Kelly Olynyk

Conference Catchup: WCC race shaping up to be a good one

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our West Coast Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Gonzaga 

Ranked tenth in the country the Bulldogs capped 2012 in solid fashion as they beat Baylor at home and followed that up with a win at No. 22 Oklahoma State. Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris were known commodities entering the season, but how many believed that forward Kelly Olynyk would be the team’s leading scorer on January 2? After redshirting last season, Olynyk is averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and has turned into a key cog in the Gonzaga attack. Ten players are averaging 12.6 minutes or more per game, giving Mark Few personnel options that few teams in the WCC can match.

Contenders: BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara

Two of the three names shouldn’t be a surprise, as it’s become expected that BYU and Saint Mary’s will be perennial contenders to win the conference. The Cougars boast two of the WCC’s top three scorers in Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies, and Saint Mary’s is led by reigning WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova. Of the two teams BYU has the better computer numbers entering conference play, and thanks to Haws going off they’re coming off of a blowout win over Virginia Tech. The team most likely to crash the party that is the Gonzaga/BYU/Saint Mary’s triumvirate? Santa Clara.

Biggest Surprise: Santa Clara 

The return of Marc Trasolini (knee) and Kevin Foster (suspension) was expected to make Kerry Keating’s team much better in 2012-13. But the Broncos entering 2013 with an 11-3 record is a surprise to say the least. Those two combine with guard Evan Roquemore to give Santa Clara a trio of 1,000-point scorers (no other team in the country can make this claim). One area the Broncos need to improve in if they’re to factor into the WCC race is rebounding, as they rank last in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.

Biggest Disappointment: San Diego 

Picked by the coaches to finish fifth in the conference, the Toreros were thought to have a shot at finishing fourth due to the return of all five starters from last year’s team with Johnny Dee leading the way. But the early return don’t look as promising for San Diego, who ranks in the bottom half of the WCC in field goal and three-point percentage and dead last in field goal percentage defense. Add in the fact that they’re not the best when it comes to rebounding and it’s easy to see why San Diego has struggled.

Player of the Year: F Brandon Davies (BYU) 

Davies is the lone player in the WCC who ranks in the top five in both scoring and rebounding, as his averages of 20.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game are third in conference respectively (Santa Clara’s Marc Trasolini is 6th in scoring and 4th in rebounding). Shooting 57% from the field, Davies has reached double figures in all 14 of BYU’s games and has posted four double-doubles as well.

Best Freshman: F Stacy Davis (Pepperdine) 

Davis has been the most productive freshman in the WCC, as he’s averaging 11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Both of those numbers lead WCC freshmen, and Davis has been one of the big reasons why the Waves are off to an 8-5 start.

Three Predictions

– Saint Mary’s will sweat out Selection Sunday. Randy Bennett’s team is one of the WCC’s best, but a look at their non-conference schedule reveals the fact that there aren’t any results that truly jump off the page. That’s why the comeback win over Harvard on New Year’s Eve was so important, especially when considering their 1-2 weekend at the DirecTV Classic in November (losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech, with the former being avenged by the final of 74-46 on December 19). The Gaels will participate in the ESPN BracketBusters event in February, and they’d better have their fingers crossed for a marquee opponent in that one.

– Gonzaga will begin its NCAA tournament run in Salt Lake City and get out of the first weekend. The Bulldogs haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009, and there’s little doubt that this group is talented enough to change that. Kelly Olynyk has been excellent this season and with players such as Kevin Pangos, Elias Harris and Gary Bell Jr. leading the way the Bulldogs are in the Top 10. They’ll win the WCC and grab a protected seed in the NCAA tournament, beginning play at the site closest to their Spokane campus (Salt Lake City) on the way to the Sweet 16. If not further.

– San Francisco’s Cole Dickerson and De’End Parker will both earn all-conference honors. The question here will be which of the two ends up on the WCC’s first team all-conference squad, if not both. Dickerson’s averaging 15.4 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, so he’d be the one more likely to earn first team honors, but Parker’s leading the WCC in three-point percentage while averaging 15.0 points per contest. Dickerson and Parker, along with point guard Cody Doolin, combine to make Rex Walters’ team a dangerous one in conference play.

Power Rankings (* – NCAA tournament team) 

1. Gonzaga *
2. BYU *
3. Saint Mary’s *
4. Santa Clara
5. Pepperdine
6. San Francisco
7. Loyola Marymount
8. Portland
9. San Diego

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.