Veteran Utah Valley squad grabs early control of WAC race

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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.

AP Poll: Baylor remains No. 1 in week with few changes at the top

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Here is the latest college basketball AP Poll.

For those interested, here is the NBC Sports Top 25.

Baylor is No. 1 for a second straight week in a college basketball AP poll that had no major changes at the top, a rare bit of stability in a wildly unpredictable season.

The Bears stayed well ahead of No. 2 Gonzaga in Monday’s poll, part of an unchanged top seven for the first time this season. In fact, the only change in the top 10 came with Villanova moving up a spot to No. 8 to swap positions with No. 9 Duke. That comes in a season that has seen seven different teams reach No. 1 this season, matching a record set during the 1982-83 season.

Baylor (17-1) hopped over Gonzaga last week to reach No. 1 for the second time in program history, then earned 44 of 64 first-place votes to keep a firm hold on the top spot after beating Oklahoma and Florida last week.

The Zags earned 19 first-place votes to remain either No. 1 or No. 2 in the poll since the middle of December, followed by Kansas, San Diego State — the last unbeaten team in Division I — and Florida State.

Louisville, Dayton, Villanova, Duke and Seton Hall rounded out the top 10.

No. 22 LSU, No. 23 Wichita State and No. 24 Penn State were the week’s new additions, re-entering the poll after appearances earlier this season. Texas Tech, Memphis and Arizona fell out of the rankings.

Here is the full college basketball AP Poll:

1. Baylor (44 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (19)
3. Kansas (1)
4. San Diego State
5. Florida State
6. Louisville
7. Dayton
8. Villanova
9. Duke
10. Seton Hall
11. Oregon
12. West Virginia
13. Kentucky
14. Michigan State
15. Maryland
16. Butler
17. Auburn
18. Iowa
19. Illinois
20. Colorado
21. Houston
22. LSU
23. Wichita State
24. Penn State
25. Rutgers

ACC fines Mike Brey for his officiating comments

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference has fined Notre Dame $20,000 and publicly reprimanded Fighting Irish basketball coach Mike Brey for his comments about officiating after Saturday’s loss at Florida State.

The league announced the penalties Monday, saying Brey’s comments “were in direct violation” of the league’s sportsmanship policy that states that public criticism of officiating “is not in the best interest of intercollegiate athletics.”

Brey referenced several issues after the 85-84 loss to the Seminoles, including a technical foul called on the Irish bench with 2:31 left. He also mentioned game official John Gaffney by name as he left the news conference in Tallahassee.

“We’re treated by the officials like we haven’t brought football as a full member (to the league), but yet we get a full share of the ACC Network TV, are you kidding me?” Brey said, a reference to Notre Dame’s independence in football even as it remains a member of all other league sports.

Moments later, a frustrated Brey waved both hands as he got up to leave and continued his comments as he left the room.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, man,” Brey said, raising his voice. “Come on, man. We’re in the league, too.”

The league said in a news release that the matter is closed and declined to make additional comment. The fine will go toward an ACC scholarship fund that assists athletes with pursuing graduate degrees after completing undergraduate requirements.

Monday Overreactions: Ayo Dosunmu, Maryland, and Nick Richards’ takeover

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Ayo Dosunmu did it again.

Illinois’ sophomore star and leading scorer finished with 27 points, none of which were bigger than the final shot of the game as Dosunmu hit a foul line jumper over Zavier Simpson with 0.5 seconds left on the clock to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor:

It’s the sixth straight win for the Illini, who have climbed all the way up to No. 21 in the AP poll, and no one has been more influential in that run than Dosunmu. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 5.4 assists over the last five games, and in a conference where winning road games is notoriously difficult, the Illini have won at Wisconsin, at Purdue and at Michigan during that stretch.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Maryland Terrapins

No team in the country has elicited a louder chorus of doubters throughout the course of the season than Maryland.

The Terps were a top ten team in the preseason, and spent the entire season ranked inside the top 20 of the AP poll and currently sit at No. 10 in KenPom’s rankings. But because of some uninspiring performances early in the season, combined with the fact that the Terps had entered the week with an 0-4 record on the road, it was easy to overlook this group as nothing more than another fraudulent Mark Turgeon roster.

This week, the narrative changed. The Terps erased a 14 point deficit on the road to knock off Northwester, 77-66, in Chicago and then followed that up by going on a 7-0 run in the final two minutes to land a 77-76 win at Indiana.

Suddenly, the Terps are on a three game winning streak with back-to-back home games coming up next.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. NICK RICHARDS IS THE SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Richards has been one of the most improved players in the country this season, but Saturday was really the first time that we saw him completely take over a game.

He finished with 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks in the 76-74 overtime win at Texas Tech, scoring the game-winning points with 10 seconds left.

This is notable, because if you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season to date, they all happened to be a result of one of Hagans or Maxey going absolutely nuts. Maxey had 27 in the win over Michigan State. He had 26  against Louisville. Hagans went for 21 points, seven boards and seven assists against Georgia Tech. He had 13 points, six boards and six assists at Arkansas and 15 points, nine boards and nine assists against Alabama.

Point being, this is the first time that Richards has definitively been the best player on the floor while carrying Kentucky to a win like this on the road.

I also get it: He completely overwhelmed Texas Tech’s frontline — which, frankly, is not a new occurrence, if you have seen the Red Raiders play this season. But we’ve seen Richards play against frontlines he should dominate and, well, not dominate.

As it stands, he’s now the leading scorer and rebounder for the Wildcats. He’s probably the leader in the clubhouse for SEC Player of the Year, and very much in the mix for an all-american team.

2. TEXAS TECH HAS A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WORK TO DO TO GET TO THE TOURNAMENT

I’m not sure people realize just how little there is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

As it stands, the Red Raiders are the very last team in the most recent NBC Sports bracket projection.

3. THE BIG TEN IS GOING TO DISAPPOINT IN MARCH

The biggest reason that I believe this is the lack of elite point guard play. I’ve made this point roughly 18,000 times by now, but in the last decade, the only team that won the national title without having two lead guards playing together was the 2012 Kentucky team that had the top two picks playing together.

And the thing about this year’s Big Ten is that the lead guard play is not great. Cassius Winston, when he’s right, is the best in the country. Ayo Dosunmu, the way he’s been playing for the last month, is right there with him. Anthony Cowan is, in theory, on that list. Zavier Simpson? Maybe. Marcus Carr? At times.

I think that’s it.

So that’s a concern.

As is the fact that every team in the Big Ten is built around their frontcourt play.

I was struck over the weekend as I watch Michigan and Illinois down the stretch play with four centers on the floor — Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili for the Illini and Jon Teske and Austin Davis for the Wolverines. Iowa is at their best when they play with Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener. Tom Izzo loves to play Xavier Tillman with another big man. I could keep going if I had the time.

That is the only league in the country where that happens, and I think it is fair to wonder how well that will hold up in March.

4. ARIZONA IS NOT FAR AWAY FROM BEING REALLY DANGEROUS

More than anyone else in college basketball, the Wildcats are the team that appear to be the darling of the predictive metrics this season.

(I would say Ohio State, but they spent the first half of the season absolutely bludgeoning really good teams and still don’t have a loss to a team outside the top 40.)

They have one win against a top 30 team and just two wins against top 55 opponents. Their best win away from home is against Wake Forest, yet the Wildcats, at 13-6 overall, find themselves sitting at 10th in KenPom and 12th in the NET. This is what happens when you find a way to lose games close. Five fo their six losses came by five points or less, and it hasn’t always been the same formula. Arizona erased leads to land backdoor covers against Baylor, Gonzaga and Saint John’s. They blew leads on the road in league play in losses to Oregon and Arizona State. They completely collapsed in the second half against Oregon State.

So I’m not sure there is a clear-cut answer to what ails the Wildcats right now.

But I do know that with the talent on their roster, they are not as far away from being an actual top ten team as the average Arizona fan on twitter will have you believe.

5. IS SYRACUSE THE FOURTH-BEST TEAM IN THE ACC?

Someone has to be the fourth-best team in the ACC, and as far as league standings go, the Orange currently qualify. They are 6-3 in the conference, having won their last five games, and they have fully embraced the idea that this roster needs to fire up as many threes as possible to have a chance to win.

That said, they still haven’t beaten anyone. Their best win came at Virginia in overtime, but Virginia may not be a tournament team this season. The trouble is that the Orange only get the other top teams in the conference — Duke, N.C. State, Florida State and Louisville — once each.

They probably need to win at least two of those games to have a real shot at a tournament bid.

Bracketology: Baylor strengthens its grip on the No. 1 overall seed

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

Baylor continues to strengthen its grip on the No. 1 overall seed.  The Bears won their fifth true road game (5-0 in opportunities) of the season at Florida on Saturday.  They are No. 1 in the NCAA’s NET ratings, 6-1 in Quadrant 1 games and 10-1 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents combined.  Baylor hasn’t lost since November 8, a nearly two-month stretch of perfection.

Elsewhere, the top line remains in tact.  There’s room for debate across lines two through four. It’ll be interesting to see how the Selection Committee views the profiles of teams like Florida State, Louisville and Duke in the weeks ahead.  Unless something changes, there will be fewer Quad 1 opportunities in this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference.

Tracking the Bubble is going to keep you busy.  It’s several lines deep into the bracket today.  The margins between a nine seed and an 11-seeded play-in team are minimal.  And that’s not factoring in the next 8-12 teams knocking on the door.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 27, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
MIDWEST REGION NC State vs. Arizona State
SOUTH REGION VCU vs. Texas Tech
SOUTH REGION  ROBERT MORRIS vs. NORFOLK ST
MIDWEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. PR VIEW A&M

SOUTH Houston WEST – Los Angeles                         
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) ROB MORRIS / NORFOLK ST 16) NORTHERN COLORADO
8) Wichita State 8) USC
9) Saint Mary’s 9) Oklahoma 
Sacramento Tampa
5) Penn State 5) LSU
12) YALE 12) AKRON
4) Kentucky 4) West Virginia
13) NEW MEXICO ST 13) S.F. AUSTIN
Cleveland Albany
6) Marquette 6) Colorado
11) VCU / Texas Tech 11) BYU
3) MICHIGAN STATE 3) Villanova
14) NORTH TEXAS 14) COLGATE
Tampa Spokane
7) Indiana 7) Wisconsin
10) Saint John’s 10) Memphis
2) Florida State 2) OREGON
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) UC-IRVINE 16) MONMOUTH / PV A&M
8) Ohio State 8) HOUSTON
9) Florida 9) Arkansas
Greensboro St. Louis
5) Butler 5) Creighton
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) NORTHERN IOWA
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) VERMONT 13) LIBERTY
Greensboro Cleveland
6) Auburn 6) Illinois
11) DePaul 11) NC State / Arizona St
3) Duke 3) DAYTON
14) WRIGHT STATE 14) LITTLE ROCK
Albany St. Louis
7) Rutgers 7) Arizona
10) Stanford 10) Michigan
2) SETON HALL 2) LOUISVILLE
15) WILLIAM & MARY 15) WINTHROP

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Michigan Arizona State Rhode Island Purdue
BYU NC State Virginia Tech Tennessee
Saint John’s VCU Richmond Xavier
DePaul Texas Tech Minnesota Georgetown

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (10)
Big East (7)
Pac 12 (6)
SEC (5)
Big 12 (5)

ACC (4)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Baylor, Gonzaga lead the way

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A new college basketball top 25 is now live.

I sat down at my laptop to write out a column about why I ranked certain teams in certain spots and, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t find a way to give a damn.

As I’m sure you all know, Kobe Bryant died today. He was in a helicopter along with eight other people, including his daughter, Gianna, and her teammate, Alyssa Altobelli along with her mom, Keri, and dad, John. They were on the way to play in a travel team game. At least two, and certainly more, families were gutted, and while we are going to be talking about Kobe for the most part, I do think that should be emphasized.

Nine people died on that helicopter. Nine.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about why so many folks — like myself — spent Sunday completely torn up about the death of a person that we never met, a person that may or may not be deserving of the outpouring of love and adoration coming his way. What I came up with is this: The true heartbreak in this story is that Kobe was on the plane with one of his four daughters, the one he has spent the last couple of years proudly and publicly developing into a full-blown middle-aged sports dad with. It was awesome to see. This was not how their story was supposed to end.

Kobe and his wife also have three other daughters: a 17-year old along with a three year old and a newborn that is just seven months old. The Altobellis left a family behind, too, and what that family is going through is crushing as well, but I can’t stop thinking about what Vanessa, his wife, is going to be forced to deal with. She’s post-partum, with one daughter that will never know her father, and now has to cope with the loss of her husband and the loss of a child while trying to keep that 17-year old sane and explain to a three-year old why daddy and her big sister are never coming home.

That’s unfathomable to me.

But the reason I think this hit me so hard is that I keep putting myself in that helicopter. As a parent, the only goal in your life is keep your kids safe and happy. At any cost. It’s that simple. How do you deal with being on a helicopter with your child — and, for the Altobellis, with your spouse — knowing that something has gone wrong? Knowing what’s going to happen? Knowing the inevitability of your situation? Knowing that there’s nothing you can do to stop it, to keep your baby safe?

I don’t think that I’m alone there.

So I spent as much time as I could today playing with my kids, because arguing about ranking college basketball top 25 teams has never seemed dumber.

We can yell at each other next week.

Anyway, here is the rest of the NBC Sports college basketball top 25.



1. BAYLOR (17-1, Last Week: 1)
2. GONZAGA (21-1, 2)
3. KANSAS (16-3, 3)
4. FLORIDA STATE (17-2, 4)
5. LOUISVILLE (17-3, 5)
6. SETON HALL (15-4, 6)
7. DUKE (17-3, 7)
8. SAN DIEGO STATE (21-0, 8)
9. DAYTON (18-2, 9)
10. OREGON (17-4, 13)
11. KENTUCKY (16-5, 14)
12. WEST VIRGINIA (16-3, 15)
13. VILLANOVA (16-3, 17)
14. ILLINOIS (15-5, 24)
15. AUBURN (17-2, 12)
16. MICHIGAN STATE (16-3, 10)
17. IOWA (14-5, 18)
18. MARYLAND (16-4, 23)
19. HOUSTON (16-4, 20)
20. BUTLER (16-4, 11)
21. CREIGHTON (16-5, 25)
22. COLORADO (16-4, NR)
23. PENN STATE (14-5, NR)
24. RUTGERS (15-5, NR)
25. ARIZONA (13-6, 19)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 22 Colorado, No. 23 Penn State, No. 24 Rutgers
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 Texas Tech, No. 21 Memphis, No. 22 Michigan