Conference Catchups: WCC’s lack of marquee wins makes league play even more important

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Anthony Ireland, Loyola Marymount

Max Good’s Lions are of to a 9-4 start, and the play of his senior point guard is a bid reason why. Entering Monday, Ireland ranks second in the WCC in both scoring (18.8 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg) and is fourth in steals (1.7 spg). He’s only shooting 28.1% from three thus far, but his impact on a team that’s improved (and healthy) after going through a horrendous 2012-13 shouldn’t be ignored.

All-WCC First Team:

  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
  • Anthony Ireland, Loyola Marymount
  • Tyler Haws, BYU
  • Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s
  • Brendan Lane, Pepperdine

Midseason Coach of the Year: Mark Few, Gonzaga

Yes, Gonzaga’s pretty much doing what was expected of them from the start. But keep in mind that they’re adjusting to life without the productive front court duo of Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. The backcourt has led the way, as expected, and Przemek Karnowski has made some strides in the middle. At 11-2, Few’s Bulldogs are off to a good start.

Favorite: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Sam Dower’s lower back issue is something to watch, with the senior missing the Bulldogs’ win over Santa Clara as a result. But given the amount of firepower in Mark Few’s backcourt, Gonzaga is still the favorite to win the WCC. Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. (Now out with a broken hand) and David Stockton are all experienced pieces, and the addition of Gerard Coleman gives the Bulldogs an athletic wing capable of getting to the rim. And this is a team that leads the WCC in both field goal percentage field goal percentage defense, so it isn’t as if they’re out there trading baskets either. And as center Przemek Karnowski gains even more experience, look for this group to get better.

And three more contenders:

  • The trip to Hawaii wasn’t a good one for Saint Mary’s, as they went 0-3 at the Diamond Head Classic. But with Stephen Holt and Brad Waldow leading a team that has five players averaging at least nine points per game, the Gaels will likely be Gonzaga’s biggest threat.
  • BYU has the scoring firepower to make a run at the WCC title, but do they have the efficiency needed to do so? Four players are scoring in double figures, including Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino, but the Cougars have to do a better job of finding quality looks if they’re to contend.
  • Loyola Marymount’s healthy, and as a result they’ve got a better shot than anticipated to crack the top three. Ireland’s a known commodity at this point and by the end of the season the same will be said of freshman guard Evan Payne, who’s currently averaging 15.1 points points per game.

Most Surprising Team: Pacific Tigers

In the first season of Ron Verlin’s tenure the Tigers have played a solid schedule (109th in strength of schedule), and they currently sit at 9-2 overall prior to their WCC opener against Saint Mary’s. Andrew Bock leads four players in double figures with an average of 11.6 ppg, and rebounding has been a key as well. Pacific currently ranks 4th in the WCC in offensive rebounding percentage and 2nd in defensive rebounding percentage. If they can keep that up, the Tigers are capable of finishing in the top half of the WCC.

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AP photo

Most Disappointing Team: BYU Cougars

Will their wins over Stanford and Texas carry enough weight come Selection Sunday? That’s one question that will linger as the season wears on for BYU, but it won’t matter much if Dave Rose’s team doesn’t snap out of its current three-game skid. BYU can certainly score points, but the way in which they do so (efficiency) will have a major impact on the course of their season in conference play. Which leads us to…

Most Important Player (in league play): Matt Carlino, BYU

Yes, Carlino is the pick and here’s why. BYU ranks fourth in the WCC in adjusted offensive efficiency per kenpom.com, and one of the reasons for that lower than expected ranking is Carlino’s efficiency. While he’s factored into 29.5% of BYU’s possessions the guard has an offensive rating of just 94.5. He’s going to take shots, that’s for sure, and BYU is at its best when both Carlino and Tyler Haws are scoring points. But the caliber of shot that Carlino attempts has to improve if the Cougars are to threaten (or even surpass) Gonzaga.

Who will slide?: Pacific

The Tigers are balanced and they’ve been good on the glass, but in a league with a number of talented scorers Pacific has to get better defensively. Pacific ranks seventh in the WCC in field goal percentage defense and dead last in free throw rate, with opponents boasting a rate of 47.5%. That’s too high, and it could get them in trouble in league play.

Who is the sleeper?: Loyola Marymount

Last season was horrific, with a rash of injuries doing major damage to Max Good’s rotation. Now the Lions have health and they have talent, with Ireland, Payne, Gabe Levin and Binghamton transfer Ben Dickinson all being capable scorers. If they can improve defensively (8th in field goal percentage defense), LMU has the ability to sneak into the conversation with the WCC’s “big three.”

New Power Rankings

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

Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

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When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

VIDEO: Kentucky coach John Calipari shows long-range skills during shootaround

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Kentucky coach John Calipari’s shooting touch is still there, even from long range.

The Hall of Famer proved that during Tuesday’s shootaround before the No. 18 Wildcats faced South Carolina in a late-evening Southeastern Conference contest. In a video posted on his official Twitter account, Calipari stepped up and drained a basket from center court to his players’ surprise.

The coach smiled as he walked off the court, showing the swagger and confidence he seeks from another young roster of freshmen and sophomores.

Then again, one key to a coach getting what he wants from players is showing them how it’s done.

No. 3 Boilermakers keep rolling by blowing out Badgers 78-50

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Vincent Edwards scored 21 points and Carsen Edwards added 20, leading No. 3 Purdue to a 78-50 blowout over Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

The Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) have won 14 straight overall, 19 in a row at home and have matched the best 20-game record in school history. The only other time Purdue did that was 1987-88 when it also won its first seven conference games.

Ethan Happ had 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Badgers (9-10, 2-4). Wisconsin has lost three straight — all on the road.

But they were never in it Tuesday.

Purdue made its first four 3-point attempts to jump out to a 12-0 lead, and then things got even worse for the Badgers.

Wisconsin needed more than 7 1/2 minutes to make a basket, and then the Boilermakers continued to pour it on.

Purdue extended the lead to 36-16 before the Badgers finally fought back to get within 39-22 at the half.

The second half was a virtual replay when Purdue’s first three baskets were again all 3s. And when Vincent Edwards drove in for a layup with 16:59 to go, the Boilermakers led 50-29.

Wisconsin cut the deficit to 16 with 14:50 to go, then allowed a 10-2 run to make it 62-38.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: Tuesday night’s performance looked very non-Badger like. They struggled to score, struggled on defense, got into foul trouble, couldn’t get to loose balls and had 15 first-half turnovers. They’re young, and, yes, they were playing their third straight road game. But they need to improve greatly.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just keep rolling along. They’ve held 11 straight opponents under 70 points, have made at least 10 3s in six of their last seven games and have won their last two by a combined 62 points. It’s hard to imagine Purdue playing much better.

KEY STATS

Wisconsin: Finished with a season high 20 turnovers. The Badgers’ previous high was 15. … Nobody other than Happ scored more than eight points or made more than two baskets. … The Badgers are 0-5 against ranked teams this season, each coming from a different conference: Xavier (Big East), Baylor (Big 12), UCLA (Pac-12), Virginia (ACC) and Purdue.

Purdue: P.J. Thompson scored 14 points and Carsen Edwards had five rebounds and four assists. … Purdue was 14 of 22 on 3s, giving them 10 or more in six of its last seven games. … The Boilermakers have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. … Purdue is 17-0 on American soil.

No. 12 Cincinnati beats UCF 49-38

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gary Clark scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help No. 12 Cincinnati to a 49-38 victory over Central Florida.

Jacob Evans added 10 points for the Bearcats (16-2, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), who won their ninth straight game.

UCF (12-6, 3-3) got seven points apiece from Tacko Fall, Terrell Allen and Dayon Griffin, but struggled the entire game to get inside the Bearcats defense. UCF shot just 30 percent for the game and committed 14 turnovers.

It was expected to be a defensive game and both teams played up to that for the entire 40 minutes.

Cincinnati, which has suffered slow starts in its last three games, overcame this one by using speed in transition to beat the Knights down the court. That was especially effective when Fall, UCF’s 7-foot-6 center, was on the bench, which he was when Clark made a layup to put the Bearcats ahead for good at the 13:40 mark of the second half.

Clark’s basket was the start of a 10-2 run that gave Cincinnati a 38-30 lead.

UCF made a brief run when Fall got six straight points on two dunks and a layup to cut the deficit to 39-36, but the rally died when the Knights center missed two free throws on the next possession.

Clark took an alley-oop pass and slammed it home at the other end to push Cincinnati’s lead to 45-36 with 3:52 left in the game and UCF never got closer.

VIDEO: Chris Silva posterizes Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabrial

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Chris Silva is quietly having an excellent season for South Carolina, and while the struggles of the Gamecocks have left that somewhat under the radar, this dunk on Kentucky was anything but.