015, but we are fairly confident that Calipari will be putting together yet another blockbuster class. For a comprehensive breakdown of what Matthews is bringing to Lexington check out Jeff Borzello’s excellent breakdown on Matthews’ commitment.
  5. The topic of rushing the court (or whatever term you prefer) seems to be coming increasing scrutiny these days. Most observers do not necessarily issue with the concept of rushing the court or the exuberance that college students have for the game (the latter is part of what makes the sport so special). The issue that some have (and one that we occasionally poke fun at on Twitter) is how or when certain crowds should rush the court. Gary Parrish argues that an argument can be made for banning court storms all together, but it is pointless to argue the relative merit of one versus the other. We agree with Parrish to a degree and are generally ok with most court storms as long as they don’t feel forced. It might feel weird to see students at some school rush the court, but it is probably unreasonable to expect kids between the age of 18 and 22 to understand all of the tradition that some of these programs have or even to have the same sensibilities as we do.
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#rushthetrip: Wrapping Up 12 Games, 17 Days and 5,476 Miles on the Road

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 25th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and so is the case for my 17-day journey through college basketball’s Western lands. Large cities and small towns alike took turns as temporary homes, while the miles of passing scenery morphed from desert to snowy mountains and back to desert again, with plenty of change in between. The whirlwind ride reinforced the breadth of variety in the towns, arenas, and fan bases that stand behind Divison I’s basketball programs — only further mythologizing the notion of a “typical college town.” They make you work out West (note to future college basketball road trippers: the Heartland will be far kinder to your car’s odometer), but the payoff was worth every exhausting mile. By the numbers and some personal favorites, here’s the story of my trip.

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It's Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It’s Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

#rushthetrip, By The Numbers

  • Days: 17
  • States: 10
  • Games: 12
  • OT Games: 3
  • Miles Driven: 5,476
  • Distance from Tucson, AZ, to Spokane, WA: 1,494 miles
  • Tickets Received: 2
  • Biggest Arena: BYU (capacity of 20,900, sixth in D-I)
  • Smallest Arena: Sacramento State (capacity of 1,200, 348th in D-I)
  • Most Points (Individual): Stephen Madison, 42 (Idaho)
  • Smallest Margin Of Victory: 1, Boise State over New Mexico
  • Largest Margin Of Victory: 15, Gonzaga over Pepperdine
  • Best Team (by KenPom ranking): Arizona (#1)
  • Worst Team (by KenPom ranking): Southern Utah (#351)

#rushthetrip Favorites

Best Venues

  1. The Pit, Albuquerque, NM
  2. Marriott Center, Provo, UT
  3. McKale Center, Tucson, AZ

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#rushthetrip Day 16: Marriott Center Experience Uniquely Amazing

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 22nd, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

With Thursday night’s visit to Provo for Gonzaga vs. BYU, the trip was poised to wrap up much like it had started 16 days ago in The Pit – in one of college basketball’s loudest and greatest gymnasiums. BYU’s Marriott Center is the sixth largest home arena in the country and is oft-described as one of the toughest places to play out West. Still, though, I was unsure of what to expect. My curiosity/ignorance extended beyond the Marriott Center to both the university and Provo; the Mormon presence in town (98% LDS) would obviously be influential, but where exactly would the manifestations of faith appear in this college town – and college basketball atmosphere?

BYU's Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

BYU’s Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

Everyone was extremely nice in town. Provo is not the first place I’ve made this observation about, but the kindness here is ubiquitous enough to disarm someone unused to it (me). It didn’t matter if they were pumping gas or cleaning hotel rooms — everyone seemed legitimately happy with whatever it was they were doing at the time I ran across them. While it did feel a bit contrived at times, the friendliness was refreshing and welcomed by a weary traveler nearing the end of his journey.

After a day of familiarizing myself with the affable denizens of Provo, I entered the Marriott Center expecting 20,000 of the most genteel college basketball fans you could find. Boy, was I wrong. I don’t want to say that the BYU faithful offered the most aggressive display of ref-riding I’ve ever seen, but they didn’t miss the mark by much. There were a couple of shaky pro-Gonzaga calls early, but the Cougars wound up +5 in free throw attempts, and Gonzaga bigs Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski managed only 20 and 19 minutes, respectively, due to foul trouble. So while I didn’t find significant merit in the boisterous shouts of the fans, their relentlessness was both admirable and effective. More than anything else, home court advantage is for shifting close decisions from the referees in favor of your team; I cannot imagine an official being unaffected in the environment I witnessed there. I’m no Mormon, but I’m now pretty confident that LDS doctrines must not include any prohibition relating to the verbal treatment of basketball referees.

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Who Won the Week? Wahoos, BYU, Lumberjacks, But Not Hoosiers or Hoyas

Posted by rtmsf on February 21st, 2014


Who Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game. That’s tough to do when the closest game in the week is two states away. There’s four schools, in four different conferences, within 90 minutes of his house. Figure it out, schedule-makers.

WINNER: Virginia

The Cavaliers picked off a pair of pesky road games, winning at a bubble-bound Clemson and pesky rival Virginia Tech, and  – thanks to timely losses from Syracuse and Duke – have the inside track on their first outright ACC title since 1980-81, when Ralph Sampson was a sophomore. In Saturday’s 63-58 win against the Tigers, four Virginia players scored in double digits, led by senior guard Joe Harris’ 16. Tuesday’s 57-53 win over the Hokies was a little uglier, with sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon leading the team with 12 points, but he and Harris combined to shoot 5 for 21 from the field. The molasses-slow Hoos haven’t crested 70 possessions in a game this season, but their 10-game winning streak dates back to a 69-65 loss at Duke on Jan. 13, their only stumble in conference play. Their last four games are Notre Dame, Miami and Syracuse at home before a road trip to Maryland.

Malcolm Brogdon Has Helped the Cavs Turn the Corner (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty)

Malcolm Brogdon Has Helped the Cavs Turn the Corner
(Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty)

(Related winners:  Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who coaches the best basketball you don’t ever want to watch. Related losers: Duke, which after losing to rival North Carolina cannot win the conference unless Syracuse and Virginia to both lose each game they play not against each other; Syracuse, no longer undefeated and now the only top-20 team with a loss to a team outside the top 150 of the RPI.)

LOSER: Indiana

It’s tough to tell which is falling apart faster: the Hoosiers’ season or Assembly Hall. Indiana got smoked by in-state rival Purdue 82-64 for its third straight loss and now sits at 14-11 and 4-8 in Big Ten play. Cold shooting did the Hoosiers in, with a 39 percent effective field goal rate against a team that usually gives up nearly 48 percent effective shooting. Oh, and Tuesday’s game against Iowa was postponed when a large piece of metal came unfastened from storied Assembly Hall’s roof, falling into the seats. Since then, more pieces of the ceiling have been found to be unsound, so who knows what’s going to happen in that regard. But as poorly as the Hoosiers are playing, maybe any distraction is welcome. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Storylines: BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Louis…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 21st, 2014

There’s a lot going on in the O26 conferences right now. Green Bay just became the first team to clinch a regular-season title after defeating Valparaiso on Thursday night. The league races in the Big Sky, Big South, Conference USA and several other conferences became more interesting. The battle on the bubble continues to heat up. Let’s take a look at this week’s O26 storylines.

BYU is inching closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.

BYU is inching closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.

What does BYU’s win against Gonzaga mean?

I believe BYU’s 73-65 victory Thursday night against Gonzaga has a two-pronged effect. First, the Cougar’s win puts them back on the right side of the bubble. Sure, the 19-10 overall record and 11-5 mark in WCC play doesn’t look that great. But BYU boasts the 43rd-best schedule in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. BYU now has wins at Stanford, against Texas, vs. Saint Mary’s (twice) and against Gonzaga. That’s not too shabby. And yes, there are some really bad losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Portland and Pacific. But with the weak state of the bubble, BYU’s resume currently projects as tournament-worthy. Should the Cougars be able to avoid a loss to either Portland or San Diego in the final two games of the regular season, as well as make a run to at least the WCC Tournament semifinals, BYU should be headed to the NCAA Tournament. The effect part of Thursday’s result deals with Gonzaga. Is its NCAA Tournament bid safe? I don’t think so. It’s hard to believe that a Gonzaga team with a 23-5 record isn’t a lock for the Big Dance. But if you take a closer look at the Bulldog’s resume, it’s easy to become skeptical. Their best win? West Virginia? BYU?  Then add in a bad loss at Portland. That’s not exactly a stone-cold lock. Gonzaga finishes with three road games — San Diego, Pacific, Saint Mary’s. If the Zags lose on of those three and fail to win the WCC’s automatic bid, I’m not so sure Gonzaga is a tournament team. KenPom projects Gonzaga to win its last three regular-season contests. That should be enough. But Gonzaga is far from a lock at this point.

Should we be skeptical of SLU in the NCAA Tournament?

There’s one reason I pose this question. There’s just been so many close calls for Saint Louis this season. The Billikens have won six games by four or fewer points this season, including the last three games against George Mason in overtime, VCU and La Salle. SLU has been able to pull out these games seemingly all season long, except for a couple against Wichita State and Wisconsin. There’s something to be said about starting five seniors who keep calm and find a way to win no matter what. SLU’s defense is great, rated second in the country according to Ken Pomeroy by allowing 88.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s stout. But the offense is just 144th with 106.1 points per 100 possessions. Last year we saw SLU, as a #4 seed, fall in the second round to #12 seed Oregon. I worry we could see the same scenario play out this season: The Billikens get matched up with an uber-athletic team in the second round, have trouble scoring and can’t hold the team in the 50s. SLU is just such a puzzle to me. I could see them in the FInal Four, but I could also see them out in the second round.

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O26 Game of the Week: SDSU at The Pit, Gonzaga-BYU, Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 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.

San Diego State (22-2) at New Mexico (19-5) – 10:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game — this week — is a huge one for New Mexico. If it can avenge an early loss to UNLV tonight in Las Vegas, Craig Neal’s team will return home on Saturday with a chance to pull even with San Diego State atop the Mountain West standings and solidify itself as an NCAA Tournament lock. Up to this point, the only major feather in the Lobos’ cap is a win over Cincinnati back in early December, so beating the Aztecs this weekend would not only shake up the conference race, it would also carry serious resume-boosting implications. Not to mention bragging rights in a match-up that features two of the best fan bases west of the Mississippi.

Kendall Williams and the Lobos  welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

Kendall Williams and the Lobos welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

In fact, considering how closely matched the game is on paper, New Mexico’s 15,000-plus screaming fans might very well become a deciding factor when it’s all said and done. According to KenPom, the Lobos are pegged as the slight favorites with a win probability of 54 percent, a figure that will dip considerably when they head to San Diego in early March. But first they get to host the Aztecs in The Pit, their menacing, subterranean arena in which they boast an all-time winning mark well over 80 percent. Not many visiting teams escape unscathed. For San Diego State fans, the silver lining is this: Steve Fisher units have gone an admirable 6-8 in the daunting stadium since he took over in 1999.

Of course, the outcome will ultimately be decided on the court, and there, each team will have distinct advantages. For New Mexico, the ability to get interior scoring from its imposing frontcourt duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow will be critical. The big men combined to average 36 points and 15 rebounds in the Lobos’ two victories over the Aztecs last year; in the one loss, they mustered just two points and nine boards total. Paint production will be especially important considering that opposing guards Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard are stingy perimeter defenders, capable of minimizing Kendall Williams’ usually-considerable offensive production. San Diego State, meanwhile, hopes to continue playing the excellent team defense that has limited opponents to around 0.94 points per possession this season, good for 17th in the country. They are long, fast, physical and will suffocate teams that are ill-prepared. On the other end, the Aztecs are led by the gifted Thames — who’s likely to win Mountain West Player of the Year — and the team-wide ability to garner second-chance looks by crashing the offensive glass. Forwards Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien must out-bang the sizable New Mexico frontcourt if San Diego State hopes to generate enough offense to survive Albuquerque. The game will be high-stakes and high-energy, so flip to The Deuce and check it out when Saturday night rolls around.

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