hunsaker

Veteran Utah Valley squad grabs early control of WAC race

Leave a comment

Before the season began many, yours truly included, made the assumption that WAC holdover New Mexico State would be the class of the conference. With preseason player of the year in Daniel Mullings and reigning WAC tournament MVP Sim Bhullar leading the way, Marvin Menzies’ team was expected to take full advantage of the hand conference realignment had dealt them and make another NCAA tournament appearance.

However things haven’t worked out as anticipated for the Aggies, who are one of three teams tied for second place in the WAC standings. So who’s leading the way? That would be Dick Hunsaker’s Utah Valley Wolverines, who have an unblemished 6-0 WAC record in spite of the fact that they haven’t performed as well as they would like on the offensive end of the floor.

“We’d love to make more shots and have higher scoring, but it’s also good to have balance,” Hunsaker told NBC Sports last week. “We try to work together as a team and take what the game gives us.”

The Wolverines, who held off Chicago State on Saturday, have five players scoring in double figures but in conference games they’re tied for seventh in the WAC in scoring offense (66.3 ppg) and sixth in field goal percentage (42.1%). Utah Valley, with guards Keawe Enos (47.2%) and Hayes Garrity (38.8%) leading the way, is ranked second in the WAC in three-point percentage as they’ve made 37% of their attempts in conference play.

But the scoring and field goal percentage numbers lead to the question of how this team has a two-game lead in the standings in spite of those issues. The answer: they’ve defended, and they do the “little things” well.

In conference play Utah Valley has been the best defensive team in the WAC, leading the way in scoring defense (58.7 ppg), field goal percentage defense (37.2%) and three-point percentage defense (24.6%), and they’re also tops in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5). Hunsaker’s Wolverines control tempo, as they average the fewest possessions of any team in the WAC, and that along with their work on the defensive end has allowed them to properly navigate those shooting issues to a 6-0 start to conference play.

Another key has been continuity, with the Wolverines using the same starting lineup for each of their 19 games this season. Of those five starters four are upperclassmen with forward Zach Nelson (freshman) being the lone underclassman. He’s been an effective addition to the lineup for Utah Valley, averaging 10.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, and Nelson grabbed 12 rebounds in each of the Wolverines last two wins.

He’s half of a solid interior combination, with steady senior center Ben Aird playing well after earning first team All-Great West honors a season ago. On the season Aird’s averaging 11.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but in conference play the 6-foot-9 pivot has averaged 15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. And that increase in production has factored into the Wolverines’ hot start.

“Ben has great basketball savvy,” Hunsaker said of his senior big man. “For a big man he has a good feel and multiple skills, and he’s a big-bodied, long-armed guy.”

With players such as Aird, Nelson, leading scorer Holton Hunsaker (12.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Mitch Bruneel (10.2, 5.7 rpg), Utah Valley has the production needed to remain one of the pacesetters in the WAC race. And while the overwhelming focus of the WAC in regards to conference realignment has been on the negative, for a team like Utah Valley the move presents them with the opportunity to earn a ticket to the NCAA tournament. But even with that “carrot” available for the taking, the program hasn’t changed its approach.

“We’ve always played the next game and had a lot of success as a team and had some wonderful individual achievements through a period when we were playing without [the possibility of] an automatic bid,” said Hunsaker. “This team committed here without that wonderful goal and opportunity ahead of them. We simply just try to get prepared for the next game.”

That approach has been a successful one for Utah Valley thus far, and with their next three contests being on the road (including games against New Mexico State and Grand Canyon, which are both 4-2 in WAC play) maintaining that mindset will be critical for the Wolverines. And given their maturity, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Utah Valley did just that.

Alabama upsets No. 15 Texas A&M as Aggies continue recent freefall

Alabama guard Retin Obasohan (32) scores against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Leave a comment

Alabama played inspired ball on both ends of the floor and held on to upset No. 15 Texas A&M 63-62 in an SEC thriller on Wednesday night. Trailing by one point with less than three seconds left, Texas A&M had a chance to tie or take the lead with senior Anthony Collins at the line for two free throws. But Collins, one of the nation’s best free-throw shooters at 92 percent on the season, missed both free throws in a heartbreaking loss for the Aggies.

The Crimson Tide controlled the glass most of the game by outrebounding the Aggies 36-29 and also forced 13 Texas A&M turnovers. The loss for Texas A&M means they’ve lost four of their last five games and four straight games in the SEC.

Retin Obasahon led Alabama (14-9, 5-6) with 16 points as he made a lot of big plays in the second half to put the team on his back. The win means the Crimson Tide have won three consecutive games and defeated four ranked opponents during the season. Riley Norris added 11 points for the Crimson Tide while Shannon Hale was also in double-figures with 10 points.

Although Texas A&M (18-6, 7-4) did better with their recent shaky 3-point defense, holding Alabama to 8-for-25 (32 percent) from distance, they were outhustled on the glass for much of the game and couldn’t overcome a slow start. Senior Jalen Jones finished with 21 points and seven rebounds while Danuel House had 12 points and Collins finished with 11.

This loss is absolutely killer for Texas A&M, as they continue to slide down the SEC standings. The recent road woes for the Aggies also continued as they’ve lost three straight away from home. The schedule doesn’t get much easier for the Aggies the next few games, either, as they travel to LSU and then host Ole Miss and Kentucky. Texas A&M is in a potential freefall right now and they went from a major contender in the SEC to a team that just needs to get back on track.

As for Alabama, this is another solid win for head coach Avery Johnson in his first season. It’s hard to say if Johnson got some scouting advice from his son Avery Johnson Jr., a redshirt guard for the Crimson Tide who played for the Aggies last season, but they’ll certainly take this tight win. Alabama is now 5-1 in one-possession games this season and there’s something to be said for that mark.

BUBBLE BANTER: Key Atlantic 10, Big East bubble games

Kelan Martin, Kyle Alexander
Leave a comment

This post will be updated throughout the night.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — This is the win that Saint Joseph’s (KenPom: 48, RPI: 30) needed.

Entering Wednesday night, the Hawks were a paper tiger, a team with terrific computers numbers despite the fact that they hadn’t actually accomplished much of anything this season.

Well, that’s not exactly true. They are now 20-4 on the season and 10-2 in the Atlantic 10. They haven’t lost to anyone ranked outside the RPI top 50, and while that seems like it should be a simple thing to do, upsets happen all the time in college basketball. Not losing to anyone that stinks is one of the marks of a good team.

The problem, however, is that prior to their trip to Foggy Bottom on Wednesday, the best win that St. Joe’s had on the season … Princeton? At Temple? They were without an RPI top 50 win and, if you factor in Buffalo, the Hawks and three top 100 wins on their résumé.

That’s not exactly the stuff of at-large bids.

And then Wednesday happened, and the Hawks went into the Smith Center and hammered a good George Washington team by 18 points, the same GW team that went into Richmond on Saturday and handed VCU their first loss of the conference season.

It looks like nothing more than a top 50 road win on their profile, but for at least one person that was in attendance (Hi!), it was something of a statement win. I had my doubts about the group, and while the eye-test is totally subjective and probably the worst way to gauge whether or not a team is a tournament team, they certainly passed my eye-test today.

WINNERS

  • Butler (KenPom: 41, RPI; 67): The Bulldogs landed a critical win on Wednesday night, as they went into Newark and knocked off a Seton Hall team that is probably better than you realize. That’s an RPI top 50 win on the road that’s getting added to a résumé that, entering the night, had just a single top 50 win. Period. The Bulldogs still have plenty of work to do, but with their only two bad losses coming on the road against league competition and five wins against the top 100 with four coming away from Hinkle Fieldhouse, Chris Holtmann’s club has positioned themselves nicely to not only get a bid but get a solid seed as well.

LOSERS

  • Seton Hall (KenPom: 31, RPI: 37): Losing to Butler certainly doesn’t help Seton Hall’s cause, but this isn’t a bad loss. The Pirates are still without a sub-100 loss, although this does drop them to 6-7 against the RPI top 100 with a pair top 50 wins. They’re still in the tournament as of today, and probably with some room to spare.
  • George Washington (KenPom: 71, RPI: 34): There are two positives to take out of GW’s loss to Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday night: 1) The Hawks may end up being an RPI top 25 team once the numbers are crunched overnight, so this is anything but a bad loss, and 2) This 18-point drubbing will look exactly the same as a one-point loss at the buzzer in the eyes of the selection committee.

LSU (KenPom: 53, RPI: 76) at South Carolina (KenPom: 45, RPI: 28), 7:00 p.m.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (KenPom: 51, RPI: 62), 7:00 p.m.
Missouri at Vanderbilt (KenPom: 35, RPI: 58), 9:00 p.m.
No. 14 Iowa State at Texas Tech (KenPom: 59, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
Michigan (KenPom: 46, RPI: 56) at Minnesota, 9:00 p.m.
Washington (KenPom: 80, RPI: 57) at Utah (KenPom: 44, RPI: 16), 9:00 p.m.
San Diego State (KenPom: 65, RPI: 47) at Fresno State, 11:00 p.m.