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. 1 Kansas dominates No. 4 Purdue in style

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Kansas, the top-seeded team in Midwest region, didn’t just beat No. 4 Purdue, it did so in style. Fast break after fast break, dunk after dunk, the Jayhawks ran the Boilermakers off the floor, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 win on Thursday night in Kansas City.

Kansas went on an 11-0 run in the second half, forcing four Purdue turnovers during that stretch. Once the Boilermakers finally got back on the board, the Jayhawks led 69-56. That run broke open the game en route to the 32-point victory.

Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham each had 26 points. Mason added seven rebounds and seven assists. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan ended his season — and perhaps, his college career — with 18 points and seven rebounds.

Kansas advances to play No. 3 seed Oregon on Saturday in the Elite Eight.

WATCH: LaGerald Vick’s 360 dunk

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It takes a lot of confidence to throw down a dunk better suited for pre-game lay-up lines than the middle of a NCAA Tournament game.

But Kansas sophomore guard LaGerald Vick thought this breakaway opportunity in the second half of a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Purdue was the perfect time to throw down a 360 dunk.

Jordan Mathews three sends No. 1 seed Gonzaga past No. 4 West Virginia

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Jordan Mathews hit a three with less than a minute left and West Virginia missed a pair of threes on the final possession of the game as No. 1 seed Gonzaga won a dogfight, 61-58, over No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

Mathews, who finished with 13 points on the night, spent 4:30 on the bench before checking into the game right before hitting the eventual game-winning three. It came on a possession fitting of this game, which was the embodiment of the mantra ‘a close game is not always a good game.’ Nigel Williams-Goss, who played arguably his worst game as a member of the Zags, turned the ball over immediately after gathering a defensive rebound. But West Virginia’s Nathan Adrian had a shot blocked at the rim and, after corralling the loose ball, Williams-Goss found Mathews open in the wing for a three that put the Zags up 60-58 with 37 seconds left.

What’s going to be talked about after this game is the final possession for West Virginia.

Jevon Carter, who finished with 21 points and who, prior to that final possession, continued to hit big jumper after big jumper for the Mountaineers, airballed a three and, after West Virginia gathered the rebound, threw up another tough three that bounced off the front rim. West Virginia again got the loose ball, and after Carter dribbled 15 seconds off the block, he gave the ball up to Daxter Miles, who didn’t have enough time to get the shot off:

That possession is going to haunt Carter for a long, long time, and West Virginia was rightfully criticized for the way that they “executed” on that possession — I wonder if Bob Huggins regrets not saving a timeout for the end of the game — but it’s impossible to criticize West Virginia without also mentioning that Gonzaga’s defense was as good as it gets.

Not just just on that possession, either.

The Zags made life difficult for West Virginia all night long, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone that has been paying attention to this Gonzaga team. West Virginia shot 26.7 percent from the floor. They were 5-for-23 from three, and if it wasn’t for the 20 offensive rebounds they grabbed — more than the 16 field goals they made on the night — Gonzaga would have walked out of the SAP Center with a comfortable win. They are, quite literally, the best defensive team in college basketball, according to KenPom, and they made the plays they needed to make down the stretch to get the win. That’s what championship-caliber teams do.

And if you still don’t believe that Gonzaga can win a national title this season, than I’m not sure what else you need to see.

West Virginia was a terrible matchup for Gonzaga. Their guards, as good as they’ve been all season long, are not cut out for playing against a back court that is that much tougher, that much quicker, that much more aggressive and that much more athletic than them. Williams-Goss, who was a second-team NBC Sports All-American, was exposed. He finished the evening 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and just a single assist before finding Mathews for the game-winning three. As a team, Gonzaga turned the ball over 16 times. Josh Perkins didn’t even get a shot off. Silas Melson was 2-for-7 from the floor. Throw in Zach Collins, who had just a single point, and four of Gonzaga’s top seven players were flat out bad on Thursday night.

That was, unequivocally, a game played the way West Virginia wanted it to be played. The Mountaineers controlled the game.

And yet, Gonzaga is still headed to the Elite 8, one game — against the winner of No. 2 Arizona and No. 11 Xavier — away from the right to go to the Final Four.

The knock on this Gonzaga team was their toughness, both physical and mental. Would they be able to handle a team that plays the way that West Virginia plays? Would they be able to handle the game pressure of playing to the final possession in the Sweet 16?

The answer is yes.

That doesn’t mean Gonzaga is going to win the national title.

But they are certainly good enough to get it done.

No. 3 Oregon advances after thriller with No. 7 Michigan

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Oregon is returning to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season following a thrilling, 69-68, victory over No. 7 Michigan in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City on Thursday night.

In a game in which neither team could fully grasp control of the game, it came down to the wire. Michigan held a 3-point lead with two minutes to play. Jordan Bell, who was unquestionably the deciding factor in this contest, came up with the first of several critical hustle plays down the stretch. He knifed in on a missed free throw, for the second-chance bucket, cutting the deficit to one.

On the ensuing Michigan possession, Bell didn’t block it but affected Derrick Walton Jr.’s shot enough to force the miss. Tyler Dorsey, the other hero for the Ducks, continued his stellar play this month with a go-ahead layup after he spun through the Wolverine defense. Bell’s close out on D.J. Wilson sent his 3-point attempt way off the mark. Bell would corral another offensive rebound on the other end of the floor, and while Dylan Ennis left the door open for Michigan following another missed free throw, Bell, deservedly, rebounded Walton’s miss as time ran out.

“Do whatever you can to win,” Bell told reporters after the game. “Me, get every rebound, offense or defense, help my team out as much as possible.”

Bell had 16 points and 13 rebounds. Tyler Dorsey poured in 20 points. Walton Jr., who front-rimmed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, ended his collegiate career with stat-line of 20 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. Zak Irvin added 19.

Dillon Brooks is without a doubt the star, but Bell and Dorsey round out a big three that could lead the Ducks to Phoenix.

Before the start of the Pac-12 Tournament championship game on March 11, Oregon announced that Chris Boucher would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. How would this effect Oregon’s defense days before it began its quest for a Final Four?

Bell has helped answer those questions on Thursday night. He’s a big reason why Oregon outscored Michigan, 34-16, in points in the paint. But his greatest impact was how he slowed down the two-headed monster of Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson, two forwards whose increased production is a big reason why Michigan’s unlikely run extended into the second weekend of the tournament. The duo scored a combined 19 points off 7-of-20 shooting.

The other for Oregon was the continued offensive tear of Dorsey. In six postseason games, the sophomore two-guard is averaging 23.0 points per game. He went toe-to-toe with Walton, who was playing as good as any guard in the country, in the final minutes and got the better of the battle. Playing at this level, Oregon has another go-to scorer, one who has no issue taking a big shot late in the game. In either matchup in the next round, that should come in handy. Dillon Brooks, one of college’s toughest matchups, will either be busy with Purdue’s massive frontline or locked in an all-out war with Kansas’ Josh Jackson the perimeter.

“I’m really fortunate to have Jordan for three years and Tyler for two and Dillon Brooks,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. “We’ve just been really fortunate. We’ve got good players and guys that are unselfish. They want to win. They’re competitive. We got down four there and guys could have gave into it. They didn’t. They fought their way back. Shows you what kind of competitive spirit they’ve got.”

The Ducks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, will face the winner of top-seeded Kansas and No. 4 Purdue on Saturday night at the Sprint Center.

“We know Purdue is really big and Kansas is Kansas,” Altman said.

WATCH: Steve Alford end practice with half-court shot

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford ended practice on Thursday by drilling a half-court shot on the first attempt.

According to the Associated Press, this has been a season-long battle between the UCLA coaching staff and the players.

“Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo (Ball) literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.”

No. 3 seed UCLA is set to play No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Memphis. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats, 97-92, in a non-conference matchup on Dec. 3.