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 Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

As conference play begins around the nation, the Mountain West appears as wide open at the top of the standings as it has been in some time. Let’s dig into this week’s awards and power rankings.

Team of the Week

New Mexico – It wasn’t a very fun non-conference slate around Albuquerque, with injuries and inexperience compounding en route to a loss at Grand Canyon as the topper for a rough early season. But things started to look up in the Lobos’ first week of conference play, with not just two wins, but a win over Top 25 Colorado State on Saturday evening. After taking their lumps early in the season, newcomers Sam Logwood, Jordan Goodman and Tim Jacobs, in particular, had their share of impressive performances this week, while just about everybody on the team had something to feel good about. Well, everybody, that is, except sophomore guard Cullen Neal, who will miss the rest of the season due to his ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since the third game of the season.

Sam Logwood Had A Break-Out Game In The Lobos Win Over Colorado State (Roberto Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

Sam Logwood Had A Break-Out Game In The Lobos Win Over Colorado State (Roberto Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

Player of the Week

Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming – Nance all but willed his team to a 2-0 start in conference play, averaging 23.5 points, 9.0 boards, 2.0 blocks, 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists per game while playing all but two of the Cowboys’ 80 minutes of action this week. Oh, and throw in a 64.8% eFG while less than year removed from a torn ACL. Stud.

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RTC Rewind: Virginia Survives, Others Not So Lucky…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 5th, 2015

Last Tuesday, in the first Weekly Primer of conference play this season, I wrote the following: “The beginning of conference play is important, not just because attention ratchets up and the momentous games come in droves, but because these first few weeks are full of realizations. This is when we start to get a true feel for individual teams.” A little later on, I concluded the paragraph with this: “We’ll learn a lot these next few weeks. Or at the very least, we’ll think we have.” With one week in the books – for some, two games; for others, one game; for still others, none – it’s time to start making decisions. What do we think we know? Which 2-0 conference starts are flukes? Which upsets are signs of bigger and better things to come? Which conference races are starting to take shape? Which are still complete crapshoots? These are the types of questions to consider.

Headliner: Virginia 89, Miami 80 (2OT)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia is still undefeated… but barely. After controlling much of Saturday’s contest at Miami, Virginia’s usually-stout defense was carved up late, and the Cavs eventually needed a clutch Justin Anderson three to stave off their first loss of the season. But while this was a game that should have been more comfortable for the defending ACC champions, this shouldn’t reflect negatively on them. In fact, it further drives home the point that Virginia isn’t just a defensive juggernaut. The Cavaliers can score, too, which is what makes them a top-five team in the country. But what originally looked like smooth sailing for Tony Bennett’s team turned into a perfect example of just how hard it is to go unbeaten in college basketball. Virginia escaped in Coral Gables, but the alarm bells that were sounding during overtime once again alerted the nation that anything can happen in conference play. Miami entered Saturday’s game having lost three of its last five contests by double figures, including a 28-point defeat to Eastern Kentucky. But when conference foes meet, they are generally in the same ballpark athletically. That means all it takes is an outstanding performance here, a subpar one there, sprinkled with a little underdog luck, and an upset is brewing. Louisville almost proved that point as well late Sunday at Wake Forest. Virginia and Duke are both really good teams, but neither will run the table. Kentucky might be a different story in the SEC, but the ACC is just too murderous this season.

And then there were three…

While Virginia scraped by Miami, Saturday wasn’t nearly as kind to three of the six remaining undefeated teams. For Colorado State and TCU, that’s probably no surprise. TCU had feasted on the nation’s weakest schedule, and the Horned Frogs are still a bubble outsider until they show they can win games in the Big 12. Colorado State had won an unsustainably high number of close games, and a trip to New Mexico proved to be its tipping point. The big name that fell over the weekend, though, was Villanova. The Wildcats traveled to Seton Hall on Saturday, but their lack of a true go-to scorer — the generally reliable Ryan Arcidiacono was dreadful — did them in. As a result, Villanova far too often settled for three-pointers outside of the natural flow of its offense, and, as other teams with similar makeups can attest – I’m looking at you, Iowa State – that is a recipe for an upset. Villanova can’t change the composition of its lineup, and that’s why the Wildcats will remain a step or two below the top tier of teams nationally.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 31st, 2014

It’s been awhile since we checked in on the Mountain West. But with conference play set to begin on New Year’s Eve, it is time we get all caught up with the state of the league. We can break the league into three broad tiers: the conference favorites (San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming, in some order); an intriguing group of talented teams with recent success in the middle (New Mexico, Boise State and UNLV); and everybody else.

San Diego State's Offense Has Been Awful, But They're Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West (Stephen Dunn)

San Diego State’s Offense Has Been Awful, But They’re Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West. (Stephen Dunn/AP)

The Championship Tier: San Diego State came into the season as the clear-cut favorite in the conference. Somewhere in the middle of an egregious display of offense in a 36-point outing at Washington, that prognosis changed somewhat. With Colorado State out to a 13-0 start, the Rams are making their case as a challenger to the returning champions, while Wyoming is trying to claim the name Dunk City on their way to a big role in the conference championship chase. But really, go back and look at who either of those last two teams have beaten. Both have wins over Colorado and New Mexico State as among their best wins. The Rams can throw in wins over Georgia State, UTEP and UC Santa Barbara for flavor, but the biggest accomplishment for both teams is really the absence of bad losses. Meanwhile, the Aztecs, despite those three losses and offensive issues, has wins over Utah and BYU, both of which are better than anything on Colorado State or Wyoming’s ledger. And, just realistically, we’ve seen Steve Fisher succeed with atrocious offense backed up by excellent defense; it has been their M.O. for the past two years at least. While this level of offensive ineptitude is concerning, and the Aztecs are no longer the prohibitive favorite in the league, smart money still puts San Diego State a notch above the competition. Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Weekly Primer: The Wait is Over, Conference Season is Here…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 30th, 2014

The wait is over. The wait is finally over. For a month and a half now, college basketball has kept us intermittently engrossed. There have been glimpses of the beauty, sniffs of the joy. But beginning today, we get to dive in. We get the full dosage. We get to bask in all the glory. The beginning of conference play is important, not just because attention ratchets up and the momentous games come in droves, but because these first few weeks are full of realizations. This is when we start to get a true feel for individual teams. This is when preseason “underrated” statements are validated and gaudy records against weak competition are exposed. It’s too early to make sweeping judgments about conferences as wholes, but at last, the balance of power within those leagues will start to reveal itself. We’ll learn a lot these next few weeks. Or at the very least, we’ll think we have. And right now, that’s good enough.

Three for the Money

We’re actually going to bypass this section for now because there aren’t many single games that stand out this week. There are no clashes between conference heavyweights. In fact, there are only a couple of contests between two ranked teams. Instead, this week is about collections of games. It’s about the Big Ten tip-off event on Tuesday. It’s about the quintet of Big East games on Wednesday. It’s about the first full west coast Friday night in the Pac-12. And it’s about a jam-packed Saturday all across the nation.

A Juicy Big Ten Triple-header

Maryland Begins Its Opening Big Ten Season Today (USA Today Images)

Maryland Begins Its Opening Big Ten Season Today (USA Today Images)

The two worst teams in the league, Northwestern and Rutgers, actually get things started today at Noon, but we can pretend that game isn’t happening. The real curtain-raiser is the afternoon tripleheader on ESPN2. First, Iowa travels to Columbus to take on Ohio State in a rematch of last year’s upset of the then-No. 3 Buckeyes. Without Roy Devyn Marble in the lineup, though, the Hawkeyes aren’t the same team they were a year ago, more closely resembling the team that closed last season on a 1-7 slide. They lack consistent scoring punch in the backcourt, and that could mean trouble against an Ohio State team of which perimeter defense is a legitimate strength. KenPom only gives the Hawkeyes a 19 percent chance to enter Value City Arena and get a win.

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O26 Weekly Awards: St. Francis, Denzel Livingston, Jeff Neubauer & Texas Southern

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 23rd, 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

St. Francis (PA). After going 7-6 down the stretch last season and winning 10-plus games for the first time since 2011, St. Francis (PA) entered this season with more optimism and higher expectations than it has had in a while. Not only were the Red Flash picked fourth in the NEC preseason poll, but they even received a first-place vote – major respect for a program that hadn’t finished in the upper half of the league for a full decade. After picking up road wins at Duquesne and Rutgers this week, however, it appears that respect was well-warranted – and maybe even insufficient.

St. Francis (PA) is our O26 Team of the Week. (Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

St. Francis (PA) is our O26 Team of the Week. (Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

In both victories, SFU got the job done with defense, rebounding and strong efforts from forwards Earl Brown and Ronnie Drinnon. On Wednesday, Rob Krimmel’s bunch held the Dukes’ usually-proficient offense to just 52 points on a season-low 0.83 PPP, crushing the home team on the offensive glass – despite entering the night as the worst offensive rebounding team in the NEC – and maintaining a comfortable lead for all 40 minutes. Brown led the Red Flash with 16 points in the triumph while Drinnon grabbed 15 rebounds, a pair of solid outings that still couldn’t match what they accomplished on Saturday. As if man-handling an A-10 team was just another day at the office, SFU then headed to Rutgers, fell behind by 16 points, came out of the locker room unfazed, and used a 27-11 second-half run to beat the Scarlet Knights, 73-68, over the weekend. Brown’s 23 points and Drinnon’s 16 boards again paced Krimmel’s team, and the win – SFU’s first over a Big Ten school other than Penn State – turned heads across college basketball. Now 6-4 and nearing the KenPom top-150, the Red Flash are starting to look more like ‘NEC favorites’ than merely ‘NEC contenders.’

Honorable Mentions: Quinnipiac (2-0: vs. Lehigh, vs. Oregon State); American (2-0: at LaSalle, vs. Mount St. Mary’s); St. Francis (PA); VCU (2-0: at Belmont, at Cincinnati), Cal Poly (2-1: at San Francisco, vs. Northeastern (N), vs. Gonzaga (N-loss)) Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Rewind: Drubbings, Drama, and Misfortune in Michigan

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 22nd, 2014

If you’re a fan of the sport, you know the feeling: of the impossible-to-keep-up-with, full slate of games; of the constant twists and turns; of the incessant storylines. It’s the feeling of conference play. It’s the feeling of a mid-January Saturday. It’s the feeling of a day on which college basketball is king. In an awkward, premature way, that’s kind of what this past Saturday felt like. It didn’t have the same intensity. It didn’t have the same weight or meaning. But, if you were so inclined, you could have plopped yourself on a couch and let college basketball gloriously eat away your entire day. And given how the day and the games played out, you would’ve been happy with your decision.

It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford's UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

It Was That Kind of Day For Steve Alford’s UCLA Team (USA Today Images)

Or, at the very least, happier than Steve Alford.

Headliner: Insanity in Philly. They used to meet at the Garden on Fridays in mid-March. They used to battle on Big Mondays in February; on Saturdays in January. Rather unfortunately, they no longer do. But whereas for others, conference realignment has terminated great rivalries, Syracuse and Villanova play on. And even if they do so in mid-December, we should all be thankful that that is the case. Saturday showed us why.

Saturday also showed us why you NEVER, EVER LEAVE A BASKETBALL GAME EARLY unless the result is entirely out of question. Hundreds of spectators had already filed out of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia when undefeated Villanova trailed unranked Syracuse by five with 17 seconds to play. The Orange had led wire to wire, and it appeared as if the Wildcats’ valiant comeback attempt would fall just short. But then chaos ensued. Josh Hart hit a 3. Trevor Cooney fell down. A pass intended for Rakeem Christmas was broken up. Players scrambled. The ball found Ryan Arcidiacono. He found JayVaughn Pinkston. He found the basket. The place exploded. Villanova students jumped up and down, mobbing each other out of sheer joy. When overtime began, they hadn’t yet stopped. There were still five extra minutes to play, but, even though Jay Wright’s team still hadn’t held one lead all game, the result seemed inevitable. Villanova was going to stay unbeaten.

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RTC Top 25: Week Five

Posted by Walker Carey on December 22nd, 2014

After a week of chalk, the unexpectedness of college basketball reemerged this week with several shocking results. First, previous #22 Miami (FL) was blown out by 28 points at home to Eastern Kentucky. An even more shocking upset took place Saturday night in East Lansing when Texas Southern – which entered the game with a 1-8 record – defeated previous #19 Michigan State in an overtime stunner. While things went against the grain for the Hurricanes and Spartans, they were certainly status quo last week for #1 Kentucky and #5 Virginia. The top-ranked Wildcats scored the first 24 points of the game en route to a laugher of an 83-44 victory over UCLA on Saturday. One day later, the Cavaliers held Harvard to just 27 total points in a dominant 49-point victory of its own.

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 1.51.52 AM

Quick n’ Dirty Analysis.

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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 Games of the Week: Utah-BYU, Northern Iowa-VCU, Gonzaga-UCLA…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 10th, 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. 

Utah (6-1) at Brigham Young (7-2) – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Wednesday.

Perhaps a look-ahead spot for Utah, with Kansas looming on Saturday? Not a chance. Basketball matters in the Beehive State, and these intrastate rivals – who have continued playing each other annually, despite both leaving the Mountain West in 2011 – might be its top two programs. The Cougars boast the 11th-most efficient offense in America, led by arguably the nation’s premier scorer, Tyler Haws, who comes in having scored 30-plus points in three of his past four outings. Joining him is versatile point guard Kyle Collinsworth (13.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.8 APG) and a cast of shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard in bunches. Guard Anson Winder (50% 3FG) has been a perimeter-shooting X-factor in the early-going, reaching double-figures in eight of the team’s first nine games. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for Dave Rose’s uptempo bunch.

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Stopping Utah, however, might be cause for concern. Everyone knows that Delon Wright, the Utes’ 6’5’’ point guard, is really good – he might be more versatile than Collinsworth – but the bigger match-up issue could be seven-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl. The Aussie has been a revelation for Larry Krystkowiak, flashing an advanced offensive skill set (10-of-10 FG against North Dakota), muscle on the glass (leads the nation in OReb%) and strong interior defense (15th in block percentage). If he plays like he did against Wichita State (12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks), the big man will be tough for BYU’s foul-prone frontcourt to handle. Utah is the more balanced team – a top 50 squad in both offensive and defensive efficiency – and might be the better team, but the Marriott Center should be louder than ever with the rival Utes coming to town. You’ll want to flip over to ESPNU tonight.

More to Watch

  1. Northern Iowa (8-0) at VCU (5-3) – 7:00 PM ET, NBCSN, Saturday.  Will VCU lose twice in a row at the Siegel Center? The Rams’ 22-game home winning streak was broken last Saturday in a loss to Virginia, and they will certainly have their hands full against a Northern Iowa unit that just cracked the Top 25. Believe it or not, these teams are very familiar with each other – this will be their third meeting in the last four years – and the Panthers upset VCU in Cedar Falls last December. The Rams forced 16 turnovers in that game and nailed 10 three-pointers, but their interior defense was lackluster (UNI shot 67% 2FG) and they allowed Northern Iowa too many trips to the free throw line. Similar problems have plagued Shaka Smart’s bunch so far in 2014-15, which could be a problem against a team with lots of shooters and a newfound attack-first mentality (Panthers rank 22nd in FTA/FGA). Of course, VCU has capable shooters of its own and will amp up HAVOC in front of its always-raucous home crowd. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by AMurawa on December 3rd, 2014

This space could be used to write about how San Diego State looks to be clearly the class of the conference. Or how Colorado State and Wyoming are positioning themselves nicely for possible NCAA Tournament bids. Or how New Mexico and UNLV are in transition mode. Or how terrible the bottom of the conference is. But instead, how about that San Diego State/BYU game? Man, there were a lot of fanbases around the conference that enjoyed hating on BYU. And honestly, Cougar fans seemed to enjoy that a bit themselves. But you sure have to miss that type of rivalry. It will probably never happen because of some of the animosity between these schools and fanbases and BYU’s decision to bail on the Mountain West, but if I could have one wish for any change to be made in college basketball, well, it wouldn’t be to reignite this rivalry, it would be more along the lines of getting rid of the ten thousand timeouts per game that coaches get to call. But, if you gave me like 20 wishes? I’d make sure to include a yearly SDSU/BYU game in the mix there. It sure would be fun if these programs could do something like that in the interests of what is good for the game.

Team of the Week

San Diego State – They’ll hold this spot often this season, and we could certainly break rank and give this to Wyoming for its win over Colorado or to Colorado State for their Great Alaska Shootout win. But in the early going, the Mountain West is all about San Diego State as its flagship program. Sure, the Aztecs lost by two to Arizona in the Maui Invitational title, but while the other teams in the conference that aspire to national brands (that would be UNLV and New Mexico) struggle through transition periods, the Aztecs are carrying the banner proudly for the Mountain West. With Steve Fisher ready to keep things going on Montezuma Mesa, this Aztec team could be the school’s best. And, that’s saying something.

Steve Fisher Has Re-Upped With San Diego State And The Aztecs Are Rolling (Lenny Ignelzi, AP)

Steve Fisher Has Re-Upped With San Diego State And The Aztecs Are Rolling (Lenny Ignelzi, AP)

 

Player of the Week

Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming – Now ten months removed from an ACL tear, Nance is having his minutes limited early, but his production is still strong. Out of the gates, he’s averaged 14.7 points, 6.2 boards and solid numbers all the way across the rest of the stat sheet, with national ranks littering his KenPom profile. Yeah, the numbers are nice. And the wins are piling up. And the story is great. But any chance we get to honor one of the conference’s most likable players, we’ll take it.

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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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