Season in Review: By the (Jersey) Numbers

Posted by rtmsf on April 7th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is an RTC contributor.  When he’s not traveling all night to get to Vegas, Los Angeles, Tucson or Anaheim to cover games in the southwestern quadrant of the country, he’s acting as the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences and writing about whatever strikes his basketball fancy.

When it comes to wrapping up a college basketball season, I have a hard time doing an All-American team, because, for one, it just seems hard to narrow down four and a half months of basketball to just five names (or even ten or 15 if I add a second or third team – although, I’ll probably do that too). Instead, in the interests of recognizing more of the players that filled up my brain this season, what I’ll do here today is take all 37 possible uniform numbers (only digits zero through five are possible uniform numbers in NCAA basketball, to aid referees in calling fouls and the foulers) and pick one player for each jersey number.  Note that I am not always going to pick just the best player here. My own prejudices and likes/dislikes will factor in, plus I want to be able to pick a guy that I will most remember from this season. And, in the case of a tie, a senior will get the nod. So without further ado, here is my list of Players of the Year by uniform number.

A Famous Man Once Said We're All Rooting For Laundry, Ultimately

0 – Jacob Pullen, Sr, Kansas State – As I said before, tie goes to the senior, and in this case, the freshman Jared Sullinger gets beat out by a guy who left his heart on the court in his final game as a Wildcat, scoring 38 amazing points in a loss to Wisconsin in the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. Pullen goes down in history as the all-time leading scorer in Kansas State history, and his exploits in March will be talked about there for years to come.

00 – Rick Jackson, Sr, Syracuse – As far as the scorekeeper is concerned, there is no difference between 0 and 00, but I see two big zeroes on Jackson’s back, and opponents saw a double-double machine for the majority of the season. He posted 17 double-dips on the season and, despite fading a bit down the stretch, was one of the most improved seniors in the country this year.

1 – Kyrie Irving, Fr, Duke – Irving’s college career is complete as he declared for the NBA Draft on Wednesday.  You won’t find his name on any all-timer lists in Durham, as he played just 11 games in his time as a Blue Devil due to a toe injury. When he was on the court, however, he was among the handful of the best players in the nation, with quickness, awareness and maturity rarely seen among freshmen.

2 – Nolan Smith, Sr, Duke – His college career ended with one of the worst games of his career, but for huge swaths of this season, Smith was in the conversation for National Player of the Year. He took over the point guard role when Irving went down with his injury and did a fantastic job of balancing his team’s need for a creator with its need for Smith to score.

3 – Jeremy Lamb, Fr, Connecticut – Jim Calhoun’s precocious freshman earned this honor almost entirely in March. Sure, he had a streak of eight-straight double-digit scoring games in January and early February, but in March, Lamb took his game to a new level and became a consistent second option to Kemba Walker. From the start of the Big East Tournament straight through to the National Championship game, Lamb never failed to score in double figures and averaged 15.3 points per game over that stretch.

4 – Jackson Emery, Sr, BYU – Aaron Craft almost got the nod here, but once again we’ll give the upperclassman the benefit of the doubt. And make no mistake, Emery is very deserving on his own merits, regardless of class, averaging 12.5 points and 2.7 steals per game as Jimmer Fredette’s sidekick in the Cougars’ playmaking backcourt. Emery goes down in history as the career steals leader at BYU.

5 – Kendall Marshall, Fr, North Carolina – I’m not sure Marshall is the best player in the country wearing a single five on his back, but he was likely the most important one – and the biggest story at that. He took over the starting point guard position in Chapel Hill in mid-January and led the Tar Heels to a 17-3 record from there, averaging 7.7 often spectacular assists per game and kick-starting much-heralded freshman wing Harrison Barnes along the way.

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The Other 26: Bracket Analysis Part II

Posted by KDoyle on March 17th, 2011

Kevin Doyle is an RTC Contributor.

Call it what you want with this seemingly erroneous preamble of the NCAA Tournament known as the “First Four,” but the opening game of this year’s edition of the Dance could not have been much more entertaining. We have already had a clutch shot in the final seconds and an overtime game under our belts. Many people will not even remember that UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock even partook in the Tournament, but for a few hours last evening the stage was all theirs. Even if it is merely a play-in game—errr, first round game—this is the NCAA Tournament and keen basketball observers were no doubt glued to their screens and smartphones last night tracking the game.

Just as a refresher in case you missed yesterday’s look into the Other 26 teams in the East and West Regions, I elected to break down the 16 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

(8, Southwest) UNLV—After the conclusion of the 2010 Tournament, there is no doubt that a bitter taste was left in UNLV’s mouth. The Runnin’ Rebels lost to Northern Iowa in the final minute and then two nights later, in one of the gutsiest shots in Tournament history, Ali Farokhmanesh drilled a three from the wing to seal the victory over Kansas. UNLV had to painfully watch the remainder of the Tournament and endure the arduous offseason pondering the question: “Why couldn’t that have been us?” Now, UNLV is in a similar situation, as they are in the 8 vs. 9 game again. They are an experienced bunch with Tournament experience under their belts; if they are fortunate enough to get by Illinois, they will ironically play none other than Kansas.

(12, Southwest) Richmond—The Spiders were upset by St. Mary’s last year, and this year they are the ones who will have to be playing spoiler. Richmond has arguably the most dynamic player in the field with 6’10 senior forward Justin Harper. To make a comparison, Harper is the Atlantic 10’s version of Dirk Nowitzki. Although he spends most of his time inside the arc, his ability to step outside and hit a three poses endless match-up problems for opponents. Harper is complemented nicely by his running mate Kevin Anderson. Richmond matches up well against Vanderbilt, but containing John Jenkins—maybe the best shooter in the Tournament—will be a challenge. Expect a variety of match-up and 2-3 zones from Chris Mooney.

 

Harper is a Tough Matchup for Vandy

(3, Southeast) BYU—It is painfully obvious that the loss of Brandon Davies has detrimentally affected BYU’s play considerably; in the first game after his absence the Cougars were thrashed by New Mexico 82-64 on their home floor. While there is little doubt that Jimmer Fredette is the face of the program and their top player, the country is now officially seeing that there is much more going on in Provo, Utah, that can be attributed to BYU’s success  other than simply Fredette. While a deep run no doubt becomes more difficult without the services of Davies, the backcourt of Fredette and Jackson Emery has the ability to carry the Cougars to the second weekend.

(9, Southeast) Old Dominion—ODU presents all of the intangibles to be successful in the Tournament. They have an intelligent and proven coach in Blaine Taylor, a senior-laden team with NCAA experience, and the confidence that they belong here and can win—especially after knocking off Notre Dame as an 11 seed last year. It is more than merely intangibles for ODU though. The Monarchs are quite possibly the best rebounding team in the field, incredibly tough on the defensive end—according to Frank Hassell: “We go 50% man and 50% zone”—and run a deliberate offense that minimizes their opposition’s possessions. Blaine Taylor has created a formula for his team to have success in the NCAA Tournament.

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WCC Wrap-up and Postseason Primer

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Power Rankings and Postseason Outlook

1)      Saint Mary’s (24-8, 11-3). The record puts them slightly ahead of Gonzaga, but the Gaels would gladly trade places with the Zags as the NCAA Tournament looms. Without an automatic bid, the Gaels and their mediocre out-of-conference record are at the mercy of the NCAA Selection Committee. Hope for the Big Dance, but consider the NIT a strong possibility.

2)      Gonzaga (24-9, 11-3), WCC Tournament Champions, recipient of automatic NCAA bid. How well a rugged out-of-conference schedule will hold up to the Selection Committee’s scrutiny will determine where the Zags are seeded. They are definitely on an upsurge at regular season’s end, something the committee considers favorably.

3)      San Francisco (17-13, 10-4), not an NCAA Tournament contender but an intriguing late-season story, the Dons gave Gonzaga a tougher game in the WCC Tournament semis (lost 71-67) than Saint Mary’s did in the championship game. The NIT is definitely a possibility for Rex Walters’ team.

4)      Santa Clara (19-13, 8-6) seems to fit the profile for a bid to the College Basketball Invitational or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.

5)      Portland (20-11, 7-7) posted another 20-win season and played in the CollegeInsider.com tourney last year, but would seem to rank behind Santa Clara for a bid this year.

6)      Pepperdine (12-21, 5-9) finished with a small push to stay out of the bottom of the conference, but will have to settle for that. Team anomaly: the Waves played better with the dismissal of star guard Keion Bell than they did with him in the lineup.

7)      San Diego (6-24, 2-12). The Toreros ruined Randy Bennett’s season with their improbable upset of the Gaels on February 16, but did little else to give Bill Grier a reason for an upbeat off-season.

8)      The hands-down Disappointment of the Year in the WCC, Loyola Marymount ended in last place after being picked second ahead of Saint Mary’s in a pre-season coaches’ poll. Does embattled Max Good have a future with the Lions after his team’s utter collapse? Only time will tell.

A Look Back

When the nets were cut by the victorious Gonzaga Bulldogs Monday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, there was a sense of déjà vu for the West Coast Conference. The same foes, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, battled it out for the WCC tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid that went with it. Gonzaga won this year’s title, 75-63, avenging an 81-62 pasting administered by the Gaels in 2010, and could claim WCC supremacy for the 11th straight year even though the Zags and Saint Mary’s tied for the regular-season championship with 11-3 records.  Gonzaga now stands at 24-9, and Saint Mary’s at 24-8 with a rare Friday contest in between against Weber State – added as a warm-up for possible post-season play – still to come in Moraga.

For all the apparent similarities, however, the story of the Gaels and Bulldogs was marked by differences. The turning point in both teams’ season came in a January 27 game between the two on the Zags’ court in Spokane. Saint Mary’s gutted out a 73-71 win on the strength of Mickey McConnell’s last-second one-handed leaner from the free throw stripe with the Zag’s seven-footer Robert Sacre draped all over him.

The game should have been a difference-maker for Saint Mary’s, marking the first victory in Spokane during the immensely successful 10-year reign of 2011 WCC Coach of the Year Randy Bennett. Instead of using the victory to spark a late-season run to the outright WCC championship and a secure NCAA seeding, however, the Gaels stumbled badly from that point on. They were routed 85-70 by a pesky Portland Pilots team two nights later in Portland, followed that up with an inexplicable 74-66 loss to cellar-dwelling San Diego on February 16, lost an ESPN Bracketbuster contest against Utah State 75-65 in Moraga on the 19th, and then dropped the rematch against Gonzaga, 89-85 in overtime on the 24th to give the Zags a shot at a conference season tie. Only a regular season-ending victory over Portland in Moraga on February 26 enabled the Gaels to avoid total collapse heading into the WCC Tournament.

Gonzaga, on the other hand, used the Saint Mary’s loss to spur itself to a 9-0 WCC run marred only by a 62-58 non-conference setback against Memphis on February 5. Gonzaga’s spurt was fueled in part by the ascension of JC transfer Marquise Carter to the starting point guard spot that had eluded him previously. On the strength of his late-season play, Carter garnered Newcomer of the Year honors in the WCC and was named Most Valuable Player in the WCC Tournament, indicating the realization by other conference coaches of his impact on what had been a wavering Gonzaga offense.

As Selection Sunday looms, Gonzaga considers NCAA life with possibly a lower seeding than they are accustomed to – perhaps a 9 or 10 seed instead of a 5 or 6 – but they know they’re in. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, will be Nervous Nellies on judgment day, hearkening back to two years ago when they were stiffed by the NCAA Selection Committee and won two games in the NIT instead. Most bracketologists had the Gaels in the NCAA field despite the WCC tournament result, but Bennett has been burned before and will probably not relax until he knows the Gaels’ fate for sure. The game against Weber State was not intended, nor will serve, to sway the Selection Committee.

All-Conference Honors:

McConnell, the Gaels’ crafty senior point guard, was voted Player of the Year and his stats – 16.8 points and 6.0 assists per game – reflected that. McConnell was joined on the All-Conference Team by his sophomore backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova, who contributed 13.5 points and 5.3 assists-per-game, and junior transfer forward Rob Jones, who totaled 13.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Others were:

  • Kevin Foster, Santa Clara, the WCC’s leading scorer at 19.4 ppg
  • Steven Gray, Gonzaga 13.8 ppg and 3.9 apg
  • Rashad Green, San Francisco guard, 11.8 ppg, 2.8 apg
  • Nemanja Mitrovic, Portland guard, 13.7 ppg
  • Mikey Williams, San Francisco guard, 15.0 ppg
  • Robert Sacre, Gonzaga center, 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg
  • Luke Sikma, Portland forward, 13.1 ppg and a league-leading 10.5 rpg
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Set Your Tivo: 03.07.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 7th, 2011

***** – 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.

Four automatic bids will be handed out this evening in places stretching from Connecticut to Las Vegas. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

Colonial Championship (at Richmond, VA): VCU vs. Old Dominion — 7 pm on ESPN (****)

Old Dominion looks like a safe bet even if they lose but VCU more than likely has to win this game to make the NCAA Tournament. The Rams and Monarchs split the season series, each winning on the other’s home floor. This game will be all about pace and one team’s strong defense against the other’s potent offense. If Old Dominion can keep this game in the half court, they can let their stellar two point defense and rebounding take over. The Monarch’s are the best offensive rebounding team in the country while VCU ranks #303 in defensive rebounding percentage. Old Dominion also ranks highly in defensive rebounding, placing them among the best overall rebounding teams in the nation, led by Frank Hassell, averaging just under 15/10 on the season. Over his last eight games, Hassell has been even better, averaging 19/10 down the stretch. Not coincidentally, the Monarchs have won all eight of those games and 12 of their past 13. ODU is #9 in two point defense but allows 36.9% three point shooting, #298 in America. That has been the bugaboo for Blaine Taylor’s group and the Rams are one team that can really take advantage of that. Four out of ten VCU field goals attempted are threes and they shoot it at a pretty good clip, 35.6% this season. However, that percentage drops to 33.7% when you look at CAA games only. The Rams must create offense through their defense by forcing turnovers. That will offset part of the rebounding edge ODU is almost sure to have. An energetic and aggressive defense can help push the pace and take Old Dominion out of its rhythm. The Monarchs struggle to shoot and score, relying on their defense and rebounding to win games most of the time. Shaka Smart should use some zone from time to time in order to force Old Dominion to make jump shots, something they don’t do well. Rebounding out of a zone is always difficult (especially against the #1 offensive rebounding squad) but we feel it’s worth the risk. VCU shouldn’t spend all game in a zone but mixing it up defensively will greatly help their cause. Old Dominion gets 57.5% of its points from two point range but they have a few threats from deep, most notably Kent Bazemore. He’s arguably their best three point shooter and also a terrific defender, ranked eighth nationally in steal percentage.  The Rams shouldn’t have that much trouble answering Old Dominion from the arc considering they have a number of quality shooters, including Bradford Burgess (16/13 vs. George Mason yesterday), but they need to get some looks inside for Jamie Skeen. The Wake Forest transfer has had a terrific year in Richmond and is averaging 21.7 PPG over his last three. It’ll be tough to score against Old Dominion’s interior defense but Skeen should look to get to the free throw line where he’s a 73.7% shooter. VCU is a good free throw shooting team overall and they’ve made it to the line on 41.5% of their possessions in conference play. Foul trouble for Old Dominion would open up the interior a bit and allow the Rams to spread the floor easier. VCU had lost four of their last five games heading into the conference tournament but seems to have found new life just down the road from campus in Richmond. They’ll be slight underdogs tonight but this is anybody’s game. Old Dominion will likely win the rebounding battle but whoever controls the turnover margin and the tempo will likely win this game and clinch the automatic berth.

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Set Your Tivo: 02.24.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 24th, 2011

***** – 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.

This is one of the biggest Thursday nights we’ve had this year in terms of quality games with NCAA bids and conference titles on the line. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

West Virginia @ #3 Pittsburgh – 9 pm on ESPN (****)

Are Dixon and the Panthers #1? #6? Does It Matter, As Long As It's #4 Or Better?

The Backyard Brawl (Part II) takes place in Pittsburgh tonight. The Panthers won the first meeting in Morgantown on February 7, a game they played without their star Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs returned to the lineup with a bang, scoring 26 points, including 6-9 from deep, in the team’s loss to St. John’s last Saturday. Gibbs will play a central role in a matchup between the Big East’s best three-point shooting team (Pitt) and the best three point defense (WVU). The Panthers are shooting 40% from deep in conference play and 38.4% overall while the Mountaineers allow 28.4% shooting overall and 29.1% in league games.

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What’s Wrong With Gonzaga?

Posted by rtmsf on February 7th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is an RTC contributor.

“What’s wrong with Gonzaga?” is a question heard more and more throughout college hoops. It is not surprising considering the Zags’ unusual 15-9 overall record and shocking 5-3 mark (4th place) in the West Coast Conference that it has dominated for the past decade.  When any powerhouse team goes into a slump there are myriad reasons, and the same could be said about Gonzaga. Focusing on two major ones, however, helps put the Zags’ current woes into perspective. Simply put, the Zags are suffering from the loss of two players and a vacuum created by those who failed to succeed them.

The Loss of Bouldin (and Pargo) Have Really Hurt the Zag Dynasty

The missing players are Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin. Pargo was the rugged, 6’2, 219-pound point guard who starred in the Zags’ backcourt for four years before graduating in 2009. He was named Player of the Year in the WCC after his junior year, and gave the Bulldogs a solid counterpart to the canny Bouldin. He could take defenders off the dribble, hit jump shots off screens and go to the hoop to flush the ball with authority.  Gonzaga did not directly replace Pargo for the 2009-10 season, instead moving Bouldin into the point guard position and relaying on the mop-head’s court vision and outside shooting skills to maintain the Zags’ superiority in his senior year. The Bouldin-led Zags hit their first speed bump in the post-Pargo era in the 2010 West Coast Conference Tournament championship game against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels’ inside-out combination of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen in the frontcourt and Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova in the backcourt led the Gaels to an 81-62 upset.

Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Zags thought they had finally found a point guard to replace Pargo and Bouldin with JC transfer Marquise Carter, who was a star for Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Carter had impressive stats in two years at Three Rivers – nearly 18 PPG and 5.5 APG in his sophomore year – and led the team to the national JC championship game where he scored 35 points in a loss to Howard of Texas.  Carter, however, who seems much slighter than his roster size of 6’4, 178 pounds (maybe the 178 is correct), has not caught on with the Zags. The Bulldogs started the season with journeyman backcourt player Meech Goodson at the point alongside all-around star Steven Gray, and based their hopes on their strong frontcourt duo of Robert Sacre in the post and Elias Harris at power forward. Redshirt sophomore guard David Stockton, son of the legendary Gonzaga and NBA star John Stockton, has steadily rung up more minutes at the point as this season goes on, and may end up as the Zags’ regular lead guard by season’s end. Or not, as coach Mark Few has tinkered with his lineup from day one and may not be finished trying to find a solution.

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Set Your Tivo: 02.03.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 3rd, 2011

***** – 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.

Another Thursday night of mediocre power conference games means the mid-majors take priority, with the biggest one of all (Gonzaga, if they still are one) on the ropes. Apologies to Valparaiso and Cleveland State, but their game is not on television. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

Wofford @ Charleston – 7 pm on ESPNU (**)

A Smiling Goudelock Means He's Hit a Rhythm, and You're In Trouble

These are the two best teams in the Southern Conference and they both happen to reside in the South Division. They’re tied in the loss column but Charleston won the first meeting in Spartanburg, as the Cougars shot 51% and out-rebounded Wofford on their way to victory. This game features the two best players in the conference, Wofford’s Noah Dahlman and Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock. You probably know about Goudelock from his exploits against North Carolina, Maryland and Tennessee, but Dahlman may be the best player most folks don’t know about.

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The Other 26: Week 11

Posted by KDoyle on January 28th, 2011

Introduction

We are just about halfway through the conference schedules and the true contenders are beginning to reveal themselves, while the pretenders are wallowing away after deceiving the country for so many weeks. Take a team like Central Florida, for instance. They looked like a legitimate top 25 team and a definite candidate for an at-large berth after breezing through the non-conference with an unblemished record, but their 1-5 record in Conference USA makes that great run in the non-conference all for naught. Conversely, take a gander at Duquesne. The Dukes went a modest 8-5 in the non-conference with losses to Robert Morris and George Mason, but have gone onto take the Atlantic 10 by storm. Suffice to say, it is hard to gauge just how good some teams are based solely on the non-conference. Some coaches will elect to challenge their team by scheduling a tough OOC schedule, while others will stockpile a bunch of cupcakes to pick up easy wins. The distinction between the pretenders and contenders will continue to be illuminated all the way up until the conference tournaments. Up until then, we sit and watch teams rise above expectations heading into conference play and watch others flounder.

The Other 26 Rankings

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Set Your Tivo: 01.27.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on January 27th, 2011

***** – 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.

Tonight we highlight the little guys. First place is on the line in the Colonial while St. Mary’s looks to widen its lead in the WCC. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Hofstra @ VCU – 7 pm on ESPNU (***)

VCU Will Need a Little More From Rodriguez This Evening

Both teams are tied atop the CAA at 8-1 but the Rams are the favorite here at home where they’re undefeated on the year. VCU has lost only twice at home in the last three years and both defeats were to the same team: Northeastern. Shaka Smart’s team loves to shoot the three, but is missing a key part of that attack with Brandon Rozzell out due to a broken hand. Without Rozzell in the fold, VCU will turn to Joey Rodriguez and Bradford Burgess for the bulk of their three point shooting. Rodriguez is coming off a season high 28 points at Towson while Burgess is making 44% of his threes this season. Against a Hofstra defense ranked #290 against the trey, you can bet VCU will be firing up plenty of them tonight, as they usually do.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

With the pre-conference season all wrapped up, let’s look all the way back to October and the WCC coaches poll for a reset on conference expectations. The coaches overwhelmingly picked Gonzaga to finish first, giving the Zags 48 total votes and six for first place. By a total of 42 to 39 they also picked Loyola Marymount to finish second over Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara (28 votes) to finish fourth and Portland (25 votes) fifth. How would the coaches vote if the polling were held today?

Gonzaga, with quality wins over Baylor, Marquette, Xavier and Oklahoma State, would probably retain its rank as conference favorite because no other team either matched the scope and difficulty of the Zags’ schedule, or conquered as many top-notch teams. Only Saint Mary’s, with wins over St. John’s, which might make some noise in the Big East, and Long Beach State, which could challenge for the Big West title, came close. The Gaels did post wins over two BCS teams, Texas Tech and Mississippi State, but those teams had early-season troubles that dimmed their luster.

It would be hard for WCC coaches or anyone to favor Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s based on results so far, and the same could be said for Santa Clara over Portland. It is safe to say that the performances of Loyola-Marymount and Santa Clara have been disappointing, while the Gaels and Pilots have surprised opposing coaches. The coaches’ early-season predictions notwithstanding, a survey of informal discussions around the league breaks down the race this way: Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s for first place; Portland in third; Loyola Marymount in fourth; Santa Clara and San Francisco in a dog fight for fifth; Pepperdine for seventh and San Diego in the cellar. Those last two match what the coaches saw in October, as neither team has done much to change perceptions.

Player(s) of the Week

Saint Mary’s senior point guard Mickey McConnell was named Player of the Week both by the West Coast Conference and TheHoopsReport.com after sterling efforts in Gael victories over Mississippi State and Hartford. He rocked Mississippi State for 28 points and 13 assists – his first double-double of the season – and followed that up with a 21-point, seven assist game against Hartford. The effort in the Gaels’ final two pre-conference games brought his scoring average to 14.2 ppg and assist total to 5.4 per game. McConnell’s 2.68 assist to turnover ratio is ranked 26th nationally, and he is shooting 46.3% from beyond the arc and 90.5% from the free throw line.

Power Rankings:

1. Saint Mary’s (12-2) has breezed to six wins in a row since being dusted 69-55 by San Diego State on Dec. 1, and has found its groove with a lineup featuring four players averaging double figures: Mickey McConnell at 14.2 PPG, Jones at 13.7 PPG, Matthew Dellavedova at 13 PPG, and Young (nominally a substitute, Young is garnering the majority of minutes at post) at 11.1 PPG. Clint Steindl, the fifth starter, is not far behind at 8.4 PPG, and can rightfully point to his duties as the Gaels’ primary defensive stopper as an excuse. Besides, Steindl, currently averaging nearly 42% on three-point shots, can light it up when the occasion warrants. Team balance, unselfishness and good backcourt play from McConnell and Dellavedova – averaging nearly 12 assists per game between them – have Randy Bennett smiling as league play begins.

2. Portland (12-3), also cruising with five straight wins after a lopsided 94-72 loss at Washington, has answered most of the questions critics might have raised following the loss of several quality players from last year. Yes, Luke Sikma can put up All-Conference numbers consistently at one forward spot; yes, Kramer Knutson is a steady warrior at the post position; yes, Mitrovic is ready to be a starter, possibly a star, in his junior year; yes, Jared Stohl can still scorch it from three-point land, and yes, either junior Eric Waterford, true freshman Tim Douglas or sophomore transfer Derrick Rodgers – or a combination of the three – can provide leadership at the point. Coach Eric Reveno has done his usual excellent job of molding his troops into a smooth-flowing force, ready to challenge Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s as the conference season unfolds.

3. Gonzaga (10-5), also boasting a six-game winning streak – notice a pattern here? – can actually breathe easier as the WCC gets underway. Following a whirlwind 36 hours consisting of 1) pasting formerly 11-2 and cocky Oklahoma State by 21 points (73-52) on Friday night in Spokane, and 2) flying cross-country to Winston-Salem, NC, for a 73-63 win over Wake Forest on Sunday, the Zags returned home to await Portland for an early home showdown on Saturday (1/8). Piece of cake. Mark Few has a core of Steven Gray (14.1 PPG), Robert Sacre (13.1 PPG) and Elias Harris (12.3 PPG) that is functioning smoothly enough to almost allow him to forget his trouble finding a commanding point guard. Meech Goodson, holding down the position for the third year in a row, is providing only 5.4 PPG and 3.3 assists per game, but no one else has been able to sit him down. Another troubling position for Few has been the second forward spot opposite Harris, as promising German freshman Mathis Monninghoff (there is an umlaut over the first vowel to make it sound like “Merhninghoff”), recently went down with an ankle injury after starting five straight games. Few swapped in another Mathis, this one a 6’5 freshman from France whose last name is Keita, and received a good effort in the wins over Okie State and Wake.

4. Santa Clara (9-7) is sitting in fourth place, right where the coaches predicted it to finish, but has hardly cemented its position with inconsistent pre-conference play. Zero quality wins, troubling losses such as 69-59 to Pacific and 54-53 to Delaware in its own holiday tournament, and a shifting lineup have raised questions about Kerry Keating’s squad. Kevin Foster has moved right back into a starring role after a year’s absence with injury, and Keating has uncovered another budding backcourt star in freshman Evan Roquemore. But Keating apparently has been unhappy with Marc Trasolini’s contribution in the frontcourt, bringing him off the bench instead of starting him, and sophomore Niyi Harrison is even farther down in Keating’s doghouse. That leaves the Broncos with a starting lineup of second-year forward Chris Cunningham, rugged Aussie Ben Dowdell and guard-forward Ray Cowels to go with Foster and Roquemore. Even with Trasolini contributing heavily off the bench, as he did with 22 points in the Broncos 85-70 win over Fordham on December 30, that is not a lineup calculated to challenge anyone above them. Is it strong enough to fend off Loyola-Marymount or San Francisco for fourth place in the conference standings? We’ll soon have the answer to that question.

5. Loyola Marymount (7-7) enters the 2011 conference race hobbled with injuries as it did last year. From a lineup that promised to feature 6’10 redshirt freshman Edgar Garibay, 6’8 sophomore strong forward Ashley Hamilton and 6’7 scoring whiz Drew Viney in the frontcourt, the Lions have morphed to Viney and freshman Godwin Okonji. Garibay has still not fully recovered from the ACL injury that sidelined him last year and Hamilton broke his hand a few weeks ago. To supplement the survivors, Max Good uses a three-guard lineup of super senior Vernon Teel, Big East refugee Larry Davis and newcomer Anthony Ireland, subbing for the injured Jarred DuBois. Ireland and Okonji, a 20-year-old from Nigeria who spent two years at Nevada’s Findlay Prep, are true freshmen forced into carrying a heavy load. The Lions’s pre-season-ending 87-80 road win over UC Irvine on Dec. 30 gave hints at what Good’s patched-up crew can accomplish: Viney and Teel combined for 42 points and Ireland chipped in 15 point and six assists. They will need to keep it up for the next eight weeks if the Lions are going to redeem their pre-season promise.

6. San Francisco (6-9) probably can’t take much solace from blasting Division II Dominican University 68-47 on New Year’s Day, but the Dons also topped Hampton 69-57 two days earlier to enter the conference season with a two-game win streak. Rex Walters counts on a threesome of Michael Williams, Rashad Green and Angelo Coloiaro to carry the scoring load, augmented by true freshman Cody Doolin at the point. The problem has been in the frontcourt, where Perris Blackwell and Moustapha Diarra, backed up by freshman Justin Raffington, have been inconsistent. The Dons’ hopes of moving up in the WCC standings will get an early test, as they kick off the conference race on Saturday, Jan. 8 at Santa Clara and travel the following Thursday to Saint Mary’s.

7. Pepperdine (6-11) was buoyed by an 84-64 home win on Jan. 2 over up-and-down Seattle (wins over Virginia, Oregon State and Montana State), but hope that Keion Bell’s absence from the game was only precautionary. The Waves will need a healthy Bell if they are going to emulate his YouTube antics and leap over their opponents when conference play begins.

8. San Diego (3-11) proved its harshest critics wrong with a Christmas Day win over Utah (67-64), but reverted to form on New Year’s Day with a 76-54 hammering by North Carolina State in Raleigh, NC. Those critics posited that the Toreros might not beat a Division I opponent this season (its other wins were over Occidental and LaVerne), but Bill Grier’s crew scuttled that by beating once-powerful Utah. Next order of business is adding some WCC wins to the ledger.

A Look Ahead

You don’t have to look far ahead to get some early answers to questions about possible conference standings: Saint Mary’s opens WCC play with a Thursday (January 6) battle against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles; Portland travels to Gonzaga on Saturday (January 8); San Francisco heads up Highway 101 to Santa Clara on Saturday also; and Pepperdine entertains San Diego on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday. A couple of upset possibilities (Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s, Portland over Gonzaga), a key battle for fifth place (Santa Clara vs. San Francisco) and a leg up on avoiding the cellar (Pepperdine vs. San Diego) all in the first week of conference play.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It was an “almost” week for Santa Clara and San Francisco, Gonzaga got its mojo back, Saint Mary’s picked up its first true road win of the year and Portland kept on cruising. Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine and San Diego continued their losing ways.
  • As Santa Clara battled Washington State evenly on Dec. 19 before succumbing 85-79 in overtime, and San Francisco took undefeated San Diego State to the wire two nights later in a 61-56 loss, visions of a stronger, more successful West Coast Conference flickered before fans’ eyes. It was that old conference war horse, Gonzaga, however, that gave the conference two big wins last week – 68-64 over then ninth-ranked Baylor in Dallas on Dec. 18 and 64-54 over Xavier in Spokane on the 22nd.
  • Saint Mary’s continued its cautious way through the pre-conference season, topping Long Beach State 82-74 at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 18, and New Mexico State 73-53 in Las Cruces on the 23rd. The New Mexico State game was only the Gaels’ second true road game of the season.
  • Portland, meanwhile, stayed on course to a successful pre-conference slate by topping old nemesis Portland State 78-67 on the road – across town – and kicking off a three-game home stand on Dec.  22nd with an 88-79 win over Boise State.
  • Loyola Marymount continued to confound observers who picked them to challenge for the WCC title, losing to Florida State at home 74-63 on the 18th and to South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, 82-70 four days later.
  • It was the same ol’ same ol’ for conference bottom-dwellers Pepperdine and San Diego, with the Waves splitting home games against UC Irvine (W 76-69) and Cal Poly SLO (L 70-64), and San Diego falling to Baylor (83-50) and Mississippi State (69-52) in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Player of the Week

As Portland has continued its steady re-adjustment under Eric Reveno, shoring up the point guard position vacated by the graduated T.J. Campbell has been a prime goal. True freshman Tim Douglas, all 5’10 of him, gave Reveno plenty to smile about last week with a strong performance against Portland State that netted him Player of the Week honors. Douglas, a gutsy penetrator who is not afraid to crash the lane, came off the bench to score27 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 from the free throw line. It was his third straight game in double figures, moving his ppg average to 7.2 in less than 16 minutes per outing.

Team-by-Team

  1. Saint Mary’s (10-2) notched a pair of wins away from Moraga and elevated its third candidate to the position of Omar Samhan’s successor. During a hard-fought win over Long Beach State, Randy Bennett inserted 6’8 sophomore Mitchell Young in the post following earlier try-outs by transfer Kenton Walker and redshirt sophomore Tim Williams. Voila! Young exploited Long Beach’s over-emphasis on controlling forward Rob Jones by working himself open for a succession of bunnies and jump hooks, racking up a career-high 28 points in the Gaels’ 82-74 win. Showing the LBSU game wasn’t a fluke, Young went for 20 against New Mexico State.
  2. Portland (10-3) has provided a model of pre-season scheduling, losing to a few toughies – Kentucky, Washington State and Washington – but beating respectable teams like UC Santa Barbara, St. Louis and Montana to keep up morale. The Pilots’ win over Boise State put them in position to glide into the conference schedule with another two winnable home games against rebuilding Nevada and up-and-down Utah.  That would put them at 12-3 and make a 20-win season and post-season tournament consideration within reach. Not bad for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding if not recovering from major graduation losses.
  3. Gonzaga (7-5) shook off an unfamiliar losing record (4-5) with a three-game winning streak that established 7’0 center Robert Sacre as their go-to guy. Sacre and front-court mate Elias Harris were the big stories in the Zags’ wins over Baylor and Xavier, a development made even more important by the loss of senior guard Steven Gray to back spasms against Baylor. Gray sat on the bench as the Zags engaged in hand-to-hand combat with low-scoring but defensively nasty Xavier, leaving Sacre and Harris to account for 35 of their team’s 64 points. No other Zag – and Mark Few used a bunch of ‘em – scored more than six points in the Xavier win. No word on when Gray will return, but it cannot be soon enough for the Zags’ fortunes.
  4. Santa Clara (7-6) made Washington State re-think the wisdom of stopping off at the Leavey Center en route to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, pushing the Cougars to the limit before dropping an overtime heartbreaker. Last year’s outstanding point guard Robert Smith left the team before the Washington State game, putting pressure on the Broncos to solidify a shaky offense, and Smith’s replacement, Evan Roguemore, did his part. Roquemore contributed 16 points to accompany Kevin Foster’s 29 against Washington State and ease the sting of losing Smith, by some counts the 14th player to leave or be dismissed from the Santa Clara program since Kerry Keating became head coach four years ago. Foster and Roquemore continued their excellence in the Broncs’ 99-79 road win over Cal State Northridge on Dec. 22, scoring 38 points between them, but Keating is suffering from a guard shortage with injuries to Julian Clarke and Michael Santos in addition to Smith’s departure. He reached far down the bench to insert walk-on Nate Mensah for a few minutes against Northridge.
  5. Loyola Marymount (6-7) might have erased the memory of a less-than-stellar pre-conference season by easing into a three-game home winning streak over weak sisters Cal Poly and Sacramento State and so-so South Dakota. Reality returned, however, in a visit by the ACC’s Florida State Seminoles, whom the Lions battled evenly before faltering in the stretch. The Lions, who were counting on front-court strength from redshirt freshman post Edgar Garibay and solid strong forward Ashley Hamilton, have seen Garibay struggle to recover from last year’s ACL tear and lost Hamilton to a hand injury. Garibay saw only 10 minutes action against rugged Florida State big man Chris Singleton, leaving freshman Godwin Okonji to bear most of the rebounding and defensive duties. As if losing a close one to Florida State weren’t bad enough, LMU next travelled east to complete a home-and-home engagement with the South Dakota Coyotes. Reversing a 72-67 loss to the Lions 11 days earlier, South Dakota piled on 50 points in the second half to win 82-70.
  6. San Francisco (4-8) had a season-making win seemingly in sight as it battled undefeated San Diego State deep into the second half on Dec. 21. A few breaks went the Aztecs’ way down the stretch, however, and the Dons fell 61-56 in the opening game of the Las Vegas Hoops Classic. The Dons’ bad luck continued against IUPUI in the second game of the Classic on Thursday, as they fell to the Jaguars 69-68 when San Francisco guard Michael Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one with his team up 68-66. The Jaguars Sean Esposito drained a three with five seconds left to give IUPUI the win.
  7. Pepperdine (5-9) found a way to lose to a weakened Cal Poly SLO – falling behind 12-0 was a good way to start – after posting a 76-69 win over UC Irvine. Leaving Malibu for the final two games of the pre-conference season, the Waves flow into the Deep South for games against Alabama and Miami.
  8. San Diego (2-10) did not find a visit to Honolulu for the Diamond Head Classic relaxing, as it ran into the meat-grinder that is Baylor’s zone defense and Mississippi State with embattled forward Renardo Sidney back in action. The results were not pretty.
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Set Your Tivo: 12.22.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 22nd, 2010

***** – 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.

Tonight you’ll catch three really good games (including two heavyweight Big 12/Big Ten clashes) if you sit down, relax, and watch ESPN2 all night. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#25 Texas @ #12 Michigan State – 7 pm on ESPN2 (****)

Like It or Not, Izzo and the Spartans Need This One

It’s always fun when two name-brand programs go at it and this one is no exception. This is a big game for both teams but especially so for the homestanding Spartans. A loss here would drop Michigan State to 7-4 against D1 competition and once again ignite the questions about this team’s ability over the long haul, regardless of Tom Izzo’s history. Speaking of Mr. Izzo, he’s back after serving a one-game suspension for employing someone connected to a recruit at his basketball camp. Sparty had no problems against Prairie View A&M but Texas poses a stern test for State. The Longhorns look like a better team this year, playing with good chemistry and stronger defense. Both of these teams rank in the top 15 nationally in defensive efficiency with Texas in the top three in defensive effective field goal percentage. Rick Barnes has a cohesive unit this year that can score as well. With Jordan Hamilton draining threes and Cory Joseph taking over at the point, Texas may just be starting to hit their stride. The key matchups in this ballgame are Hamilton against Durrell Summers and Joseph versus Korie Lucious. When he’s on, Summers can match Hamilton shot for shot. Izzo has moved Lucious to the point many times while shifting Kalin Lucas off the ball. It is essential that each point guard control the ball and get others involved, plus we’re curious to see how the freshman Joseph reacts to the intense environment of the Breslin Center. Each team is deep and talented so the point guards cannot expect to be the stars of the show. The problem for Michigan State all season has been turnovers, something Texas will be eager to force. The Longhorns are deadly when they get out in transition and Michigan State just can’t afford another game chock full of giveaways. Pay attention to the three point line tonight. Michigan State is a very good three-point shooting team, the least we’d expect from what Izzo called a “pretty-boy jump shooting team” after their loss to Syracuse. However, Texas is very good at defending the arc and even better inside it, ranked seventh in two-point defense. The Spartans have three legitimate deep threats and will look to put Texas on notice early and often. On the other end, Michigan State is not good at defending the three. That’s a potentially lethal situation when you have a gunner like Hamilton on the other side. This would seem to be a great time for Michigan State to turn the corner and re-establish itself as a contender with a convincing win over a solid Texas team. We see this game as a closer contest however and Texas can put themselves on the map for good this year with a strong road win. Michigan State is the favorite at home and we’ll take the Spartans by single digits.

#10 Missouri vs. #21 Illinois (in St. Louis) – 9 pm on ESPN2 (****)

The annual Braggin’ Rights game between these two border state rivals is always a must-watch, especially when the teams are good as they are this season. Plus, don’t you love seeing that dividing line right in the middle of the arena separating black and gold from orange? Each team is in the top 25 for the first time in seven years but both programs are dealing with a bit of adversity. The Illini are coming off a brutal loss to Illinois-Chicago while Missouri lost freshman Phil Pressey to a broken hand and will welcome Michael Dixon back from suspension in his place. The story of this game will be pace, essentially who establishes their style of play. Everyone knows Missouri loves to get out and run but Illinois can control this game by protecting the ball against the aggressive Mizzou defense, running efficient half court sets and playing to their strength, defense. Ranked #18 in efficiency, the Illini defense needs to always have a man between Missouri and the basket to stop the ball, otherwise the Tigers will carve them up in both the half court and in transition. Illinois will have success if they force Missouri to play half court offense, taking time off the shot clock and limiting possessions. The most important player in this game is Demetri McCamey. The Illinois senior runs their offense and can shoot the lights out from three. He has to take advantage of Missouri jumping the passing lanes and make good passes to his teammates leading to open looks. Bruce Weber’s team has to take advantage of the mismatch on the perimeter when they have the ball. Illinois ranks #19 in three point shooting while the Tigers are #215 in defending the trey. Meanwhile, Missouri can exploit a weak spot in the Illinois defense inside with Ricardo Ratliffe. Illinois’ interior defense is ranked #118 and the Missouri big man should be able to get Mike Tisdale and/or Mike Davis into foul trouble. Missouri has a bunch of scorers on its roster but, remarkably, they don’t get to the foul line often. Illinois is even worse when it comes to free throw rate but they may get there more often against the foul-prone Tigers. Expect a very close game between two fierce rivals with the outcome in doubt late into the second half. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a determined and focused Illinois team rebound from the UIC loss by knocking off Missouri this evening.

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