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.

No. 19 Wichita State upends No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Dave Stallworth was running the show the last time Wichita State beat a Top 5 team on the road. Landry Shamet took the lead as the Shockers did it again 54 years later.

This one, too, will be a reference point, given all that was at stake.

Shamet scored 19 points, and No. 19 Wichita State ended the nation’s longest home-court winning streak, beating No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72 on Sunday to leave the American Athletic Conference race wide open.

The Shockers (21-5, 11-3) beat a Top 5 team on the road for the first time since 1964. They led most of the way, building an 11-point lead midway through the second half and holding on. Shaquille Morris’ dunk with 5 seconds left finished it off.

The Shockers ran onto the floor for congratulatory chest bumps. Coach Gregg Marshall got a celebratory dunking in the locker room, leaving his light-colored shirt clinging to him.

“It’s tremendous,” Marshall said. “Look at my shirt. College basketball has such tremendous parity. The games are decided by great players making great plays. Landry is a tremendous player.”

The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) had won their last 39 home games. In their first real home challenge of the season, they wound up playing catch-up and coming up short. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season, falling to 0-3 with losses to Xavier and Florida.

Cincinnati and Wichita State were expected to contend for the title in the Shockers’ first season in the AAC. Wichita State gave itself a chance with a solid all-around game led by its point guard. Shamet had 16 points in the first half, when the Shockers shredded the nation’s second-ranked defense to take control.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was bothered by his team’s “gross, mind-boggling defensive breakdowns,” including allowing the Shockers to get open for those two late layups. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the field, getting open 3-pointers in the first half and layups in the second half.

“We’re just not in a good place right now,” Cronin said. “I hadn’t slept much. We’re not in a good place for a lot of reasons.”

Wichita State closes the regular season by hosting Cincinnati on March 4. Houston (21-5, 11-3) also is in the running for the league title after beating Temple on Sunday.

The Shockers hit seven of eight shots during a 17-3 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. Cincinnati responded by turning up its full-court defense, forcing three quick turnovers, and going on a run that cut the deficit to 42-40 at halftime.

The Shockers showed a little defense of their own, forcing five turnovers while rebuilding their lead to 59-48 with 11 minutes left, matching its biggest of the game. Cincinnati closed to 72-70 on Trevon Scott’s dunk with 13 seconds left, but the Shockers scored on a pair of inbound passes by Landry, the last a full-court heave to Morris for a dunk that provided the final margin.

“This is what we do,” said Austin Reaves, who made the first of the two decisive layups. “We stick together on the road.”

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers needed a win to maintain their chances of a regular season title, and they got it with another good showing on the road. The Shockers are the most successful road team in the nation over the past five years at 47-8, including 7-2 this season.

“This is like our 50th red-out or white-out or black-out,” Marshall said. “We feel comfortable when that happens.”

Cincinnati: The Bearcats moved into the Top 5 even though they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. Losses at Houston and at home to Wichita State left them prepared for a plummet.

“As it gets later in the season, every team is better,” said Jacob Evans III, who had 16 points. “It’s not the beginning of conference or the season. Every team knows us well. We’ve got to be able to go to second options when they take away the first ones.”

NO LONGER A SWEET HOME

The Bearcats hadn’t lost at home since a 77-70 defeat against Temple on Dec. 29, 2015. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season and were 13-0 at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena, where they’re playing this season while their on-campus arena is renovated.

LONG TIME NO SEE

The Shockers and Bearcats played regularly as members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1958-70, but it was their first game since 1981.

TOP 5 HISTORY

It was only the fourth time the Shockers have beaten a Top 5 team on the road. They beat No. 5 Oklahoma A&M in 1954 and topped No. 3 Loyola in 1963 and again in 1964 behind Stallworth.

TOUGH WEEKEND IN CINCY

Cincinnati had two teams in the Top 5, and both of them lost at home over the weekend. No. 4 Xavier lost to No. 3 Villanova 95-79 on Saturday at Cintas Center.cincinnati

Andy Kennedy resigns from Ole Miss effective immediately

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Andy Kennedy announced that, effective immediately, he will be stepping down as the head coach at Ole Miss. Tony Madlock will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The reason is simple: Kennedy wanted to “relieve any external pressure being felt by our current players” and he did not believe that last week’s announcement that this would be his final season in Oxford accomplished that.

“It has become readily apparent to me that my continued presence as the head coach is proving detrimental to these players finishing the season in a fashion that is representative of The Standard for this program that has been clearly established and maintained for over a decade,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Yherefore, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest that I exit my role as head coach effective immediately. We all know that “clean breaks” are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday. My apologies.”

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost by 17 points at Mississippi State. That came two days after Kennedy went viral for a brutally honest criticism of what his team was going through.

“I can’t get to them,” he said. “I can’t reach them.”

It’s sad that this is the way that it had to end for the best basketball coach that Ole Miss has ever had. But it had to be done.

No. 12 Duke beats No. 11 Clemson as defensive resurgence continues

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Grayson Allen finished with 19 points, four assists and four steals, scoring 17 of his points in the first half, and Wendell Carter added 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks as No. 12 Duke won their fourth straight game without Marvin Bagley III, 66-57.

No. 11 Clemson was short-handed as well, and that’s something that needs to be noted. Not only are they playing without Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL earlier this year, but Shelton Mitchell was not in the lineup after suffering a nasty concussion at Florida State on Wednesday.

The Tigers were a No. 3 seed when the bracket reveal occurred last Sunday, but like Ohio State and Oklahoma, they have now lost back-to-back games; 11 of the top 16 teams have lost a game in the last week.

But the story here more than anything is Duke.

Yes, Allen finished with 19 points and continues to play well without Bagley on the floor. Getting him into a rhythm is critically important for this team. He was averaging 14.7 points in 24 games with Bagley. He is averaging 22.3 points in the last three games that Bagley has missed, and that does not include the 37-point outburst he had when Bagley went down with an injury against Michigan State.

Coach K also has had a chance to develop some confidence in his bench. Javin DeLaurier had 10 boards on Sunday. Marques Bolden didn’t play a done of minutes, but he still finished with five points, three boards and a pair of blocks. He was, generally speaking, a positive influence on the game.

But here is the most important and perplexing nugget: Duke, for the third straight game, was excellent defensively. They’ve now allowed fewer than 1.0 points-per-possession in each of the last three games. They are clearly not the same time offensively without Bagley’s presence on the floor, but it is impossible to ignore what they have been defensively in the last 10 days without him.

To put it into context: For all the talk about how much of a problem Duke’s defense has been, the Blue Devils are now ranked 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They were 79th after they lost to North Carolina, the last game that Bagley played. Villanova, who many believe is the best team in the country when healthy, is 42nd.

The question we need to ask is whether or not that will continue once Bagley makes his return.

Because the only thing standing between Duke and a Final Four is their inability to defend.

No. 8 Ohio State falls at No. 22 Michigan, Michigan State moves into first in Big Ten

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After all of the drama and the speculation about whether or not Ohio State or Purdue was the best team in the Big Ten, water has seemingly found its level.

On Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, No. 8 Ohio State lost their second straight game, falling 74-62 at No. 22 Michigan and allowing No. 2 Michigan State — who had one of college basketball’s greatest comebacks on Saturday at Northwestern — to slide into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with just one week left of the regular season.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 17 points while Jordan Poole added 15 off the bench in the win.

The Wolverines did a good job of slowing down Ohio State’s all-american forward, Keita Bates-Diop. KBD finished with 17 points and seven boards, but he shot just 5-for-17 from the floor. Jae-Sean Tate led the way with 20 points and 15 boards for the Buckeyes.

There was a special moment before this game even started as Austin Hatch, a two-time survivor of plane crashes that killed his entire immediate family, took part in the team’s Senior Day.

VIDEO: Michigan celebrates plane crash survivor Austin Hatch’s Senior Day

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If you don’t know the story of Michigan senior Austin Hatch, you should.

He’s survived two plane crashes in his life. The first, in 2003, robbed him of his mother, 11-year old sister and five-year old brother. In 2011, to celebrate his commitment to the Wolverines, Hatch’s father flew them up to the family’s vacation home, but the plane crashed into a garage killing Hatch’s dad and his stepmom and leaving Austin critically injured.

He had a severe brain trauma, a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken collarbone, and in order to manage the swelling in his brain, he was put into a medically-induced coma for eight months.

He managed to return and even played for the Wolverines during the 2014-15 season, but he eventually made the decision to retire from basketball at the end of the year. He did, however, remain a part of the program and on Sunday, during Michigan’s Senior Day, he warmed up with the team and was introduced to the crowd as a starter and no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying: