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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O26 Resume Review: Bubble Watch Edition

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 19th, 2014

We are less than a month from Selection Sunday. The bubble picture is as unsettled as ever. So what better time to do a complete O26 resume review? Instead of reviewing teams that helped and hurt their profiles this past week, however, let’s take a look at all the legitimate at-large candidates among the O26 conferences.

Atlantic 10

  • Locks: Saint Louis
  • Should be in: Massachusetts, VCU
  • Work to do: George Washington, Richmond, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton

There is no way SLU (23-2) misses at this point. The Billikens are ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1964, boast a #11 RPI and hold a three-game advantage in the loss column over VCU, Saint Joseph’s and Richmond with six games to play. The Atlantic 10 as a whole looks like a safe bet for four bids, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see the league get six teams into the NCAA Tournament this season.

Seven Atlantic 10 teams have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.

Seven Atlantic 10 teams have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.

  • Massachusetts (20-5, #19 RPI). The Minutemen are still in pretty good position to make the NCAA Tournament. Sure, a home loss to cellar-dwelling George Mason last week looks awful, but strong wins against New Mexico, Providence, BYU and LSU in the non-conference slate make this a solid overall profile. Home games with VCU and SLU, as well as a road tilt at Dayton, highlight the remaining schedule.
  • VCU (20-6, #23 RPI). All in all, not a bad week for the Rams. VCU took care of business at home against George Washington before falling 64-62 at SLU. A win there might have bumped the Rams up into the lock category, but they stay here for now. The early season win at Virginia continues to look better and better as the Cavaliers are on fire. VCU travels to UMass on Friday and hosts SLU on March 1.
  • George Washington (20-6, #37 RPI). George Washington rebounded Tuesday night after a rough week where the Colonials were walloped by 17 points at VCU before falling by six to UMass at home. Those were two huge opportunities for GW to cement its place in the field of 68. Then the Colonials topped fellow bubble-dweller Richmond on Tuesday, thus taking a step closer to the field. George Washington can pretty much count itself in with a win at Saint Louis this weekend. The Colonials still can hang their hats on a great neutral-court win against Creighton way back on December 1. Read the rest of this entry »
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#rushthetrip Day Nine: The Gonzaga Machine Keeps On Rolling

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 16th, 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.

Gonzaga has long held a niche all their own in college basketball. Sure, other “mid-majors” have found national relevance since Casey Calvary, Richie Frahm and the Zags rose to prominence in the late 90’s, but none of those programs have been able to match Gonzaga when it comes to year-in, year-out consistency. The Bulldogs may still be seeking the Final Four run that would put an exclamation point on the era, but their run of WCC regular season dominance — titles in 12 of the last 13 seasons – demands respect, even if their recent Tournament struggles have many believing the Zags to be overvalued annually. That transformation from underrated to overrated is bound to happen when you make winning look as routine as Mark Few and the gang have over the years, especially when new seasons provide little in the way of statement opportunities. The arrival of the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday night was surely not one of those rare chances for a Zag proclamation, but I was just excited to get a look at The Kennel, no matter the opponent.

The McCarthey Athletics Center Atmosphere Is Intimate, Enlivened, And As Good As It Gets In College Basketball

The McCarthey Athletics Center Atmosphere Is Intimate, Enlivened, And As Good As It Gets In College Basketball

Admittedly, I have only watched 40 minutes of basketball in my entire life at the McCarthey Athletic Center, but it was easy to get the impression that the arena atmosphere is as consistent as the program it propels. The student section, cloaked in red, was full well before tipoff, and their energetic pregame rendition of “Zombie Nation” had me double-checking my program to make sure Pepperdine really had only won 14 games. The rest of the McCarthey Center was slightly more restrained than their younger cohorts, but not for any lack of caring. If you are not fortunate enough to be a Gonzaga season ticket-holder, you are likely not fortunate enough to attend a Gonzaga home game. As of 48 hours before tipoff, there were only two tickets available anywhere on the internet (and they predictably ran a pretty penny). There are more expensive, “exclusive” college basketball tickets out there, but almost never will you find a game with such a dearth of ticket listings. Even the biggest games at Cameron Indoor, Phog Allen Fieldhouse, or Rupp Arena will have more than two tickets available for those whom cost is no object. But up in Spokane, good luck to any outsider trying to find their way into the McCarthey Center, because it is very much a Zag-loving coterie that congregates at The Kennel some 15 times a year.

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AAC M5: 02.06.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 6th, 2014

AAC_morning5_header

  1. Two AAC veterans made Rob Dauster’s latest Player of the Year Power Rankings, and neither one is Russ Smith. Topped by consensus national frontrunner Doug McDermott, the list includes UConn’s Shabazz Napier at number two and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick at number eight. Dauster writes of Napier, “I’m not sure there is a player in the country that is more influential in regards to his team’s success,” and stresses that the senior puts up huge stats despite UConn’s dearth of interior scoring threats. Likewise, he describes Kilpatrick as the only prolific scorer on Mick Cronin’s defense-oriented roster, but says “I could make a strong argument that teammate Justin Jackson is more deserving of this ranking. That’s a good sign for the Bearcats.” Smith was listed among other candidates outside of the top 10.
  2. Having already held Louisville and Memphis to 66 and 53 points, respectively, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bill Koch writes that Cincinnati has an opportunity to shut down the third-best offense in the AAC as well when they take on Connecticut tonight. In addition to averaging 76 points per game, the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense leads the league in free throw shooting (77.4 percent) and three-point percentage (41.5). Their rotation also includes three of the AAC’s top outside shooters in Napier (43.4 percent), DeAndre Daniels (47.8 percent) and Niels Giffey (55.6 percent). Koch says the Huskies “might be the most fearsome” of the offenses that Cincinnati has faced, and senior Justin Jackson did not disagree: “I still have nightmares about Napier, man […] He does some things that have you sitting there like, ‘Did he really do that?’” One factor that could tip the balance in the Bearcats’ favor is the expected return of 6’9” freshman Jermaine Lawrence, who’s been out since early January.
  3. After being annihilated in Memphis 101-69 this week, Rutgers is 0-7 on the road and 0-5 in AAC road games, losing those contests by an average margin of 19 points. Tuesday’s defeat was the first time the Scarlet Knights had given up 100 points since 2006. “It was just total domination from every aspect of the game,” coach Eddie Jordan said during a postgame interview, adding, “We just weren’t ready for their physicality and for their expertise at playing the game.” Jordan said his team would regroup and set their sights on getting to sixth place in the conference standings in order to earn a bye in the AAC Tournament.
  4. On the other side of the blowout, their blistering offensive performance gives Memphis some much-needed confidence heading into a College GameDay showdown with a 21-3 Gonzaga team on Saturday. Rediscovering their outside shot, Josh Pastner’s team hit 12 of 19 threes (63 percent) and shot 59 percent from the field. Six Tigers scored in double digits, including every starting and Michael Dixon Jr. off the bench, in a balanced scoring attack that encountered little resistance against Rutgers. “The open man is the go-to-man and that’s what we did tonight.” said Chris Crawford, who finished with a 12-point, 11-rebounds double-double that atoned for his disappointing performance in the previous loss to SMU.
  5. Temple begins its four-day tour of Texas tonight. It marks the Owls’ longest road trip since playing exhibition games in Europe last summer. A challenging weekend on the road for any East Coast team (looking at you, UConn), it’s exacerbated by the Owl’s youthful inexperience and SMU’s dominant home court advantage in Moody Coliseum this season. “It’s a far trip,” admitted coach Fran Dunphy. “SMU is a really tough team that will cause matchup problems for us, Houston has had its ups and downs like us but two really difficult games to prepare for, again, it’s a long way to go.” Dunphy will have to lean on the leadership of upperclassmen Dalton Pepper, Anthony Lee and Will Cummings, the latter of whom observed, “there’s not too many Temple alumni or fans in Texas.”
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 5th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The previous week’s play might have sealed the WCC’s fate as a one-bid league. With the shocking demise of Saint Mary’s as a serious contender for an at-large NCAA berth, only Gonzaga has an overall resume and a potential WCC Tournament championship firmly in its grasp. BYU proved its strength in the Marriott Center with an 84-71 victory over Saint Mary’s, but still has road games against the Gaels and up-and-down San Diego and has posted a so-so 15-9 record so far. San Francisco may be better positioned than BYU to challenge for second place behind Gonzaga, with a Saturday showdown in Provo looming to possibly settle that question, but second place will not win an at-large bid for the Dons either.

Bennet's Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary's to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Bennet’s Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary’s to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

The Gaels’ meltdown against San Diego – a 61-43 humiliation in which they barely registered a pulse – and subsequent loss to BYU marked several milestones for Saint Mary’s, none of them positive. In absorbing four losses with eight games to go, the Gaels have guaranteed their worst WCC performance since going 10-4 in 2008-09. Saint Mary’s record of winning at least 25 games a year for six straight seasons also seems doomed, with possibly 11 games left (assuming three games in the WCC tournament) and only 16 wins so far.

The only apparent path to a second bid for the conference lies in an upset of Gonzaga at the WCC Tournament in March. In that case, the victor would receive the automatic NCAA bid and Gonzaga would presumably receive an at-large bid based on its history of 14 straight NCAA appearances and its overall resume in 2013-14. But which team is likely to pull that off? There is no bye to the semifinal round this year, as each potential champion must play at least three times in Las Vegas. None of the would-be contenders has shown the consistency to pull off three tournament wins, which would include a victory over Gonzaga along the way. A single bid seems all but assured.

Power Rankings

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RTC Top 25: Week Twelve

Posted by Walker Carey on February 3rd, 2014

This past week of college basketball was highlighted by a plethora of upsets – especially over the weekend when we saw six top 10 teams fall victim to the upset bug. Starting at the top, previously unbeaten and top-ranked Arizona suffered its first setback of the season Saturday evening when it was bested on the road by California. Previously 4th-ranked Kansas was also a road victim earlier in the day, as the Jayhawks were thoroughly outmanned in a defeat at the hands of Texas. Previously 6th-ranked Michigan State, a team that is suffering through well-documented injury issues, started its week off with a bang by winning in overtime at Iowa. But that victory proved to be the Spartans’ only positive tally of the week, as they fell to unranked Georgetown on Saturday in a non-conference game played at Madison Square Garden. Previously 7th-ranked Michigan entered Sunday’s game at Indiana as one of the hottest teams in America — the Wolverines had won 10 consecutive games and sat atop the Big Ten standings with an 8-0 record. None of that mattered in Bloomington though, as John Beilein’s team struggled offensively throughout a 63-52 defeat. Previously 9th-ranked Oklahoma State suffered what was probably the most puzzling loss of the week, as the Cowboys were bested at home on Saturday by a Baylor team that had lost six of its last seven games prior to Saturday. With February now in full swing, there is really not much that can be considered unexpected – especially with how this season has played out thus far – so you should expect even more shocking upsets moving forward as teams jockey for March position. The quick n’ dirty analysis of this week’s poll is after the jump.

rtc25 02.03.14

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Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 28th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Crystal Ball Time

With most teams in the WCC having completed half the conference schedule it’s time to do some end-game handicapping. Here’s how the rest of the schedule shapes up for the main players:

  • Gonzaga, although sitting pretty at 8-1 with a game-and-a-half lead on Saint Mary’s, has a tough second half of conference play ahead. Its three home games should give the Zags little trouble, but road pitfalls could come against the Bay Area schools (Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Santa Clara), in Provo against BYU, and in the Jenny Craig Pavilion against San Diego.
  • Saint Mary’s has an unfavorable (4/6) home/road balance ahead, but two of the road games are against nearby rivals San Francisco and Santa Clara. The Gaels’ main peril begins right now with four games in southern California and Provo. If Saint Mary’s comes off that journey intact, it will be well positioned to entertain BYU and Gonzaga at home.
Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

  • San Francisco also has a chance to do some damage against the leaders by entertaining Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s at home, but will be at risk on the road against BYU and San Diego.
  • BYU is up against the wall no matter how you slice it because of its inability to win a single conference game on the road. The Cougars will certainly battle Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga tough at home, but its chances against the Gaels and Toreros on the road don’t look good based on performance to date.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1)
  2. Saint Mary’s (16-5, 6-2)
  3. San Francisco (13-8, 6-3)
  4. BYU (13-9, 5-4)
  5. Pepperdine (12-10, 5-5)
  6. Portland (12-9, 4-5)
  7. San Diego (12-10, 3-6)
  8. Santa Clara (10-12, 3-6)
  9. Loyola Marymount (11-11, 3-7)
  10. Pacific (11-8, 2-6)

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O26 Storylines: Wichita Unbeaten, St. Louis, Harvard, WCC & New Mexico…

Posted by Adam Stillman on January 24th, 2014

There’s been no lack of storylines in the O26 conferences this week. Let’s dive right into five of them.

1Can Wichita State really go unbeaten?

Ron Baker and Wichita State could be looking an an undefeated regular season. (Photo courtesy of si.com)

Ron Baker and Wichita State could be looking an an undefeated regular season. (Photo courtesy of si.com)

Well, the Shockers (20-0, 7-0 MVC) passed the first of their few remaining major tests in the Missouri Valley Conference by blasting Indiana State by 20 at home Saturday. The biggest obstacle left is the February 5 rematch game in Terre Haute. Should Wichita State pick up a win there, you’d have to like the Shockers’ chances at going unbeaten in the regular season. A potential trap game pops up right after the Sycamores, as the Shockers head to Northern Iowa on February 8. Indiana State and Northern Iowa figure to duke it out for runner-up position in the MVC. Ken Pomeroy currently gives Wichita State a 33.5 percent chance at finishing the season without a blemish — the Shockers are projected as favorites in all of their remaining games, with the closest being a five-point win at ISU. Despite all of that, KenPom lists the Shockers’ projected record to be 30-1 overall and 17-1 in the MVC entering postseason play. As fun as it would be to see the Shockers run the table, I just don’t see it happening. Missouri State put quite a scare into Wichita State a couple of weekends ago, blowing a 19-point second half lead at home to lose in overtime. I still think the Shockers will slip up at some point, but, man, you’ve got to love what Gregg Marshall is doing with that program.

2. Is Saint Louis now the favorite in the Atlantic 10?

It’s hard to argue against it. Remember that the Billikens are the defending Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament champions, and right now SLU (18-2, 5-0 A-10) remains the conference’s only unbeaten team. Massachusetts, the league favorite heading into this week, suffered its first league loss Wednesday night at Richmond after a string of close calls. SLU, meanwhile, just keeps winning. Sure, it’s not pretty. The Billikens waited until the last minute to pull out a victory against cellar-dweller Duquesne on Wednesday, and also struggled with St. Bonaventure at home the week before. But SLU keeps winning. The Billikens are 26th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and boast the top-rated defense in the nation (87.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). A home-and-home with VCU, along with road games at St. Joseph’s, La Salle and Massachusetts still loom, but for now the Billikens have to be considered the favorite until proven otherwise. SLU is projected to win every game from here on out except for those two road games to Richmond (VCU) and Amherst (UMass). KenPom projects SLU’s final A-10 record at 13-3, with UMass and VCU coming in at 11-5. A two-loss or three-loss squad seems like a pretty good bet for an Atlantic 10 champion.

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Checking In On… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 23rd, 2014

Looking Back

Things are beginning to have a more familiar look as the WCC season passes the one-third mark: Gonzaga on top, with BYU and Saint Mary’s trailing closely behind. Early-season pretenders such as Pepperdine and San Francisco have been knocked back, if not out, and BYU seems to have overcome its first-week stumble into losses at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount by rattling off five straight wins.

Rumors of Mark Few and Gonzaga leaving the WCC keeps getting louder and louder (AP)

It’s been business as usual for Mark Few and Gonzaga, who have once again performed at a championship level. (AP)

  • Gonzaga has gotten Sam Dower Jr. back and is successfully integrating Louisville transfer Angel Nunez into its offense. Only the return of Gary Bell Jr. from a broken wrist keeps the Zags from fielding the team it envisioned at season’s outset.
  • Saint Mary’s has Randy Bennett back at the helm after a five-game NCAA-imposed suspension, and the result has been two wins at home. The Gaels hope to welcome Garrett Jackson back this week after several weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, which will give Beau Levesque some support at power forward.
  • All the leaders seem set for the next part of the season, therefore, and only one game separates BYU and a game-and-a-half separates Saint Mary’s from the Zags. Let the games continue.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (16-3, 6-1)
  2. BYU (13-7, 5-2)
  3. Saint Mary’s (14-5, 4-2)
  4. San Francisco (12-8, 5-3)
  5. Pepperdine (12-8, 5-3)
  6. Portland (11-8, 3-4)
  7. Santa Clara (10-11, 3-5)
  8. San Diego (11-9, 2-5)
  9. Loyola Marymount (10-10, 2-6)
  10. Pacific (10-7, 1-5)

WCC News & Notes

  • Dower celebrated his return to the Gonzaga starting lineup with two monster games in Southern California, an effort that won him WCC Player of the Week honors. Dower was a perfect 7-of-7 against Pepperdine, which had a chance to take over first place in the WCC with a win, and added eight rebounds to his 18 points in a 70-53 rout. He matched that with a 28/14 effort two nights later against LMU, leading the Zags to an 82-72 win. Perhaps in recognition of Dower’s importance, the USA Today poll raised the Zags three spots from 24th to 21st.

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

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 16th, 2014

Believe it or not, we’re about halfway through the season right now. So, it is time to revisit our Best in the West rankings. We did this about a month back, but to remind you, here’s how we roll. We take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Big West and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams. But, rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide all these teams up into tiers of similar quality. Below, you’ll see our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses), with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on some of the teams in our list.

The Best of the BestIn a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Not only are the Wildcats head and shoulders above the rest of the teams out West, the argument can be made that they’re on a tier of their own nationally as well.
Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest. (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Contenders to the Throne – And all Top 25 teams.

  • San Diego State (#2 overall, Mtn West #1) – Last time we did this, we had three teams in this tier, and the Aztecs were not among them. This time, the Aztecs are the only team aside from Arizona that should be considered a sure-fire Top 25 team.

Solid NCAA Tournament Team – Just outside the Top 25, but all with plenty of upside.

  • California (#3 overall, Pac-12 #2) – These teams are all bunched together by just about any metric. While I think you can make a case for any one of them for something like the #24 or #25 spot in your national Top 25, you can make an equally valid case that all of these teams deserve to be on the outside looking in. That being said, it is likely that if you make a national top 35, every one of these squads should probably be in there. We’ll take the Golden Bears by a hair over the rest of this group on the basis of their hot streak minus a couple of key players, but really, all these teams are very tight.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

Did the earth move or was it merely a hiccup?

Somehow, Randy Bennett And Saint Mary's Just Keep On Winning Games (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Randy Bennett is back for Saint Mary’s. (Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

One could see portents in Santa Clara’s upset of Saint Mary’s (57-55) on the Gaels’ court last Thursday, and in Gonzaga’s slip at Portland (82-73) the same night. After all, Gonzaga had won 22 straight conference games and 20 in a row over Portland, and Santa Clara had beaten Saint Mary’s only once before in Kerry Keating’s seven seasons at the helm. So, the upsets indicated anything but business as usual in the WCC. But don’t go rushing out and proclaiming the dawn of a new champion in the WCC, which has been dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the past decade. The Gaels bounced back from the Santa Clara loss with a solid 87-73 pounding of San Francisco, which came to Moraga with a 4-1 conference mark and intentions of staking a claim at the top of the standings. The San Francisco game also marked the return of Randy Bennett to the Gaels’ bench after an NCAA-imposed five-game ban on leading the team. Although top assistant Eran Ganot guided Saint Mary’s to a 3-2 mark, including two conference road wins, everyone in Gael Nation breathed easier with Bennett back in charge.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Saint Louis, Billy Baron, David Carter & Portland

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2014

Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.

O26 Team of the Week

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports)

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit/USA TODAY Sports)

Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.

It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.

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