Shamelessly cribbing from the very clever NBA catch phrase, we here at RTC will present to you the Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball as we gear up toward the start of the season about three weeks from now. We’ll be bringing you players to watch for this season and moments to remember from last season, courtesy of the series of dump trucks, wires and effluvia known as YouTube.
The quarterfinals of the 2009 WAC Tournament are in the books and the league’s top two seeded teams–Utah State and Nevada–advanced. The #3 and #4 seeds Idaho and Boise State? Not nearly as fortunate. Each session brought its own upset as in the tournament’s first game #5 seed New Mexico State upended #4 seed Boise State. The Broncos had won the first two meetings of the season and were looking to make it three straight and looked to be off to a good start when they built a 30-20 lead midway through the first half. However, New Mexico State found its shot and took a 38-36 lead into the break. Boise State tied the game at 38 apiece less than a minute into the game after a pair of made free throws but that’s as close as they would get the rest of the way. Spurred by an 8-0 run, New Mexico State seized control of the game and timely free throws and a second half barrage of three pointers by junior guard Jonathan Gibson helped the Aggies to advance to the semifinals. Gibson finished with a team high 22 points for the Aggies. Boise State was led by Mark Sanchez who scored a game high 25 points. In all four Aggies finished with double figures in scoring while three Broncos achieved that mark. Boise State finishes the season at 19-12 and will await their postseason fate. The Aggies improve to 17-14 and will face top seed Utah State at 6:00 p.m. PT.
In the first session’s second game the regular season champion Utah State took on #9 seed Fresno State. Most Aggie fans approached this game with a bit of guarded optimism not normally seen in a 1 vs. 9 matchup. However, there was due cause for their concern as Fresno State had pushed Utah State to the brink in both regular season meetings. The Bulldogs had lost by just four in the always tough Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum in Logan and then later took Utah State to overtime before eventually losing. After Fresno State escaped the 8/9 play-in game against Hawai’i, they looked to spring the upset. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the Aggies had different plans. Utah State jumped out to a 16-3 lead and never looked back. Utah State hit a season high 13 three pointers en route to an 85-68 victory. Utah State’s Stavon Williams finished with 22 points on 8-11 shooting including 6-8 from three point distance. Gary Wilkinson and Jared Quayle each pitched in 18 for the Aggies. Fresno State had four players reach double figures led by freshman Paul George with 16. Senior Dwight O’Neil, playing in his final game scored 14 points. Utah State rekindles their rivalry with New Mexico State in the first semifinal game at 6:00 p.m. PT.
1. Utah State (13-2, 26-4)
2. Nevada (9-5, 17-11)
3. Boise State (8-6, 18-10)
4. New Mexico State (8-7, 15-14)
5. Idaho (7-7, 14-14)
6. San Jose State (6-8, 13-14)
7. Louisiana Tech (6-9, 14-16)
8. Hawaii (5-10, 13-15)
9. Fresno State (3-11, 12-18)
With the WAC tournament looming next week, the only two seeds that have been determined are the 1-seed and the 9-seed. Everything in between is a mess thanks in large part to a Thursday night ambush by the league’s bottom half. Ninth place Fresno State took down second place Nevada 66-64, eighth place Louisiana Tech took down third place New Mexico State 80-71 and seventh place San Jose State took down fifth place Idaho. Only Utah State managed to maintain order with their 20 point victory over Hawai’i. Fourth place Boise State did not play but added to the carnage two nights later when they fell to Louisiana Tech by 14.
Random Thoughts: The rest of the league can thank us for putting the serious jinx on the UtAgs with our mention of potential undefeatedness in last week’s WAC Check-In. That being said, Utah State (12-1) will not be caught — a wise man told us — in the race for the league championship despite falling to Boise State Saturday night … Nevada has managed a solid 8-4 WAC record to date despite a young team and some returning players positioned in new roles … Boise State Coach Greg Graham and his Broncos stand at 7-4 with these games remaining until tourney time: Idaho, @ Portland State (BracketBuster), @ Louisiana Tech, @ New Mexico State, Fresno State and Nevada. That same wise man refused to offer who was going to be the second place finisher in the WAC and then told us to get off his lawn.
Playing for second. The Utah State Aggies can wrap up a share of the regular season WAC title this week with a win over Idaho. And if they are to do it, they’ll have to do it on the road. Utah State is 11-0 in league play and is looking to complete the first undefeated season since TCU turned the trick in the 1997-98 season at 14-0 and then a year later when Utah also completed the feat going 14-0. In both cases the teams were playing in the then (and first) 16 team league and won their division. The race for the league’s 2-seed in the conference tournament is heating up as five teams are within two games of each other with anywhere from five (NM State) to seven (Idaho) league games remaining.
#17/21 Utah State (11-0, 23-1)
Boise State (6-4, 16-7)
Nevada (6-4, 13-10)
New Mexico State (6-5, 12-12)
Idaho (4-5, 10-12)
San Jose State (4-7, 12-11)
Hawai’i (4-7, 12-11)
Louisiana Tech (3-8, 9-15)
Fresno State (2-7, 10-14)
Official Player of the Week: For the third time this season, Utah State’s Gary Wilkinson has been named the Western Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week. Versus New Mexico State, he scored 18 points and nabbed 11 boards. He didn’t miss all night — going 5-5 from the floor and 8-8 at the foul line. Wilkinson then added 16 points against Louisiana Tech.
Last week was a week of opportunities. Some took advantage while others did not. Boise State took their opportunities by the horns as they completed a home sweep to put themselves into third place. New Mexico State on the other hand did not falling twice on the road after having a chance to rise to third in the standings, instead of coming out of the week in fifth place. Idaho had an opportunity at redemption and took advantage by avenging an earlier loss to New Mexico State, a game that head coach Don Verlin felt they should have won. This week is another week of opportunities. Utah State has the opportunity to give themselves a two-game lead on the rest of the league. Idaho has the opportunity to lay claim to being the best team in the state of Idaho and then the opportunity to sweep Nevada for the first time since the 1998-1999 season.
Home Sweet Home… errr Road. A strange thing has happened early in the WAC this season. Through 15 games the road teams are 10-5. Among the milestone victories this season was Utah State defeating New Mexico State in Las Cruces for the first time since 2000, Idaho winning for the first time in Reno since 1999 and San Jose State winning in Fresno for the first time since 1993. There is a strong chance the road wins will keep on coming as Idaho visits New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, Boise State visits Nevada and Utah State and San Jose State visits Hawai’i.
What we know about the WAC
Fresno State’s Paul George is the real deal…but one that nobody expected to be so productive so soon nor that he would play every minute of every Bulldog WAC game so far.
Rainbow Warrior Roderick Flemings is also special…as presupposed
Look at Coach Steve Cleveland’s roster and then the squad’s 7-8 record — in what fantasy world do those expecting more reside?
BSU’s Kurt Cunningham has come back to earth with his shooting but any coach will take a 10-17 shooting ratio from his center.
The regular season is flying by. Believe it or not, we’re only nine weeks away from having an official NCAA Tournament Bracket to review and obsess over. We also happen to be nine weeks removed from opening night, so yesterday marked the official midpoint - 63 days on each side - of the regular season. Which means, of course, for all you folks who have been busy with the holidays, busy with the bowl games, busy with the NFL Playoffs… let’s get you caught up.
From now until the first tip in Dayton March 17th on the Road to the F4 in Detroit (ugh), roughly 150 or so teams are realistically jostling for position to be selected as one of the Chosen 65. As we nestle into the familiarity of conference play (only the Ivies have yet to begin) and America once again wakes up to our game, weaknesses will be exposed, experienced teams will try to avoid complacency and young teams will start to figure it all out. Come Selection Sunday, many of these prospective bracketeers will have fallen by the wayside, but there will be 50 or so at-large teams holding NCAA-caliber resumes, even though only 34 will be taken. Before we jump in with both feet into the fun that the next two months will bring, let’s take a look back at the first two months to see what we’ve learned.
Carolina is Not Unbeatable, but Are the Heels Still the Favorite? A mere month ago we wrote that North Carolina was playing like a team with plans to lose no more than a couple of games (if that many) all season. Then the last eight days happened. First, UNC lost at home to an underwhelming BC team, followed by a road loss at Wake Forest last night to start 0-2 in the ACC. So what’s going on – how can this juggernaut of a team with nearly everyone returning look so… mortal? It’s easy, really. So far, UNC’s defense hasn’t been up to snuff. It’s more efficient as a whole than last year’s version, but their statistical profile is elevated on the defensive end by forcing turnovers which in turn fuels their lethal fast break. In a halfcourt set, as Wake and BC repeatedly and effectively showed, UNC can be penetrated and exposed. The key to playing with the Heels is limiting those TOs that Ty Lawson turns into the quick strikes that overwhelm teams. Is it a fatal flaw? It could be (how’s that for a hedge?). Teams that can’t consistently make stops don’t win championships, but we really don’t see why UNC’s defense shouldn’t be able to make the commitment to improve over the next two months. The 2005 title team only became legit once Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May got serious about stopping people in addition to outscoring them. Can the 2009 Heels – specifically, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Deon Thompson – do the same? Stay tuned.
These Guys Have to Commit to Better Halfcourt Defense
The Big East Should Have Its Own Region. Seriously, let’s just rename the E. Rutherford Region this year and invite every Big East team. Or at least the top 12. Of course, if we did that, it would prohibit the possibility of the conference placing four teams in the Final Four this year – a plausible scenario. Tell us that you couldn’t envision a situation where four of the following teams – Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse – would reach Detroit in April. Throw in Villanova, Marquette and West Virginia and you might just have nine of the Sweet Sixteen. The top half of this conference is really that good. So who is the best of the best? It depends on when you ask the question. Two weeks ago it was UConn. A week ago Georgetown. Now it’s Pittsburgh. Next week… probably Syracuse. The point is nobody knows. UConn has the most raw talent, but they’ve exhibited problems putting it together consistently. Georgetown, haven’t you heard, has rebounding issues. Pittsburgh isn’t reliable from behind the arc. Syracuse has a tendency to lose to teams like Cleveland St. on miracle shots. Louisville spends much of its time looking for its ass with both hands. Notre Dame has a maddening tendency to play defense with its hands. Marquette and Villanova are too guard heavy. West Virginia has Bob Huggins. And on and on. All we can say for certain is that the quality of play in the seemingly-nightly matchups between Top 25 teams is top-shelf, and it makes up for all those other nights where we’re stuck watching Auburn-Ole Miss.
The Big Ten Doesn’t Suck This Year.Now don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that our friendly midwestern conference is on par with the Big East, or even the ACC, but it’s a lot stronger in the middle of the pack than it has been in recent years. Not much was expected out of Minnesota (15-1), Illinois (14-2) or Michigan (13-3) this year, but each of them are playing excellent ball and have marquee wins over the likes of Louisville, Missouri, Duke and UCLA in their pockets. Combine their success with the standard good seasons expected from Michigan St. (13-2), Purdue (12-4), Ohio St. (11-3) and Wisconsin (12-4), and you have a competitive six-bid conference. Even traditional cellar dweller Penn St. (13-4) has shown signs of life this year. Heck, they even made the ACC/Big Ten Challenge competitive (losing 6-5) this year!
Our Midwestern Friends Have Been Practicing
They’re Putting It Together. Now that Tom Izzo once again has a full complement of players with Goran Suton back in the fold, Michigan St. has looked much better since their abysmal performance in the ACC/B10 Challenge against UNC. They’ve run off nine in a row with wins at Texas, at Minnesota and Ohio St. – everyone wrote this team off after that UNC game, but they’ll be heard from in March. UCLA is also quietly going about its business, also reeling off nine in a row (including a 3-0 start in road games in the Pac-10) since their loss to Texas in mid-December. Ben Howland is getting production from eleven players, and if anyone really thought the Bruins were going to have a ‘rebuilding’ season, they need to have their head checked. This team will win close to 30 games again. It’s amazing how a series of close games that go your way can make or break a team’s confidence. After Louisville had dropped tight ones to Minnesota and UNLV in late December, everyone was ready to write off the Cards. Now that they’ve won three of their lost four on the last possession, they sit at 3-0 in the Big East (with two road wins) and appear to be in relatively good shape compared to some of the other Big East contenders (UConn, ND, and Georgetown in particular). We’ll see just how good they can be when #1 Pittsburgh visits on Saturday.
Pleasant Surprises. Obviously, Wake Forest is a pretty big surprise – we expected them to be pretty good, but nobody saw a top five team coming from Dino Gaudio this year. What about Syracuse? – at 16-1 and the lone loss to Cleveland St. from 75 feet, Jim Boeheim’s crew has as much talent as just about anybody in the country. Clemson is pulling its annual ridiculous start, but there are signs that this Tiger team is legit – they have a balanced attack, they’re strong at both ends of the court, and they have good road wins at Illinois, South Carolina and Miami (FL) so far. Butler is a HUGE surprise, although we shouldn’t ever be surprised with that program. The Bulldogs sit at 14-1 and two of their top three players are freshmen, yet they once again appear to be the class of the Horizon and a top mid-major. Tubby Smith has Minnesota playing great ball, and the Gophers are on a fast track to the NCAA Tournament at least a year ahead of schedule. Coaching matters – Mike Montgomery also has California playing hard for the first time in a decade. The Bears look like a top three team in the Pac-10 at this point.
Syracuse Has the Look of a Team Built for March
Disappointments. Since the Q1 update, Gonzaga has done nothing but crap itself, losing games to Arizona, UConn, Portland St., and Utah. They did get a key OT win at Tennessee last week, and their defense is still stronger than in recent years, but for some reason or another, the Zags are having trouble putting it all together. USC is destined to become this year’s NC State (a preseason ranked team that won’t make the NCAA Tourney). The SEC – Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky – have all been various shades of disappointing. Between the cream of the SEC East, there’s what, three quality wins? On the other side of that conference, only Arkansas has even been mildly interesting, with big home wins over Oklahoma and Texas. At the mid-major level, Southern Illinois (6-8 ) and Wright St. (9-8 ) have a long way to go before they’ll turn their seasons around.
RTC Midseason All-Americans. We’ll take some heat for not putting defending NPOY Tyler Hansbrough on our first team, but his numbers, particularly his rebounding average, are off from last season. Granted, he’s still probably recovering from a stress reaction injury, so he’ll have time to recover his (rightful?) place on the 1st team, but for now, we like Griffin (obvious choice) and Harangody in our frontcourt. Curry and Harden are also easy choices in the backcourt, but we’re making a leap of faith choosing Teague – his last two games against BYU and UNC were very impressive performances (he averaged 32/5/4 assts on 59%) and we’re riding on the Wake bandwagon right now.
Jeff Teague, G – Wake Forest(21/4/4 assts on 54%/54% 3fg shooting)
Stephen Curry, G – Davidson (29/4/7 assts/3 stls on 45%/37% 3fg shooting)
James Harden, G – Arizona St. (23/6/5 assts on 56%/42% 3fg shooting)
Blake Griffin, F – Oklahoma (23/14/3 assts on 65% shooting)
Luke Harangody, F – Notre Dame (25/13 on 51% shooting)
Knocking on the Door (2d Team).
Tyler Hansbrough, F – North Carolina (22/8 on 54% shooting)
Patrick Patterson, F – Kentucky (19/9/3 assts on 71% shooting)
Dejuan Blair, F – Pittsburgh (15/13 on 61% shooting)
Manny Harris, G – Michigan (19/8/5 assts on 44%/31% 3fg shooting)
Ty Lawson, G – North Carolina (15/3/6 assts on 53%/42% 3fg shooting)
All-Freshman Team. Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest), Jrue Holiday (UCLA) and Gordon Hayward (Butler) were tough to leave off this list.
Greg Monroe, C – Georgetown (14/6/3 assts on 57% shooting)
Sylven Landesberg, G – Virginia (19/6/3 assts on 49%/30% 3fg shooting)
Tyreke Evans, G – Memphis (16/6/4 assts/3 stls on 45% shooting)
Seth Curry, G – Liberty (20/4 on 45%/40% 3fg shooting)
Paul George, F – Fresno St. (16/7 on 54%/46% 3fg shooting)
Big Games (Q3). Here are the top 10 games of the next month.
Syracuse @ Georgetown – 01.14.09
Pittsburgh @ Louisville – 01.17.09
Georgetown @ Duke – 01.17.09
Wake Forest @ Clemson – 01.17.09
Texas @ Baylor – 01.27.09
Duke @ Wake Forest – 01.28.09
California @ UCLA – 01.29.09
Connecticut @ Louisville – 02.02.09
Duke @ Clemson – 02.04.09
Michigan St. @ Minnesota – 02.04.09
Notre Dame @ UCLA – 02.07.09
Extremes. This won’t last much longer, as we fully expect all three of the unbeatens to have a loss by this time next week, if not sooner. That’s what conference play does to you. NC Central will get a win against a D2 squad soon, but poor little NJIT has no relief in sight. They’re sitting on 49 in a row and, according to KenPom’s projections, 60+ in a row is within reach. Memo to NJIT coach Jim Engles – take a page from the NC Central playbook and schedule some JVHigh School D2 teams.
Unbeaten (next possible loss)
Pittsburgh (Big East):15-0 (@ Louisville 1/17)
Wake Forest (ACC): 14-0 (@ BC 1/14)
Clemson (ACC):16-0 (v. Wake Forest 1/17)
Winless (next possible win)
NJIT (Ind): 0-16 (Bryant 1/21)
North Carolina Central (Ind): 0-18 (D2 Central St 1/16)
Player of the Week: No, the WAC has not adopted a bird as the league symbol, but it did select Jared Quayle (no relation to former VP Dan to our knowledge) of Utah State as the conference Player of the Week. Quayle was the MVP of the 2008 Duel in the Desert after scoring 17 points, grabbing 11 boards and passing out seven assists against Howard and then coming back with a line of 15 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals against Houston Baptist. Quayle then managed a double-double of 24 points and 10 boards versus Wyoming.
Other candidates: Boise State’s Mark Sanchez, Fresno State’s Paul George, Hawai’i's Roderick Flemings, New Mexico State’s Wendell McKines.
Opening night in the WAC had the teams away from home enthusiastically whistling “On The Road Again” — that is, until they played their second games with the exception of New Mexico State.
The End of the (Non-Conference) Road. The WAC may have started off slowly in the non-conference schedule but has picked up the pace over the past two weeks. Over a three day span the league went 9-4 against their opponents including victories over two West Coast Conference schools (San Francisco and San Diego) and a pair of Mountain West Conference schools (Utah and TCU). The four losses were to two Pac-10 schools (Cal and Washington State), the Missouri Valley’s Creighton and Conference USA’s UTEP. This upcoming week will see the WAC enter its home stretch of non-conference games before the league begins conference play.
Boise State (8-3). The Broncos rebounded from back to back losses to improve to 8-3 on the season thanks to a pair of victories on the west coast. Boise State defeated Cal State-Bakersfield 66-62 on Saturday, December 20, and then picked up a solid road victory over the West Coast Conference’s San Diego 75-72 just two nights later. Boise State is off until after Christmas when they’ll close out their non-conference portion of their schedule when they host Eastern Washington on Monday, December 29.
Making Headway. The league had a decent week in the win-loss column as the collective went 10-5 against their competition since the last check-in. Hawai’i (over Eastern Washington), New Mexico State (over Texas-El Paso) and Nevada (over Southern Illinois) all earned solid wins and the league also had a couple of close losses to decent opponents (San Francisco and Montana) . The WAC has another big week of competition upcoming as they’ll face teams from the Pac-10, Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference, Mountain West Conference and Conference USA.
The WAC needs to earn some key victories as they are currently the 15th ranked conference in terms of RPI and just one of the league’s teams, Utah State (40) is inside the Top 100 RPI.
The Move Along, There’s Nothing To See Here Edition… In a week that saw idle WAC football teams make more headlines than their hardwood counterparts, the WAC collective did little to bolster the hope that they will send more than one team to the NCAA tournament come March. The league had several opportunities to get victories against fellow mid-majors and a couple of high-majors but came up well short in the wins department. Of the 13 games of interest from last week the WAC combined to win just four of those games, two of those wins coming courtesy of Boise State, the other two coming courtesy of San Jose State (over San Diego) and Fresno State (over the U. of Pacific Tigers). The WAC is now 33-28 on the season against non-conference opponents.