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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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

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.