Conference Catch-ups: Could the MWC send four dancing?

4 Comments

Conference play is upon us, 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 Mountain West Conference Catch-up:

Favorite: San Diego State
We’ve gotten used to this notion but not with the Aztecs up there by themselves. Jamal Franklin has done exactly what’s expected of him (more on him in a bit) and they’ve gotten great shooting from Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg)and improved play from Xavier Thames (10.5 ppg). Though they’ll need to find a reliable post presence — Franklin leads the team in rebounding at the wing spot, with the next-closest being DeShawn Stephens’ 5.2 per — against teams like New Mexico and UNLV, who already have that.

Contenders: UNLV, New Mexico
A lot of those around the game knew UNLV would be here at this point. Mike Moser being injured, at this point, keeps them as a contender, and not the favorite. They’re still getting great production from Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall (10.6 ppg, team-leading 5.5 apg). As well as Katin Reinhardt (10.4 ppg). New Mexico made its statement with a comeback win over Davidson, then a win at then-no. 8 Cincinnati. Losing at St. Louis after a horrid first half didn’t help, but this team has been steady otherwise, with the contributions of Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Alex Kirk (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has been improved in the paint.

Biggest Surprise: Wyoming
When a team that was expected to finish in the middle of their conference starts the season 13-0, it’s a surprise. Yes, the schedule has been a variable gigantic cupcake, but the Cowboys did collect a home win over Colorado and went on the road and took down Missouri Valley Conference contender Illinois State, within a four-day span. Now they’ve got to legitimize the hype, with games against San Diego State and UNLV, back-to-back in conference play, twice.

Biggest Disappointment: Fresno State
It’s not so much that they were expected to do great things this season, it’s just that I didn’t see the Bulldogs being this bad. They’re currently 6-7, with three of those wins over non-Division I teams, including the epic failure of a 39-30 victory at UC-Riverside. They also beat San Diego….Community College. They do have victories over UCLA-killer Cal Poly and Long Beach State, but this team is capable of so much more.

Best player: Jamal Franklin, San Diego State (17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
He’s the best player on, for now, the best team. Franklin’s picked right up where he left off last season, pacing the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding while improving his ability to distribute. There are a few other candidates, like UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (more on him later though), New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks. But for now, it’s still Franklin.

Best freshman: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
No brainer, right? If he’s not the best overall player, Bennett is definitely the best freshman in the MWC. He’s stepped right into a spot that the Runnin’ Rebels desperately needed production from, in the post, and has done so as consistently as anyone this season. It’s probably his lone season in college, so Dave Rice better get the most out of him.

Three Predictions
-Four conference teams will be dancing in March
Is this so far-fetched? Nope. Everyone expects San Diego State and UNLV and sees New Mexico as having a better-than-average shot at the NCAA Tournament. But I totally see Wyoming making it. The back-to-back wins over Colorado and Illinois State have me believing, as long as they can stave off the loss of Luke Martinez to a broken hand, at least until he returns, if he does. If not, Colorado State could make it in if they get 2-3 upsets in-conference, which would mean a few wins over SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.

-Wyoming will finish the season with less than five losses
The Cowboys have already won 12 games, but let’s look at their remaining schedule. They’ve obviously got four games against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. I still maintain they’ll take at least three of those six games, probably at home. Then home-and-homes with Boise State and Colorado State, which I believe they’ll sweep. The Cowboys will also sweep the remaining conference games, with or without Martinez. If he comes back early, I fully believe Wyoming will could lose three or less. I believe that much in Larry Shyatt.

-Boise State will spoil someone’s MWC Tournament
Derrick Marks (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 88.6-percent free throw shooting) is making a heavy case as the sleeper pick for MWC Player of the Year and should be a first team all-conference member when all is said and done. Anthony Drmic (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has complimented Marks well and as a team the Broncos are shooting 39.8-percent from three-point range. They’ve already got home wins over Creighton and LSU and they’ll get plenty of film on UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, enough to know how to beat them. I could totally see a run to the conference tournament championship game in their future if the cards fall right.

Power Rankings  (*-NCAA Tournament team)
1.) San Diego State *
2.) UNLV *
3.) New Mexico *
4.) Wyoming *
5.) Colorado State
6.) Boise State
7.) Nevada
8.) Air Force
9.) Fresno State

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.

You Make The Call: Did Kentucky’s P.J. Washington get fouled?

Screengrab via ESPN
Leave a comment

There was a controversial finish to Florida’s 66-64 win over No. 18 Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Florida had taken a 45-37 lead on the Wildcats before Kentucky fought back, eventually pulling ahead before the Gators surged back in front. A pair of threes and a missed front-end set up a situation where the Wildcats had the ball, down 66-64, on the final possession of the game, leading to this play:

P.J. Washington drives to the rim and appears to get hit in the head by Jalen Hudson. Hudson initially gets his hand on top of the ball, but as Washington’s momentum carries him, Hudson rakes Washington across the face and pushes his head back with his elbow.

It’s not intentional, but the contact is clearly there.

Did the referees blow this call?

If they did, the call could end up determining the SEC regular season champion. Entering Saturday, both Kentucky and Florida were tied for the league lead at 5-1 in the conference. They play again on the season’s final weekend in Gainesville.

Norvell helps No. 13 Gonzaga bounce back to beat Santa Clara

Kent C. Horner/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, and No. 13 Gonzaga bounced back from its first conference loss of the season to beat Santa Clara 75-60 on Saturday night.

Josh Perkins added 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Rui Hachimura scored 16 points and Killian Tillie had 12. Johnathan Williams had nine points and eight boards for Gonzaga (17-4, 7-1 West Coast Conference), including his 400th career rebound.

Two days after a 74-71 home loss to Saint Mary’s that ended Gonzaga’s six-game winning streak, the Bulldogs had trouble shaking the pesky Broncos (7-13, 4-4) until Norvell found his stroke after halftime.

Norvell made pair of 3s, a short jumper and a layup in the first 7 ½ minutes of the second half, scored on an offensive rebound as part of a 12-0 run, and then made a fast-break one-handed dunk to put the Bulldogs up 75-41.

It was Gonzaga’s 17th consecutive win over the Broncos and improved coach Mark Few’s record to 40-4 against Santa Clara.

KJ Feagin scored 21 points for the Broncos.

Unlike the first game between the teams this season, when Gonzaga built 27-point lead by halftime on the way to a win in Spokane, Santa Clara kept it close early despite struggling from beyond the arc.

The Broncos missed eight of their first nine 3-point attempts but were tied with 8 ½ minutes left in the first half following Josip Vrankic’s driving layup that had the crowd at Leavey Center roaring.

Part of the problem for Gonzaga was the Bulldogs’ inability to keep Feagin from getting to the basket. He had 12 points in the first 20 minutes, made three layups and tipped in his own miss to help Santa Clara close within seven at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have not lost back-to-back games this season and looked good after a somewhat slow start. Norvell provided a huge boost but the Zags also got another big game from Hachimura, who has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games.

Santa Clara: Coming off a win at San Francisco, the Broncos made a splash in the first half at home to keep things interesting. They never had the Bulldogs on their heels, but it was a much better effort than their first meeting.

No. 10 Kansas rallies late to beat Baylor, 70-67

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self has relied on a four-guard lineup all season, one that is designed to attack the basket aggressively, draw fouls and get to the free throw line.

He was fortunate one of those four guards stepped up Saturday night.

Malik Newman scored seven of his game-high 24 points in the final minutes, bailing out the rest of his sluggish teammates, and Baylor turned the ball over on the last inbounds play as the No. 10 Jayhawks escaped with a 70-67 victory that kept them atop the Big 12.

“We were lucky,” Self said, “to have one guy out there putting defense on its heels.”

The Jayhawks (16-3, 6-1 Big 12) trailed 67-61 with 2:05 to go before Newman went on his scoring binge, giving them the slimmest of leads again. The Bears (12-7, 2-5) had a couple of chances after that, but Manu Lecomte missed a 3-pointer and a layup attempt high off the glass with three seconds left.

Devonte Graham added a pair of free throws before Baylor squandered a chance at the final shot.

“(Newman) put us on his back and all we needed was to get those stops,” Graham said, “and we did.”

It was the Jayhawks’ 11th consecutive win over the Bears, who have never won in 16 tries in Lawrence. It was also the closest Baylor has come during any of those games.

Graham finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Udoka Azubuike had 14 points and seven boards, but he was just 4 of 11 from the foul line and missed two crucial ones late.

Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had 14 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out for Baylor. Nuni Omot added 14 points and Lecomte had 10, though he was 3 of 12 from the floor and 1 of 8 from the 3-point arc.

“Very frustrating. We’re as good a team as them. We know we can beat them,” Lecomte said. “They’re a really good team. They never give up. Next time we have to make sure we keep that lead.”

Allen Fieldhouse has been Baylor coach Scott Drew’s personal house of horrors — the closest he had come to winning had been the Bears’ 73-68 loss last season. And when the Jayhawks opened the game by making their first seven shots and taking an 18-5 lead, it looked as if this one would be no different.

It took Drew burning through nearly all his timeouts to settle Baylor down.

Shots eventually stopped falling for Kansas as the Bears picked up their defensive pressure, and their deficit dwindled to 32-26 before a late flurry left them in a 38-27 halftime hole.

Kansas began the second half determined to get Azubuike the ball in the paint, and he made good on his first couple of chances. But when he failed to execute a few times in a row, Self greeted him during a timeout with, “Are you kidding me?” — spiced up with an extra word.

The Jayhawks still led 52-47 midway through the second half when Baylor went on a 16-4 run.

Omot started it with a bucket in the paint, but it was seven free throws by the senior forward that did the real damage. Lual-Acuil’s basket with 4:39 left gave Baylor a 61-56 advantage.

The Bears scored on nine consecutive possessions down the stretch.

Newman finally turned the momentum, though. He converted a three-point play and a nifty drive on a run-out, then knocked down another basket to give Kansas a 68-67 lead with a minute left.

“When the game is on the line, Coach always says that players make plays,” he said. “I was just trying to be aggressive and we came out with a win.”

HONORING JO JO

Kansas honored two-time All-American Jo Jo White with a video tribute before tipoff. The seven-time NBA All-Star, whose jersey hangs from the Allen Fieldhouse rafters, died Tuesday at the age of 71.

BYE, BYE BILLY

Kansas freshman Billy Preston signed with a pro team in Bosnia on Friday, ending any chance the five-star prospect will play for the Jayhawks. Preston had been held out all season while the school looked into the finances of the car he was driving during a November accident.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor has lost its last five games to the Jayhawks by a combined 20 points, no doubt adding to Drew’s frustration. Six of the Bears’ seven losses this season have come against ranked teams.

Kansas has won five straight to grab ahold of the Big 12 race, though none of them have been very comfortable. The Jayhawks’ winning streak has been by a combined 18 points.

Zion Williamson’s commitment gives Duke perhaps its best recruiting class ever

Bob Blanchard, Basketball Hall of Fame
Leave a comment

Zion Williamson ended his recruitment and committed to Duke during a ceremony in his high school on Saturday night. The five-star forward from Spartanburg, SC is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron James, drawing tens of millions of YouTube views and sellout crowds around the country to watch him play.

Landing a top-five prospect and a 6-foot-6, 275-pound forward like Williamson is a huge get for the Blue Devils. It’s also a bit of a shocker to see Duke win this recruiting battle for Williamson as in-state Clemson was considered by many to be the favorite to keep the local star at home. Williamson became a legend in South Carolina, playing to giant crowds, winning multiple state titles and constantly getting recognized in public.

The local stardom turned national and eventually international. Drake got a customized Williamson jersey at one point. When Williamson went to Italy for the Adidas Eurocamp he was recognized there on the street. Millions of people witnessed Williamson’s Las Vegas showdown with LaVar and LaMelo Ball at the Adidas Summer Championships.

And although Williamson is a top-five talent who should help make Duke a better team in the ACC, he gives them perhaps their best recruiting class of all time. Williamson joins R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones in the Class of 2018 recruiting haul. Many scouting services have some combination of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the country. Jones isn’t far behind and still in the top ten.

Watching Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones play together is going to be absolutely fascinating on so many levels. It’s four playmakers who are all talented with the ball in their hands and Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all potential multi-positional players.

The basketball community has plenty of debates about how Williamson’s NBA stock will play out and how his intriguing skill level will be used at the college level. Watching Williamson live is like seeing a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who explodes off the ground for violent dunks. He’s been compared to throwback players like Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley.

What position will Williamson play? Will Williamson be at his best with the ball in his hands on offense? How will Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper look? Will that perimeter jumper allow Williamson to play on the wing? Can Williamson power through bigger players at the college level? A man among boys at the high school level, Williamson will face legitimately-sized competition at every turn next season.

Duke is going to be riveting to watch no matter where Williamson plays. Williamson could wind up being a star at the college level who has legitimate NBA question marks. The Blue Devils have a potential all-conference player on their hands. We won’t know how Williamson truly looks until he’s fully in-shape and running with an offense that has been suited to help him succeed. Since Williamson has been battling injuries for his senior season, he hasn’t been at his best basketball shape all season. But once Williamson gets healthy and dialed in, he could be one of college basketball’s most fascinating case studies in recent memory.

The Blue Devils have a shocking amount of talent once again next season. It could be their best recruiting class ever — which is really saying something for a Coach K team in the one-and-done era. Now how will it all come together?