Kyle Wiltjer

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No. 11 Gonzaga rolls past No. 6 Seton Hall

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There were two questions heading into Midwest No. 6 Seton Hall’s matchup with No. 11 Gonzaga. How would the Bulldogs deal with Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player Isaiah Whitehead? And how would the Pirates defend Gonzaga’s talented front court tandem of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer? In the end it was Mark Few’s team that had the answers, as they beat the Pirates 68-52 behind a dominant performance from Sabonis.

The sophomore from Lithuania led the way with 21 points, 16 rebounds and four assists, and despite shooting 9-for-20 from the field he (and his teammates) set the tone from a physicality standpoint. Seton Hall began the game defending him straight up and not sending over help, but the change to doubling the post didn’t do much to deter Sabonis either. Wiltjer chipped in with 13 points and seven rebounds, and while Gonzaga had its moments on the offense it was their defense and rebounding that decided the outcome.

As a team Seton Hall shot 32.3 percent from the field and 4-for-21 from three, with their talented point guard struggling mightily. Whitehead shot 4-for-24 from the field, which is incredibly tough to overcome despite the fact that he dished out eight assists. The sophomore played tired for most of the game in Denver, and while the altitude can be cited Gonzaga’s defense had a lot more to do with it. The Bulldogs used multiple defenders on Whitehead, making him work for everything, and more often than not he settled for challenged shots or looked to force the issue.

With Derrick Gordon being the lone rotation player out of eligibility, the Pirates will enter next season with the expectations of being a contender in the Big East. But Thursday night Kevin Willard’s group ran into a program that’s now won at least one game in each of their last seven NCAA tournament appearances.

Next up for Gonzaga is No. 3 Utah, which took care of No. 14 Fresno State in its tournament opener. And with the Runnin’ Utes being led by center Jakob Poeltl, the Bulldogs will need another high-level performance from their front court Saturday night while taking better care of the basketball (20 turnover vs. Seton Hall).

West Coast Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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In recent years the regular season champion of the West Coast Conference would arrive in Las Vegas feeling secure about its chances of landing an NCAA tournament bid even if they didn’t managed to grab the league’s automatic bid. Things aren’t as comfortable this time around for either Saint Mary’s or Gonzaga, as their non-conference slates either lacked the challenging games (Saint Mary’s) or quality wins (Gonzaga) needed to provide some breathing room. That, along with the presence of BYU and Pepperdine, should make for an intense “long weekend” at the Orleans Arena, where the WCC will hope that this event can produce two NCAA tournament teams.

The Bracket 

wccbracket

When: March 4-8 (no games Sunday, March 6)

Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

Final: March 8, 9:00 p.m. EST

Favorite: Saint Mary’s

The Gaels surprised many by winning a share of the regular season title, as they were picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll. They’ll be the top seed this week thanks to their season sweep of Gonzaga, and with guards Emmett Naar and WCC Newcomer of the Year Joe Rahon leading the way head coach Randy Bennett has the pieces needed to win the tournament. Forwards Calvin Hermansson and Dane Pineau shouldn’t be overlooked either, as they’re second and third on the team in scoring behind Naar and 6-foot-10 freshman center Evan Fitzner was productive in both wins over Gonzaga (16.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg).

And if they lose?: Gonzaga

Mark Few’s Bulldogs are led by one of the best front court tandems in the country in senior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Domantas Sabonis. Wiltjer’s a face-up four with range well beyond the three-point line, thus providing Sabonis with the room he needs to operate from 15 feet and in. The question mark throughout this season has been the development of their perimeter rotation, but there has been progress. Josh Perkins was named to the WCC’s all-freshman team, and Eric McClellan the conference’s best defender. How that group, which includes Silas Melson and Kyle Dranginis, performs will be key for Gonzaga as they look to win the WCC tournament for the fifth time in the last six years.

Other Contenders:

  • BYU: They’ve got the WCC Player of the Year in versatile guard Kyle Collinsworth, and fellow guards Chase Fischer and Nick Emery can fill it up scoring-wise. And even with their ability to put up points, BYU led the WCC in defensive efficiency in conference games per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.
  • Pepperdine: The Waves can make a claim no other WCC team can make this season: they swept Saint Mary’s. Marty Wilson’s group, led by forward Stacy Davis and guard Jeremy Major, is capable of making a run in Vegas.

WCC Player of the Year: Kyle Collinsworth, BYU

The NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles (11), Collinsworth is the “straw that stirs the drink” for BYU. In WCC games he ranked in the top five in rebounds (third), assists (first) and steals (first), and at 15.6 points per game the senior ranked 13th in the conference in scoring. At 6-foot-6 he’s a tough matchup for opposing teams from a size standpoint, and his ability to find the likes of Chase Fischer and Nick Emery makes BYU a tough team to slow down offensively.

WCC Coach of the Year: Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s

Saint Mary’s exceeded expectations this season, going from a team pegged by many as the one likely to fall out of a top three slot to one that grabbed the top seed in the conference tournament. For that Bennett should be praised, as the backcourt of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon has meshed well and the front court has accounted for the graduation of Brad Waldow as well.

First-Team All-WCC:

  • Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
  • Emmett Naar, Saint Mary’s
  • Stacy Davis, Pepperdine
  • Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
  • Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga

CBT Prediction: Saint Mary’s beats Gonzaga in a thriller.

Throwback look: seniors lead way to nation’s top-tier teams

Associated Press
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The old guys are back in charge in college basketball this season.

After recent years with the focus locked on one-and-done talent, it’s the seniors – guys like No. 1 Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, No. 3 Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and No. 5 Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon – leading some of the nation’s best teams.

It’s created a throwback look to when upperclassmen stuck around elite programs instead of bolting early for the NBA, not to mention did more than just handle the dirty work behind some headline-grabbing youngsters.

Coaches are loving the dynamic.

“You’d always rather have experienced leadership than not, of course,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Always, the message goes out when it goes from player to player as opposed to coach to player, it’s more effective.”

In this week’s Top 25, six top-10 teams and 14 teams in the poll have seniors as leading scorers – and in some cases there’s more than one in a leading role.

Compare that to last year’s final AP Top 25 of the season, when three top-10 teams and eight ranked squads had seniors as leading scorers. And this week’s totals are higher than for any of the final AP polls dating to at least the 2007-08 season, according to STATS.

The best example of that senior success has been Michigan State’s Valentine, who has grown from a complimentary scorer for a Final Four team to a candidate for national player of the year.

The 6-foot-5 guard, who will miss the next 2-3 weeks due to minor knee surgery announced Monday, is averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He’s also had two triple-doubles this year, including a 29-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist performance to hand No. 2 Kansas its only loss.

“I can get a lot better,” Valentine said earlier this month. “I need to work on my defense. And, I need to make the most of every possession.”

This senior-led formula has worked well for coach Tom Izzo before. His 2000 national championship team had strong leadership with seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, while touted freshman Jason Richardson took a supporting role.

“I like the one-and-dones because they’re pretty talented,” Izzo said. “(Seniors), they bring a lot to your team. They really do.

“I won a championship with a couple of redshirt seniors. That’s very important, because you’ve always got someone to go to. And we go to `Zel a lot.”

The signs were there to start the year that seniors were poised for a big impact. Three – Hield, No. 11 Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer – were named to the five-man AP preseason all-America team, the most in five seasons.

Hield, a 6-4 guard, entered the week ninth nationally in scoring at 23.5 points per game, up about a half-dozen from last year.

Niang, a 6-8 forward, entered the week averaging 18.7 points and is one of three seniors averaging in double figures for the Cyclones – an experienced group together so long that new coach Steve Prohm has largely stuck with former coach Fred Hoiberg’s playbook.

Wiltjer, a 6-10 forward who spent a year at Kentucky, guided the Zags to the NCAA Elite Eight last year and entered the week averaging 20.6 points.

Then throw in guys like Brogdon, who has earned the nickname “Uncle Malcolm” from Virginia teammates. Or No. 7 North Carolina’s returning all-Atlantic Coast Conference senior duo of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson – who are the top two scoring options for the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels.

Eighth-ranked Arizona added a No. 1 scorer in Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, No. 9 Butler’s offense is at its best when high-scoring guard Kellen Dunham is hot and No. 13 Miami’s seniors have already led the Hurricanes on an impressive three-game romp through last month’s Puerto Rico Tipoff.

“When you look at our league this year, Kansas is a much older team, Iowa State’s a much older team, we’re a much older team,” Kruger said of the Big 12. “That’s kind of rare in teams that are ranked in the top 10 or top 15.”

AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Norman, Oklahoma; Jimmy Golen in Boston; Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia; Larry Lage in East Lansing, Michigan; and Luke Meredith in Ames, Iowa; contributed to this report.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

After Gonzaga win, are we ready to buy UCLA yet?

AP Photo/Young Kwak
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Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford combined for 33 points and six assists, committing just a pair of turnovers on the night, as UCLA landed their second big win of the season, going into Spokane and knocking off No. 20 Gonzaga at The Kennel, 71-66.

And while it was the back court that made the big plays for Steve Alford’s team, the star of the second half was Tony Parker. The 6-foot-9 senior center was dominant during a stretch where the Bruins extended their lead to as much as eight points. He finished with 16 points and made his first eight shots from the field, overpowering a Gonzaga front line that is beat up.

Prezemek Karnowski did not play again. The 7-foot-1 center — by far Gonzaga’s best low post defensive presence — has been dealing with back spasms for the last week. He didn’t play in the loss to Arizona and he missed the near-loss to Montana. Domantas Sabonis played well — 18 points and eight boards — but he’s just not the same presence as Karnowski is.

Kyle Wiltjer began the game on fire, hitting threes on three straight possessions, before Steve Alford made a switch. Initially, Parker was guarding Wiltjer, but Alford put Jonah Bolden in the game. Bolden is 6-foot-10 and long but he’s far more athletic and mobile than Parker is. That switch made a difference; Wiltjer finished with 20 points, but shot just 4-for-12 from the floor the rest of the way. Bolden finished with 10 points and 11 boards in 30 minutes, by far his best game in a Bruin uniform.

So what do we make of UCLA?

I’m seriously asking you.

Because I don’t really know.

They beat Kentucky … when Kentucky was missing their best big man and their starting point guard was banged up. They won at Gonzaga — who isn’t really the typical Gonzaga this season — while they were missing their best big man. They’ve lost to Monmouth at home, lost to Wake Forest in Maui and got worked over by Kansas.

There is a ton of talent on that roster in a year where the Pac-12 is wide open, but I can’t convince myself to fully trust this team just yet.

Wiltjer, Sabonis help No. 20 Gonzaga edge Montana 61-58

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Coming off a rare loss at home, No. 20 Gonzaga barely avoided another defeat at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“We’re very lucky to get out of this with a win,” coach Mark Few said after the Bulldogs held off Montana 61-58 Tuesday night.

Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis each scored 16 points for Gonzaga, which recently lost at home to then-No. 19 Arizona 68-63.

Wiltjer made two free throws with 7.5 seconds left for the final points of the game. A 3-point attempt by Montana’s Brandon Gfeller bounced off the front rim as time expired.

“I think every one is going in as soon as it leaves my hand,” Gfeller said, “but that isn’t the way it worked out tonight.”

Sabonis had 10 rebounds and Wiltjer nine for the Bulldogs (6-2).

Josh Perkins scored 13 points for Gonzaga, including a free throw and a jumper in the final minute to erase Montana’s 58-56 lead.

Eric McClellan had 11 for Gonzaga.

Martin Breunig led Montana (3-4) with 20 points, 18 coming after halftime. Walter Wright added 14.

“I was just trying to be more aggressive (in the second half) . in the first half, we were not aggressive enough,” Breunig said.

Few said Breunig “is one of the best low-post players we’ll play this season.”

Both teams struggled to score consistently. Gonzaga shot 40 percent from the field and Montana hit just 36.1 percent. Turnovers also were a problem for both teams at times.

“It was the best defense we’ve played since I’ve been at Montana,” Grizzlies coach Travis DeCuire said.

Gonzaga trailed 11-9 before holding Montana without a point for six minutes during an 8-0 run.

The Bulldogs led 29-23 at the break and scored the opening basket of the second half. Montana took the lead with a 12-0 run, when Gonzaga missed seven shots and had four turnovers.

The Grizzlies then missed their next seven shots, and Gonzaga’s 8-0 run pushed the Bulldogs ahead 39-35.

Gfeller, who scored nine points, tied the game with a 3-pointer with 1:07 to go. Jack Lopez was fouled at the same time and sank two free throws to give Montana a 58-56 lead. In the final minute, Perkins sank one of two free throws before hitting a jumper prior to Wiltjer’s final free throws.

“To get rewarded with a `W’ when we feel we didn’t play very good is a good thing,” Few said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Montana. I think they’re going to have a great season.”

TIP-INS

Montana: The Grizzlies and Bulldogs were Big Sky Conference rivals from 1963-64 through 1978-79, when Gonzaga left for the West Coast Conference. The teams had not met since Nov. 11, 2007. … Montana has lost the past 10 meetings.

Gonzaga: Senior center Przemek Karnowski was sidelined for the third consecutive game with back problems. Few labels Karnowski “our best rim protector (on defense).”

GFELLER OVERLOOKED?

Gfeller grew up 60 miles south of Spokane in the small town of Colfax, Washington. The junior guard said Gonzaga showed no interest in him beyond “maybe a couple emails.”

RARE EMPTY SEATS

The Bulldogs announced the usual sellout crowd of 6,000, but perhaps 100 seats in Gonzaga’s notoriously rowdy student section were empty. Some students may have been focusing on next week’s final exams.

UP NEXT

Montana visits Washington on Saturday.

Gonzaga hosts UCLA on Saturday.

Three seniors, redshirt junior highlight AP Preseason All-Americans

AP
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Veterans make up the majority of the AP’s Preseason All-American team, as freshman Ben Simmons joins a trio of seniors and a redshirt junior.

Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield are the three seniors on the first team, while Providence junior Kris Dunn — who is a senior academically — is on the team as well. Wiltjer was the leading vote-getter.

Simmons, an Australian freshman from LSU, is the lone underclassmen on the team. He’s just the fourth freshmen to ever be named a Preseason All-American, joining Harrison Barnes, Andrew Wiggins and Jahlil Okafor in that rarified air.

Dunn was the NBCSports.com Preseason Player of the Year, while Simmons and Hield both made our first team. Niang and Wiltjer were on the second team.