Now healthy, surging Boise State a Mountain West title contender

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Derrick Marks has played at a high level for Boise State (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Despite losing all-conference forward Ryan Watkins at the end of last season, Boise State was picked to finish second in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll, with seniors Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks expected to lead the way. But rarely is a season straightforward, and in the case of Boise State they had to deal with significant health issues in non-conference play.

Drmic struggled with back and ankle injuries, with the latter ultimately requiring season-ending surgery, and players such as Marks, Nick Duncan and James Webb III also struggled with health issues. Boise State’s 48-45 loss to Loyola-Chicago in the Las Vegas Classic final was the first of four straight defeats, with the last three being conference games.

To their credit the Broncos refused to use the injuries as a crutch, and as they’ve returned to full strength Leon Rice’s team has been among the hottest in the country over the last month. Boise State has won eight straight games since falling at Wyoming January 10, and while there are a variety of reasons why the Broncos are now a contender to win the Mountain West the simplest one is that outside of Drmic everyone is back to full strength.

“Injuries,” Rice told NBCSports.com Friday when asked what the issues were during the aforementioned losing streak. “[Nick] Duncan was out with an ankle injury and probably shouldn’t have played a couple games, Derrick missed the Loyola game and probably shouldn’t have played at Colorado State.

“Also it was the schedule. We played at Colorado State when they were undefeated, and we played at Wyoming when they were ranked. Those are some pretty tough places to play.”

That begins with Marks, who spent much of his offseason rehabbing from a torn meniscus suffered in May and then injured his ankle in a win over Houston that forced him to miss the aforementioned loss to Loyola. After missing that game and playing at Colorado State when he wasn’t at full strength, Marks continued on the path that has made him a much-improved player even with the solid numbers he put up as a junior.

Last season Marks averaged 14.9 points per game, but he did so shooting 44.1% from the field and just under 29 percent from beyond the arc. As a senior, without the versatile Drmic to draw attention, Marks is up to 19.5 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from both the field and from three. After ranking tenth in the Mountain West in offensive rating per kenpom.com (amongst players involved 24% of possessions), Marks is currently tops in the conference in that particular category.

“He just put in a lot of time, effort and energy into becoming a better player,” Rice said of Marks. “When he got hurt [during the summer] he studied the game in a different way, and he spent a lot of time shooting. Even when he couldn’t move, he took shots while sitting in a chair.”

The hard work has paid off for him individually, and it’s also led to Boise State entering Saturday’s game at Fresno State with an 18-6 record (8-3 Mountain West; a half-game behind San Diego State). The numbers are just one part of the equation for Marks, who’s also improved as a leader for Rice’s Broncos.

“I just wanted to focus on being the best leader I could be,” Marks told NBCSports.com. “Because after last year we lost our leader in Jeff [Elorriaga], and that was one area in which I knew I had to do if we were to win. It hasn’t been easy, but my coaches and teammates have helped me be a better leader.”

With Drmic going down others needed to step up as well, and that’s been the case during Boise State’s eight-game win streak. In conference play the Broncos are ranked third in field goal percentage, second in three-point percentage and first in free throw percentage, and as a result Boise State has the most efficient offense in the conference per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. With multiple players stepping forward, and Boise State’s penchant for taking care of the basketball, the Broncos have been a tough team to slow down over the last month.

One of the players who has stepped up is sophomore forward James Webb III, who began a run of eight double-figure outings in nine games (the lone exception was Boise State’s 86-36 win over San Jose State) in a 65-54 loss at Wyoming. However according to Rice, the true breakthrough for Webb occurred in Boise State’s close loss at NC State in late-Novmeber. After playing a total of 13 minutes in the five games prior (missing two), Webb accounted for 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes of action.

“The game that got him going was the NC State game, and from there he hasn’t looked back,” Rice noted.

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Boise State’s James Webb III (AP Photo)

The 6-foot-9 Webb (11.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg) has been a key figure for a team looking to account for the loss of a player in Watkins who was their best rebounder in 2013-14. Webb’s produced six double-digit rebounding efforts this season, most recently going for 17 points and 15 rebounds in a comfortable win over Air Force Wednesday night.

“He’s playing hard,” Marks said of Webb. “He’s rebounding the ball like Ryan did last year, and that’s something we needed, and the rest of us are chipping in as well. He’s also shooting the ball well and playing good defense for us.”

While Webb has been their clear leader on the glass five other players are averaging between 2.6 and 3.5 rebounds per game for Boise State, which currently ranks third in the Mountain West in defensive rebounding percentage in conference games (73.2%). And that percentage isn’t far off from the 75.4% defensive rebounding percentage they produced a season ago.

Guard Mikey Thompson gives Boise State another experienced perimeter player, and forward Nick Duncan can pose problems matchup-wise due to his ability to step out and knock down perimeter shots. In total Boise State has nine active players averaging at least 11 minutes per game, and those numbers have been a factor in the Broncos’ climb from 0-3 to tied atop the Mountain West standings in the loss column.

Boise State wasn’t healthy in January, and when combined with an early conference schedule that included trips to fellow NCAA tournament hopefuls Colorado State and Wyoming there were bound to be issues. Now that their key players, save Drmic, are healthy, Boise State is looking to make a run at its first regular season conference title since 2008 (when they were in the WAC).

In the midst of a stretch in which four of their six games are on the road, including a meeting with the Aztecs February 28, the Broncos won’t lack for challenges in their quest for a title.

“It’s a tough stretch, anytime you’re playing a Mountain West road game,” Rice said when asked about the current portion of the schedule. “We’re going to have to play our best basketball these next few weeks to stay in the race.”

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure:

Kansas-Kansas State fight: Nuance, context the key in Silvio De Sousa discussion

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So I wanted to elaborate on a point that I made on twitter this morning because 280 characters just is not enough to be able to parse through the nuance of this situation.

If you missed it, the thread is here.

First and foremost, everyone involved in this needs to be punished. Silvio De Sousa needs to be suspended. Antonio Gordon needs to be suspended. James Love III needs to be suspended. David McCormack, and potentially Marcus Garrett, probably need to be suspended, although I’m not sure either of them actually through a punch. Point being, anyone else that threw a punch needs to be suspended.

Full stop.

I am not saying otherwise.

But I think that it is important to add some context to the conversation, and I also think that it is important to say this: This doesn’t make any of the young men involved in this fight bad people. Silvio De Sousa is not inherently a bad person because he picked up a stool, and the faux-trage of people calling for him to get booted out of school, arrested or even deported are, at best, completely over-reacting and, at worst, showing off a bit of their racial bias.

Before I get into this, one more thing: I am not condoning any of it. Fights like this should not happen.

But the reality of hyper-competitive athletics is that in emotionally charged situations, fights are going to happen. And if you’ve ever been in a fight like this, you know that things happen incredibly quickly. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting. You can’t call a 20 second time out to come up with a way to defend yourself when someone is throwing haymakers, you just do what you can in the moment.

So let’s talk about the moment, shall we?

De Sousa is the guy that set this entire thing in motion with the way that he reacted to DaJuan Gordon’s steal and layup attempt. The reason the Kansas State bench rushes over to the scene is because De Sousa is towering over one of their freshman teammates, and the reason the Kansas sideline runs over is because the Kansas State sideline does. What turned this incident into a full-fledged brawl was Antonio Gordon flying in and shoving De Sousa over the back of the basket stanchion. De Sousa reacts by throwing punches at two different Kansas State players when a third player — James Love III, in the black polo — comes flying in and squares up with him. They both throw a few punches at each other, knocking De Sousa back over the stanchion again as Kansas staffer Jeremy Case comes flying in to break them up.

Put yourself in De Sousa’s shoes here. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s fought three different Kansas State players, sees nothing but purple in front of him and just got knocked to the ground. Is he getting jumped? Does he have to fight them 1-on-3? That’s when he grabs the stool, to defend himself, and when he sees that no one is coming after him anymore, he drops it:

Context.

He should be suspended for 8-10 games.

He set this entire thing in motion.

But maybe, just maybe, tone down the rhetoric.

Women’s Wednesday: A new column dedicated to the women of college basketball

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Welcome to CBT’s first ever weekly women’s basketball column. I’m here to help provide you with some insight into the world of women’s college hoops.

Women’s sports are reaching new heights, especially in basketball. The WNBA announced a new collective bargaining agreement starting in the 2020 season that includes a 53 percent raise, maternity benefits, a base salary and performance-based bonuses. This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be broadcasted in its entirety on ESPN, with the semifinals and championship game premiering in primetime.

Female athletes are beginning to garner the attention they deserve. Sabrina Ionescu is drawing national attention for a historic senior season, as she has 22 career triple-doubles and became Oregon’s all-time leading basketball scorer in her career-high 37-point performance against Stanford last week. In the WNBA, women such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and more are shattering gender stereotypes and proving that women can play basketball at a high level, just as men can.

While women’s sports have made a push into the public eye, there is still quite a way to go. It’s important to place an emphasis on the women who excel in their sport and give them the spotlight they deserve. Too many times women are only given credit through a masculine lens, whether that’s only getting attention after receiving praise from men, being compared to a male counterpart, or being a footnote in a male athlete’s story. Female athletes deserve to be their own story.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this column over the rest of the season — give women a place to shine. I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the amazing women that play in the NCAA and hear from them about their experiences, the records they’re setting and their basketball journey. While I won’t even begin to make a dent in the breadth of talent available in women’s college basketball, I hope to use this column each week to take a deeper dive into some incredible women, as well as give you an idea of what’s happening around the country that week.

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

South Carolina sits atop the world of college hoops, earning 22 first-place votes from the AP panel to nab the No. 1 spot. The Gamecocks have an 18-1 record with wins over ranked opponents such as Maryland, Baylor, Kentucky and most recently Mississippi State.

Baylor — the reigning national champs —- sits in the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dethroning UConn and ending its dominant 98-game winning streak at home. The Lady Bears received six of the first-place votes from the AP committee.

The rest of the top five is filled out by UConn at No. 3, Oregon at No. 4 after beating then-No. 3 Stanford, and Louisville rounds it out at fifth, receiving the last two first-place votes.

In a monster performance against Stanford, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu had a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She has four triple-doubles on the season and has a chance to become the NCAA’s first player to eclipse 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. As of Jan. 18, she has 2,265 points, 904 rebounds and 928 assists.

DePaul remains unbeaten in the Big East, with Chante Stonewall leading the team with 17.9 ppg while Kelly Campbell has 102 assists on the season, ranking No. 8 in the country.

Baylor’s 40-point victory over then-No. 17 West Virginia is their 45th consecutive Big 12 win.

Mississippi State’s JaMya Mingo-Young and Aliyah Matharu combined for 24 points and four steals off the bench in a close 79-81 loss to South Carolina on Monday.

Star freshman and No. 1 recruit Haley Jones suffered an apparent right knee injury and left Stanford’s Sunday win over Oregon State. She is scheduled to have an MRI but the team has given no further updates.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane has 20+ points in four of her last six games and 10 double-doubles on the season, helping the Wolfpack to a dominant win over Florida State last week.

UCLA became the last undefeated team to fall with a double overtime loss to USC — who hadn’t yet won a Pac-12 matchup —  on Friday.

Northwestern made its debut this season in the Top-25, coming in at No. 22 — its first ranking since the 2015-2016 season.

No. 3 Oregon faces rival No. 7 Oregon State on Friday in a crucial Pac-12 matchup.

Stanford freshman Fran Belini threw down a one-handed dunk in pregame warmup before facing Oregon that you HAVE to see: