O26 Power 13: New Year, New Order, Same Teams on Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 4th, 2017

With 2017 now upon us and conference play ramping up, let’s take a step back and reexamine the best of the best across the O26.

1. Gonzaga (14-0) West Coast. Despite its cast of untested newcomers, chemistry and balance have not been an issue for Gonzaga this season. The Bulldogs have cruised to a 14-0 start behind a lineup whose top six scorers all average between 9.3 and 13.8 points per game. In fact, only two players—Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski—get more than 30 minutes per night, thanks largely to the effectiveness of bench players like Zach Collins (10.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Killian Tillie (4.6 PPG). Mark Few’s club has been equally excellent on both sides of the ball, ranking among the top 12 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That well-roundedness helped the Zags notch three neutral court victories over KenPom top-30 opponents, giving them a non-conference resume that should hold up very well in mid-March. A win or two over Saint Mary’s would only strengthen the cause. The Zags are once again a legitimate Final Four contender.

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary's opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary’s opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

2. Saint Mary’s (12-1) West Coast. Since its jarring, 14-point home loss to UT Arlington on December 8, Saint Mary’s has held five straight opponents under 0.90 points per possession. That’s a positive sign for a unit that has often struggled to win games when its offense goes cold. The Gaels—with victories at Dayton and Stanford—have also proven their ability to win on the road, which is not something they could claim last season (the NCAA Selection Committee took notice). With one of the nation’s elite point guards (Emmett Naar) and a center, Jock Landale, who currently ranks second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, it’s hard to imagine this team slipping much in WCC play. January 14, Saint Mary’s first tilt with Gonzaga in Spokane, can’t come soon enough.

3. Wichita State (12-3) – Missouri Valley. The Shockers’ 100-66 dismantling of Bradley on New Year’s Day perhaps best captures this team’s identity. Sixteen different players saw action (Wichita State leads the country in bench minutes); ball movement was crisp (25 assists on 34 made baskets); and the physicality was unrelenting. Put simply, Wichita State is going to pummel a whole bunch of inferior opponents in Missouri Valley play. With an already-tenuous at-large resume, however, one major question remains: can the Shockers avoid losing more than one or two games in the conference? With Illinois State and Missouri State both surging, nothing is guaranteed.

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Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

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The Extremely Tough Road Mids Face in Earning #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 7th, 2016

A quick glance at the top of the college basketball rankings reveals that blue-bloods roam the landscape. Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky and defending champion Villanova all currently inhabit the top 10. For a mid-major school, the path to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is fraught with so many hurdles that it may seem all impossible. This is certainly not a new development, of course, as 37 of the last 40 top seeds in the Big Dance came from a power conference — the exceptions were Wichita State (2014), Gonzaga (2013) and Memphis (2008). Those three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference and Conference USA, respectively, entered the NCAA Tournament with a combined record of 98-3, and their three losses came to teams with an average KenPom ranking of #32. Furthermore, each of those non-power conference top seeds played a top-40 non-conference schedule.

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014. (Getty)

The point of this is to show that mid-majors can most certainly earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their margin for error is next to nothing — the recipe seems to involve running the regular season table or suffering a maximum of one loss. This year’s crop of teams constituting the elite of the non-power conferences is made up of three excellent teams. There are significant barriers to entry, but each of the three has at least a respectable chance of joining the top line conversation on Selection Sunday if their regular season goes exceptionally well. Let’s examine what each team must do to get there.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga is the obvious choice if any mid-major this season has designs on a #1 seed. The Zags are currently #6 in the RPI and already have good-not-great wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Arizona, San Diego State, Florida and Iowa State. With non-conference games still to come against power conference foes Washington and Tennessee, Gonzaga will have a case to make to the committee on Selection Sunday. An unbeaten regular season that would necessarily include at least two wins over St. Mary’s (currently #3 RPI) could put Mark Few‘s team into contention for a coveted top seed. A one-loss Bulldogs team would have a much tougher time given a non-conference schedule that rates weaker than years past and all the firepower at the top of the polls this season, so anything less than perfection probably means a ceiling of a #2 seed for the Zags.

 

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O26 Feast Week in Review: Winners, Losers and a Little Extra Stuffing

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2016

With December nearly upon us and early-season narratives finally taking shape, let’s take a moment to assess which O26 teams fared well—and which didn’t—during last week’s onslaught of holiday hoops.

Winners

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (Photo: ZagsMBB/Twitter)

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (ZagsMBB/Twitter)

  • Gonzaga (6-0). Despite blowing a 15-point halftime lead against #21 Iowa State on Sunday, Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational title and now owns one of the best resumes in college basketball. In addition to its early-season drubbing of San Diego State (a win which should only gain in value as the season progresses), the Bulldogs beat previously-undefeated Florida on Friday before taking down the Cyclones. That’s three wins in three weeks over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, with Arizona, Washington, and MAC favorite Akron still on deck. Assuming Przemek Karnowski continues rounding into form—the now-healthy big man finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists on Sunday—the Zags have the pieces to be one of the deepest, most consistent groups Mark Few has ever had. And that’s saying a lot.

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Gonzaga’s New Big Men Corps Turning Supposed Weakness Into a Strength

Posted by Luke Byrnes on November 16th, 2016

After a run to the Sweet Sixteen in last year’s 2016 NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga experienced significant roster turnover with Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer, Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis all graduating and/or leaving for the NBA. The arrivals of transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Matthews (California) and Jonathan Williams (Missouri), along with a freshman class that includes Zach Collins, Killian Tillie, and the return of Przemek Karnowski after a medical redshirt, give the Zags several new pieces to integrate this season. Considering the influx of backcourt talent, Gonzaga’s long-running history of stellar guard play combined with the losses of forwards Sabonis (lottery pick) and Wiltjer (rookie free agent) to the NBA, most analysts predicted Mark Few would return to a guard-oriented offense. And with good reason.

Nigel Williams-Goss (USA Today Images)

Nigel Williams-Goss Looks Forward to Another Great Year in Spokane (USA Today Images)

Williams-Goss, a redshirt junior, was a consensus top-50 recruit in 2013 before playing two seasons at Washington, where, as a sophomore, he led the Huskies in scoring (15.6 PPG) and assists (5.9 APG). Matthews, a graduate transfer, averaged 13.5 points per game and shot 42.7 percent from three-point range in his last two seasons at Cal. Furthermore, the Bulldogs also returned guards Kyle Perkins and Silas Melson. Perkins started all 36 games last season, led the team in assists (4.1 APG) and averaged 10.1 points per game, while Melson saw action in every game and emerged as a key contributor by averaging more than 10 PPG over the final 10 regular season games.

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O26 Power 13: WCC Teams Reign Supreme

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 8th, 2016

With the start of the regular season now just a few days away, it’s time to examine the O26 programs we think will shine in 2016-17. The school atop this list should come as no surprise.

1. Gonzaga  West Coast. No Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 PPG) or Domantas Sabonis (17.6 PPG, 11.8 RPG) this year? No problem. Like a true power program, Gonzaga simply reloads, adding three high-major transfers — guard Jordan Mathews (California), forward Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) — along with several elite recruits to an already-talented lineup. Williams-Goss, a second team All-Pac-12 performer in 2014-15, should be a legitimate contender for WCC Player of the Year, while Mathews (41.6% 3FG in 2015-16), Williams (7.1 RPG in 2014-15), and McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins add scoring pop and defensive strength to the roster. With guard Josh Perkins (4.1 APG), rim-protector Przemek Karnowski (now healthy) and several other contributors back in the fold, Gonzaga’s ceiling appears higher than ever.

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary's meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

2. Saint Mary’s — West Coast. Based purely on returning production, Saint Mary’s should probably top this list. The Gaels welcome back everyone from a unit that ranked 17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, including All-WCC point guard Emmett Naar (121.6 Offensive Rating) and forward Dane Pineau (126.2 Offensive Rating), arguably the league’s two most effective players at their positions. But really, the offense is everywhere. Forwards Even Fitzner (8.7 PPG) and Calvin Hermanson (10.9 PPG) each shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc on 130-plus attempts. Joe Rahon (10.7 PPG, 4.5 PPG, 5.4 APG) is among the most versatile guards in the conference. Center Jock Landale — one of five Aussies on the roster — scored 8.0 PPG in just 14.5 minutes per game last season, and should see more of the court this year. This might be Randy Bennett’s best team yet in Moraga. Read the rest of this entry »

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Previewing Tight Races in the Mid-Majors: Part I

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 2nd, 2016

In this NCAA Basketball preview season, we are bombarded with lists. One common list is that of the trendy mid-major ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting college hoops world. Unfortunately, some of these high-quality teams find themselves in the same conference staring each other down for scarce March Madness bids. No mid-major is ever guaranteed an invitation to the Field of 68, of course, no matter how impressive it looks in November and December. Just ask the 2015-16 iterations of Monmouth and St. Mary’s about that. In this preseason post we will analyze several mid-major conference races that should be two-horse races, with details on each team, why they will (or not), and a bonus sleeper who isn’t yet in the conversation. Part I covering the WCC and Atlantic 10 will publish today. Part II on the Ivy League and MAAC will release later this week.

West Coast Conference—Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga

It's always fun when these two guys get their teams together

It’s always fun when these two guys get their teams together. (AP)

St. Mary’s

  • Who they are: Randy Bennett’s team came out of absolutely nowhere last year to become an offensive juggernaut, and the Gaels return every important piece from that 29-6 team. All six returning perimeter players are above average three-point shooters, with junior Aussie guard Emmett Naar looking an awful lot like the next Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Rahon acting as a capable secondary playmaker. On the inside, Dane Pineau is ruthlessly efficient and productive, and his backup Jock Landale is no slouch either. The Gaels play at a glacial pace and they don’t beat themselves.
  • Why they will win: This is going to be one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball once again. Last year’s team went 29-6 and last year’s team is essentially this year’s team with another year of experience. The Gaels could be second weekend good.
  • Why they will lose: If we learned anything last year, it is that St. Mary’s has no margin for error with Gonzaga also in the conference. The defense has to be good enough to compete and the outside shots have to fall. Otherwise, the Gaels may be on the outside looking in once again.

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Other 26 Previews: West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on November 11th, 2015

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

2015-16 Projected Order of Finish

Same As It Ever Was in 2015 as Gonzaga Won Another WCC Trophy

Same As It Ever Was in 2015 as Gonzaga Won Another WCC Trophy

  1. Gonzaga (35-3, 17-1 in the WCC)
  2. BYU (25-10, 13-5)
  3. Saint Mary’s (21-10, 13-5)
  4. Pepperdine (18-14, 10-8)
  5. San Diego (15-16, 8-10)
  6. Santa Clara (14-18, 7-11)
  7. San Francisco (14-18, 7-11)
  8. Pacific (12-19, 4-14)
  9. Portland (17-16, 7-11)
  10. LMU (8-23, 4-14)

Player of the Year

  • Kyle Wiltjer, 6’10” senior forward, Gonzaga

Rookie of the Year

  • Anthony Townes, 6’6″ freshman forward, Pacific

All-Conference First Team

  • Kyle Collinsworth, G, BYU, 6’6″, 210
  • Jared Brownridge, G, Santa Clara, 6’2″, 190
  • Josh Perkins, G, Gonzaga, 6’3″, 185
  • Stacy Davis, F, Pepperdine, 6’6″, 235
  • Kyle Wiltjer, F, Gonzaga, 6’10”, 240

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O26 Never-Too-Early Top Five (and More)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 15th, 2015

Don’t look now, but college basketball season is only seven months away! Okay, so that may seem a bit far off, but it’s never too early to gin up a little excitement for the sport we love. Let’s examine a few O26 teams that are sure to make some noise in 2015-16.

Top Five

Wichita State will be right back at it in 2015-16. (Photo : Getty Images Sport)

Wichita State will be right back at it in 2015-16. (Getty Images Sport)

  1. Wichita State. Fred VanVleet is back. Ron Baker is back. As is Gregg Marshall, much wealthier after a sizable pay raise. With one of the country’s top backcourts and most sought-after coaches rejoining the fold, it almost goes without saying that Wichita State – on the heels of three-straight program-defining seasons – should be very good again next season. Of course, the Shockers will have to adjust to life without guard Tekele Cotton (9.8 PPG) and big man Darius Carter (11.4 PPG), but the late-season development of Evan Wessel (12 points against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament) along with forward Shaq Morris (4.7 PPG) should help mitigate those departures. So too should the addition of Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and a solid recruiting class. Expect another year of big things from Wichita State next season.
  2. Gonzaga. Gone are WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos, guard Gary Bell Jr. and wing Byron Wesley (10.6 PPG). Still, barring an early leap to the NBA, Kyle Wiltjer (16.7 PPG), Domantas Sabonis (9.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and center Przemek Karnowski (10.9 PPG) are each returning for what should be one of the top frontcourts in America. Sophomores Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, both former prized recruits, bring plenty of talent (if youth) to the backcourt, where senior Kyle Dranginis will likely help both guys blossom. Throw in very good depth – like 6’8” Angel Nunez, who was granted another year of eligibility – and you quickly see why the Bulldogs could be top-15-worthy next season. Oh, and did I mention that the Zags are in contention for Drexel transfer Damion Lee (21.4 PPG), the nation’s fifth-leading scorer? Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 66, #2 Gonzaga 52

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is in Houston this week for the South Regional semifinals and final.

Three Key Takeaways.

Both Jones' -- Tyus And Matt -- Were Instrumental In Duke's Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

Both Jones’ — Tyus And Matt — Were Instrumental In Duke’s Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

  1. Offenses Fail To Get Going, Again. In Friday night’s regional semifinals, four teams that began the night among the 65 most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country combined to shoot 23 percent from long-range. Much was made of the clumsy dome setup inducing the offensive malaise, but the forecast for Sunday was still for efficient offense by the bucket-load, given the firepower Duke and Gonzaga brought to the table. The two teams got off to a fast start – 22 points in the first five minutes – but things settled down significantly from there on out. Gonzaga and Duke combined to shoot 41 percent from the floor, including just 38 percent for the victorious Blue Devils. Duke did do two things extremely well offensively: shoot the ball accurately from three-point range (8-19) and maximize possessions (an amazing three total turnovers for the game). Gonzaga was less proficient in each category, making only two of 10 three-point attempts and turning the ball over 13 times. There were glimpses of the offensive brilliance we witnessed from both these teams all season, but this regional final never escalated into the explosive matchup many expected.
  2. Matt Jones, Who? Matt Jones. The Duke sophomore supplied the game of his life in this Regional Final. Jones, who entered Sunday averaging just 5.9 points per game, finished with 16 points (one shy of his season and career highs) and converted four of Duke’s eight made three-point field goals. With Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones again struggling to find the range from deep (combined 2-8 on three-point attempts), Jones’ unexpected scoring was crucial in getting the Blue Devils into the final minutes with a lead. Mark Few said afterwards that concerns about guarding Justise Winslow had led to Gonzaga to do a significant amount of cross-matching with Kyle Wiltjer defending Jones, a reasonable coaching decision that devolved into a disastrous result for the Zags. Jones, Duke’s fifth starter and a Texas native (like Friday night hero Justise Winslow) playing in his home state, was as important as any of his more acclaimed teammates Sunday afternoon.
  3. Wiltjer-Winslow Matchup. This was the matchup many fixated on in advance of Sunday afternoon, and with good reason: Winslow was coming off a scintillating Friday night performance, while Wiltjer has been arguably the Zags best player all season. Mixing and matching by both coaches saw both players spend a good deal of time defending elsewhere, but Wiltjer kept Gonzaga close in the first half, scoring 13 points on 5-7 field-goal shooting. Meanwhile, Winslow forced the action early and managed just five points in the opening frame, missing five of his six field-goal attempts. Things changed dramatically after intermission, however. Wiltjer struggled to get touches and was a virtual non-factor in the second half, while Duke’s freshman swingman found his Friday night form, pumping in 11 second-half points. Among the 11 was the biggest shot of the night, a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and less than three minutes to go that put Duke up nine. Both players finished with 16 points, but Winslow’s big second-half was a key differentiator for Mike Krzyewski’s team.

Star of the Game. Tyus Jones, Duke. None of Duke’s big four – Jones, Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook – played anything close to a perfect game today. Heck, they combined to shoot 15-45 from the field. Still, it was Jones that catalyzed Duke’s quick start, scoring seven points as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 17-10 lead. The South Region’s Most Outstanding Player finished the day with 15 points, six assists and no turnovers, helping Duke to that minuscule turnover total of three. Matt Jones’ unexpected scoring was a huge boost Sunday afternoon, but it was the more familiar Jones on the Duke roster who dictated this game’s flow from the outset. His ball-handling and all-around savvy will now be put to use in Indianapolis.

Quotable. “It’s meant everything. Best team I have ever been on talent-wise and the best group of guys. We can look back and be pretty happy with what we have been able to do.” –Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga senior point guard, on what this Gonzaga season has meant to him.

“It’s a shot he makes. It’s a shot he makes 499 times out of 500.” –Mark Few, on Kyle Wiltjer’s missed layup with 4:51 to go that would have tied game. Duke went on a 13-1 run to close the game after the miss.

“Our defense the last 16 minutes was spectacular — not (just) good. I love these guys and they came through.” –Mike Krzyewski, Duke head coach

“This team is eight guys. There is not someone hiding in the locker room that is going to come out and appear.” -Krzyewski.

Sights & Sounds. Whether it was the Sunday afternoon time slot, a Final Four bid on the line, or just the anticipation of the region’s top two seeds meeting, there was an urgency in NRG Stadium that never existed Friday night. The Duke faithful significantly outnumbered Gonzaga supporters (rough estimate — 5:1 ratio of Duke to Gonzaga fans), but enough folks from the Pacific Northwest made the journey South to create a back-and-forth feel to the cheering. In the end, however, the final image of NRG Stadium was all too familiar: Thousands of contented Duke fans standing in acknowledgment of a Blue Devil team advancing to face their next challenge.

What’s Next?  Duke advances to the program’s 16th Final Four, where it will take on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in Indianapolis. The fourth overall meeting between Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament will double as the second time they have met in a National Semifinal. Duke has won two of those three prior matchups, which includes a Sweet 16 game two seasons ago. On the other side, the loss to Duke ends what will likely go down as the greatest season in Gonzaga history. The Zags, now 0-2 all-time in the Elite Eight, will finish the year at 35-3. Mark Few loses Byron Wesley, Gary Bell and WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos to graduation after an undeniably special year in Spokane.

 

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