J.L. Lewis, D.J. Brown, Xavier Jones

2013 Western Athletic Conference tournament preview

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The Western Athletic Conference has been conference realignment cannon fodder for the past two seasons. The WAC lost one its top team to the Mountain West (Nevada) and even lost its commissioner Karl Benson to another mid-major (Sun Belt).

But despite being the laughing-stock of conference realignment, the 2012-2013 WAC regular season was surprisingly good, at least at the top. Louisiana Tech has been the conference’s flag bearer since the new year, and broke into the top-25 towards the later part of the season.

Check out a preview below:

(CLICK HERE to browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV

When: March 12, 14-16

Final: March 16, 11:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

Favorite: Louisiana Tech
It wasn’t more than a few weeks ago that the Bulldogs were considered one of the hottest teams in the country. Starting on December 12th, they racked up an 18-game win streak which propelled them into the top-25 by the end of February. But since the first of March, the Bulldogs are just 1-2 and have lost back-to-back losses, both against the two teams directly behind them in the standings. The Bulldogs are a top-50 team in terms of both scoring and rebounding, but will need to increase their offensive output if they want to avoid being relegated to the N.I.T.

And if they lose? New Mexico State
The reigning WAC tournament champions have a strong core of veteran players with both size and skill. Four of the team’s five starters average double-figures, and there is not a team in the league that has to size to match-up against Sim Bhullar (7-5, 355lbs), Bandja Sy (6-8, 215lbs) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (6-10, 265lbs). Plus they hold wins over both Louisiana Tech and Denver.

Sleeper: Denver
The Pioneers are the hottest team in the WAC, having won ten in a row and 17 of their last 18. Denver is one of the more efficient teams in the country and play staunch defense. In fact, the Pioneers have not allowed more than 65 points since the calendar changed from 2012 to 2013.

Other Studs:

– Kyle Barone, Idaho
The 6-foot-10 senior was recently named as the 2012-2013 WAC Player of the Year, and for good reason. He averaged 17.1ppg and 9.9rpg and has scored 20 or more points in nine games this season. The Vandals have an uphill climb in they want to make the WAC championship game, but Barone is the type of player that can put the team on his back and carry them to victory.

– Chris Udofia, Denver
Aside from being the team’s leading scorer, Chris Udofia is also the Pioneer’s utility player. He leads the team in rebounds and assists, and is fourth on the team in steals. He is shooting over 50-percent from the field and will need to do a little bit of everything in order to get the Pioneers into the NCAA Tournament in their first season as members of the WAC.

– Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech
The sophomore guard is a streaky shooter and has as many games of 20 or more points as he does ten or fewer points. But in single elimination play, a streaky shooter is a deadly weapon. Appleby may only be a sophomore, but he will need to lead the Bulldogs if they are to break out of their two-game losing streak and capture the automatic bid that they believe they deserve.

CBT Prediction: Louisiana Tech will join the likes of Middle Tennessee as top seeds with at-large aspirations that failed to close the deal in their conference tournament. They will fall in the finals to the winner of the Denver/New Mexico State game.

You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

VIDEO: Bill Simmons talks Ben Simmons on DP Show

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Ben Simmons will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and possibly end up with the Celtics, making Boston sports junkie Bill Simmons very happy. Bill jokes about sharing a last name with a future NBA star.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Kris Dunn still tops a strong list

Kris Dunn, D'Angelo Harrison
AP Photo
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1. Kris Dunn, Providence: I had Kris Dunn as the Preseason Player of the Year, and while he probably hasn’t been the best player in the country through four games — he hasn’t yet had a statement game on national television — he is averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 boards, 6.8 assists and 5.3 steals.

And while his shooting splits are down from a season ago, he only has eight turnovers through four games. I’m not going to drop my guy when he does that just because he hasn’t gotten into the meat of his schedule yet. No way.

I’ve charted the four games that Dunn has played to determine how much of Providence’s offensive runs through him, a stat I’m going to call, for lack of a better word, possessions “ended”.

When he’s on the floor, how many of Providence’s possessions ended with Dunn shooting, getting to the free throw line, turning the ball over, assisting on a bucket, assisting on free throws or assisting on a missed shot.

Through four games, 62.6 percent of Providence’s offense runs through Dunn, which is an insanely high number and a reason that his efficiency, and shooting percentages, are going to be lower than ideal.

Defenses know this.

Illinois had all five defenders in the paint trying to stop Dunn’s ball-screen actions:

(Screengrab via Synergy)
(Screengrab via Synergy)

His defender went over the screen while the man guarding the screener stayed with Dunn. The weak-side defender is in the lane helping on Ben Bentil’s role to the rim while the strong-side defender is helping on Dunn’s drive. Here’s video of the entire action:

2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is almost averaging a triple-double this season. Seriously. He’s at 15.3 points, 9.8 assists and 9.0 boards through four games. That won’t last, but we can celebrate it while it does. He also is the own of the most impressive performance of the young season, going for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists in MSU’s come-from-behind win over Kansas in the Champions Classic.

And just to put Dunn’s numbers in perspective, Valentine “ended” 60.6 percent of Michigan State’s possessions against Kansas.

3. Ben Simmons, LSU: Since we keep talking about whether or not Ben Simmons is overrated, I think this is worth mentioning: He’s currently the leading rebounder in college basketball, averaging 14.5 boards to go along with his 19.3 points, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks. Oh, and he has just six turnovers in four games.

I’m not going to sit here trying to convince he’s not a great player. He is. Unquestionably. But there are a few things you need to understand when analysts and scouts try to temper the comparisons to LeBron James.

MORE: Transcendent? Overhyped? The shame is if Ben Simmons is irrevelant

Simmons spends a lot of time at the five for LSU, meaning that he is quite often guarded by guys like Luke Fischer, a 7-footer that doesn’t have a prayer of trying to slow down a player that big and that skilled in transition or in a half court setting:

He’s also a terrific passer, one that is so skilled at making defenses pay when the help defenders are too focused on him. Look at Traci Carter when Simmons throws this lob:

(Image via ESPN)
(Screengrab via ESPN)

That’s a direct result of the mismatches that he gets at the college level.

There are layers to this, too. The numbers you don’t hear with Simmons: he hasn’t even attempted a three-pointer this season. Through his first three games, he only shot five jump shots and missed all five. (Synergy’s logs haven’t been updated with last night’s games yet.) He’s shooting 81 percent from the line, so the stroke is there, but it has yet to manifest itself as part of his offensive repertoire.

Put it all together: NBA teams have guys that are big enough and quick enough to guard Simmons — especially if he doesn’t become a consistent shooter from the NBA three-point line — and while his passing ability rivals LeBron’s, he’s not as quick, explosive or athletic.

In simpler terms, Simmons won’t be exploiting mismatches in the NBA the way he can in college, and defenses won’t have to sellout to slow him down. That’s why I would rather see him compared to Lamar Odom, who, by the way, averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 boards and 3.7 assists in a 15-year career that produced two NBA titles and an appearance on a U.S. Olympic team.

He was damn good.

Comparing him to Odom is a compliment.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: The latest argument that seems to be clogging by mentions is whether or not Ulis or Dunn is the best point guard in the country. My take: Dunn is the best player in the country while Ulis is the best point guard in the country. While the two technically play the same position, the role they play is entirely different. Ulis is a facilitator, a pure point guard. Dunn is the prototype new-age lead guard, a guy built in the mold of Russell Westbrook, John Wall and MVP-era Derrick Rose.

Ulis has been OK in three of Kentucky’s four games, but his performance in the win over Duke — 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, no turnovers — is what got him this high on this list.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen has been unbelievable in four of the five games he’s played this season, including back-to-back 30-burgers as the Blue Devils beat VCU and Georgetown in the 2K Classic. Even with that putrid performance against Kentucky, his numbers look like this: 24.4 ppg, 4.4 rg, 3.2 apg and shooting splits of 52.2/53.6/89.7.

6. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Only one player in college basketball averaged more than 20 points, five boards and five assists last season. This year, Wallace is averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 5.3 assists for a Cal team that could end up winning the Pac-12. He’ll climb this list if his numbers look as good when the competition gets tougher.

7. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Picking a player on Miami for this spot was tough, but I decided to go with McClellan for a couple of reason. One: He’s Miami’s leading scorer at 17.4 points. Two: his shooting splits are outrageous (61.7/52.4/94.7) meaning his efficiency numbers are outrageous as well. Three: he’s the guy on that Miami roster that, if I was an opposing coach, I would build a game-plan around stopping.

8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was a first-team all-american entering the season and has scored 54 points in two games this year. He went for 30 in a win at Memphis. Not bad.

9. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer was the guy that was on all the preseason all-american lists, but through two (And a half? Does Pitt still count?) games this season, Sabonis has been Gonzaga’s best player. He’s averaging 20.5 points and 10.5 boards, scoring on post-ups and offensive boards and shooting a robust 82.6 percent from the floor.

10. Evan Bradds, Belmont: There are a number of guys deserving consideration for this spot — Demetrius Jackson, Melo Trimble, Shaq Harrison, Josh Hart — but I’m going to give Bradds a little love here. Through five games, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 8.6 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 76.2 percent from the floor. He had 24 points and nine rebounds in Belmont’s win at Marquette and, in his last two games, is averaging 29 points and 10 boards while shooting 27-for-28 from the field. A run like that can’t last, but while he’s in the middle of it, we’re going acknowledge it.