This Year’s WAC May Be Better Than You Think

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2017

Utah Valley’s opening weekend road trip to Kentucky and Duke — dubbed the “toughest 24 hours in college basketball” — started out with a bang for Mark Pope’s upstart program: The Wolverines stormed out to a nine-point halftime lead in Rupp Arena, led by as many 12, and stayed within single digits for much of the second half. Big Blue eventually came back and won, of course, but not before a speechless crowd — and a stunned coach — took notice: “This team, Utah Valley, they’re going to win their share of games now. They’re big… they have got a couple guys that are out that can shoot… they’re legit,” John Calipari said afterward. And he’s absolutely right. Existing on the fringe of the national discussion, Utah Valley is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the WAC’s collection of top contenders this season: a nascent program fortified with impact transfers that’s built to surprise in non-conference play.

Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson should help Grand Canyon’s title hopes. (Grand Canyon University Athletics)

Believe it or not, the Wolverines were not picked to win (or even finish second) in the league this year. That distinction belongs to none other than Grand Canyon, which is off to a 3-0 start in its first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility. After winning a combined 49 games since 2015-16, the Lopes return Preseason WAC Player of the Year Joshua Braun and several other key contributors from last season’s unit. As if that were not enough, head coach Dan Majerle (with an assist from a certain member of the coaching staff) lured Oregon graduate transfer Casey Benson, a veteran point guard who logged 21 minutes in the Ducks’ Final Four loss to North Carolina last March. Through three games, Braun (20.0 PPG) and Benson (10.0 PPG) have been awesome, and Grand Canyon — a for-profit university with an impossibly raucous home crowd — looks every bit the favorite pundits thought it would be. Even if the Lopes don’t upend St. John’s in their semi-home tilt on December 5, don’t be surprised if Majerle’s group gives Illinois loads of trouble just before the New Year.

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Examining the Conference Unbeatens: Which Teams Can Go the Distance?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 10th, 2017

With one month left in the regular season, it’s no longer too early to consider which of the remaining conference unbeatens have a legitimate chance to enter March without a loss. So let’s dig in. (Chances of going unbeaten based on KenPom win probabilities).

Mark Few Appears to Have It All Figured Out (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga (25-0, 13-0 West Coast). America’s only remaining undefeated team, Gonzaga tops almost every relevant poll and metric thanks to nearly three full months of flawless basketball. Of the Bulldogs’ 25 wins, 22 have come by double-figures, including an astonishing 26.6-point margin of victory in conference play alone (with seven wins by 30-plus). Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.7 APG) has been worthy of All-America consideration; freshman forward Zach Collins (10.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) has been one of the most efficient players in the country; center Przemek Karnowski (12.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG), who was sidelined nearly all last season with a back injury, hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been an all-around remarkable season, especially for a unit whose top five scorers weren’t on the active roster in 2015-16. Up until last month, Gonzaga was projected to lose at Saint Mary’s—college basketball’s 16th-best team according to KenPom—this Saturday night. Now, the Bulldogs are favored to win by two. If they can escape Moraga unblemished, Mark Few’s team would almost certainly enter the postseason without a loss.

Chances of going unbeaten: 56.3%

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NCAA Game Analysis: Second Round, Friday Afternoon

Posted by RTC Staff on March 20th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

In what was certainly one of the most competitive and jam-packed “opening” days in NCAA Tournament history, Friday’s slate of games will have a hard time following Thursday’s remarkable act. However, today offers a fair share of fascinating matchups as well. Here is a preview of Friday’s afternoon games:

#2 Kansas vs. #15 New Mexico State – Midwest Region (from Omaha, NE) — 12:15 PM EST on CBS.

New Mexico State has not lost since January 17 and will enter Friday’s action looking to pull a stunner against the second-seeded Jayhawks. The Aggies are led by their freshman big man Pascal Siakam, who caused problems for WAC big men throughout the season. Siakam carries averages of 13 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and he will look to mix it up against the Kansas frontline. New Mexico State, as a team, has been a very formidable defensive unit throughout the season, as it is 18th in the country in points per game allowed. Unfortunately for Kansas, its frontline depth took a bit of a hit earlier this week when it became known that freshman forward Cliff Alexander would definitely miss the NCAA Tournament due to a pending NCAA investigation. Sans Alexander, the Jayhawks still have some talent in the post with the strong play of junior forward Perry Ellis and the late season emergence of redshirt sophomore Landen Lucas. While Siakam’s play in the post could keep things close for a little while, expect Kansas’ perimeter play, led by point guard Frank Mason and swingman Kelly Oubre, to be the key as the Jayhawks will comfortably advance to the Round of 32.

The RTC Certified Pick: Kansas

#7 Michigan State vs. #10 Georgia — East Region First Round (at Charlotte, NC) — 12:20 pm ET on truTV.

Michigan State will battle Georgia in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Michigan State will battle Georgia in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Michigan State comes in hot after rolling to the Big Ten Tournament championship game and nearly edging Wisconsin. The Spartans are ranked 17th overall by KenPom and have become a substantially better offensive team over the course of the season, especially with a healthy Branden Dawson (12 PPG, 9.1 RPG) in the lineup. The senior forward looked like his old self in the Big Ten Tournament, averaging nearly 16 points, eight rebounds per game and locking down on the defensive end. The Spartans are at their best in transition and should push the tempo against the defensively stingy Bulldogs, a lengthy team which held opponents to the nation’s 15th-lowest effective field goal percentage this season. Although Tom Izzo’s bunch has become less-reliant on three-pointers as the year’s progressed, it wouldn’t hurt for Denzel Valentine (41.8% 3PT), Bryn Forbes (42.4% 3PT) and Travis Trice (36.6% 3PT) to knock down some perimeter shots, considering Georgia’s especially-stout interior defense (43% 2PT). On the other end, the Bulldogs do one thing especially well – attack the basket – which should keep them afloat against a Michigan State team that sent teams to the free throw line at the Big Ten’s third-highest rate. Junior guard Charles Mann (highest free-throw rate in the SEC) and his backcourt mates will get to the stripe. The Spartans are more well-rounded and should win this one, but count on a slimmer margin than some have suggested.

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Bracket Prep: New Mexico State, UC Irvine & Georgia State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2015

Let’s finish off the Bracket Prep series with our reviews of each of the weekend mid-major automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket. Here’s a primer on each of the most recent bid winners. The entire series can be found here.

New Mexico State

New Mexico State is going dancing for the fourth-straight year. (Photo by Tim Barnett-Queen)

New Mexico State is going dancing for the fourth-straight year. (Photo by Tim Barnett-Queen)

  • WAC Champion (23-10, 13-1)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #103/#88/#106
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +6.5
  • NCAA Seed: #15

Strength: The Aggies are not your average low-seeded mid-major. They have great size – 32nd nationally in effective height – and good athleticism that should allow them to match up with Kansas, at least physically. With four regular contributors standing between 6’8” and 6’10” and an athletic point guard to boot, New Mexico State likes to attack the paint and pound the offensive glass (ninth-best offensive rebounding rate in college hoops). The vast majority of its points come near the basket or at the free throw line, while big men Pascal Siakam (7.7 RPG) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (7.6 RPG) rank among the top 75 offensive rebounders in the country. Defensively, they often apply pressure – both in the full-court and half-court – and do an excellent job of limiting three-point looks; opponents shoot just 29.5 percent from behind the arc, the seventh-best mark in America.

Weakness: New Mexico State was the most-turnover prone team in the WAC and among the worst in the entire country, ranking 326th in offensive turnover rate. Lowly Chicago State (8-24) – whose one strong-suit is causing turnovers – forced the Aggies to cough it up 43 times over the course of two near-upsets during conference play.

Key player: Daniel Mullings (12.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG). The Canadian guard missed 12 games in the middle of the season, and since he’s returned New Mexico State has not lost – 13 straight wins to end the season. Mullings’ athleticism enables him to get into the lane and draw fouls (6.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes), and there are few perimeter defenders as quick-handed as the senior; his steal rate ranks 11th-best in the country.

Outlook: The #13-seeded Aggies took San Diego State to overtime in the round of 64 last season, and despite getting a #15 seed this time around, they could cause trouble for the Jayhawks. If they can take care of the ball, the WAC champs’ size and length should allow them to match up physically and hang around with their higher-seeded foe.

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Conference Tourney Primers: WAC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

WAC Tournament

Dates: March 12-14

Site: Orleans Arena (Las Vegas, NV)

wacrealWhat to expect: The talent gap between New Mexico State and the rest of the conference is substantial, a reality which the final standings confirmed; Marvin Menzies’ team cruised to a 12-1 WAC record and won the league by four games. The Aggies are led by an athletic point guard, senior Daniel Mullings, and one of the tallest frontcourts in college basketball. Since losing to Seattle in mid-January, the league champs have reeled off 11 straight victories, including their last seven by an average of nearly 16 points per game. And on top of all that, they are the only team with a bye to the semifinals. It’s hard to imagine the Redhawks or any other challenger stopping them from reaching a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament.

Favorite: New Mexico State. The Aggies were hit with the injury bug in early December, losing preseason all-conference forward Tshilidzi Nephawe for one month with a foot injury, and Mullings – reigning WAC Player of the Year – for eight weeks with a broken finger. Both are back and fully healthy, and the team now looks as good as it has all season. That is bad news for everyone else.

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New Mexico State Could Wind Up a Scary #16 Seed in March

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2015

To call New Mexico State the class of the WAC would probably be an understatement; Marvin Menzies’ team ranks 162 spots higher in KenPom than its next best colleague and possesses visibly superior size and athleticism. In 2013-14, the Aggies demonstrated their ability to essentially sleepwalk through conference play and then out-talent the rest of the league (a shell of its former self) when it matters most, in March. In fact, they have now reached the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row — last year taking San Diego State to overtime in the Round of 64 — and the story should be much the same this time around. That is, except for one major difference – whereas New Mexico State did enough to earn a #13 seed in the three years prior, it’s in no such position this season. With several key players just getting healthy and virtually zero opportunities left to build on an empty resume, the Aggies could wind up an intriguing case on Selection Sunday: an uncommonly tall, uncommonly talented #16 seed.

New Mexico State would be a unique #16-seed. [Getty Images]

New Mexico State could end up a unique 16-seed on Selection Sunday. (Getty Images)

The beginning of December was not kind to New Mexico State. In a matter of a couple days, the Aggies lost preseason all-conference forward Tshilidzi Nephawe for one month with a foot injury, reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings for eight weeks with a broken finger, and learned 7’3’’ center Tanveer Bhullar – who hurt his ankle before the season started – would miss an additional six weeks of action. The team went on to lose six of its next eight contests (four without Mullings and all without Nephawe) to fall to 5-9 overall. And while several of the losses were surprisingly competitive – and none really all that bad – the overall dearth of quality wins has left Menzies’ team with little to hang its hat on; currently the Aggies have zero wins against teams ranked within the RPI top-100. As a result – unlike last year, when it could point to a road triumph at New Mexico – its own RPI (currently 176th) has suffered irreparable damage. Since no other WAC team has an RPI better than #242, and half the league sits below #300, the Aggies’ chance of significantly improving their number is slim. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects the Aggies as a #16 seed in one of the First Four play-in games, a position that could improve depending on what happens in other leagues, but one that could also get worse; with several guys still finding their legs and a recent loss to Seattle already on the books, there is no guarantee New Mexico State wins out.

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O26 Weekly Awards: SFA, John Brown, Marvin Menzies & NJIT…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 9th, 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

Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks’ season began (in earnest) with a home loss to Northern Iowa – the team’s first defeat in its own building since February 15, 2012 – and a pair of road losses to Xavier and Baylor. All respectable games to drop, sure, but the latter two weren’t even close, as SFA was bludgeoned by margins of 18 and 16 points, respectively. They certainly weren’t the types of outcomes people expected after last season’s 32-3, Round of 32 campaign – especially with Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker back in the fold. But after a pair of easy victories in the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend, the Southland favorite had a chance to get its swagger back – and climb above .500 – with two tough-but-winnable games last week at Memphis and home against Long Beach State.

The result? Swagger has been restored.

Stephen F. Austin is our O26 Team of the Week. (Getty Images)

Stephen F. Austin is our O26 Team of the Week. (Getty Images)

Not only did the Lumberjacks beat Memphis on Tuesday, they held the Tigers to their lowest point total in FedEx Forum since the 2009 Conference USA Tournament. Not that SFA was necessarily scorching the nets either, but midway through the second half its ball movement picked up dramatically and the perimeter shots started falling, prompting a 23-6 run over the game’s final 10 minutes. It was as if Underwood’s group found another gear – one that it has yet to shift down from. Following Memphis, SFA returned home on Friday to face a Long Beach State unit coming off wins over Xavier (who beat the Lumberjacks, if you remember) and Nevada in its previous two contests. KenPom predicted a single-digit outcome; the Lumberjacks had other plans, beating the 49ers down by 29 points in a wire-to-wire victory, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that Parker scored only four of those. They crushed LBSU on the offensive glass, took away the three-point line and forced a bunch of turnovers, all key ingredients in the recipe for a blowout. Now, SFA (which also popped Ouachita Baptist by 24 on Sunday) is looking almost as good as it did last year. And without another difficult non-conference test remaining on the schedule, could it achieve similar success, too… another 29-game winning streak, anyone?

Honorable Mentions: Harvard (3-0: vs. Northeastern, at Vermont, vs. Boston U.); Yale (2-1: at Bryant, at Connecticut, at Florida); New Mexico (vs. New Mexico State, at Valparaiso); Idaho (2-0: at Washington State, vs. UC-Davis); Fairfield (vs. Manhattan, at Quinnipiac)

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Tip-Off Marathon: The O26 Menu

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 17th, 2014

Tonight kicks off ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, a jam-packed, 24-plus hour slate of basketball featuring numerous mouthwatering options for O26 fans. And with many of these games serving as important resume-building opportunities, you better come hungry. Let’s check out the menu.

Appetizers/Starters

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

  • UC Santa Barbara at Florida Gulf Coast – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Tonight. We are not even sure if this is formally part of the Marathon, but what better way to whet your appetite than by watching Alan Williams take on Dunk City? After logging 22 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas on Friday, UC Santa Barbara’s 6’8’’ center gets a shot at the Atlantic Sun favorites in Fort Myers – the first of two contests between the Gauchos and Eagles this season. Florida Gulf Coast’s Brett Comer is among the better point guards in the country, while his running mate, Bernard Thompson, is a conference Player of the Year candidate. Both squads could wind up dancing in March.
  • Georgia State at #14 Iowa State – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Tonight. Certain to be one of the most popular appetizers on the menu, this game features a loaded underdog taking on a top-15 team in one of college basketball’s best environments. The Cyclones better be prepared for Georgia State, which boasts a pair of Bluegrass State transfers – Ryan Harrow (Kentucky) and Kevin Ware (Louisville) – and arguably the Sun Belt’s best player, guard R.J. Hunter (18.3 PPG in 2013-14). Hilton Coliseum will be rocking, as always, but perhaps maybe its magic will work in the Panthers favor, instead of the other way of around.
  • #22 SMU at #13 Gonzaga – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tonight. This is one of those fill-you-up-before-the-entrée type items, a hearty match-up of Top 25 units with high expectations. SMU took a serious hit when forward Markus Kennedy, the team’s best player, was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, so Gonzaga is in great position playing at home. Still, even though Mark Few’s bunch looked utterly dominant in its opener against Sacramento State (with newcomers Byron Wesley, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis combining for 44 points), the Bulldogs must come out and execute against Larry Brown’s defensively-tough Mustangs. Kevin Pangos vs. Nic Moore is one of the best point guard match-ups of the young season.

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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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College Basketball’s Five Best Games of 2013-14

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) on April 15th, 2014

As we continue to sift through the memories of the 2013-14 college basketball season, we take a look back at some of the best games of the season. In order, here are the five best games from 2013-14. We covered the five best stories of the season last week, if you’re interested.

  1. November 12: Kansas 94, Duke 83 — Two of the most anticipated freshmen in recent college hoops history matched up in the Champions Classic nightcap, and neither Wiggins (22 points, eight rebounds) nor Parker (27 points, nine rebounds ) disappointed. Kansas broke open a close game behind a late push from Wiggins and Perry Ellis (24 points, nine rebounds), in the process earning one of the season’s first true statement victories. The young Jayhawks would go on to win 25 games and the Big 12 regular season title, but their finest (and most entertaining) win may have come in their second outing of the year.

    Star Freshmen Jabari Parker And Andrew Wiggins Matched Up In What Was A Memorable Champions Classic Battle. (Getty)

    Star Freshmen Jabari Parker And Andrew Wiggins Matched Up In What Was A Memorable Champions Classic Battle. (Getty)

  2. March 29: Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63 (OT) — The low-possession game that everyone expected came to fruition, but both the Badgers (1.05 PPP) and Wildcats (1.03 PPP) managed solid offensive efforts in this Elite Eight battle. Neither team was able to build more than a three-point lead during the final 17 minutes of play (including overtime) in a tangibly tense seesaw battle, but it was the offensive clinic put on by the Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky (28 points, 11 rebounds) that proved to be the ultimate difference. After a controversial replay review in the final seconds that gave the ball back to Arizona, Nick Johnson was unable to get up a winning shot attempt in time, and Wisconsin was headed to the Final Four for the first time under Bo Ryan. Read the rest of this entry »
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