Throughout the NCAA Tournament, we’ll be providing you with the daily chatter from around the webosphere relating to what’s going on with the teams still playing.
Ohio State standout Jared Sullingerhas basketball in his blood. If you recall, his older brother, JJ, pieced together a solid career for the Buckeyes in the early 2000′s
Marquette head coach Buzz Williams believes Xavier guard Tu Holloway would receive acclaim similar to Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette if he played in a major conference. A high compliment, but it might be a bit of an exaggeration.
With the memory of his late mother always in his mind, Indiana State guard Jake Kelly has led the Sycamores all season. It is tough not to root for a kid like Kelly, as he has battled through all kinds of adversity throughout his career.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim believes that freshman big man Fab Melois the Oranges’s “X-Factor” in this season’s tournament. This is a bit stunning to me, as Melo spent most of the conference campaign relegated to the bench.
Georgia head coach Mark Fox may get a chance to battle his mentor, UNC head coach Roy Williams, if both teams advance to the second round. Fox got his start in the coaching world as a volunteer assistant at Kansas.
Florida guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton were key in the Gators’ rout of UC-Santa Barbara. The duo has battled inconsistency all season, but yesterday might be a sign of good things to come.
Pittsburgh big man Gary McGhee will seek revenge on his prep nemesis, Matt Howard, when the Panthers battle Butler in the second round. During the Indiana high school basketball and AAU seasons, McGhee never won a game against Howard.
Wisconsin got a big contribution from forward Mike Bruesewitz in the Badgers’ victory over Belmont. The sophomore forward recovered from a late-season injury to provide Bo Ryan‘s squad the necessary spark off the bench.
UCLA head coach Ben Howland will not rest following his squad’s victory over Michigan State. The Bruins have a big matchup with Florida on Saturday.
Now that the Play-In First Four games are finished, let’s get back to normalcy with the best weekend of the year beginning this afternoon. Sixteen games, eight sites, four television channels, and several million brackets busted by roughly 3:30 PM eastern time.
#5 West Virginia vs. #11 Clemson – East Region Second Round (at Tampa, FL) – 12:15 pm ET on CBS
Expect a low-scoring, gritty and physical opener for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament action, and not just because the tip time is barely after noon and Clemson arrived in Tampa just before the sun came up on Wednesday. Both of these teams pride themselves in their toughness defensively and play extremely hard on every possession. Clemson specializes in limiting opposing offenses inside the arc behind senior forward Jerai Grant prowess in the paint, while West Virginia limits their competition to below 30% shooting from the three-point line. While both Brad Brownell and Bob Huggins have a history of trotting out stalwart defenses, the edge offensively has to side with the Mountaineers. Kevin Jones has been playing his best basketball of the season as of late, posting three double-doubles in his last four outings. Casey Mitchell is a 38% gunner from deep that is tremendous off screens in catch and shoot situations where he barely needs any room to fire. Deniz Kilicli and John Flowers have aided what has turned out to be the sixth best offensive rebounding team in the nation, no surprise coming from a Huggins-coached squad. Clemson is merely middle of the pack in Division I in allowing offensive rebounds, so the Mountaineer frontline may be able to churn out extra possessions for their perimeter weapons throughout this game. Limiting Grant is certainly a challenge, but the WV frontline should be up to the task. Combine tired legs with Mitchell feasting on a perimeter defense that just surrendered 12 threes to UAB and the edge in this 5/12 matchup has to side with the Mountaineers.
The RTC Certified Pick:West Virginia.
#8 Butler vs. #9 Old Dominion – Southeast Region Second Round (at Washington, D.C.) – 12:40 pm ET on truTV.
Both teams have won their past nine games en route to conference tournament championships. Defense has been the key for each club during their winning streaks with Butler giving up 58 PPG and ODU at 57.7 PPG against over their last nine games. Old Dominion is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation and that is where they have to take advantage of the Bulldogs. This game will be played almost exclusively in the half court with both teams preferring a slower pace. Butler ranks #11 in defensive rebounding percentage but the Monarchs are the best offensive rebounding team in the land. Blaine Taylor’s team must win this battle and protect the basketball in order to advance. They struggle at times with turnovers and lots of giveaways will negate their expected edge on the glass. Look for the Monarchs to work inside utilizing star big man Frank Hassell as well as Keyon Carter and Kent Bazemore. Butler allows 48.7% FG inside the arc and that could hurt them against the frontcourt-oriented Monarchs. Butler shoots almost 21 threes per game behind Shelvin Mack, Zach Hahn and even Matt Howard (44%). Add in the recent play of Shawn Vanzant and you have a team playing as well as they have all year. ODU is very poor against the three, their biggest vulnerability. Bazemore is a terrific defender and needs to come up big on that end against the Bulldog guards. Both teams are experienced and obviously did well in last year’s tournament so they won’t be intimidated by the big stage. While the focus will be on Howard vs. Hassell in the post, this game could be determined by guard play.
The RTC Certified Pick: Butler.
#4 Louisville vs. #13 Morehead State – Southwest Region Second Round (at Denver, CO) – 1:40 pm ET on TBS.
We’re quite sure that Louisville head coach Rick Pitino could only shake his head in disgust when he saw his team’s opening matchup on Thursday. An in-state mid-major whose greatest strength — a dominant glass-eater by the name of Kenneth Faried — bears stark contrast with his Cards’ greatest weakness, interior play. Over the years, Pitino has mastered the art of using team defensive principles to stymie players like Faried by throwing two and three bodies at him everywhere on the floor. The Cards will need to again, because Faried’s nonstop motor and Rodman-esque knack for finding the ball is the best in the nation (he corrals 20% of offensive rebounds and 31% of defensive rebounds while he’s on the floor), something his players know all too well after facing Morehead State (and Faried) in the same round two seasons ago (Faried went for 14/11 in a 20-point loss). He’s gotten better, and so has his team. The good news for Pitino is that MSU is often sloppy with the ball, committing nearly fifteen turnovers a game, and the Eagles don’t defend the three very well (36.9%), which will allow ample opportunities for the Louisville shooters to get good looks from deep. Two seasons ago a stronger Louisville team went into halftime only up two points on a weaker Morehead State team; expect a similar situation this year, as the relative strengths and weaknesses offset each other. Ultimately, the Cards will find enough points through hustle and desire to fend off the school located two hours east, but we’ll forgive Pitino if he lambastes the committee for giving him this dangerous opponent for the second time in three years.
The RTC Certified Pick:Louisville.
#7 Temple vs. #10 Penn State – West Region Second Round (at Tucson, AZ) – 2:10 pm ET on TNT.
While the Owls are 25-7 and the higher seed here, this is not a team that is at full strength. They have played their last eight games without center Michael Eric, who will not return this year, and the last seven without swingman Scootie Randall, who is holding out hope that he will be able to go Thursday. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are at full strength, but their full strength means that their five starters are ready to play a whole lot of minutes, with only sporadic contributions from the bench, which averages less than eight total points per game. And given the pace at which Penn State plays (their games average just 60 possessions, in the bottom two percent of the nation), a pace which Temple will have little objection to, we’ll have a low-scoring, limited possession, defensive battle that will likely come down to seeing which of the two teams makes the most plays in the final few minutes. Because of that, the Lions may have the edge. Not only do they have four seniors amongst their five main players, but Talor Battle is an explosive scorer given the limited number of possessions he works with. And, among their five man rotation, only Andrew Jones is a poor free throw shooter. For Temple to counteract the experience of the Lions, they’ll need to get plenty of inside production from physical freak Lavoy Allen, while perimeter players like Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and point guard Juan Fernandez will have to take advantage of a PSU defense that likes to pack it in and force their opponents to beat them with their jump shot. Unfortunately for the Owls, even if Randall does make it back for this game, their most efficient offensive player does not figure to have his legs back, and Temple may come up a bit short.
By now, we have all read, watched, and heard the breakdown of those teams fortunate enough to have earned a top seed in this year’s Tournament. We know Pittsburgh has the easiest road to Houston of the four #1 seeds—or do they? Georgetown, with Chris Wright returning to the lineup, is poised to make a run to the second weekend. Ohio State and Kansas are the favorites to advance to the Final Four according to many of the so-called experts. They can only review so many times how teams with Tournament experience traditionally perform well, and that having a formidable frontcourt is essential to reaching the Final Four. But, what about those pesky teams from the Other 26 conferences? While there are several popular teams that have the capability of playing the role of Cinderella this year that have received ample coverage—Belmont, Utah State and Oakland just to name a few—let’s dive in and investigate the fifteen O26 teams on the left-hand side of the bracket: the East and West Regions. Yes, even you, Texas-San Antonio and Long Island, are getting some love here.
I elected to break down the 15 teams by inserting each into one of the four categories: 1) Have a legitimate shot at actually advancing far into the Tournament; 2) Can win a game, but not much more; 3) If their shots are falling and their opponents are not, they have an outside shot; and, 4) We are just happy to be here
Ability to advance to the second weekend
(6, East) Xavier—Despite a setback to Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, Xavier breezed through their conference schedule with their only loss coming to Charlotte. Subsequently, they are one of the hotter teams entering the Tournament and possess one of the most dynamic and potent point guards in the country in Tu Holloway. The Musketeers’ date with Marquette in the first round is one of the most intriguing early match-ups of the tournament. Getting by the Golden Eagles would undoubtedly give them confidence against another Big East foe in Syracuse in the following round. Bare in mind, Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 in the past three NCAA Tournaments.
Tu Holloway Makes the XU Offense Go
(2, West) San Diego State—The Aztecs are one of the best feel good stories of the entire year. They have a very likable team with guys like D.J. Gay and Kawhi Leonard being the face of the program, and Steve Fisher’s journey back to the top of the college basketball world has been great to watch. San Diego State sprinted through their entire regular season schedule with their only two blemishes coming at the hands of Jimmer Fredette and BYU. The play of Gay in the backcourt and Leonard in the frontcourt makes it hard for any opponent to cope with. SDSU will look to avenge their first round loss to Tennessee in last year’s tournament with a much deeper run this year.
(7, West) Temple—In the illustrious career of Fran Dunphy, the longtime coach has never won an NCAA Tournament game. After a strong non-conference performance that translated to a 14-2 record in the Atlantic 10, Temple seems poised to give Dunphy that first “W.” The Owls are one of the best defensive teams in the tournament, which will suite them well for Penn State’s hard-nosed and methodical offense. The match-up featuring Ramone Moore and Talor Battle will no doubt be a great one that may determine the outcome of the game.
Can win a game
(8, East) George Mason—The nation is finally witnessing the highly touted recruits that Jim Larranaga attracted to George Mason following their magical Final Four run back in 2006. The play of Ryan Pearson and Cam Long has been nothing short of exceptional during the second half of the season as GMU won 16 consecutive games. The streaking Patriots will take on the slumping Villanova Wildcats in the first round who have lost five straight games and 10 of their last 15. While the Nova backcourt is one of the best around with Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, GMU is playing with confidence and swagger that Villanova seems to have lost. I’ll take the hotter team in this one.
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, we’ll be providing you with all the chatter from around the webosphere relating to what’s going on with the teams still playing. We hope to have these up each morning starting Tuesday, March 15, but don’t kill us if it sometimes slips to the early afternoon.
Colorado moves safely into the field with their third win of the season over Kansas State. The Buffs also have wins over Texas and Missouri. Despite a mediocre RPI and poor non-conference losses, those five wins are unmatched among fellow bubble squads. Alabama is now the first team out leading up to their rematch with Georgia tomorrow.
Connecticut jumps up another seed line with their win over Pittsburgh. The Huskies are now 12-9 vs. Big East competition and tout an outstanding 14 wins vs. the RPI top-100. Pittsburgh’s entire body of work keeps the Panthers as the third #1 seed, but opens up the possibility of Notre Dame passing them in the coming days, a switch that would send Pitt to the Anaheim region.
UAB’s quarterfinal loss to East Carolina in the Conference USA Tournament drops the Blazers out of the automatic bid. Their only RPI top-50 wins are against Marshall, making it extremely unlikely the Blazers will earn a spot in the field. UTEP is now the projected auto bid from CUSA.
Avoiding upsets kept Georgia and Boston College in the field, but neither win boosted their position on the S-Curve.
BYU once again played poorly without Brandon Davies against bottom-feeder TCU. A loss in the MWC Tournament and pushes by either Florida or North Carolina in the days ahead could drop the Cougars to a #3 seed.
Word from Steve Lavin is that D.J. Kennedy suffered a “serious knee injury.” This may affect St. John’s seed if confirmed.
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
Only two auto-bids go out tonight, but a couple of interesting games from the Big East are also on the slate. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
Big East Second Round (at New York, NY): #18 Connecticut vs. Georgetown – 12 pm on ESPN (***)
He and His Droogs Dispatched DePaul Last Night; Tonight, Alex Descends Into MSG For a Battle With the Hoyas
The Huskies drew a pretty good bracket by Big East standards, getting bottom feeder DePaul in the first round and a depleted Georgetown team this afternoon. Connecticut ended its winless drought in this tournament, blowing out DePaul yesterday for their first Big East Tournament win since 2005. Alex Oriakhi had 13 points and 19 rebounds, making his presence known at the start of the tournament after a regular season full of inconsistency. Kemba Walker added 26/7/5 as the Huskies cruised. Things get considerably tougher today against Georgetown, but the Hoyas are a reeling squad. They’ve lost four of their past five games, including a loss to UConn, and have not looked competitive since senior point guard Chris Wright went down with a broken hand. The Hoyas haven’t scored more than 51 points in three games without Wright and will have to play a strong defensive game if they want to knock off the Huskies.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.
The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.
Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.
Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.
Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.
First-Round Upset: Eastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.
How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.
Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:
If you are a true fan of Mid-Major basketball, then this is the weekend for you. Many fans who find a whole lot of joy in watching teams from the smaller conferences compete, share the common gripe that there is not nearly enough coverage of these teams. Well, at no other point during the season will you see ESPN dedicate an entire Saturday of basketball almost exclusively to the best Mid-Major teams around the nation.
Playing against the same faces within a team’s conference can become monotonous, but the BracketBuster weekend enables 114 teams around the country a brief recess before the final stretch of the regular season and tournament time to play an opponent they would otherwise never play. Although many of these games will have little meaning in the grand scheme of things, there are a select few that have serious implications as several Mid-Major teams partaking in the BracketBuster weekend sit squarely on the bubble.
Brace yourself for a great day of college hoops on Saturday. With so many of the top Mid-Major teams in the country playing—George Mason, Utah State, St. Mary’s, Cleveland State, Old Dominion, Missouri State, and Wichita State—you can bet that at least one of these teams, if not more, will be wearing Cinderella’s slipper come March.
Parity is a great thing in sports. Not many enjoy watching a league where one team consistently dominates the competition and all the others are simply happy to compete with the top team. In the West Coast Conference this was the case for years. Gonzaga would roll right on through league play, win the conference championship, and then head onto the NCAA Tournament. Sure the ‘Zags would be upset on occasions, but those occasions were few and far between. This year, that is hardly the case in the WCC. St. Mary’s is the current leader, but there are a few other teams that are capable of knocking off the Gaels—Portland already has. The WCC is not the only conference where there is parity. How about the wacky Conference USA? It seems that every team in that conference has a shot to win it. The Atlantic 10 and CAA both have a couple teams at the top, but there are several others right below them that are just waiting for the right time to pounce on the top dogs. The MAC is the perfect instance of parity this year. You may call it mediocrity, but you cannot say that 11 teams with records ranging from 3-5 to 6-2 is not parity.
One can argue that parity is essentially synonymous with hope. Fans of every team that is right in the thick of things within their conference have legitimate hope that their guys will pull through and be the last one standing come the conclusion of their conference tournament.
Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
First off Merry Christmas to all the Big Sky Conference fans out there! After we all get done opening presents, we get to open up the conference season. It should be one of the most competitive in years.
A Look Back
One of the most bizarre free throw shots ever captured on video was from Idaho State’s own Kamil Gawrzydek. The ball seemed to just sit down right on the rim after bouncing high into the air. What was it waiting for? Forget everything that you think you know about physics and take a look for yourself.
Northern Arizona is becoming a force not only within the Big Sky Conference, but is scaring the heck out of the big boys. In back to back games on the road against USC and Arizona, the Lumberjacks came within single digits of both of these behemoths. Northern Arizona is looking more and more the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference.
The term “Road Warriors” is usually a positive statement made about a team that racks up “Ws” on the road. Northern Colorado fans cringe when they hear that term. The Bears have only played one game at home since November 16! It is safe to say they will be looking forward to playing in their home gym. Only problem is that they still have to wait until January 6!
1. Northern Arizona: (8-4)
Recent Games: 60-52 Loss at USC 12/11, 63-58 Loss at Arizona 12/16, 74-63 Win vs. Air Force 12/22
Upcoming Games: at Montana 12/29, at Montana State 12/31, vs. Idaho State 1/6
2. Weber State: (6-5)
Recent Games: 77-71 Win at Southern Utah 12/11, 81-79 Loss at Tulsa 12/16, 94-54 Win vs. Southwest 12/18, 72-66 Loss vs. BYU 12/21
Upcoming Games: at Montana State 12/29, at Montana 12/31, at Northern Arizona 1/8
3. Montana: (8-4)
Recent Games: 50-48 Loss at San Francisco 12/12, 71-66 Win vs. Oregon State 12/15, 64-63 Win at Idaho 12/18, 71-57 Win at Cal State Fullerton 12/22
Upcoming Games: vs. Northern Arizona 12/29, vs. Weber State 12/31, at Northern Colorado 1/6, at Sacramento State 1/8
4. Portland State: (6-5)
Recent Games: 93-89 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 12/12, 92-77 Loss at Cal State Bakersfield 12/15, 78-67 Loss vs. Portland 12/18, 79-73 Loss at Nevada 12/20, 73-53 Win vs. Utah Valley 12/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Northern Colorado 12/29, at Idaho State 1/2, vs. Eastern Washington 1/8
5. Northern Colorado: (4-7)
Recent Games: 86-76 Loss at Illinois 12/12, 71-68 Loss at Denver 12/18, 75-61 Loss at Colorado State 12/20, 78-75 Loss at Louisiana-Monroe 12/22
Upcoming Games: at Portland State 12/29, at Eastern Washington 12/31, vs. Montana 1/6, vs. Montana State 1/8
6. Montana State: (6-6)
Recent Games: 94-60 Win vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10, 78-67 Loss at UC Riverside 12/19, 75-59 Loss at UCLA 12/21
Upcoming Games: vs. Weber State 12/29, vs. Northern Arizona 12/31, at Sacramento State 1/6, at Northern Colorado 1/8
7. Eastern Washington: (3-8)
Recent Games: 70-69 Loss at San Jose State 12/12, 95-91 Win vs. Seattle 12/15, 72-42 Loss at Nebraska 12/18, 78-72 Loss at South Dakota 12/20
Upcoming Games: vs. Sacramento State 12/29, vs. Northern Colorado 12/31, at Seattle 1/6, at Portland State 1/8
8. Idaho State: (4-8)
Recent Games: 78-57 Win vs. UMKC 12/11, 66-60 Loss at Creighton 12/18, 71-48 Loss at Utah State 12/21, 77-73 Win vs. Troy 12/22, 63-60 Loss vs. Western Michigan 12/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Sacramento State 12/31, vs. Portland State 1/2, at Northern Arizona 1/6
9. Sacramento State: (3-8)
Recent Games: 65-54 Win vs. William Jessup 12/10, 65-63 Win at McNeese State 12/19, 66-53 Loss at Oklahoma 12/21
Upcoming Games: at Eastern Washington 12/29, at Idaho State 12/31, vs. Montana State 1/6, vs. Montana 1/8
A Look Aheadto Conference Play
Predicted Conference Order of Finish
The conference season is going to be one of the most competitive in years. However the returning fire power of Northern Arizona is going to be too much for this conference to handle. However, as last year’s Big Sky Conference has shown, anybody can win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This year’s Big Sky Conference representative will be…
Weber State Wildcats
The Big Sky Conference tournament is going to be a showcase for NBA scouts as Damian Lillard will put his team on his back and into the NCAA tournament. The question for Weber State fans is can something like this happen? I wonder what size slipper Lillard wears? The most interesting development will be does the committee consider Northern Arizona as an at-large team? They have been very competitive against the big boys and will have quite a good resume come March.
If you are interested in participating in our ATB2 feature, send in your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top 25 Games
#2 Ohio State 85, Western Carolina 60: “As expected, Thad Matta’s basketball Buckeyes showed a bit more emotion out of the gate and overwhelmed the Western Carolina Catamounts 85-60 this afternoon in venerable St. John Arena.” (Eleven Warriors)
#8 Georgetown 89, Appalachian State 60: “It’s always interesting to see how a team reacts to a heartbreaking loss. Today’s game for the Georgetown Hoyas was that test. In addition, this team has had the reputation of playing down to competition in the last few years. Today, none of that mattered. The Hoyas outworked, outmuscled and outhustled Appalachian State in an 89-60 victory.” (Casual Hoya)
#16 Illinois 86, Northern Colorado 76: The Fighting Illini won despite a lackluster defensive effort. (Hail to the Orange)
Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
A Look Back
Don’t look now, Weber State, but the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona are on a roll! Coach Mike Adras has his team firing on all cylinders. They have won the last seven games in a row, with three of those wins coming on the road. The Lumberjacks are the highest-scoring team in the Big Sky Conference at almost 79 points per game. That offense will be tough to slow down as they get into conference play.
Down goes Frazier! Montana did something that has not been done since 2000. A Big Sky team walked into Pauley Pavilion and upset one of the great college basketball bluebloods, the UCLA Bruins. Coach Wayne Tinkle once again is beaming this week as his team continues to gain confidence. What can help a team’s confidence more than beating UCLA at home after they themselves nearly defeated the mighty Kansas Jayhawks at their house a few days prior?
Speaking of confidence, Eastern Washington got a little boost to its young team on December 4. New Hope Christian came to town and gave up 112 points to the Eagles. The Eagles were not as kind on defense as New Hope Christian was. They only let them score 41! How rude, huh?! Maybe it was because the opposing team’s necks were hurting by watching all the long range bombs that were tossed in. EWU attempted 43 three point shots during the game, Kevin Winford by himself attempted 23! It is safe to say that Eastern Washington has found what they are good at.
1. Northern Arizona: (7-2)
Recent Games: 88-74 Win at Pepperdine 11/28, 81-77 Win at Cal State Bakersfield 11/30, 91-50 Win vs. Bethany 12/4, 68-55 Win vs. Texas-Pan American 12/8
Upcoming Games: at USC 12/11, at Arizona 12/16, vs. Air Force 12/22
To say the Lumberjacks are on a roll might be an understatement. With seven wins in a row under their belt, Northern Arizona takes over the top spot in this edition of the power rankings. Coach Adras has his team playing not only the best basketball in the conference, but it can be argued that they are playing some of the better basketball in the nation. The Lumberjacks have the highest scoring offense in the Big Sky at just under 79 points per game. But even more impressive is that they also have the 8th-most assists per game in the nation, all the while shooting 49.2% from the field, good for 23rdin the nation. With Cameron Jones leading the way for this team, the “Sky” is the limit.
2. Weber State: (4-3)
Recent Games: 59-58 Loss vs. Arizona State 11/26, 82-81 Win vs. Drake 11/27, 65-61 Win vs. Seattle 12/4
Upcoming Games: at Southern Utah 12/11, at Tulsa 12/16, vs. Southwest 12/18, vs. BYU 12/21
The Wildcats drop to #2 in our rankings this time around. Not so much because they played badly, but because Northern Arizona has been playing so good. Look for these two teams to flip flop more than once during conference play. The Wildcats are coming home fresh off a trip to the Great Alaska Shootout. They narrowly lost to a decent Arizona State team by one point after disposing of Alaska Anchorage. They got right back on track with wins over Drake and Seattle. Look for Damian Lillard to use Northern Arizona’s success to fuel him the rest of the year.
3. Montana: (5-3)
Recent Games: 75-67 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/30, 58-54 Loss vs. Portland 12/3, 66-57 Win at UCLA 12/5, 85-50 Win vs. Great Falls
Upcoming Games: at San Francisco 12/12, vs. Oregon State 12/15, at Idaho 12/18, at Cal State Fullerton 12/22
The Grizzlies jump from #5 in the rankings to #3 with the help of an upset win at UCLA. That one win can propel Montana into the conference season. However, coach Wayne Tinkle must preach that every game matters. Getting a big win like that can fog the minds of his Grizzlies. They must forge ahead and keep that intensity that they showed in Pauley Pavilion if they want to go dancing for the second straight year.
4. Northern Colorado: (4-3)
Recent Games: 76-61 Loss vs. Valparaiso 11/26, 69-45 Win vs. Bethune-Cookman 11/27, 84-52 Win vs. Black Hills State 12/4
Upcoming Games: at Illinois 12/12, at Denver 12/18, at Colorado State 12/20, at Louisiana-Monroe 12/22
Northern Colorado participated in the Las Vegas Invitational on Thanksgiving weekend. First-year coach B.J. Hill has to wonder if the lights of Vegas got the best of them. The Bears started out by losing to Valparaiso by 24 points in the first day of the event. They turned around the experience with a solid win vs. Bethune-Cookman. Devon Beitzel continues to lead the Bears this season but still has yet to find his stroke from long range. He is still shooting an anemic 29.4%. If they are going to compete for a conference title Beitzel has got find a rhythm out there.
5. Portland State: (5-2)
Recent Games: 83-76 Win vs. Seattle 12/1, 68-49 Loss at Oregon 12/5, 92-58 Win vs. George Fox 12/9
Upcoming Games: vs. Cal State Fullerton 12/12, at Cal State Bakersfield 12/15, vs. Portland 12/18, at Nevada 12/20, vs. Utah Valley 12/23
Up one spot from #6 the surprising Vikings of Portland State. These guys were given a tough draw at the beginning of the season. Not being eligible for the postseason, not even the conference tournament can be a huge blow to a team’s ego. But coach Tyler Gerving has these guys playing hard every game. Their balanced attack will make you guard at all positions. Chris Harriel, Melvin Jones, and all the rest have bought in and relish being the spoiler this year in the Big Sky Conference.
6. Montana State: (5-4)
Recent Games: 81-59 Loss at Iowa State 11/27, 72-70 Loss at Seattle 12/29, 62-56 Loss at Illinois State 12/4
Upcoming Games: vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10, at UC Riverside 12/19, at UCLA 12/21
The question was posed the last time these rankings were put out are the Bobcats for real? Well, since winning five straight games they have dropped the last three on the road, hence the dropping of two spots in the rankings. Coach Brad Huse has to wonder about the consistency of his squad and their ability to win close games. The rest of December looks brutal when the Bobcats will play non-conference games on the road against UC Riverside and UCLA. Then they open the conference season against the two best teams in the Big Sky, Weber State and Northern Arizona. At least those first two conference games are at home?
7. Eastern Washington: (2-5)
Recent Games: 70-60 Loss vs. Idaho 11/27, 86-57 Loss at Gonzaga 11/30, 112-41 Win vs. New Hope Christian 12/4
Upcoming Games: at San Jose State 12/12, vs. Seattle 12/15, at Nebraska 12/18, at South Dakota 12/20
The Eagles have a talented team. But it seems that it just has not come together this year. The Eagles are unfortunately teetering on disaster as coach Kirk Earlywine’s seat starts to get a little warm. Fans of the Eagles have been lighting up the message boards with frustration about the program. In coach Earlywine’s defense, he has been without Big Sky Freshman of the Year Glen Dean. Hanging 112 on somebody has to count for something right?
8. Idaho State: (2-5)
Recent Games: 69-57 Win vs. Montana Tech 12/29, 70-53 Loss at Iowa 12/4, 75-56 Loss at Cal State Bakersfield 12/7
Upcoming Games: vs. UMKC 12/11, at Creighton 12/18, at Utah State 12/21, vs. Troy 12/22, vs. Western Michigan 12/23
The Bengals have lost some games this year. But they are only returning one starter from last year’s team. That player is Broderick Gilchrest. Although he has tried to carry this team at times on his own, coach Joe O’Brien has got to find some other people to contribute. Deividas Busma has been a pleasant addition since only appearing in six games last year because of an injury. However, barely scoring 60 points per game as a team is simply not going to cut it when they start facing teams like Northern Arizona.
9. Sacramento State: (2-6)
Recent Games: 71-67 Win vs. Cal Poly 11/27, 84-36 Loss at Washington State 11/30, 77-52 Loss at Utah Valley 12/4, 69-49 Loss at Loyola Marymount 12/7
Upcoming Games: vs. William Jessup 12/10, at McNeese State 12/19, at Oklahoma 12/21
This is the little team that could. It is hard to not respect the job that coach Brian Katz is doing at SacramentoState. He has gone from 2 wins, to 9 wins, and is now having to deal with coaching a team that has only three players from last year. Katz has had a lot of success in the junior college ranks and there is hope for the future for Hornets fans. With a couple of strong recruiting off seasons this team can be a force in the Big Sky Conference. They just have to take their lumps this year.
A Look Ahead
We are all going to see what Northern Arizona is made of right away. The Lumberjacks are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and now are really going to be tested. They have road games against USC, then Arizona, and if they survive that then they play Air Force at home before conference play begins. The big boys have shown that they are vulnerable this year, even at home, but don’t look for these teams to overlook the Lumberjacks.
The non-conference schedule is winding down and that means conference play is around the corner. This year’s Big Sky Conference is wide open and up for grabs. Look for four teams to battle it out for the conference crown, those teams being Northern Arizona, Weber State, Montana and Northern Colorado. Don’t count out Portland State, though. Winning a regular season conference title to them is like winning the national title. Since they are not eligible for the postseason this is all they have to play for. They would love to steal a conference title away from the “big four.”
The “Human Highlight Film” Award
Will Cherry. He is the do-everything guard for the Montana Grizzlies. All the guy has done is lead the Grizzlies to a 5-3 record and a huge win at UCLA. He is only a sophomore and continues to play beyond his years. Here is his stat line from last season to this season.
Will Cherry gave UCLA headaches in a monumental win for the Montana program. (AP/L. Shepler)
Cherry has been named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week two times already this year and projects to continue that trend. Did we mention he is sixth in the NATION in steals? It’s safe to say that we have a competition for Player of the Year. Cherry will face Damian Lillard for the first time head-to-head on New Year’s Eve. This could be one of the battles that people point to when they choose the POY. To learn a little more about Will Cherry, check out this great interview with him from Kayla Anderson.