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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Mountain West Conference Preview

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2014

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.

Top Storylines

San Diego State… And Everyone Else. Last season it was the Aztecs and New Mexico who fought tooth and nail all season long for conference supremacy until it was decided on the final night of the season in San Diego when a late 26-7 run from the Aztecs erased a 16-point Lobo lead and earned the Aztecs an outright conference title. This year, with those Lobos down their only three double-digit scorers from last season, there is no clear-cut contender to the Aztecs’ throne. San Diego State is the only Mountain West team deserving of consideration for being placed among the top 25 teams in the country and, unless somebody else proves their worth, may be the only team going dancing come March. Sure, Steve Fisher’s crew will have plenty of questions to answer along the way, but given the steadiness of this program in recent years, the Aztecs are significant title favorites in this conference.

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion.

As for the “everyone else” part, Boise State, Colorado State and UNLV appear to be the next group of teams in a tier behind the Aztecs. Maybe one of them can separate itself from the pack and challenge the Aztecs, but each of these teams will rely heavily on newcomers to fill in big gaps on their roster. The Broncos will need production from young frontcourt players to replace the nation’s best offensive rebounder. The Rams have four Division I transfers expected to play big roles. And the Rebels? Well, it isn’t all that much of an overstatement to say that everyone is new.

Taking Care of Non-Conference Business. Last year, the conference got in trouble early when Boise State, UNLV, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming all struggled mightily in non-conference play, coming out of November and December with little or nothing to show for their efforts. If this conference hopes to turn things around this season and get more than just the Aztecs and maybe one other team into the Big Dance, they need to score quality wins early in the season. Keep an eye on these games, for instance: Read the rest of this entry »

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Top of the O26 Class: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, WAC & WCC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Western region of the U.S: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference. Previous installments include conferences from the Northeast region, Midwest region, Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region and the Southern region.

Top Units

Mountain West

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II need to step up offensively for the Aztecs. (Ben Margot — AP)

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II will need to step up offensively for San Diego State. (Ben Margot/AP)

  • San Diego State – 2013-14 record: 31-5 (16-2). San Diego State will be very good defensively, that much we know, but whether it can replace do-everything guard Xavier Thames (17.6 PPG, 120.0 ORtg) is the most pressing concern this time around. The Aztecs – which have ranked among the top-20 nationally in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons – return several long-armed stoppers like Dwayne Polee II and 6’10’’ center Skyler Spencer (best block percentage in the league) while adding a highly-touted Arizona transfer in 6’9’’ Angelo Chol. But Thames was the only consistent offensive threat last year and points were hard to come by when he struggled, so the ability of guys like Polee and guard Winston Shepard to thrive in more prominent scoring roles is crucial. Steve Fisher’s club should win the Mountain West considering the talent he has on hand (five-star forward Malik Pope also joins the mix), but the team’s offensive development, especially in the backcourt, will determine its ultimate national stature.

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O26 Shake-Up: Assessing an Ugly Week of Suspensions & Injuries

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 4th, 2014

The past 10 days have been especially fraught with injuries and suspensions and ineligibility rulings, many of which are sure to affect conference races across the Other 26. Let’s examine some of the major losses and their impact as the season approaches:

Isaac Fotu's career could be over at Hawaii. (Photos courtesy Charles Simmons / www.chasingthemomentphoto.com)

Isaac Fotu’s career might be over at Hawaii. (Charles Simmons/chasingthemomentphoto.com)

Isaac Fotu – F – Hawaii. Just a couple days after head coach Gib Arnold was abruptly fired, Hawaii lost its best player last week when Fotu was ruled ineligible due to an ongoing improper benefits investigation. The 6’8’’ all-conference forward averaged 14.9 PPG and 6.1 RPG a year ago and figured to at least keep the Warriors competitive in the Big West. Without him, the outlook is much grimmer. Christian Standhardinger – last year’s leading scorer and rebounder – graduated and starting point guard Keith Shamburger transferred to Missouri, leaving shooting guard Garrett Nevels (13.1 PPG) as Hawaii’s lone returning starter. In fact, he will be the only returner who averaged more than five points per game in 2013-14, meaning Hawaii is effectively a collection of young, unproven players adapting to a new coach with the season opener right around the corner. If Fotu does not return – which appears to be the case, as of late Monday night – this could be a rough season in Honolulu. Read the rest of this entry »

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Two Keys to Stanford vs. New Mexico This Afternoon

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 21st, 2014

In anticipation of the New Mexico vs. Stanford game this afternoon, here are two keys to the game.

New Mexico wins if… its big men can dominate. All season long, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were rugged offensive threats against Mountain West competition. The Lobo big men combined to batter normally undersized frontcourts in their conference to the tune of 33.9 points and 16.1 rebounds between them. Each of them took better than 40% of their shots right at the rim and each converted at least 68% of those shots at the rim. In short, the New Mexico bigs were dominant in and around the paint all year long. For Stanford, meanwhile, despite having plenty of size (New Mexico has slightly more size than the Cardinal, but Stanford is still in the top 15 nation-wide in terms of effective height), has long been regarded as soft in the middle. Stefan Nastic checks in at 6’11”, but is not a natural athlete and is more prone to committing a foul than effectively challenging shots at the rim. Dwight Powell, likewise, is more comfortable away from the hoop or in transition. Only 6’7” Josh Huestis is particularly good defending in the interior, and even that is sketchy. Still, Stanford has done a fairly good job all year limiting looks (just 32.6% of opponents shots come at the rim) – and more importantly, limiting successful attempts (of those shots, opponents make just 56.6%, a good defensive percentage for shots at the rim) – around the rim. If New Mexico is able to regularly convert buckets around the paint, the Lobos should be golden on Friday morning; if they’re harder than usual to come by, they could be in for a dog fight.

Dwight Powell Will Need To Be Physical Defensively And Explosive Offensively For the Cardinal To Advance (USA Today Sports)

Dwight Powell Will Need To Be Physical Defensively And Explosive Offensively For the Cardinal To Advance (USA Today Sports)

Stanford wins if… they’re able to isolate their offensive playmakers. In a lot of ways, these teams look very similar. Both are solid, if not spectacular on both ends of the floor. Neither team commits, not forces, a lot of turnovers; neither team pays a ton of attention to grabbing offensive boards, while both clean the defensive glass pretty well, and neither team is particularly adept at shooting a ton of threes. But one area where the Cardinal have a decided advantage is in athleticism and the ability for their offensive players to get their own shots. Across the board, things are almost even between these teams, but guys like Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Powell are particularly good at getting their own shots. For instance, Randle takes more than a third of his shots at the rim, makes 60% of those shots and under a quarter of those shots come off assists. What do those particular set of numbers indicate? A guy who beats his man off the bounce and gets to the rim on his own. His two-point jumper numbers are even more extreme; he takes 27% of his shots in such a fashion, makes 46.9% of them and is assisted on less than 2% of those shots. In other words: dribble, dribble, dribble, pull-up jumper. Powell’s and Brown’s numbers are less extreme, but both of those guys have long shown the ability to beat their defender in man-to-man defense and find their own shot. While New Mexico puts together good team defense, if the Cardinal are able to spread the court with effective three-point shooting (they’re knocking in 37% from three when they do get three-point looks this year), it could clear up the middle of the court for Stanford’s superior offensive creators to do their thing.

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Bracket Prep: UCLA, New Mexico, New Mexico State

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 16th, 2014

As we move through the final stages of Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent bid winners. 

UCLA

Steve Alford's Hire Was Met With Resistance Last Spring, But Less Than Twelve Months Later, He Has The Bruins Back On Top Of The Pac-12

Steve Alford’s Hire Was Met With Resistance Last Spring, But Less Than Twelve Months Later, He Has The Bruins Back On Top Of The Pac-12. Next Stop: NCAA Tournament.

  • Pac-12 Champion (26-8, 15-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #21/#16/#16
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +13.8
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #4-#5

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. In making Arizona look mortal for the first time all week in Vegas, UCLA became Pac-12 Tournament champions and earned the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA has now scored 75 points against the Wildcats in both meetings this season, and since Michigan is the only other Wildcat opponent to score 70+ points on Sean Miller’s team, it’s an achievement worth noting. If you can score on Arizona, you can score on anyone, and UCLA looks likely to accomplish just that in the Tournament. Each member of Steve Alford’s eight-man rotation is capable of scoring in double figures on any given night, paced by leading scorer Jordan Adams (17.2 PPG, 2.7 SPG). The high game totals that the Bruins’ quick pace generates obscures what has actually been a pretty decent defensive effort (UCLA has the 49th best defense in the country according to Ken Pom), but there’s no hiding that it’s the hyper-efficient offense that makes the Bruins go.
  2. Kyle Anderson (14.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 6.6 APG) is a joy to watch on the court, but it might be even easier to appreciate him on KenPom.com, especially if you like to spend Saturday nights poring through free throw rates and true shooting percentages. The All-Pac 12 selection and Pac-12 Tournament MOP ranks in the top-500 in a whopping 12 of 15 individual categories on the site, with the only average categories being percentage of shots taken (who cares), offensive rebounding percentage, and turnover rate. Figuring out how many players have a similar variety in their statistical profile would take quite a while, but it’s difficult to imagine any player in college basketball even having ten of their fifteen categories among the top-500. He’s as proficient at cleaning the glass as he is setting up teammates, equally likely to knock down a three as he is to a shot block a shot. There will be only one Kyle Anderson is the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and that absurd Ken Pom stat-line is testament to just how diversely special he has been all season.
  3. Steve Alford is a massive part of the UCLA narrative heading into this NCAA Tournament. Alford has done a wonderful job in Westwood this season, but don’t think it’s nearly enough for him to outrun his shaky Tournament resume. Seeing is believing, and the latter will only happen with Alford after the former occurs.  The reticence to trust the UCLA head man stems from Alford’s 3-6 Tournament record at Iowa and New Mexico, a mark that includes exactly zero Sweet Sixteen appearances and one nice ugly upset to #14 seeded Harvard just twelve months ago. Do you want to believe in Alford already? Hang your hat on the differences between this UCLA team and the eleven previous ones he coached at Iowa and New Mexico, because only one of those teams (2004 Iowa) finished among the top-100 teams in possessions per game (and still just 66th). The Bruins are currently 14th in the metric, and there’s little doubt that this is the most up-tempo, offensively efficient basketball team that Alford has ever coached.

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X-Factors DeShawn Delaney, Dwayne Polee Unlikely March Stars for Mountain West Powers

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 15th, 2014

With San Diego State and New Mexico earning semifinal victories Friday night, the MW title game match-up that everyone expected came to fruition, albeit with some new faces occupying starring roles along the way. SDSU’s Dwayne Polee may have been voted the MW’s Sixth Man of the Year earlier in the week, but the junior transfer from St. John’s had only scored in double figures four times in 2014 before he erupted for a game high 18 points against UNLV last night. Meanwhile, New Mexico swingman Deshawn Delaney had only scored in double figures four times all season before last night, but the bouncy junior’s season-high 14 points was a major key in New Mexico’s narrow escape against Boise. Xavier Thames and Cameron Bairstow will still be the names on the marquee in advance of today’s MW title clash, but roles change throughout the course of a season, and both Polee and Delaney are proving this week in Vegas that the two best teams in the MW may have found new weapons heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Dwayne Polee Poured In 18 Points Against UNLV And Is Elevating His Game At Just The Right Time -- Might He Be The Key To An Aztec Tournament Run?

Dwayne Polee Poured In 18 Points Against UNLV And Is Elevating His Game At Just The Right Time — Might He Be The Key To An Aztec Tournament Run?

Polee has now played 18+ minutes in each of the Aztecs’ last seven games, and especially in the midst of Winston Shepard’s continued struggles (2-of-11 FG last night), will play a key role on offense moving forward. Detractors have long argued that SDSU is one Xavier Thames off night away from an ugly NCAA Tournament demise, but Polee may be the one Aztec with an offensive game varied enough to pick up the slack for Thames. His freakish length and athleticism make him a terror in the open floor, but he knocked down three of his five three-point attempts against UNLV, and has shot 40 percent from long range from February on. Polee’s greatest strengths will always be his disruptive defensive ability and open-court prowess on offense, but even a moderately capable floor-spacing option will help an Aztec offense that overly depends on Thames already, and Polee is beginning to show signs of becoming a consistent complementary jump shooter.

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Mountain West Quarterfinal Roundup

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2014

Wednesday was a busy day at the Thomas and Mack, with eight quarterfinalists battling for Friday reservations in the MW Tournament semis. Like they have all season, San Diego State and New Mexico found a way to distance themselves from the rest of the league on Thursday, but UNLV and Boise State were forced to work a little harder for their spot in the semifinals. Here are a few thoughts from each of the four MW quarterfinals:

San Diego State-Utah State

No surprises in the opener today. Five days after securing the conference regular season title, San Diego State made clear their intentions to double-dip with a MW Tournament crown, waxing Utah State 73-39. Balance and unselfishness were the themes of the day for the Aztecs, as SDSU had seven different players contribute six or more points, while 19 of their 24 field goals were assisted. Xavier Thames’ season high seven assists paced SDSU in that category. It was a solid day for the Mountain West Player of the Year (who also chipped in 15 points), who also added a season-high seven assists. Steve Fisher obviously hasn’t invented the concept of a scoring point guard here, but the tidbit is a subtle reminder of just how reliant the Aztecs are on their point guard to score the ball. San Diego State’s slow-tempo offense is also built around offensive rebounding and opportunistic finishing, and only three teams assist on a fewer percentage of field goals than the Aztecs. It’s an unconventional offensive formula, but at least on this day, Steve Fisher’s offense kept pace with their spirit-crushing defense.

X(avier) has marked the spot all season long for the Aztecs. On Thursday, the Mountain West Player of the Year contributed 15 points and seven assists in a rout of Utah State. (AP)

X(avier) has marked the spot all season long for the Aztecs. On Thursday, the Mountain West Player of the Year contributed 15 points and seven assists in a rout of Utah State. (AP)

Utah State wasn’t supposed to beat San Diego State, but they also weren’t supposed to lose by 33. It’s been that kind of season for Stew Morrill’s club, who has underachieved significantly in their first go-around in the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the folks up in Logan, the departure of four senior starters means that things may get worse before they get better, but the decades of consistency under Morrill should eventually translate into Mountain West success. As for the possible continuation of this season, the CBI or CIT may come calling for the 18-14 Aggies, but there is no guarantee that the man in charge is ready to accept a bid. When asked about postseason plans after today’s demolition, Morrill’s rhetorical question said it all about this Utah State season — “who the hell are we to think we might go to the postseason?” Read the rest of this entry »

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Tournament Implications Will Barely Register When San Diego State and New Mexico Fight For MW Title

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 7th, 2014

With Selection Sunday a mere nine days away, analysts across the country will spend the next week-and-a-half weighing in on the relative merits of a slew of bubble teams that, if we are being honest, could pass for mediocre far more capably than they could elite. Someone out there will be outraged at the thought of an 11-loss team with defeats to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Portland and Pacific being excluded from the Big Dance (BYU). Another pundit will fail to comprehend an NCAA Tournament that doesn’t include a team that spent much of February in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and still possesses a losing conference record (Oklahoma State). And Dick Vitale, quite surely, will find no possible scenario in which Florida State could miss the Tournament – after all, they had to play Duke in Cameron! Bubble opinions are already flying left and right, and hey, why not – they are an unequivocally fun element of this whole March Madness thing college basketball has going on. But beyond the microscope that discerns who is and isn’t in that upper echelon of average, there is still meaningful basketball being played that has absolutely nothing to do with an invite to March Madness. Regular season conference titles count, folks, and on Saturday night, New Mexico and San Diego State, both 15-2 in the Mountain West, will compete for one of those championships.

Xavier Thames And The Aztecs Impressively Finished Off UNLV Last Night To Set Up A Titanic Saturday Clash With New Mexico For The Mountain West Title

Xavier Thames And The Aztecs Impressively Finished Off UNLV Last Night To Set Up A Titanic Saturday Clash With New Mexico For The Mountain West Title

Wednesday night, San Diego State put the final touches on the setup for this de facto Mountain West championship game by pulling away late from UNLV in a 73-64 win at the Thomas & Mack Center. The tie score with five minutes to play meant there was no extension of the Aztecs’ mind-bending winning streak when leading with five to play (115 wins and counting…), but the Mountain West’s premier closers once again dominated the waning moments of a tight contest. Completing the season sweep of the Rebels now leaves Steve Fisher’s club one redemptive win away from earning its third regular season title in the last four years, but unlike the 2011 and 2012 crowns, they would be sharing this one with no one else.

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O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 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.

Saint Louis (25-2) at Virginia Commonwealth (20-7) – 6:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Yes, this was our Game of the Week just two short weeks ago and yes, the Billikens all-but-clinched the Atlantic 10 crown by winning on their home floor. So why does the second iteration once again headline the week? Well, for one thing, it was a really good basketball game the first time around. Saint Louis held serve in Chaifetz Arena, sure, but not before VCU forced 17 turnovers and battled back from a double-figure deficit to make the final two minutes thrilling — it took a Rob Loe three-pointer with around 30 seconds left to ice it for the home team. And the defenses lived-up to their dominant billing, each limiting the opposing offense to well-under one point per possession on the afternoon. Even if you had tuned in for just five minutes of action, the high level of play and serious potential of both teams would have become quickly evident.

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (Chris Lee, AP)

And that’s the overarching reason why Saturday’s tilt — this time in Richmond — is the main event in an already-loaded week; Saint Louis-VCU isn’t merely a marquee A-10 match-up, it’s a marquee national match-up. Everything at stake in a high-profile power-conference game is also at stake here: perception, NCAA Tournament profile, late-season momentum, bragging rights, and in the case of the Billikens, a very long winning streak. Jim Crews’ bunch has reeled off 19 straight victories over the course of three full months, last losing way back on December 1 to still-undefeated Wichita State. Shaka Smart’s group, meanwhile — fresh off a painfully-close road loss to UMass last Friday — has not dropped a home game in more than a year, obliterating visiting opponents this season by nearly 17 points per contest. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Verizon Wireless Arena, and the basketball-watching public will be the beneficiary. KenPom has the home squad pegged as 62 percent favorites, which is to say, it’s more or less a toss-up. Tune in on Saturday — Round II should be great.

Four More to Watch

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O26 Weekly Awards: New Mexico, Jeremy Ingram, Donnie Tyndall & ECU…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 26th, 2014

Think about it, folks: this time next week, it will be March. Let that sink in for a minute… Now let’s take a step back and give some recognition to several of last week’s top performers and performances.

O26 Team of the Week

The Lobos made it loud and clear that they're legitimate. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lobos made it loud and clear that they’re legitimate. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

New Mexico. If the Lobos made one thing abundantly clear last week, it’s this: They are every bit the team we thought they were back in the preseason (they are who we thought they were!). While San Diego State has captured the lofty rankings and national media attention for much of 2013-14, New Mexico — once favorites to win the Mountain West — has lurked under the radar for the better part of three months, amassing plenty of wins but not many headlines. But after a pair of statement victories in a four-night span, over two of its biggest rivals? That all changed in a hurry.

Entering last Wednesday’s game at UNLV, head coach Craig Neal was confronted with the challenge of having to focus his team on the task at hand without looking ahead to Saturday’s enormous tilt against San Diego State. Not necessarily an easy task, but an especially important one considering that the Runnin’ Rebels had more or less handled New Mexico in its own gym just one month earlier. Lucky for Neal, he never had to worry much at the Thomas & Mack Center — his senior point guard Kendall Williams took any possible questions about “focus” and immediately extinguished them with a flurry points. Williams nailed a three in the first minute of the contest to give the Lobos an early lead, then helped his team maintain that advantage for the remainder of the night by notching 29 points — including 17 in the first half — along with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. The outcome was never in question, and what made the 68-56 final even more impressive was the fact that New Mexico, not especially known for its defense, held UNLV to a paltry 31.7 percent from the field. Now the Lobos could look ahead.

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O26 Storylines: BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Louis…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 21st, 2014

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

BYU is inching closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.

BYU is inching closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.

What does BYU’s win against Gonzaga mean?

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

Should we be skeptical of SLU in the NCAA Tournament?

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

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