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WAC Preview: Can anyone catch New Mexico State?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WAC.

While realignment has drastically changed the WAC, there’s been one constant over the last four seasons: New Mexico State representing the league in the NCAA tournament. Marvin Menzies’ program has won at least 23 games in each of those seasons, and even with personnel losses to account for the Aggies have remained the WAC’s dominant program. However New Mexico State lost a lot of production from last year’s team, and with that being the case there’s a feeling that the rest of the WAC may be able to get closer to dethroning the reigning kings.

Four of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago, including forward Remi Barry and guard Daniel Mullings, have moved on. However, with forward Pascal Siakam (12.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and the WAC’s best three-point shooter in guard Ian Baker (9.3 ppg, 45.7 percent 3PT) back in Las Cruces it isn’t as if Menzies and his staff will be building from scratch.

As for who can step in to help fill the the void, players such as guards Jalyn Pennie and Braxton Huggins and forward Jonathon Wilkins will have the opportunity to contribute. And another positive of last season was that New Mexico State had enough available talent to redshirt five freshmen, and while those players may not have Division I experience they were part of the program a season ago. That all should help New Mexico State as they look to hold off a group of contenders led by one of Division I’s newest additions.

Grand Canyon has only been a Division I program since 2013, and as a result they won’t be eligible for an NCAA tournament bid until the year 2017. But it should be noted that in each of the last two seasons Dan Majerle’s program has played in the CIT, and a third straight appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Senior point guard De’Wayne Russell averaged 14.2 points and 3.9 assists per game last season, and he’ll lead a group that also returns redshirt sophomore guard Joshua Braun.

GCU’s rotation will be bolstered by multiple transfers, including forward Grandy Glaze (Saint Louis) and Dominic Magee (Memphis). But if the Antelopes are to harbor any thoughts of dethroning New Mexico State, they have to get better defensively. Last season GCU ranked at or near the bottom of the WAC in many of the major defensive categories (conference games only), including field goal (last in the WAC) and effective field goal (6th) percentages.

Kansas City lost three of its top five scorers from a season ago, but they do return one of the WAC’s best players in guard Martez Harrison. Named WAC Player of the Year last season, Harrison averaged 17.5 points and 3.9 assists per game but he still has room for growth when it comes to the shooting percentages (39.3 percent FG, 28.0 percent 3PT). What should help Harrison is the improved health of point guard Noah Knight, forward Shayok Shayok and center Thaddeus Smith, as all three missed time due to injury last season with Shayok playing in just eight games before being lost for the season.

The Kangaroos’ returnees will be joined by a seven-member recruiting class that has six junior college transfers, with forward Kyle Steward (Butler CC), guard LaVell Boyd (South Suburban College) and wing Dashawn King (Erie CC) being possible immediate impact players. If the parts can mesh together in time for conference play, thus helping Harrison with the scoring load and in turn making him a more efficient scorer, UMKC has the pieces needed to contend.

Rod Barnes’ CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners finished right in the middle of the WAC standings a season ago, and with one of the WAC’s best post players in Aly Ahmed leading the way they’re hoping to take a step forward in 2015-16. In his first season on the court for CSU Bakersfield Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, with fellow forward Kevin Mays averaging 9.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest despite being just 6-foot-4. Add in redshirt junior Jaylin Airington and CSU Bakersfield returns not only three of its top four scorers but arguably the best front court in the WAC.

Whether or not the Roadrunners make a run at the WAC title will ultimately depend upon their guard play, with Brent Wrapp (4.4 ppg, 20.6 mpg) being their lone returnee, and junior college transfers Dedrick Basile and Justin Pride and freshman Damiyne Durham needing to be immediate contributors. The big men can get Bakersfield to the finish line, but where they’re positioned for the stretch run will be decided by the growth of their perimeter options.

Beyond the top four, Seattle and Utah Valley may be best equipped to make a push to get into the top half of the WAC. While the Redhawks did lose leading scorers Isiah Umipig and Jarell Flora from last season’s team, they do welcome back one of the conference’s better forwards in junior William Powell and Deshaun Sunderhaus returns after playing in just eight games due to injury.

As for the Wolverines, they embark on a new era as former BYU assistant Mark Pope takes over as head coach. While they did lose two of their top three scorers from a season ago, forward Donte Williams and guard Marcel Davis return, giving Pope some solid options to work with. Closing out the standings are UT-Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State, with the Vaqueros returning four starters from a season ago (but adding ten newcomers) and CSU working to account for the loss of four starters.

While conference realignment dealt New Mexico State a tough hand, the Aggies have set their sights on dominating the WAC and over the last four years they’ve managed to do that. With this being the case, it’s going to take an awful lot for someone to knock NMSU out of the WAC’s top spot.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Absolutely New Mexico State’s the favorite. They should be, hands down, until somebody proves that they can consistently contend with them. What makes them dangerous is that they’re big, they’re athletic. They have high-major size and high-major athleticism; they can roll the ball out with just about any team in the country in those aspects.”
  • Sleeper: “I think that Grand Canyon’s done a good job in recruiting. I know they can’t go to the (NCAA) tournament, but I think they’ve done a good job in building their program with some transfers and they’ve got some talented guys who have come in.””I think everybody (in the league) has upped their talent, size and athleticism. Bakersfield with what Coach (Rod) Barnes is doing over there and their size, and they’ve improved their guard play. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed New Mexico State. Dan Majerle and Grand Canyon. As far as the regular season, with their size and athleticism they have a chance to do some things as well.”
  • Stars to watch: “I love Siakam at New Mexico State. I thought he was a Player of the Year-caliber player last season as a freshman. I think he poses so many challenges. He’s tremendous offensively and defensively; there’s nothing the kid can’t do so. I think he’s a big-time talent.””Martez Harrison at UMKC is a very, very talented player. He’s a special guard, and I think his defensive prowess is really undersold by a lot of people. And Aly Ahmed at Bakersfield is another one who jumps out at me as being a really skilled big man who’s versatile and really hard to guard.”

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martez Harrison, Kansas City

Harrison’s percentages leave something to be desired, as he shot 39.3 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from three. But in spite of that he still averaged 17.5 points to go along with nearly four assists per contest last season. UMKC enters this season healthy, and those additional options should help make Harrison a more efficient player as a junior.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM:

  • DeWayne Russell, Grand Canyon: Russell averaged 14.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in his first season at GCU.
  • Ian Baker, New Mexico State: One of the top three-point shooters in the WAC, Baker will be asked to do even more on the perimeter this season.
  • Pascal Siakam, New Mexico State: Last year’s top freshman, Siakam was the media’s choice for Preseason WAC Player of the Year and with good reason.
  • Aly Ahmed, CSU Bakersfield: Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, and he can be even better if the field goal percentage (49.2 percent) improves.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WACSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. New Mexico State
2. Grand Canyon
3. Kansas City
4. CSU Bakersfield
5. Seattle
6. Utah Valley
7. UT-Rio Grande Valley
8. Chicago State

Trae Young’s turnover-plagued night costs No. 4 Oklahoma at Kansas State

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When Stephen Curry was a freshman at Davidson, in one of the first games of his college career, he turned the ball over eight times in the first half of a game at Eastern Michigan. Head coach Bob McKillop toyed with the idea of benching his star freshman, instead opting to turn him loose again in the second half.

Curry scored 13 second half points – to go along with five turnovers – and then went out and dropped 32 in his next game.

Those 15 points and 13 turnovers were his first career double-double, and I’m not sure that he’s slowed down since.

I say all that to say this: It is a minor miracle that the first time that Trae Young looked mortal came on January 16th.

No. 4 Oklahoma went into Manhattan on Tuesday night and got worked over by Kansas State. The Sooners ended up losing 87-69. They trailed by 14 points within the first 10 minutes of the game. Young finished with 20 points and six assists – numbers that would be phenomenal for literally any other point guard on the road in conference play – but he shot just 8-for-21 from the floor, finished 2-for-10 from three and turned the ball over 12 times.

12!

In a vacuum, this performance really wouldn’t be anything to worry about. Young is Oklahoma’s offense. When he has a bad game, the team is going to struggle. That’s the risk of relying this much on one player. It is that simple, and the idea that we should expect a freshman point guard to make it the entirety of conference play in a league as difficult as the Big 12 is ludicrous. He’s going to throw up a dud every now and again, and that’s what happened on Tuesday.

“I played terrible,” Young said. “I blame a lot of this loss on me.”

Where this becomes a concern for the Sooners is that the turnover problem that Young dealt with on Tuesday is not exactly an isolated incident. Young is leading the nation averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, and while that number is inflated by opportunity – Young plays in the nation’s third-fastest offense with the highest-usage rate we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era – his turnover rate of 19.2 is somewhat concerning. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson’s turnover rate is 10.5. Joel Berry II’s is 11.7. Devonte’ Graham’s is 17.0.

The biggest worry is that the number keeps rising. Young has set a career-high in turnovers in each of the last two games, three of the last four games and four times total since the start of Big 12 play. There are a lot of good coaches, good teams and great point guards in the Big 12. Teams may have started to solve the riddle, which means that Lon Kruger and Young are going to have to start making some adjustments.

And that will come.

Kruger is one of the best pure basketball coaches in the business.

He’ll find an answer.

Which is why the most disappointing part about this loss is that it puts Oklahoma in a tough spot in regards to an outright Big 12 regular season title. With how strong the top of the conference is, losing games against anyone outside of the top four is a major disadvantage, and Oklahoma is now the only team amongst that group – West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas included – that has lost one.

But credit where credit is due: Bruce Weber put together a game-plan to stymie Young, got 24 points and five assists out of Barry Brown and 21 points, seven boards and seven assists out of Dean Wade.

The Wildcats kicked Sooner tail on Tuesday, and in the process, earned themselves a win that is going to carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.

Silva leads Gamecocks to 76-68 win over No. 18 Wildcats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari thought his freshmen looked like freshmen for the first time all season. South Carolina’s Chris Silva continued to look like a major force in the Southeastern Conference who led the Gamecocks’ dramatic second-half comeback against the Wildcats.

Silva tied his career high he set earlier this month with 27 points as South Carolina (12-6, 3-3 SEC) rallied from 14 points down in the second half to top No. 18 Kentucky 76-68 on Tuesday night.

Silva “was the difference,” Calipari said. “He manhandled everyone we put on him.”

It didn’t look like it would have an impact midway through the second half when Kevin Knox’s short jumper with 12:28 to go put the Wildcats ahead 54-40. But that’s when South Carolina, fueled by the powerful, 6-foot-9 Silva, got going and outscored Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) 36-14 the rest of the way to pull off the upset.

Silva had 12 points in that stretch to lift the Gamecocks.

As well as Silva played, Kentucky’s vaunted group of freshmen began trying to make the splashy, dramatic play instead of the smart one, Calipari said. As South Carolina gradually cut into the margin, the Wildcats shrunk from the challenge.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of young guys that don’t know how to grind it,” Calipari said.

That was evident when Wesley Myers’ driving layup tied the game at 65-all and he followed that with a second straight layup for the Gamecocks’ first lead of the second half, this one ruled good when Kentucky’s Nick Richards was called for goaltending.

Maik Kotsar made four straight foul shots to give South Carolina a 71-67 lead and Kentucky could not respond.

“We weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying,” Knox acknowledged.

The Gamecocks broke a four-game losing streak to Kentucky, which managed just three points over the final 6 minutes.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked with Silva at halftime, urging him to go straight up and over Kentucky’s defenders instead of putting up shots away from the basket. “He told me to go strong and finish,” Silva said.

All the Gamecocks seemed to follow Silva’s lead.

“Our guys took ownership,” Martin said as the Gamecocks won for third time in four games after opening SEC play 0-2.

Frank Booker added 18 points for South Carolina.

Knox led Kentucky with 21 points. No other Wildcat had more than 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats had little consistency with their shooting touch. But their relentless style helped them claw back from an early 19-12 deficit to lead 37-34. The active Kentucky lineup pushed the pace and made the Gamecocks pay for putting them on the free throw line, going 17 of 22 in the first 20 minutes. Things changed down the stretch as Kentucky’s freshman-heavy team struggled to keep up with the Gamecocks. The Wildcats were just 6 of 14 from the free throw line after the break.

South Carolina: When the Gamecocks miss shots, they’re in trouble. After starting the game 7 of 9 from the field, South Carolina missed 18 of its final 21 shots of the opening half. That helped turn a seven-point lead into a 37-34 deficit at the break. Shooting woes have plagued the team much of the season. In fact, the Gamecocks shot just 27 percent from the field last time out and somehow pulled out a 64-57 victory at Georgia on Saturday. The Gamecocks shot just 37.1 percent in this win.

VANDERBILT’S DEBUT: Highly regarded 6-9 freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who was out with a left foot injury, finally saw his first action as he came in off the bench against South Carolina. And Vanderbilt was rusty after not playing this season. He missed his only attempt in the opening half and tipped in a ball for a South Carolina basket while fighting for a rebound. Vanderbilt finished with six points and five rebounds. “I thought he was pretty good first time out,” Calipari said.

KNOX’S STREAK-SAVING SHOT

The Wildcats were 1 of 11 on 3-pointers and the one made 3 by Knox ran Kentucky’s string of consecutive games with a basket from behind the arc to 1,031. Knox’s shot came with 7 minutes to go.

UP NEXT

Kentucky starts a two-game home stand against Florida on Saturday.

South Carolina faces its second straight ranked opponent in No. 21 Tennessee at home Saturday.

___

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: Kentucky loses, K-State whips Oklahoma and UNC wins

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1. KENTUCKY FALLS AS JARRED VANDERBILT MAKES HIS LONG-AWAITED DEBUT

Having missed No. 18 Kentucky’s first 17 games due to a foot injury, Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt made his debut Tuesday night against South Carolina. While Vanderbilt showed some flashes of the skill that made him one of the top recruits in the 2017 class, it was clear that there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off. But the return of Vanderbilt was not enough to help Kentucky avoid defeat, as South Carolina picked up the 76-68 victory thanks in large part to Chris Silva.

Silva, who’s been thrust into a position of leadership due to how much South Carolina lost from last year’s Final Four squad, was the best player on the floor Tuesday night. Silva scored a game-high 27 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, shooting 9-for-17 from the field and 9-for-13 at the foul line. Outside of Nick Richards, who tallied 12 points and four rebounds before fouling out, Kentucky did not offer up much resistance in the paint and Silva made the Wildcats pay for it.

Add in the fact that both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (six points, six turnovers) and Hamidou Diallo (five points) struggled to get going, and the end result was the shorthanded Wildcats losing a game they led by 13 points with 13:25 remaining. In a game that lacked flow for significant stretches — the teams combined to attempt 74 free throws — Kentucky managed just four fast break points. And with the point guard play lacking sans the injured Quade Green, Kentucky couldn’t do enough offensively to close out the Gamecocks.

2. KANSAS STATE WHIPS NO. 4 OKLAHOMA

There’s no denying the fact that Oklahoma freshman point guard Trae Young is one of the nation’s best players, and an early frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors. That being said, the Sooners really need their best playmaker to get his turnover issues in check. After turning the ball over nine times in the Sooners’ overtime win over TCU on Saturday, Young racked up a stunning 12 turnovers in Oklahoma’s 87-69 loss at Kansas State Tuesday night.

Add in the fact that he shot 8-for-21 from the field in scoring his 19 points, and the end result was what is the worst night of Young’s freshman season. Give credit to Bruce Weber’s charges, especially Barry Brown Jr., for much of this as they were active defensively and got after Young all night long. Brown also scored 24 points and dished out five assists, with Dean Wade adding 21, seven boards and seven assists as Kansas State picked up its first win over a ranked team this season.

Our Rob Dauster has more on Young’s rough night here.

3. NO. 15 NORTH CAROLINA HOLDS OFF NO. 20 CLEMSON

Having never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Clemson dropped to 0-59 all-time as Cameron Johnson led five Tar Heels in double figures with 21 points. After shooting a combined 3-for-16 from three in the four games prior, Johnson was 6-for-9 from deep and 7-for-10 from the field overall. Johnson and Kenny Williams III combined to score 20 points in the first half, which helped North Carolina build a 15-point halftime lead despite Joel Berry II and Luke Maye both struggling offensively.

Berry and Maye would pick it up in the second half, which helped North Carolina hold off a Clemson team that made ten of its first 11 shots from the field. Marquise Reed tallied 21 points and Shelton Mitchell 18 for the Tigers, who shot better than 61 percent from the field in the second half. Clemson should be fine moving forward, but the big takeaway from this result is Johnson breaking out of his slump and showing just how valuable he is to North Carolina moving forward.

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.