WCC Preview: Gonzaga’s at the head of the class

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last season the WCC welcomed BYU and to say the least it was a good season for the league, as it sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. Both the Cougars and Gonzaga won games in the Big Dance while Saint Mary’s suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Purdue, and all three are capable of making a return trip in 2012-13.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both return four starters from last year while BYU can claim the same if you count Tyler Haws. Haws, after starting all 33 games as a freshman in 2009-10, returns from his two-year mission and will have a significant impact alongside Brandon Davies and Matt Carlino. Saint Mary’s has the reigning Player of the Year in Matthew Dellavedova while Gonzaga is led by All-WCC honorees Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos.

As for the rest of the conference there’s definitely talent with the point guard position looking especially deep. Whether it’s Anthony Ireland (LMU), Cody Doolin (San Francisco), Evan Rocquemore (Santa Clara) or Christopher Anderson (San Diego) the WCC has some skilled playmakers at the point beyond the likes of Carlino, Dellavedova and Pangos. Here’s a look at the WCC in 2012-13.

Five Things to Know
1. Gonzaga returns four starters from a team that won 27 games in 2011-12, with the lone departure being center Robert Sacre. Two of the key returnees are senior forward Elias Harris (13.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and sophomore guard Kevin Pangos (13.6 ppg, 3.4 apg), both of whom earned All-WCC honors (Pangos was also WCC Newcomer of the Year).

2. Reigning WCC Player of the Year and Olympian Matthew Dellavedova is back for his senior season at Saint Mary’s, but the defending WCC champions have to replace a key piece in forward Rob Jones not to mention rotation members Clint Steindl and Kenton Walker. But with four starters back Randy Bennett’s program is in good shape, and forward Brad Waldow is a player to keep an eye on.

3. Only one team returns all five starters and that’s a San Diego squad that went 13-18 (7-9 WCC) in 2011-12. But Bill Grier’s got some talent back on campus, most notably sophomore guard Johnny Dee. Dee led the Toreros with an average of 13.7 ppg and was a member of the WCC All-Freshman team.

4. BYU has to account for the departure of Noah Hartsock but led by forward Brandon Davies nine Cougars have starting experience. BYU also welcomes back wing Tyler Haws from his two-year mission, and he started all 33 games as a freshman in 2009-10 (11.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg). BYU’s perimeter depth should also be bolstered by the arrival of freshman guard Cory Calvert, who averaged more than 22 points per game as a high school senior.

5. Santa Clara, which went winless in conference play last season, welcomes back two vital pieces in guard Kevin Foster and forward Marc Trasolini. Trasolini was lost for the season during the team’s trip to Canada with a torn ACL while Foster was suspended for the second half of the season. Evan Rocquemore returns as well, and this trio should be enough to ensure a jump in the standings for the Broncos.

Impact Newcomers

C Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga)
Robert Sacre’s graduated but with Karnowski on campus the Bulldogs become a more physical team in the paint immediately. The Torun, Poland native averaged 10.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for Siarka Jezioro Tarnobrzeg last season, and the 7-1 305-pounder is ready to make an impact. Karnowski joins a deep front court, so while there are expectations it isn’t as if Gonzaga’s hopes rest solely on his shoulders.

G Cory Calvert (BYU)
BYU has depth on the perimeter, led by point guard Matt Carlino, Tyler Haws and Brock Zylstra. But Calvert can be a valuable contributor for the Cougars this season, as he arrives in Provo as a reliable scorer and distributor. Calvert, the Colorado Class 5A Player of the Year, averaged 22.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game at Chapparal HS last year.

F Nick Stover (Loyola Marymount)
The 6-6 Stover won’t lack for opportunities to contribute as the Lions look at life without wing Drew Viney, and the Winward HS product is capable of taking on whatever assignment Max Good gives him. Stover averaged 21.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game for a team that won 20 games, and for his career Stover was a three-time All-CIF selection.

G James Walker III (Saint Mary’s)
Already deep on the perimeter, the Gaels get even better with the addition of the Citrus (CA) College transfer. Walker III helped lead Citrus to a 28-2 record with an average of 19.1 points per game (second-highest average in school history), and for his efforts he was named CCCAA and Western State Conference Player of the Year.

G De’End Parker (San Francisco)
Parker’s stint at UCLA was a short one as he had to return to San Francisco to care for his ailing mother, and now he’s a much-needed addition for a San Francisco program that was decimated by graduation and departures at the end of last season. At City College of San Francisco (2010-11) he averaged 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, and Parker gives the Dons an athletic wing to help out point guard Cody Doolin.

Other newcomers of note: G/F Drew Barham (Gonzaga), G Chase Flint (Loyola Marymount), F Malte Kramer (Pepperdine), F Nate Kratch (Santa Clara), F Chris Reyes (Saint Mary’s)

Breakout Players

F Brad Waldow (Saint Mary’s)
As a redshirt freshman Waldow turned into a valuable piece for the Gaels alongside Rob Jones with averages of 8.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. But with Jones gone there’s room for Waldow to improve and become even more of a factor for Saint Mary’s, and if they’re to repeat as WCC champions he’ll need to do so.

G Johnny Dee (San Diego)
Dee’s name is well-known within the conference, and how can it not be given his team-best 13.7 points per game. But there’s the step of going from one of the best freshmen in the WCC to becoming one of its best players, and the Vista, California native can make that happen this season. With all five starters back USD can finish in the top half of the league standings, and Dee will have to be a leader in order for that to happen.

C Sam Dower (Gonzaga)
The presence of Dower is one reason why there shouldn’t be a ridiculous amount of pressure on Karnowski to produce immediately, and with Robert Sacre gone it’s Dower who will lead the way. A player many believe to have All-WCC level skill, Dower averaged 8.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last season. Sure the Bulldogs have Elias Harris, but they also have room for another double-figure scorer inside. That should be Dower.

G Jordan Baker (Pepperdine)
Baker averaged 9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 29 games last season, but it’s what he was able to do in WCC play that makes him a breakout candidate. In league play the Tempe native averaged 11.3 points and ranked in the top ten in the WCC in minutes (32.0 mpg), assists (3.0) and steals (1.9). For a team that adds six newcomers and three redshirts (one of which being guard Lorne Jackson), Baker will be the one asked to lead the way.

F Ryan Nicholas (Portland)
Nicholas started all 31 games for the Pilots last season, averaging 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest. But those numbers weren’t enough to merit mention on either the ten-member All-WCC team or its honorable mention list. Nicholas shot 50.4% from the field in 2011-12, and with the year of experience for both he and his teammates (Eric Reveno’s team was very young) he should be mentioned for All-WCC honors.

Player of the Year: F Elias Harris (Gonzaga)
Some of the national conversation involving Harris seemed to focus on his “regression.” Question: where? Harris averaged 13.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in 2011-12, and both numbers were an improvement over his averages as a sophomore. If Harris isn’t banged up he’s a very difficult match-up for opponents, and as a senior this is his chance to go out with a bang. The prediction here is that he’ll do just that.

All-Conference Team
G Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga)
G Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s)
G Anthony Ireland (Loyola Marymount)
F Elias Harris (Gonzaga)
F Brandon Davies (BYU)

Coach under pressure: Bill Grier (San Diego) 
Since beginning his tenure with a 22-win campaign in 2007-08 it’s been a struggle for Grier at USD, as his teams have gone just 46-79 in the four seasons after. With five starters back the Toreros should be able to improve on their 7-9 WCC mark of a season ago. Going at least .500 shouldn’t be too much to ask of San Diego, but if it turns out to be that could mean trouble for Grier.

Predicted Finish

1. Gonzaga (Mark Few’s team welcomes back most of their key contributors from last season, and freshman big man Przemek Karnowski will contribute immediately)
2. Saint Mary’s (The Gaels lose Rob Jones but Dellavedova returns, and could be a breakout player)
3. BYU (Matt Carlino’s a year older while Brandon Davies anchors things in the paint. The return of Tyler Haws will definitely help the Cougars on the wing)
4. San Diego (Bill Grier welcomes back his top four scorers from last season with guard Johnny Dee leading the way)
5. Santa Clara (With Kevin Foster (suspension) and Marc Trasolini (torn ACL) back look for the Broncos to make a jump)
6. Loyola Marymount (Anthony Ireland runs the show, and freshman Nick Stover can be one of the WCC’s best newcomers)
7. Portland (Ryan Nicholas leads a team that returns four of its top six scorers, but the Pilots (allowed 76 ppg) must improve defensively)
8. Pepperdine (the return of guard Lorne Jackson (knee) will surely help the Waves as they look to account for the loss of three starters)
9. San Francisco (The return of senior point guard Cody Doolin will help matters, but the Dons simply lost too much after last season)

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

No. 15 Xavier’s win over Wisconsin should, and will, be rewarded by Selection Committee

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This Wisconsin team is probably not going to end up being quite as good as past Wisconsin teams.

That’s inevitable when you lose the players that they lost to graduation, but it also doesn’t change the fact that No. 15 Xavier went into the Kohl Center and snagged a win that is going to look quite good on Selection Sunday.

The Musketeers took care of the Badgers, 80-70, thanks to 25 points and nine boards from Trevon Bluiett and 20 points from J.P. Macura. Bluiett struggled to find a rhythm for much of the game, but he hit a pair of critical jumpers midway through the second half to stem a Wisconsin run and, with the game tied and just over a minute left on the clock, buried three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to lock up the win.

For a stretch midway through the second half, it looked like Wisconsin was getting ready to run away with this game. Ethan Happ – who finished with 21 points and eight assists and who Xavier head coach Chris Mack referred to as “one of the best post players in the entire country” – was in the midst of taking the game over and Wisconsin’s sold out Kohl Center was in full voice. That’s when Bluiett went into takeover mode, quieting the crowd and getting Xavier out of Madison with a win.

That shouldn’t be overlooked, and if there is any justice in the world, it will be the kind of thing that the Musketeers get rewarded for come Selection Sunday.

I enjoy the neutral site tournaments that pop up every year. They create some drama every November, and there are always some fun matchups over the weekend and afternoon basketball during the week. That’s great. But the best part of college hoops is the environment of playing a big game on campus. The crowd, the student section, players like Macura doing the Gator Chomp at the Wisconsin fans – the Badgers lost to Florida in the NCAA tournament last year – after they spent the entire second half bombarding him with ‘a******’ chants every time he touched the ball.

It was great.

And it will be better if that kind of a win, even against a Wisconsin team that is probably closer to being top 40-good than top 25-good, is something that the Selection Committee values. Those changes are supposedly coming, and it will be a good thing for the sport. Give top 15 teams an incentive to play road games in November.

Because Thursday night’s clash in the Kohl Center was everything that is great about college hoops.

Kentucky finds an answer in Kevin Knox while questions about point guards still linger

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CHICAGO – The most interesting part of Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas came after the game, in the press conference, as the Wildcats publicly projected an air of satisfaction.

John Calipari, Kevin Knox, they spoke as if hanging with Kansas, as if pushing the No. 4 team in the country, a team with 6.5 scholarship players available on Tuesday night, was a moral victory.

And no one batted an eye.

Kentucky had struggled in their season-opening win over Utah Valley, trailing by as much as 12 points early in the second half before coming alive and winning by ten. They only beat Vermont by four, as the Catamounts slowly and methodically chipped away at a Kentucky lead in the second half, missing two shots to tie the game in the final minute.

It wasn’t a surprise, not with the overwhelming amount of youth on the Kentucky roster and the simple fact that none of those youngsters fall into the same class as Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. We all knew that Kentucky was going to go through growing pains this season, that the product they put on the floor in March will be markedly different than the one we’ve seen through the first week of the season, but it is still odd to see a program the caliber of Kentucky qualifying a loss with ‘we played hard.’

“We were just fighting. I give it to my teammates. We really fought,” Kevin Knox, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class, said. “A lot of people ha us losing this game by 20, 30 points, but we said before the game that we’re not having it. They’re a veteran team, we’re a real young team. A lot of people thought they’d have the advantage, but tonight we really fought our butts off. We played really hard in the second half, and we could have won the game. We only lost by four points.”

I couldn’t agree with that statement more, and there were a lot of positives to take out of that game.

And it may have answered one of the two biggest questions hanging over the program this season: Who is Kentucky’s closer? Who is Kentucky’s go-to guy?

Kevin Knox, or so it seems.

Knox struggled through the first two games of the season. He was 6-for-23 from the floor, he was 2-for-8 from three and he was averaging 11.5 points. Against Kansas, however, Knox was terrific, finishing with 20 points, banging how three threes and showing off a perimeter game that I wasn’t sure that he had in his arsenal yet; he made a couple pull-ups and he was able to create offense off of the dribble.

He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I left the United Center feeling much better about where Kentucky stands this season than I did entering.

“I still don’t know how we’re going to play late in a close game,” head coach John Calipari said, adding that “late in the game, that’s not on those kids. We haven’t worked on late-game situations.”

“I knew it was going to be tough, but I need to put these kids into those situations. I need to see who can make a shot, who can make a free throw. You can only learn about your team in games like this.”

They’ll get there eventually.

The bigger concern is at the point guard spot. Kentucky has two on their roster this season, and neither of them appear to be the answer. Quade Green, who has started the last two games after coming off the bench, is better on the offensive end of the floor but struggles defensively. Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes ate him up in the second half of Kentucky’s win. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defender, but when he’s on the floor and Green isn’t, Kentucky’s only effective means of generating offense comes in transition or on the offensive glass. Against Kansas, Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over six times.

The way Calipari wants to run his program is clear: Go get one of the best incoming freshman point guards to run his team. Whether it’s Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose or John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or Marquis Teague, the trend is clear. This year, he didn’t get a player on that level. Green and Gilgeous-Alexander both fall in that second tier of point guard, and the only other year where that was the case for Cal was back in 2012-13, when N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow ran the show and Kentucky ended up in the NIT.

I don’t think the Wildcats are in danger of repeating that season, particularly if Knox keeps growing into that go-to guy role. They’re still going to be very good defensively and they’re still going big enough to get to dominate the glass on most nights, which should help them mitigate the fact that their perimeter shooting is not quite where it needs to be.

But the difference between Kentucky being good and Kentucky genuinely being considered among the nation’s best teams is at the point, and unless Calipari can find a way to fuse Green’s ability on the offensive end of the floor with Gilgeous-Alexander’s skill as a defender, I’m not quite sure what the answer is going to be.

Michael Porter Jr.’s injury growing more concerning, misses trip to Utah

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The injury to Michael Porter Jr., Missouri’s star freshman and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, seems to be a little more concerning that many initially believed.

The 6-foot-10 forward will not play tonight as the Tigers visit Utah, and he reportedly did not even travel with the team.

“I think it’s day-to-day,” head coach Cuonzo Martin told reporters when asked about Porter’s injury on Monday night. “That’s the best assessment for me to say right now. It’s day-to-day.”

According to Missouri, the injury was suffered during warmups prior to Missouri’s first game. Porter played the first two minutes of that opener against Iowa State last week so as to avoid a technical foul – he was already listed in the starting lineup – but he did not return to the game, sitting with an icepack on his hip on the bench. Porter was not on the bench when Missouri beat Wagner by 44 points earlier this week, but Porter was not on the bench during the game. Missouri said that was due to the fact that is was more comfortable for Porter to sit elsewhere.

Thomas’ career-high 24 leads Creighton over No. 20 Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Khyri Thomas had a career-high 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, Martin Krampelj added a career-high 17 points and Creighton beat No. 20 Northwestern 92-88 on Wednesday night in a Gavitt Tipoff Games matchup.

Ty-Shon Alexander had 14 points and Marcus Foster had 12 for the Bluejays (3-0).

Vic Law had a career-high 30 points and Bryant McIntosh added 24 for Northwestern (2-1).

Creighton senior Toby Hegner went down in the first half with a high ankle sprain and was on crutches at the end of the game.

The Wildcats rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half, but couldn’t maintain the momentum as Creighton answered the run and took the lead for good with 14 minutes to go.

Law scored 12 straight Northwestern points early in the second half to lead a furious comeback from a 51-43 halftime deficit. Included in that run was a four-point play 3 minutes into the half to put the Wildcats on top 56-55 — their first lead since early in the first half.

Creighton is 12-1 against teams from the Big Ten since November 2011. The Bluejays had four wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 last season.

THE BIG PICTURE

Creighton: The Bluejays scored 109 points in their previous game against Alcorn State and were on a pace for 120 or more in racing out to a 44-29 lead 15 minutes into the game. But after Northwestern picked up its defensive intensity, they managed just 11 points over the next 8 minutes in losing the big lead. The players, though, responded and reclaimed control.

Northwestern: The Wildcats are coming off their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season and were ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time. But Wednesday night showed that nothing is going to come easy this season just because expectations are high — especially if they don’t play with the same intensity on the defensive end as last season.

UP NEXT

Creighton: The Bluejays face No. 23 UCLA on Monday night in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Northwestern: The Wildcats face La Salle on Saturday in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.

Berry struggles in return, but North Carolina tops Bucknell

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If Joel Berry was playing a videogame Wednesday as Joel Berry, he may have wanted to break his other hand.

The North Carolina senior struggled mightily in his return from injury into the Tar Heels’ lineup as UNC narrowly outlasted Bucknell, 93-81, to improve to 2-0 on the season.

The final result and Berry’s actual performance probably matters less than simply getting him back on the court after his infamous injury, but it was a difficult night for the 6-foot senior guard. Berry made his first shot of the game, but missed his next 10 to finish 1 of 11 with eight points in his return to the lineup.

Berry missed North Carolina’s season-opening win against Northern Iowa because he broke his hand in frustration while playing videogames against teammate Theo Pinson and a UNC manager in what was surely an embarrassing – not to mention painful – moment for Berry, but that will undoubtedly be enshrined in Tar Heel lore for a generation or nine. You’ve also got to give him credit for working his way back from injury early, even if the rust was incredibly apparent.

Still, it ended up only costing Berry, who averaged 14.7 points and 3.6 assists in UNC’s national championship season, a game and North Carolina nothing as they’re off to a 2-0 start, though the Tar Heels’ showing against Bucknell wasn’t exactly inspiring. UNC struggled to get any kind of separation from Bucknell until very late. The Bison shot 46.8 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent on 28 3-point attempts. Luke Maye had a big night for the Tar Heels, putting up 20 points while Pinson added 19 (besting Berry like, presumably, he did to provoke the injury in the first place).

It wasn’t pretty, but getting Berry back is huge for the Tar Heels. They maybe just need to let him win in 2K or whatever to keep him healthy and on the floor.