The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… YetPosted by IRenko on February 16th, 2013
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
After a 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.
But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament. That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.
Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.
What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10. On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch . . .
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
- When NEC Guards Go Wild — On Thursday night, not one, but two players scored over 40 points. What are the odds that both would hail from the same conference, much less that the conference would be the little-known Northeast Conference? For one night at least, Sam Prescott and Kyle Vinales helped put the NEC on the map, exploding for 44 and 42 points respectively. For Vinales, this was only a bit more scoring punch than he’s accustomed us to. The sophomore guard has the fifth-highest scoring average in Division 1, at 22.1 points per game, and this was his fifth 30-plus point performance of the season. Prescott, however, averages a more modest 10.7 points per game and hadn’t scored more than 16 at a time all year. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his 44-point night was that he attempted (and made) only two free throws. He scored 42 other points on 16-of-24 FG shooting, including an unbelievable 10-of-14 from three-point range.
- Weber State Gets Even — In the first game of the year against Montana, Weber State dropped a close contest on the road, a loss that put them two games behind Montana in the race for the conference title. In the marquee rematch on Thursday night, Weber didn’t leave anything to chance, giving the Grizzlies a monumental, and unexpected, 24-point whupping. This game was over by halftime, as the Wildcats built themselves a nice 20-point lead. It would grow to as much as 30 points in the second half. Their success owed more to offensive onslaught than a stout defense. They shot almost 60 percent for the game, with Kyle Tresnak leading the way with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Of course, notwithstanding the margin of victory, it’s worth remembering that in each of the last three seasons, Weber State has split the season series with Montana, only to lose to them in the Big Sky conference tournament, twice in the championship game. So they won’t be basking in the glory of Thursday’s win for long, as they prepare themselves for a chance to break the postseason hex that the Grizzlies have put on them.
- Florida Gulf Coast Streaks to the Top of the A-Sun — A few weeks ago, the Atlantic Sun had the most muddled regular season title race of any Division 1 conference. But since then, FGCU has reeled off seven straight wins to take a seat at the head of the table. Senior guard Sherwood Brown has led the charge, averaging 19 points per game during the streak. Mercer, too, has separated itself from the pack, winning five straight and tied with FGCU in the loss column, three ahead of the third-place teams. But the Eagles’ wins have been more impressive, as they’ve knocked off each of the other teams that used to be part of the lead pack — Stetson, Jacksonville, and SC-Upstate. Mercer visits on February 28, a game that conference watchers now have circled on the calendar, as the victor will likely head to the A-Sun tournament in Macon as the 1 seed.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- SDSU at UNLV (2/16) / Colorado State at UNLV (2/20) — Following last year’s miserable 2-5 road mark in conference play, UNLV is 1-5 on the road in the Mountain West this year, a failure that has produced a disappointing 5-5 conference record. But over the past two years, the Runnin’ Rebels’ defense of their home court has been as good as their efforts to win elsewhere have been bad. They’re a combined 11-0 at the Thomas & Mack Center, fending off a highly competitive group of visitors. So they’ll be happy to get off the road for a week and host two of the league’s better teams. A little home cooking might help cure whatever is ailing their offense, as it’s produced less than 0.9 points per possession in their last three games — three of their four worst outputs of the year.
- Western Illinois at South Dakota State (2/16) — Nate Wolters followed up last week’s record-setting 53-point performance with 35 points at Oakland, but it wasn’t enough as the Jackrabbits’ 8-game win streak came to an end. That dropped them a game behind Western Illinois in the Summit League standings. With just two league games left, that makes today’s matchup with the Leathernecks a must-win. If the conference title implications don’t excite you, the individual matchups might. Wolters will match his unstoppable offense against the immovable defense of Ceola Clark III, the Leathernecks’ senior point guard and reigning defensive player of the year in the league.
- Detroit at Valparaiso (2/16) — The first meeting between these two Horizon League contenders was memorable. Down 22 in the second half and 11 with about three minutes to play, Valpo staged a furious late rally and escaped with an 89-88 win on the road. You can bet that the Titans are champing at the bit to avenge the embarrassment. To do that, they’ll need to shut down the Crusaders’ potent frontcourt of Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekheoff.
- Princeton at Harvard (2/16) — Harvard has replaced Penn as a perennial Ivy League favorite, which means that the Princeton-Harvard matchup has replaced Penn-Princeton as the perennial must-watch game in the league. Both teams dropped a league game last Friday, but they still sit two games in the loss column ahead of third place Cornell. As readers of this space are no doubt aware, the Ivy League remains, so the stakes don’t get any bigger than this. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the country in three-point shooting, so the winning team may be the one whose defense can best contain the three-point line.
- Bucknell at Lehigh (2/18) — It doesn’t have quite the same Tournament bid implications as a regular season Ivy League matchup, but the fact that the Patriot League regular season champion gets home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament will add further intrigue and intensity to this this game between the Bison and Hawks, who share first place in the league with 8-1 records. Lehigh surprised Bucknell in their first meeting, edging the Bison by three points without C.J. McCollum. The star point guard remains out after breaking his foot in January, and it’s not clear he’ll return at all. So the spotlight will be on Mike Muscala, the Bucknell big man who’s now averaging 19.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
- VCU at St. Louis (2/19) — What an entertaining clash of styles this will be. VCU will bring its full-court-pressing, half-court-trapping Havoc defense to St. Louis to square off against the Bilikens’ grinding halfcourt game. Having two steady ballhandlers in Kwamain Mitchell and Mike McCall may help St. Louis withstand the VCU’s pressure. But they’ll also have to find a way to stop an underrated VCU offense that attacks the basket and crashes the glass.
- South Alabama at Middle Tennessee State (2/21) — The Blue Raiders have mostly cruised through the Sun Belt, swatting teams down like mildly irritating flies while showing off the conference’s best offense and best defense. But a visit from South Alabama, the second-place team in the conference’s East Division may get them to sit upright, at least a bit. South Alabama is very good at getting to the line, and fouling too much is the one weak link in the Blue Raiders’ defense, so they best be wary.