2011-2012 WCC Preview: Strongest mid-major conference this year?

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AWARDS

Player of the Year: Elias Harris, Jr., Gonzaga

Picking the WCC Preseason Player of the Year was not a simple task, as the conference brings back a ton of talent, including seven of the ten players named to the all-conference team. Harris wasn’t one of those seven, as the 6’8″ combo-forward struggled through his sophomore campaign, seeing his numbers dip across the board. There were a number of reasons for this — Harris was battling a shoulder injury during the offseason and an achilles injury all year, Gonzaga struggled to find consistent ball-handling and play-making, and Robert Sacre continued to develop as a front court presence. I picked Harris simply because there isn’t a more talented player in the league. He has the potential to be a first round pick whenever he decides to go pro. He’s too strong and explosive in the post to be defended by WCC small forwards, but he’s a bad matchup for power forwards because of his perimeter ability and the fact that he is a dangerous three-point shooter. If he is healthy, he should regain the explosiveness and conditioning that made him such a matchup problem as a freshman. Harris is the most talented player in the conference, and I’m not sure its even close. The question is whether or not he returns to and improves on his freshman year form.

And a close second goes to…: Matthew Dellavedova, Jr., St. Mary’s

Like picking the Player of the Year, this was not an easy decision based on the amount of talent in this conference. I went with Dellavedova here because A) I think that if St. Mary’s is going to compete for the WCC title, Dellavedova is going to have absorb the play-making and leadership roles left open by Mickey McConnell’s graduation and B) I think that St. Mary’s is, in fact, going to compete for the WCC title. I love Dellavedova’s game. He’s a relatively unathletic, play-making combo-guard with an awkward looking jump shot and an even more awkward haircut, but he still manages to post impressive numbers. He was second in the conference in assists last season despite playing on the same team as the conference’s leader in assists. And while its tough to give him the edge over teammate Rob Jones, who will be the heart and soul of this season’s Gael team, I think Dellavedova will be the more important piece.

Breakout Star: Anthony Ireland, So., Loyola Marymount

I really wanted to go with Gonzaga’s Sam Dower or Stephen Holt of St. Mary’s here, but in an effort to try and spread around some of the love, I’ll take LMU’s Anthony Ireland as the breakout star of the WCC. Ireland had a terrific and promising freshman campaign, playing his way into the starting lineup and averaging an impressive 10.6 ppg and 3.0 apg. He really came on at the end of the season as well, hitting for more than 20 points in two of the Lion’s last four games. As a sophomore, this is going to be Ireland’s team to take control of. Drew Viney will be the star, but with Vernon Teel out of the picture, Ireland will take the reins in the back court. And while that record is ghastly — 11 wins, 2-12 in the WCC — LMU was not nearly that bad. They lost seven of the nine games that were one possession differences or went to overtime. They still have the majority of the talent that made them a trendy pick for second in the league. I fully expect them to be better next season, and Ireland will be a major reason why.

All-Conference First-Team:

POY: Elias Harris, Jr., Gonzaga
G: Matthew Dellavedova, Jr., St. Mary’s
G: Kevin Foster, Jr., Santa Clara
F: Rob Jones, Sr., St. Mary’s
F: Drew Viney, Sr., Loyola Marymount
C: Robert Sacre, Sr., Gonzaga

All-Conference Second-Team:

G: Mike Williams, Jr., San Francisco
G: Nemanja Mitrovic, Sr., Portland
G: Rashad Green, Sr., San Francisco
G: Evan Roquemore, So. Santa Clara
C: Brandon Davies, Sr., BYU

Four summer storylines

– Marc Trasolini tears his acl: This was less of a story line as it was an isolated event, but regardless, Santa Clara losing Trasolini for the season is a big deal. The Broncos lost a number of important pieces this offseason — to transfer, graduation, and Europe — but with their big three of Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore and Trasolini returning, this was a team that many had pegged as a sleeper to make a run at a top three finish in the league. Without Trasolini — who injured his knee playing an exhibition on a team trip to his hometown of Vancouver — SCU will head into the season without a proven front court player.

– Why does Gonzaga have so much roster turnover?: Anyone that has been paying attention to the Gonzaga hoops program will have noticed that over the past two years, there have been a multitude of players leaving the program. In fact, thanks Bud Withers of the Seattle Times, we know the precise numbers — of the 13 players that Mark Few has signed in the three classes that are currently sophomores, juniors, and seniors, seven have left the program. That includes this offseason, as Demetri Goodson transferred to Baylor to play football, Manny Arop transferred to Indiana State and Keegan Hyland left and eventually ended up at Fairfield.

The question this left folks asking is why? Why does Gonzaga have such turnover? Why is this happening at a program whose head coach is as firmly entrenched as any in the country? Is this a sign that there is something wrong with the program, or that it has fully reached the status of high-major, with kids opting to transfer out instead of waiting their turn to play and/or being recruited over? The one thing that is certain is that this hasn’t exactly had a negative effect on the program. Last year was a “down year” for Gonzaga, and they still managed to win a share of the WCC regular season title (something they have done every season since 2000), with the WCC Tournament title, and win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

– San Diego’s point-shaving scandal: Back in April, the college basketball world was rocked when news leaked that two former Toreros — including Brandon Johnson, the program’s all-time leader in points and assists — and a former assistant coach were arrested for their alleged involvement in a scheme to fix the outcome of games. Apparently, Johnson influenced the outcome of a game in February of 2010 and conspired to get another player to influence a game in January of this past season. Johnson plead not guilty to the charges

– Brandon Davies gets reinstated: Back in late August, BYU finally ended almost six months of speculation by announcing that Brandon Davies would be allowed back into school and onto the basketball team. If you’ve forgotten, Davies was suspended last March for violation BYU’s honor code by, reportedly, having premarital sex with his girlfriend. The importance of Davies to the Cougars cannot be understated. With so much leaving in the form of the graduation of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery, losing Davies may have left the Cougars in the bottom half of the WCC this season.

Four storylines to follow this season

– How long is BYU going to be in the WCC?: Conference expansion in college sports is all about football, but its effect on hoops is far from negligible. The WCC is a perfect example of that. Due to BYU’s interest in becoming an independent on the gridiron, the WCC was able to add a program that is probably one of the nation’s 50 best over the last decade. That’s never a bad thing, especially for a school like St. Mary’s. Sure, it may be more difficult to finally win a conference regular season title, but that poor strength of schedule that cost the Gael’s two NCAA Tournament trips in the past three seasons is going to be helped immensely.

But conference expansion is far from over, and one of the rumors that has persisted throughout the past couple of months is that the Big 12 has a heavy interest in adding BYU. If BYU does, in fact, head to the Big 12, it means that their stopover in the WCC may end up being as short as a single season. Whether or not that actually happens is far from clear — does anyone actually have any rock-solid info when it comes to realignment? — but it will be a story to keep an eye on.

– Which Elias Harris will we get?: After his freshman season, Harris shocked folks when he announced that he would be returning to Gonzaga. He had a legitimate shot at being picked in the lottery. But as a sophomore, Harris was no where near the same player. Between an offseason shoulder injury and an early-season achilles injury, Harris was put on some weight, got himself out of condition, and lost some of his explosiveness — three things that made him highly-regarded by NBA folks. So which Harris shows up this year? Will he be back in shape, dominating the paint and creating mismatches with front lines around the country? If he is, than Gonzaga has to be considered the favorite to win the conference.

– Will there be more tournament teams this season than in 2008?: Back in 2008, the WCC peaked. Not only did they send three teams to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to San Diego’s epic run through St. Mary’s and Gonzaga to the WCC Tournament title, but that same Torero team knocked off UConn in the first round of the tournament. At the time, the league wasn’t a stranger to getting at-large bids — the was well into Gonzaga’s reign atop the conference — but for the team that came in second to also earn an at-large bid made a statement. Now, with the addition of BYU, the WCC has three programs — Gonzaga and St. Mary’s the other — that head into the season with the expectation, not the hope, of making the NCAA Tournament. But could there be more?

Its a possibility, but it would require a couple of things to happen. For starters, the WCC will have to clean up in non-conference play. Raising the league’s RPI makes everyone look better. The other thing that will likely have to happen is that someone from outside of the big three will need to earn the league’s automatic bid. There are some quality teams in this conference – San Francisco, Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount — but the likelihood of those schools earning an at-large bid is quite small. The odds of them getting hot for three games and making a run through the conference tournament is much higher.

– So is Loyola Marymount for real?: This team is tough to peg. There’s no question that they have talent on the roster, but talent isn’t going to guarantee wins when your team lacks chemistry, is ravaged by injuries and cannot win a close game. At least one of those issues will be solved heading into this season. Vernon Teel, who was diametrically opposed to getting along with the coaching staff, is gone. His talent will be missed, but sophomore Anthony Ireland should be enough to fill the void. Better chemistry and a better leader at the point should solve some of the problems in close games, as well. If this team stays healthy, the pieces are there for a run to the top half of the conference.

Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs had a weird year in 2010-2011. It began about as poorly as one can imagine. After being ranked in the top 15 in the preseason, they got off to a 4-5 start before finding themselves at 13-8 and 3-3 in the WCC, three games out of first place with just eight to play. Included in those losses? A 22 point whooping at the hands of Washington State and a 14 point loss at Santa Clara followed by an overtime loss at the hands of San Francisco. But once Mark Few solidified Marquise Carter as the fifth starter and David Stockton and Sam Dower as his first two players off the bench, Gonzaga took off, winning 10 in a row to take home a share of the regular season title and win the WCC tournament championship. But then after beating St. John’s, the Zags were stomped by a Brandon Davies-less BYU team in the second round of the Big Dance.

Gonzaga will, once again, have the look of a top 25 team in 2011-2012 despite some significant roster turnover. Steven Gray graduated while both Demetri Goodson and Manny Arop transferred out of the program. The good news, however, is that Mark Few does return a loaded front line, led by Elias Harris and Robert Sacre. Harris struggled as a sophomore after a promising freshman campaign that had his name being mentioned as a potential lottery pick. Some of that was an achilles injury that limited his explosiveness. If he can return to freshman year form — or improve on it — he’s a potential Player of the Year in the WCC. Sacre has slowly developed into one of the best big men on the west coast. He does a little bit of everything — scoring in the paint, rebounding, blocking shots — and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him continue to develop as a senior. The Zags are deep up front as well. Sam Dower is a potential game-changer off the bench, an active and athletic power forward that really came on strong late in the year. Kelly Olynyk can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot and can hold his own on the glass. The perimeter is more of a question mark. Sophomore point guard David Stockton — yes, that’s John’s son — was a steadying force late in the season, and while he plays smart basketball and can run the team, he’s not an overwhelming playmaker. Senior Marquise Carter, however, has the potential to be. Gonzaga’s late-season surge came when he was moved into the starting lineup, and he had a couple big games down the stretch. Carter can do a lot of things — shoot, drive, find assists — but he will need to become more consistent in his production. The third perimeter spot will be up for grabs. Sharpshooting Mathis Monninghoff started eight games but couldn’t get off the bench at the end of the season. Mathis Keita earned some starts as well, but he, too, couldn’t keep his minutes. Will freshman Gary Bell, the jewel of a six-man recruiting class, start immediately? There’s a chance. Also, keep an eye on freshman Kevin Pangos, who should push David Stockton for minutes at the point.

2. St. Mary’s: It may be hard to believe, but for St. Mary’s, a season in which they won their first share of the WCC conference title in 14 years was a major disappointment. The magnitude their collapse down the stretch — an unacceptable loss to San Diego, losses to Gonzaga and Utah State that would have sealed an tournament trip, and another loss to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament finals — should tell you how good of a season the Gaels had for three months just to manage a share of the WCC title. In mid-February, they were 22-4 and 10-1 in the WCC, holding a two game lead with three games left while playing sensational basketball. Their season ended fittingly, with WCC Player of the Year Mickey McConnell missing a game-winning layup at the buzzer in the first-round of the NIT against Kent State.

While McConnell has moved on to the professional level, Randy Bennett’s club returns the rest of their roster from 2010-2011. Matthew Dellavedova will take the reins of this team as a junior and he should be primed for a big season as the feature guard in Randy Bennett’s offense. He will likely be joined in the back court by sophomore Stephen Holt, a highly-regarded recruit when he entered the program that had a couple of impressive performances late in the season. Jorden Page missed most of last season with a knee injury. He had a couple of big games in the WCC Tournament two seasons ago and should provide a spark off the bench. Same with Paul McCoy, a transfer that averaged 13.4 ppg as a freshman in 2008-2009. In the front court, Clint Steindl and Rob Jones will start at the forward spots. Steindl is a lanky, 6’7″ sharpshooter at the small forward spot while Jones, despite standing just 6’6″, is the team’s second-leading scorer and best rebounder. He’s more of a combo-forward than a pure power forward, but Jones plays with a mean streak. Kenton Walker got 26 starts last season, but only played 15 mpg. Mitchell Young actually played more minutes that Walker and averaged double figures off the bench. Tim Williams and Northwestern transfer Kyle Rowley will also be in the front court rotation. If Dellavedova and Jones embrace the role of the leader, youngsters like Page and Holt develop into big-time players and the Gael’s front court plays well, this is a team that has the potential to make a lot of noise; not just in the WCC, but on a national level.

3. BYU: While BYU’s storybook season was dulled by the suspension of starting center Brandon Davies in March, it shouldn’t put a damper on what was one of the most memorable years in college basketball in the last decade. Much of that credit is due to the play of Jimmer Fredette, the superstar with unlimited range, a vicious crossover, and a goodie-two-shoes image that made Tim Tebow look like Marlo Stanfield. But with the graduation of Fredette and a couple of other very important pieces and BYU’s move to the WCC for hoops, Dave Rose will, essentially, have a brand new program to work with in 2011-2012.

Not only does BYU lose The Jimmer next season, they well also be playing with out Jackson Emery and Kyle Collinsworth, who will be on his Mormon mission. What that means is that Rose is going to have to build his club around Davies, who recently was officially reinstated to the BYU program. Davies is a quality post presence, able to score on the block with a variety of effective-but-awkward post moves. Davies will be joined on the front line by Noah Hartsock, a senior with the ability to stretch the floor thanks to his jumper, and Chris Collinsworth, who will hopefully be back to 100% after battling through a knee injury and eventually having surgery in January. Throw in Stephen Rogers, a junior reserve, and the crop of freshmen bigs Rose signed, and BYU will have a solid front line, although it would be nice to see that group develop a bit of a mean streak. The perimeter is where the question marks lie. Jimmer and Emery rarely left the court, and when either one did, Kyle Collinsworth was usually the player that slid down to the two. Senior Charles Abouo is back, but he is a small forward that isn’t known for his ability to handle the ball. That leaves a trio of freshmen. Anson Winder, who redshirted last season, and Damarcus Harrison, a true freshman, will initially be relied upon to handle back court duties until UCLA transfer Matt Carlino is able to get himself eligible. How good Carlino ends up being will likely be the determining factor in whether or not BYU wins the WCC.

4. San Francisco: The Dons are in a very good position heading into the 2011-2012 season. Not only is this a team that finished 10-4 in the league last season — just a game behind both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — they also bring back essentially their entire team, losing only Moustapha Diarra and Marko Petrovic. It didn’t take long for Rex Walters to turn around this program, as he now has USF in a position to legitimately be considered a threat to win the conference title.

The Don’s strength will be in their back court this season. It starts with Mike Williams and Rashad Green, their two leading scorers from a season ago and all-WCC members. Green has about four inches on Williams (who is listed at 6’0″), but is the better playmaker. Williams is a better scorer and more of a consistent three point threat. The back court will be held together by Cody Doolin, a freshman point guard who was forced into a starting role due to another season-ending knee injury to Dominique O’Conner in the second game of the season. Doolin proved to be a very capable WCC point guard with the potential to develop into an all-league caliber playmaker. With a healthy O’Conner and sophomores Charles Standifer and Avery Johnson joining that group, the Dons may have the second best perimeter attack in the league. Inside, losing Moustapha Diarra will hurt their depth. He was big and he produced — 7.8 ppg in just over 17 mpg. But with Perris Blackwell and Angelo Caloiaro back, the Dons will have a solid inside-outside duo. Blackwell is better around the rim while Caloiaro is more of a face-up four, although he does get to the glass at a solid rate. It will be nice if he shoots better than 32.7% from three or takes fewer than five per game, however. 6’9″ German sophomore Justin Raffington will be one of the guys counted on to provide depth in the front court. The WCC will be tough up top, and its always interesting to see how a team handles expectations (see Loyola Marymount last season), but San Francisco should be in the mix atop the WCC all year long.

5. Santa Clara: The Broncos had a terrific year in 2010-2011. They won 23 games, they finished fourth in the WCC and they were able to win a postseason title, beating Iona on the road for the CIT championship. And while Kerry Keating’s club lost two starters and a couple of bench players, the fact that they were returning their big three of Kevin Foster, Marc Trasolini and Evan Roquemore had them being picked as a potential sleeper in the WCC. That was until Trasolini blew out his knee in August.

We already talked about the loss of Trasolini above, so let’s focus on what Santa Clara does have. It starts with their back court, as Foster, a senior, and Roquemore, a sophomore, form a terrific tandem. Foster is one of the most potent scorers in the country, averaging over 20 ppg as a sophomore. Foster can be streaky. He shoots a ton of threes — exactly 10 per game last year — and when he gets hot, watch out. He went for 25 or more points 12 times, including a 36 point outburst in a win against Gonzaga in January. Roquemore is more of an all-around player and a much better creator, but he has the ability to explode as well, going for 30 points in SCU’s win over USF in the CIT. Robert Cowels looks to be in line to start the the three, but the Bronco’s back court depth will more than likely be entirely freshmen. The front court is going to have a ton of question marks without Trasolini. Junior Niyi Harrison and sophomore Jon McArthur are really the only returners, but redshirt freshman Yannick Atanga and true freshman Robert Garrett, a seven-footer, were both highly-rated recruits in high school. At least two players out of that group are going to have to develop into solid contributors this season for the Broncos to have a real shot at finishing in the top four of the league.

6. Loyola Marymount: Last season was disastrous for the Lions. They had a roster stocked with talent and a buzz heading into the season, which is why they were picked by quite a few people to contend with St. Mary’s for the second spot in the conference. But the year ended up being a disaster. The Lions were plagued by injuries, their star guard Vernon Teel couldn’t find a way to get along with the coaching staff, and LMU ended the season with just 11 wins, finishing in last place in the conference at 2-12. One thing that I am positive of is that Loyola was not as bad as their record indicated last season. As a team, its hard to argue with the results, but there was — and still is — plenty of individual talent on that roster.

The issue this season is going to be A) keeping that talent on the court and out of the training room; B) developing team chemistry, which is just as important as talent; and C) winning close games — they were just 2-7 in one possession and overtime games last year. Nine of the 11 players Max Good started in more than one game last season return, including the five guys that were starting by the end of the season. The centerpiece of this team will be forward and 17.2 ppg scorer Drew Viney. (Ed. Note: Of course, the day after we originally posted this preview, Viney had to go and get surgery on his foot.) He’ll be joined up front by sophomore Godwin Okojoni, who was starting by the end of the year in place of Edgar Garibay, another sophomore. Garibay is a big-bodied, 6’10” center that will hopefully be healthy this season. The athletic Ashley Hamilton will also play a big role, while LaRon Armstead and Tom Diedrichs should see minutes up front as well. Anthony Ireland really came on down the stretch of his freshman campaign and should develop into a quality starting point guard. He’ll be joined in the back court by sophomore Ayodeji Egbeyemi, who was able to start by the end of his freshman season because Jarrod DuBois had his year cut short by injuries. With both Teel and Larry Davis gone this year, LMU’s back court may have some depth issues. The Lions have the talent to make a push for a top four finish in the conference, but will all the pieces come together?

7. Portland: The success that Eric Reveno has had in Portland is a perfect example of why the WCC looks primed to be one of the best mid-major conferences in the country for a long time coming. Despite playing in a league that includes three perennial tournament teams in Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and now BYU, Portland has steadily been competitive, not only in the league but nationally as well, despite losing important pieces that past two offseasons. This year will be the test. After losing four starters from the 2009-2010 season, Portland appeared to be a challenger for the league title early in the season before road struggles during conference play derailed that bid. They finished .500 in league play, ending up fifth, right where everyone expected them to be. But their 20 wins and invitation to the CIT should tell you that their season was more successful than it appears on paper.

This season, Portland will once again be forced to deal with the graduation of quite a bit of talent. Leading scorer Jared Stohl graduates, as does the league’s leading rebounder in Luke Sikma and a four-year starter for the Pilots in center Kramer Knutson. The Pilots should be able to handle the loss of Stohl in stride as they have plenty of perimeter talent. Nemanja Mitrovic proved to be just as dangerous of a three-point marksmen, hitting 46.3% of his triples while shooting more than Stohl on the season. Senior Eric Waterford started 23 games at the point, while junior Derrick Rodgers, sophomore Tanner Riley and freshman Kevin Bailey — who was a highly regarded recruit — should all contribute this year. But the x-factor may end up being sophomore Tim Douglas, who earned a spot in the starting lineup late in his freshman campaign. He played well in the nine games he started, leading Portland to a 6-3 record which includes a 26 point, five rebound, four assist performance in a 15 point win over St. Mary’s. Portland lost both games prior to his insertion in the lineup as well as the last three games of the season, which Douglas missed with a foot injury. The front court is a much, much bigger question mark. Only two players that saw any action return — sophomores Ryan Nicholas and Riley Barker, who played a combined 17.1 mpg last year. A couple of freshman will be thrown in the mix as well — John Bailey, Thomas van der Mars, and Dorian Cason. Will any of those five players be able to step up and replace the production and leadership lost with Sikma and Knutson?

8. Pepperdine: Tom Asbury’s second tenure didn’t go quite as well as his first, when he built the Waves into the premiere program in the WCC in the early 90’s. To get a feel for how poorly Pepperdine performed, think about this — the Waves were 12-21 overall and 5-9 in league play while have two of their players, including star Keion Bell, suspended midway through the season, and this was the most successful year in Asbury’s three year reign. Asbury is now gone — along with Bell and second leading scorer Mychel Thompson — but all hope is not lost for Pepperdine.

Clearly, losing a player of Bell’s caliber is less than ideal, but having a player of Bell’s caliber that does not buy into to the concept is just as bad. Case in point — Pepperdine was 6-14 with Bell on the roster last season; they were 6-7 without him. The bigger loss may actually be Mychel Thompson, Klay’s younger brother, who was the team’s leading scorer after Bell left. This season, new head coach Marty Wilson will center his offensive attack around Lorne Jackson, a senior guard that turned into a legitimate go-to scoring threat late in the year, averaging 20.8 ppg in the last five games. Junior Joshua Lowery looks like he might be the answer at the point after solidifying the position as a sophomore. Throw in senior Dane Suttle, junior Caleb Willis, and a couple of newcomers, including touted freshman Jordan Baker and Norweigan JuCo transfer Nikolas Skouen, and Pepperdine has a decent blend of talent and experience on their perimeter. The starters in the front court will most likely be the senior duo of Taylor Darby and Corbin Moore, who both have some size and plenty of experience but lack upside in terms of potential. Those two will combine with sophomore Jan Maehlen and freshman Ramon Eaton, who are going to have to provide minutes even if they aren’t quite ready. The front court will be an issue, but if Pepperdine can get some solid perimeter play out of Jackson and Lowery, than I don’t think a .500 WCC season is out of the realm of possibility.

9. San Diego: Bill Grier had such an incredible start to his tenure at San Diego. He went 11-3 in the league, he knocked off both St. Mary’s and Gonzaga en route to the WCC Tournament title and then he went on to beat UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t get much better than that. And it also doesn’t get much worse than where the program has ended up since then. They won 16 games — and just six in the conference — the following season, seeing those numbers drop all the way to six wins and just two leagues wins last year.

San Diego’s prospects don’t look all that much better for this season. They have a young roster — eight freshmen and two sophomores — and lost two of their top four scorers from last season. There are a couple of bright spots, however. Darian Norris, a JuCo transfer playing his first season as a Division I point guard, proved that he is capable of playing at this level of basketball. He’ll be the only senior of the USD roster next year. The Toreros also have a solid front line. Chris Manresa, a junior, averaged a respectable 7.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg while Chris Gabriel went for 7.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg. Gabriel has the potential to be a real force in the WCC, but he needs to get control of his weight. He’s currently listed at 285 — which is down from the 310 he was listed at as a sophomore — but weight isn’t the only factor when it comes to conditioning. Gabriel only managed to stay on the court for 15 mpg last year. There are some decent freshmen coming in — including redshirt frosh Ben Vozzolla and point guard Chris Anderson — but they will take some time to develop. Expect another year at the bottom of the league.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.

Marquette’s defense overwhelms No. 6 Baylor in 96-70 win

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MILWAUKEE – Marquette has developed a habit under Shaka Smart of saving its top performances for the best opponents on its schedule.

Olivier-Maxence Prosper scored 24 points and Marquette capitalized on a dominant start from its defense to roll past No. 6 Baylor 96-70 on Tuesday night in the Big 12-Big East Battle. This was the highest-ranked team Marquette (6-2) has beaten under Smart and the Golden Eagles improved to to 7-6 against AP Top 25 squads in his tenure.

“Most of the time against these great teams, they don’t have us winning that game,” said David Joplin, who scored 19 points. “We just come out, we want to go out and prove everybody wrong. And that feeling, that chip makes us play so much better.”

Marquette nearly produced its most lopsided victory against a Top 25 team. The Golden Eagles trounced No. 16 Providence 88-56 on Jan. 4 in Smart’s debut season.

“When you go into a game and the game is bigger in the minds of your players than anything else, to me that’s the best recipe for winning,” Smart said. “It should be that way all the time, but human nature sometimes messes with that.”

Marquette’s defense embarrassed a highly regarded Baylor backcourt.

The Golden Eagles raced to a 51-25 halftime lead thanks to a 24-0 edge in points off turnovers. Baylor (5-2) already had a season-high 16 turnovers by halftime.

Baylor entered Tuesday ranked third among Division I teams in assist-turnover margin. The Bears had 20 turnovers and 12 assists against Marquette.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Credit the crowd. Credit them for building momentum. Credit Shaka for having them prepared and how hard they played. At the end of the day, we fed to the fire by turning it over and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Prosper scored 10 points and sank two 3-pointers during a 23-2 run that turned an early 7-2 deficit into a 25-9 advantage. Chase Ross capped the spurt by getting a steal and throwing down a left-handed dunk.

Baylor never cut Marquette’s lead below 22 points in the second half.

Kam Jones had 20 points as Marquette shot 58.3% overall to win its third straight. The Golden Eagles shot 12 of 25 from 3-point range, with Jones going 4 of 7 and Prosper and Joplin each going 3 of 4.

Baylor’s LJ Cryer had 17 of his 19 points, in the second half. Adam Flagler had 16 and Keyonte George added 12 for the Bears.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears shot 48.2% (27 of 56) but had no answers for Marquette’s defense and dug too deep a hole. Baylor rallied from a 25-deficit to force overtime in an NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina last season, but the Bears never mounted any kind of comeback Tuesday.

Marquette: After losing to Purdue and Mississippi State earlier this season, the Golden Eagles delivered the kind of performance that showed they’re capable of beating anyone. Marquette will try to prove that again when it hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

BIG 12 VS. BIG EAST

The Big 12-Big East Battle started Tuesday and runs through Sunday. Last season’s Big 12-Big East Battle ended in a 5-5 tie.

HONORING THOMPSON

Marquette came out of its locker room wearing shirts with No. 24 to honor George Thompson, who died in June of complications from diabetes. Thompson played for Marquette from 1967-69, and he was the school’s career scoring leader for 40 years.

Tuesday would have been Thompson’s 75th birthday. A No. 24 banner with Thompson’s name hangs from the Fiserv Forum rafters.

“I really felt like we needed to win tonight to honor George,” Smart said. “If you make it George Thompson Night, you couldn’t lose.”

UP NEXT

Baylor: Faces No. 14 Gonzaga on Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Marquette: Hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.