A Slower, Defensive-Approach Separates San Diego from the WCC Pack

A defensive, slower approach by Bill Grier (arms apart above) has been a key reason why San Diego is a dangerous opponent for WCC teams

No team generates more interest with me than the San Diego Toreros. They are 12-10 and 3-6 in conference, and according to Ken Pomeroy, they are most likely to finish the year hovering at .500 at 16-15 (with a projected 7-11 conference record). So, at the surface, there is nothing really to like about San Diego or really glean from them in a major fashion. Most fans think, “Oh, hey San Diego, they can surprise you, but when push comes to shove, they’re just another WCC team that is fighting to avoid the cellar with Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and Pacific.” But, I think the Toreros are a team that WCC fans should take notice of for the remainder of the year

I am not here to say that San Diego is going to jettison to the top of the WCC standings. That being said, what I like about San Diego and coach Bill Grier is that he has the Toreros playing a style of ball that is remarkably different from most other teams in the conference. As typical of years past, most schools in the WCC prefer a more “offensive-oriented approach” and for good reason: they are pretty good at it. When it comes to Adjusted Offensive Efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, four schools rank in the Top-50 (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU), two more rank in the Top-100 (Pacific at 89 and Pepperdine at 100) and two MORE rank within the Top-150 (Portland at 111 and Loyola Marymount at 123). As a conference, Ken Pomeroy rates the WCC as the fourth best conference in the nation when it comes to offensive efficiency at 108.1 (which is helped by a conference-wide 3 point percentage of 38.1 percent, best of any conference in the nation). This isn’t 80’s Big East basketball. The WCC is known for scoring, lots of it and in an efficient way, and that has been a primary reason why the WCC has achieved its highest conference ranking ever on KenPom.com at No. 9 (though I believe the Mountain West and Missouri Valley getting gutted due to conference re-alignment severely weakened those conferences, which were typically ahead of the WCC but now fell this season; but that’s being nitpicky, as the WCC is the strongest its ever been top-to-bottom).

But, San Diego is a team that does not fit that “offensive-emphasis” mold. The Toreros rank last overall in Adjusted Offense in the conference ranking 183rd in the nation. In conference play, while they have played better, they still linger near the basement with a rating of 102.8, ninth-best in the conference play (ahead of only Loyola Marymount, who has struggled efficiency-wise after a strong start). While they do excel in the three-ball (they have the best three-point percentage in WCC play at 43.5 percent), they struggle inside the arc (9th best two-point percentage at 45.4 percent) and turn the ball over way too much (WCC high 20.2 percent turnover rate).

And yet, even though they rate as a pretty sub-par offensive team by WCC standards, the Toreros have been the most competitive team as of late, nearly knocking off Gonzaga on Thursday in Spokane, and upsetting Portland in the Rose City after the Pilots made national headlines with a 3 OT victory over a scorching BYU squad. They are nine points away from being 6-3 (with close single-digit losses to Pepperdine, USF and Gonzaga) rather than 3-6, and they suddenly look to be the kind of team that could ruin many WCC teams’ postseason hopes. How are they doing it?

While you could credit it to a variety of factors, I think two major playing trends emerge: their slow tempo and defensive approach.

First off, San Diego is not the only squad in the WCC that plays at a slow tempo. St. Mary’s has done this for quite some time under Bennett, and they also run a slow tempo to maximum offensive effectiveness (they rank second in offensive efficiency in conference despite playing the fourth-slowest tempo in conference play). Gonzaga, which originally started the year playing at a faster tempo, has slowed down considerably in conference play (third-slowest in conference), which has worked to their advantage in some games (BYU) and not so in others (San Diego). So, slowing it down and playing a more half-court approach isn’t exactly ingenious or ground breaking on Grier’s end, since many teams do it when they feel they lack depth or the faster perimeter players to do so. Furthermore, Grier’s teams have typically played a slower tempo in his career at USD, as he has had only one team average over the 65 possession mark in his tenure at USD (the 2012 squad which averaged 66.1 possessions per game).

But San Diego has slowed it down considerably so, and that has worked to their advantage in many games. In two out of their last three games, the Toreros have played two sub-60 possession games (USF and Gonzaga). Both those games went down to the buzzer, as the Toreros lost by a buzzer beater to USF and they had a chance to tie at Gonzaga. For a team that lacks offensive consistency like the Toreros, shortening the game has proven to be a strong competitive equalizer for them, especially against better offensive teams (as was the case with USF). While they do have some talent in guard Johnny Dee and center Dennis Kramer, they do have some efficiency killers (Jito Kok may be the worst offensive player in the conference by far as evidenced by his 72.8 offensive rating) that’ll keep them from being better than average overall. So, by limiting possessions and relying on the three point shot, the Toreros give themselves a fighting chance against the better teams in conference play. And it has worked, as the Toreros seem to be trending upward as a team, and still have valuable opportunities for possible upsets on the horizons with seven of their next nine games being at home (only St. Mary’s looks to be the daunting one, and that could be tougher because the Gaels are in their element in slower-tempo games).

Contrast San Diego’s approach with LMU, who has taken a higher-tempo approach to offense (second highest tempo at 69.2 in conference play). While the Toreros are 3-6 against primarily road-game loaded first half of the schedule, the Lions are 3-7 and have lost to conference leaders USF, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga by double digits. While they did pull off the upset against BYU in their first conference game of the year, the higher tempo has exposed the Lions’ poor offensive efficiency as a team, while the slower tempo has hid or at the very least minimized the Toreros’ woes on the offensive end (remember, both teams rank 9th and 10th in conference play offensive efficiency). And how has this strategy of play affected to coaches’ futures? Well, it looks like Grier may be on the way to finishing the season strong enough to merit another season, while Lions coach Max Good will have to do a lot to earn an extension at the end of the year.

So, tempo has been a key factor to the Toreros surprising success, though not the only key. The improved defense has also been a reason why the Toreros have also remained competitive, and since those two approaches complement each other nicely (defense and slow tempo) it’s no surprise that they have transitioned to success on the court for San Diego. In terms of defense, numerically it’s not all that impressive, as the Toreros’ 110.7 defensive efficiency rating ranks seventh in conference play. That being said, their overall rating sits at 100.9, which is 108th best in the nation and the Toreros have had some really bad performances that have hurt their conference rating thus far (they gave up 1.31 points per possession in a 23 point loss at BYU). Going back to that rating though, the 100.9 mark, if the season ended today, would be the best mark for Grier since the 2009 season, when the Toreros finished with a defensive rating of 97.6, 77th best in the nation.

The mark is a nice wave of progression for Grier and the Toreros over the past couple of seasons. Grier made his mark as a defensive-coach as an assistant at Gonzaga, and he carried that in his first two years at the helm in San Diego. His first team, which went to the NCAA Tourney and upset UConn as a 13 seed, was a stout defensive squad as they ranked 49th in the nation in defensive efficiency at 95.9. However, after two seasons where his teams ranked in the Top-100 in defensive rating, they took huge steps in years three through five, as they posted mediocre defensive rating rankings of 162, 224 and 230, respectively. Suddenly, the strongest aspect of Grier’s ability as a coach (the defensive side) looked to be a weakness after the initial wave of success.

However, Grier made one key hire after the 2011 season that has helped the Toreros defensively: he hired former LMU coach Rodney Tention as an assistant. Now, Tention was far from “good” as a coach at LMU. His 30-61 overall record looks bad in a variety of different lenses. But, Tention was a much better coach than people gave him credit for. For starters, Tention was actually a very decent defensive coach, and if you want to know why or how the Lions, despite being a 12-win team, came within a tip-in of beating an Adam Morrison-led Gonzaga team in the WCC Championship, the Lions’ defense was the answer (remember, the Lions went 9-6 in conference play that year). In 2006, the Lions posted a defensive rating of 96.2, 60th best in the country, and in his second year, the Lions, though 13-18, still remained in the Top-100 in defensive rating at 93rd in the nation with a rating of 99.1. While things fell apart for them as a whole in 2008 (only six teams were worse overall than the Lions in 2008), Tention was actually a good defensive coach. The only problem was that he struggled to find consistency with his offense, and he opted for a style that didn’t necessarily play to his teams’ defensive strengths either (they ranked in the top-100 in terms of fastest tempo in his three years). And so, it made sense why things never worked out for Tention as the head man at LMU. Under Grier’s staff though, Tention has seemed to help the Toreros and Grier find their mojo again on the defensive end. They have steadily improved the past couple of years, and I’m sure Tention’s expertise on defense has meshed well with Grier’s philosophy on defense and slowing it down (rather than speeding it up, as Tention did at LMU).

This season, the Toreros have the kind of squad that fits what Grier wants to do: slow it down, grind out opponents on the defensive end, have certain player (i.e. Gee) make some key shots, and keep games tight against opponents which may be more loaded than his San Diego squads. They still aren’t as elite as his first-year squad, but it is obvious that they are making progress toward reaching that point. Tention’s influence, though under the radar to most people, has been felt, especially when you look at the improvements in defensive ratings over the past three years. And, with this approach complementing their slow, half-court style, the Toreros remain different, an anomaly to what is typically seen from teams in the WCC.

In college basketball, different is good. Different is what worked for Princeton under Pete Carril, LMU under Paul Westhead and Arkansas under Nolan Richardson. And for Grier and San Diego, being different could give them a chance to replicate what they did in 2008 as soon as next season (though you never know come WCC tourney time).

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Is Rex Walters Finally Turning a Corner at San Francisco?

Sophomore Mark Tollefsen Has Helped the Dons Develop as a Possible WCC Dark Horse This Year and Beyond

I know it’s been a while since I have posted. I have been caught up with the start of school (both teaching and graduate school), so it has been tough to find time to post. That being said, I think I have found a routine, which should open up more writing down the road. Hopefully, I’ll get at least a couple of posts a week, especially as we just pass the mid-season mark in the WCC.

If you have read this blog before, you know that Rex Walters topped the list in terms of the Coaching Barometer Check. It made sense: Walters was in his sixth year, and had not made consistent process, and the sudden “retirement” of senior Cody Doolin and numerous transfers over his tenure made people wonder if there were things going on internally in the Dons program.

Well, since the Doolin departure, the Dons have actually been competitive as a squad this year in the West Coast Conference. Even though they are coming off two straight losses to St. Mary’s on the road and BYU at home and were blown out on the road at Gonzaga, the Dons still sit in good shape in the WCC with a 4-3 conference record heading into today’s home contest against San Diego, a team that has statistically been in the bottom of the WCC in both offense and defense (9th in conference both Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency). With home games looming against St. Mary’s and Gonzaga, and with “better-than-you think” road wins over Portland (remember: Portland beat Gonzaga at the Chiles Center), and Pacific (127th in Ken Pom’s ratings), the Dons are setting themselves up nicely as the fourth place team in conference this year, which should give them a good shot to make a run in the WCC tournament should they finish the year in that position (they would get a much needed bye).

After the Doolin fiasco, it was typical to think that the Dons would hit the skids. After all, we have seen changes of any sort not go well in the Dons’ favor in the past (cough…Eddie Sutton…cough). That being said, the Dons have been strong as a team offensively, as they rank 37th in the nation in Adjusted Offense with a rating of 112.9. They have been a little inconsistent in conference play (thanks to the stinker in Spokane), as their rating is only 108.3 in conference play (5th best in the conference), but they have showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end, and they have interesting players that make them a dangerous foe.

What has made the Dons such a strong offensive team this year? While their shooting leaves some to be desired, their ability to create second chance shots has been a strength of this Dons team. They rank second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage with a rate of 35.7 percent, and they did out rebound the Cougars (the no. 1 rated team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage) in their contest on Jan. 16th. Kruize Pinkins has been a primary reason why the Dons dominate on the glass, as his 18.5 offensive board percentage is fourth best in the nation. Cole Dickerson and Matt Glover have also contributed as well on offensive glass, as their percentages are 8.5 and 8.0, respectively.

One of the biggest surprised for the Dons this year has been the emergence of sophomore Mark Tollefsen, a 6-9 forward who has the versatility to guard players on the perimeter. He has been extremely efficient offensively, as he is posting a 128.2 offensive rating and an effective field goal percentage of 63.8 on a usage rate of 17.5. However, while his offensive game is vastly underrated (and probably underutilized), it’s his defense and athletic skills that make Tollefsen such an interesting player. He is quick enough to guard bigger guards, and while his block percentage helps confirm his defensive prowess (4.0 block percentage), it’s his ability to hound and make opposing players uncomfortable that makes Tollefsen such a valuable player for Walters. Against BYU, Tollefsen was making BYU players struggle early on, as his combo of height and wingspan made him a defensive nightmare for opposing perimeter players.

Defensively, the Dons do leave a lot to be desired this year, as Walters has struggled to get any consistency from them on that end of the court. They are one of the worst teams in the nation in defensive rating, as they are posting an Adjusted Defensive rating of 108.9, 264th in the nation. Conference play hasn’t been much better, as they rank 7th in the conference in Adjusted Defense, as they struggle to generate turnovers (8th in the WCC in turnovers-caused percentage) and send their opponents to the line way too much (9th in conference in opponent free throw rate percentage). It’s those defensive deficiencies that will probably keep the Dons from being a true dark horse in the WCC this year, though they will certainly provide entertaining games, as evidenced by their contest against BYU at War Memorial Gym.

And still, though the ceiling probably isn’t high for the Dons “this” year, there’s a lot of potential in next year’s squad. The Dons only lose forward Dickerson next year, and though Dickerson leads in a lot of “peripheral” stats (points per game, etc.), efficiency-wise, he’s probably a bit overrated (101.5 offensive rating on a 25.7 usage rate). But, Pinkins and Tollefsen return in the post, and they also return guards Glover, Avry Holmes, Chris Adams, and Tim Derksen, who have also showed solid play in their replacement of Doolin. Also, they will return the raw of potential of Chinese import Tao Xu, who is extremely raw, but could have the ability to help the Dons’ ability to continue to dominate on the boards in WCC play for the remainder of this year and especially next year.

Ken Pom projects the Dons to finish with a 16-14 record for the year (9-9 down the stretch), and if the Dons finish with a record like that, I think Walters gets one more year. The amount of talent returning next year is enticing, and it seems that the Dons have found the right mix and identity to find success in the WCC. Defensively, I don’t know if they’ll ever be elite under Walters. But, if they can at least be average, or slightly below, they could be a real dark horse next year, especially if they continue their offensively efficient play in 2015.

To be honest, the turnaround is surprising under Walters, and he and his coaching staff have been able to weather through the storm of the Doolin distractions and the lackluster start in non-conference play. Walters at the very least in his tenure has proven to be a solid offensive coach, and his ability to still find success despite the wave of transfers and new players is a good sign of his ability as strategist on the bench. While his recruiting classes haven’t generated big buzz in “recruiting circles” (i.e. Rivals or ESPN), he has found good talents in Tollefsen and Pinkins, who fit his system well and are probably better than their subjective “Recruiting Site” ratings. There still is a long way to go, and there is the possibility that USF will still hit the skids and hit rock bottom. We have seen teams already this year in the WCC (LMU and Pepperdine for example) who looked to be dark horse contenders, only to fall back earth due to flaws that they simply couldn’t overcome over the long course of the WCC season. USF has those flaws just like any other team (mostly defensively), but Walters has them playing a style of ball that maximizes their strengths (crashing the boards, playing a moderate tempo) while limiting their negatives (questionable shooters, sloppy with the ball). Walters has made an adjustment with his squad this year that many coaches this year in the WCC have failed to do consistently through the progression of the WCC campaign. Its signs like that which should bode good things for Walters and his Dons squads, especially if all of his talent does return as expected next year (which unfortunately for him and Dons fans hasn’t been a sure thing, and has been hard to determine if its more of the culture of college basketball or something he’s doing internally in the program; I’m starting to believe it’s more of the former).

It may have taken longer than expected, but just maybe, things are looking up and success may be shortly on the horizon for the long-suffering fans on “The Hilltop”.

Why Kevin Pangos May Be the Greatest Guard in Recent Gonzaga History

Awww…memories

First off, I am a Gonzaga alum. My dad wasn’t a Gonzaga alum, but he went to Gonzaga for his first three years of undergrad (he finished at USF, where my grandfather went, so USF always feels like a second-favorite team to me). I lived in Spokane for six years when I was little. So, maybe I am biased toward Gonzaga in some small subtle ways when evaluating WCC teams (though I have gotten better at respecting the WCC as a whole over the past few years; hence the creation of this blog). However, if there is one thing I know, it’s Gonzaga basketball history. I remember a day when John Rillie and Kyle Dixon were the starting backcourt for the Zags (Yes, Rillie and Dixon. I’m sure a lot of WCC basketball fans just sports referenced those two).  I’m not just a recent fan of Gonzaga who started liking the Zags because of the Adam Morrison days or if you’re real hardcore, the Dan Dickau days. I’ve seen Gonzaga when they’ve been great and I’ve seen them when they were fair-to-middling (I don’t remember the days when they outright sucked, which is always exaggerated in my mind; Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga back then, but people who say the sucked grossly overstate it; they were more like Portland is now). I’ve seen games when they used to sport the Royal Blue and Red (wish they’d go back) and I remember when they had a coach who used to get so fired up that he made Mark Few look like an altar boy in comparison (Dan Fitzgerald, RIP, who unfortunately was pushed out acrimoniously due to a funding issue when he was AD).

So, when I say guard Kevin Pangos may be one of the greatest guards, perhaps even the greatest in Gonzaga recent history, I am not shooting this from the hip. This isn’t a knee jerk reaction. I loved Blake Stepp and Derek Raivio. But Pangos may be better than either of them, and this year, statistically he is proving it. He not only could be the reason the Zags win the crown in a suddenly wide-open WCC, but he could be the reason why they stay competitive on the national college basketball scene.

First off, I am only going to compare Pangos to guards who played at Gonzaga from 2003 on. It’s the furthest Ken Pom stats go back. I wish I could go back further, but I don’t have the time, stats or resources to compare guys like Dickau or John Stockton or Matt Santangelo to Pangos (on a knee jerk suspicion, I say Pangos is definitely better than Santangelo, maybe same level as Dickau and slightly worse Stockton; Stockton really didn’t become legendary until he went to the NBA, though he was pretty good at Gonzaga). One of the projects I hope to do is do some historical statistical analysis on some classic WCC teams. I don’t have the time now, but that is something that could happen in the summer, which would make comparisons or posts like these all the more interesting and valuable.

Now, if you have not noticed, statistically, Pangos is having a season that is teetering on legendary when it comes to offensive efficiency. His Adjusted offense according to Ken Pom is 139.2, which is top in the WCC for anyone with at least a 20 percent usage rate. While Gary Bell is close to him at 138.1, Bell’s rating benefits from his extraordinary shooting touch (as he has displayed all three seasons at Gonzaga). But, Bell doesn’t touch Pangos in terms of creating plays for his teammates as well as taking care of the ball. The difference between Bell’s assist and turnover rate is +4.4. Pangos? +12.2, highlighted by a 20.7 assist rate. This isn’t a fluke either, as Pangos’ difference last year was +2.9 while Bell’s was -3.6.

What makes Pangos so great is how he has developed his game since coming to Gonzaga. In high school, Pangos earned a lofty reputation for his ability to shoot from the outside, carry a rather thin team talent-wise and go toe-to-toe with future phenom Andrew Wiggins. If you watch this video, Pangos scored at will against Wiggins’ Vaughn team when Wiggins was a frosh. You can see Wiggins eventually switch to guard Pangos after Pangos starts lighting up the Vaughn squad. But even though Wiggins had obvious physical advantages over the smaller guard, Pangos was still able to make Wiggins and Vaughn pay en route to a game high 48 points.

Pangos has showed a similar ability to drop an obscene amount of points at times. He scored 34 points against Arkansas in the Maui Classic this year, and obliterated a Washington State Cougars team with 27 points as well. But, his game has evolved and that what makes the possibility of Pangos being legendarily great in the Gonzaga lore possible. He has lowered his turnover rate to under 10 percent this year after past rates of 15.7 and 16.5 his sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively. His effective field goal percentage has risen to 60.5 after being 54.9 percent a year ago. He is getting to the line more than a year ago (33.3 free throw rate in comparison to the 26.2 rate last year). And he is doing this with  more minutes than in years past (his 85.2 minutes percentage is a career high so far), and a higher usage rate (21.0 usage rate this year). Some players, who get the uptick in usage and minutes struggle to keep the same efficiency they had when they had the ball less in their hands and when they were on the floor less. Not only has Pangos maintained the same efficiency, but he has actually gotten better, which they needed from him after they lost go-to guy Kelly Olynyk from a year ago.

But when you compare what he’s doing in the lore go Gonzaga history, what Pangos is doing is amazing. Yes, Pangos and Bell could possibly make the best guard-combo Zags fans have ever seen, but what Pangos is doing by himself is pretty darn special. Blake Stepp’s best season in adjusted offense came in 2003-2004, where he posted a rating of 117.1. Derek Raivio’s best season was 122.7 in 2006-2007, but he only posted positive assist to turnover rates only twice in his career (and in his 2006-2007 season, the difference was only +.5). Jeremy Pargo never posted a turnover rate less than 20 percent and consequently his best season efficiency-wise was his senior year when he had a rating of 107.1 (better than his WCC Player of the Year junior season actually). Matt Bouldin’s best year came his junior year when he posted a 119.1 offensive rating, but he also struggled with turnovers over the course of his college career, and he actually regressed in his senior year (his rating fell to 115 his last year). And Steven Gray? After a sophomore campaign when he posted a 120.1 offensive rating, he struggled with more minutes, as he failed to post offensive ratings over 109 in his junior and senior campaigns.

As you can see, there are a lot of names up there, and a lot of quality guards who have had immense impact and success in their tenures with the Zags. And yet, neither of them can touch Pangos’ 139.2 offensive rating, and very few have showed the upward progress Pangos has made from his freshman year to his current state. Pangos came in more as a shooter and he has developed more into an overall player that can step up when needed. He has been overshadowed the past couple of years by upperclassmen and bigger stars, but now that Pangos is asked to shine, he has lived up to the hype and then some. If the Zags want to make the tournament, win another WCC title and perhaps make a run deep in the tourney, then they are going to have to lean on Pangos to make it happen, especially with Sam Dower and Bell’s health an issue at this point.

And you know what? It most likely will happen, because Pangos has been that good this year and stepped up his game that much. Despite the flaws and question marks of this Gonzaga team, Pangos has continued to keep this Gonzaga team humming and currently cemented in its familiar place in the WCC: the top.

Can Pacific Make a Statement Against a Reeling St. Mary’s?

Khalil Kelley (center with ball) and the Tigers Can Make A Strong First Impression in the WCC With a Win Over St. Mary’s on Monday

At first, I wasn’t totally sure about the decision to include Pacific in the WCC starting this season. For the longest time, the prime candidate to round the conference number at 10 seemed to be Seattle University, who used to be a basketball powerhouse (Elgin Baylor went to Seattle) and were looking to rekindle some of their lost luster with the hire of Cameron Dollar and the move from Division II to Division I a few years back. Add that with the fact that they were also a Jesuit Catholic school (like USF, Santa Clara, LMU and of course, Gonzaga), the move seemed natural for the Redhawks.

Instead, the school in the Northern California from the Big West was given the invitation, not Seattle, and while the “non-Catholic” school count in the WCC rose to three (including Pepperdine and BYU), the decision so far to include the Tigers seems to have been a sound one. The Tigers, under first year coach Ron Verlin are 9-2 to start the year with wins over Utah State (ranked 72 in KPR), Fresno State (154 in KPR) and UC Irvine (110 in KPR). While the Tigers were blown out by Oregon and Princeton (lost by 20 plus in both contests), they have showed that they should be taken seriously in conference, even though the WCC is a big step up in competition over the Big West.

Pacific will get a chance to make a statement on Monday against a St. Mary’s squad that is reeling after three straight losses in Hawaii (South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason) at the Diamond Head Classic. The Gaels continue their holiday travels on the road, and going to Stockton won’t be a walk in the park for this 9-3 Randy Bennett-led squad. After all, both San Diego and BYU had their troubles in their first conference road contests of the year, as they dropped games to underdog squds Pepperdine and LMU, respectively. While it will be difficult to say how the home environment at the Spanos Center will be with this Christmas Break still in progress, it won’t be an easy contest for a Gaels team that is probably road weary after a lot of travel and a rough tournament showing in Hawaii. Even Ken Pomeroy thinks this game has tremendous potential, as he rates it as the 4th best game of the day with a thrill score potential of 56.6.

But, this really isn’t about the Gaels. Yes, the Gaels need a win to rebound after a tough stretch. They need to stay ahead early on in conference play, especially since the conference seems so wide open with BYU’s recent loss and the Zags struggling in the post with Sam Dower out due to injury. That being said, this game is equally important to the Tigers. With a win,  they suddenly have a chance to snag a WCC crown that many people thought was well out of their reach in the preseason. With a loss, they may prove again to be another WCC team that feasted from a relatively soft non-conference schedule.

So what are the Tigers’ chances in this one? Ken Pom has this one close, as he projects a 74-73 win in favor of the Gaels, and gives the Tigers a 45 percent chances of winning. Those are good odds for the Tigers, even better than the odds the Lions had going into Saturday’s contest against the Cougars. But, looking past the individual game itself, this is a vastly different Tigers squad from previous squads under long-time coach Bob Thomasen, and it’ll be interesting to see if this “new-look” Tigers squad can continue to develop and earn a big-time win under their first-time head coach.

Verlin was a long-time assistant under Thomasen, so he is familiar with the program and the style that Tigers have preferred over the years. Under Thomasen, the Tigers were a slow-it-down team, their pace usually ranking in the low 60’s on an annual basis. This year, with full-control of the reigns, Verlin has elected to speed it up, as the Tigers have increased their Tempo to 68.7, which is higher than anything Thomasen has done since 2003 (the furthest Ken Pom’s stats go back). The plan to play a faster-kind of ball has worked well to the Tigers’ advantage, as they have been efficiently offensively, as evidenced by their 109.0 Adjusted Offensive rating, which is 69th best in the nation. They have shot the ball well beyond the arc this year (38.3 percent, 58th best in the nation), and have been overall a pretty solid shooting team, as evidenced by their 51.4 effective field goal percentage, which is just outside the Top-100. The faster pace has also made this Tigers a deeper team as well, as Verlin has relied heavy on his bench this year, as he utilizes his reserves 37.1 percent of the time. Considering how heavy Gonzaga and SMC have relied on their starters this year, the deeper Tigers may have an advantage over the long course of the season thanks to the experience the reserves earned during their non-conference slate.

Offensively this is a better team than the one that made the tournament a year ago (they had a 104 rating last year). But defensively, there are still issues that make one wonder how “real” the Tigers are. Last season, the Tigers ranked in the Top-100 in steal and block percentage. This season? They are 139th in block percentage and 269th in steal percentage. They have some size on their team, as evidenced by their +1.3 effective height rating and the presence of players such as 6-10 senior Tim Thomas (who leads the team in block percentage at 5.9 percent) and 6-8 forwards Tony Gill and Khalil Kelley. That being said, how the Tigers will adjust on the defensive end of the court may be the key to whether or not they separate themselves from middle of the pack in the WCC. The WCC has a lot of offensively-proficient squads, with St Mary’s and Gonzaga continuing that tradition (both rank in the Top 15 in Adjusted Offense), and San Francisco displaying amazing ability and efficiency on the offensive end (they rank 31st) if not on the defensive side of things (317th in adjusted defense). Pacific certainly can play with the best of them in the WCC when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop. Whether or not they can prevent other conference teams from putting the ball in the hoop will determine whether they are a possible 20-win squad, or just another middling team that hovers around .500.

There is some talent on this Tigers squad that makes a possible WCC crown possible. 6-7 senior Ross Rivera leads the team in offensive efficiency at 118.1, highlighted by a 60.6 true shooting percentage and 40.8 free throw rate (made better by his 90 percent FT percentage). Kelley has been a beast on the offensive glass, as he is posting a 16.4 offensive rebounding rate, 25th best in the nation. And though senior guard Samu Taku hasn’t necessarily been the most efficient player on this Tigers squad (96 offensive rating), he has improved from a year ago (91 offensive rating) and his numbers should improve if he can find the better shooting touch he displayed from a year ago (37.1 eFG percentage this year in comparison to the 43.5 percent he shot last year).

Sometimes, when a long-term assistant takes over a program, their are some growing pains and some coaches rarely realize the success of their predecessor and mentor. Ed DeChellis (who took over at Rhode Island for Jim Harrick) and Bruiser Flint (who took over at UMass for John Calipari) are prime examples of long time assistants who couldn’t match their former coach’s success. Verlin has a long way to go, and as stated before, the Tigers feasted on a non-conference schedule that probably could make even the most mediocre of coaches look good. That being said, St. Mary’s will be a good barometer check not only for Verlin, but this Tigers squad in general. An upset win, and Pacific will announce to the WCC world that their seasons debut may be the start of something special for years to come.

Could LMU Actually Be Legit Contenders in the WCC?

Max Good is Letting His Players Play, and That Has Had a Solid Effect on This Squad

As expected, the LMU-BYU game proved to be a doozy, as it ended up being an up-tempo affair (78 possessions total in the game), in front of a surprisingly pro-BYU crowd (not surprising considering the whole BYU being the premiere Mormon university, the strong Mormon populations on the West Coast and the LMU student body being on break). Despite these factors though, the Lions ended up whipping the Cougars 87-76 in a game where the Cougars only led once (5-4 at the 16:52 mark in the first half) and were down as much as 21 (63-42 with 14:05 in the second half). The underdog Lions had a 30.8 win probability in this one according to Ken Pom.com, but they looked like the better squad all game, thoroughly outplaying the WCC favorite (they earned 1 first place vote in the coaches preseason poll) on the first day of WCC play.

With the win, college basketball fans are certainly going to take more notice of the Lions now, and it is possible that the Lions could be dark horses for the WCC crown if this first game was any indicator. The Lions’ combo of up-tempo play (72.1 pace), offensive efficiency (108.7 adjusted offensive rating) and ability to create second-chance opportunities (38.2 percent offensive rebounding rate, 31st best in the nation) make them a strong challenger to the traditional WCC contenders like Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. And while BYU certainly has had their share of issues this year (mostly on the defensive end), I think the loss to LMU may have less to do with BYU’s struggles (they are still rated in the Top-60 according to Ken Pom after the loss), and more to do with LMU’s potential (they jumped up to 120 in the KP ratings; they were previously 141st).

And what is LMU’s potential? To be honest, it is still early to say, and the USD game will be a strong indicator of whether the Lions are for real or not (the true test of a good team is not just winning the big games, but winning the games following those big wins; USD, though they lost to Pepperdine tonight, is still a quality squad and present a style that won’t suit LMU as well as BYU). However, I give a few reasons why the Lions could be a sleeper candidate to swipe the WCC Crown from the traditional powers.

1.) LMU Has Quality Talent, and a System That Caters to Their Strengths

You have to give it to coach Max Good. This may be his best coaching job yet, and if he continues to coach in conference like he did today, I think he’ll help this Lions squad acquire an unusual amount of success. For starters, the Lions like to run and play a fast-tempo game. However, it’s the way the Lions do it is what makes it fascinating. Good places a strong trust in his players, and lets them create for themselves and settle into the game naturally. This plays to their strengths, because this team has a lot of talented players, especially on the offensive end. Anthony Ireland, though he cooled off over the course of the game, got off to a good start that set the tone for this Lions team. Evan Payne achieved a 118 rating with 27 points. And the best stat of all? Only 7 team turnovers, a 9 percent turnover rate in comparison to the Cougars’ 16.7 percent turnover rate.

Usually teams that are given more free reign are more prone to turn the ball over, so most coaches hesitate to do so. But, it’s obvious that Good has the team meshing to the point that he can be more hands off, and not worry about the consequences as much. He can do that because players like Ireland, Payne and even bench guys like Chase Flint and Marin Mornar have strong abilities and instincts as players, and that was on full display today as they just outplayed BYU in almost every aspect today. LMU will be fun to watch this year, a stark contrast to their more defensive-oriented, grind-it-out years the past few seasons under Good (the only other year their tempo was over 70 under Good was in 2010). That being said, the Lions will also be competitive in addition to entertaining if they continue to play with efficiency like they did today against BYU.

2.) LMU’s Style Will Give the “Power Squads” Fits

I figured that LMU, playing their up-tempo style would be their own worst enemy, as BYU did it way more often (they’re tops in pace in the nation) and against a better non-conference schedule as well. I figured teams like Portland and San Diego, who play much slower halfcourt-oriented styles, would be tougher opponents for the Cougars than the Lions, whose style resembles theirs. I was dead wrong. Not only did the Lions not change their style of play in this game, but they did it better than BYU. They dared BYU to play up-tempo and they ended up showing that they could do it better than the Cougars. Give it to Good and the Lions. That’s a ballsy move, as some coaches may have opted to slow it down to get the Cougars in a funk. Instead, the Lions threw the uppercut and hurt the Cougars early, and BYU was just never able to recover.

And, in addition to getting a quality win, the Lions also showed that this style will be troublesome to Gonzaga and St. Mary’s as well. As evidenced by Sam Dower sitting out today, the Zags have serious questions with their size, and not only do the Lions have the guards (Payne and Ireland may be the most underrated combo in the WCC right now) to match up against the Zags’ combo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, but I don’t know how the Zags will fare on preventing offensive rebounds (which LMU does well) without Dower in the lineup. Maybe Dower will be healthy by the time they play, but his absence makes this Zags team extremely vulnerable to this Lions squad. As for St. Mary’s, they have showed defensive inefficiencies all season, and that all got exposed at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii (three losses). The Gaels will have to outscore the Lions to win it seems unless they make progress on the defensive end. That “outscore them” strategy didn’t serve BYU well today and I’m not sure the Gaels are that much better offensively than Cougars.

3.) The WCC is “Wide Open”

Maybe LMU will fall back to earth on Monday against the Toreros. But, if they win, then they could put themselves ahead of the pack and set the tone in the WCC. As displayed in the Santa Clara-Gonzaga game today, the Zags are not the “Dominant” Zags of last year or even a couple of seasons ago. They are very thin and flawed in many areas, and this is a prime opportunity for a team like LMU to expose them. Same goes with St. Mary’s as they are coming off a disastrous showing in Hawaii. Furthermore, this conference is experiencing strong parity, as the lowest-rated team in the WCC (Pepperdine) according to Ken Pom beat San Diego, which is rated in the top-half  of the conference in Ken Pom’s ratings. There are no cupcakes right now in the WCC, and while that is good for the league overall, it also makes the possibilities of this being a multiple-bid league challenging (I guarantee the top team will have at least two conference losses, maybe more).

Maybe LMU just had a good game against the Cougars, and they’ll regress to being a middle-of-the-pack WCC team this season (I honestly do believe anybody is beatable in the WCC right now). After all, they did play lights out on the offensive end (1.12 points per possession), and BYU may just be worse than a lot of people initially thought. However, the talent and offensive firepower is there for the Lions, and with a conference that is suddenly experiencing such parity at the moment, I think those two factors will bode well for the Lions to make a surprising run in conference play.

Were Gonzaga and St. Mary’s Exposed After Weekend Losses?

Even with the addition of BYU and Pacific, the WCC race within the past decade has come between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. Mark Few and Randy Bennett have been the staples of coaching success in the WCC, and on a regular basis the two schools have produced their fair share of talent (Adam Morrison, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk, Omar Samhan, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova just to name a few) which has resulted in a slew of victories and NCAA Tournament appearances for both programs.

That being said, both teams came into this season with a lot of question marks. The Zags lost mainstay forward Elias Harris and glue guys Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi to graduation, and saw Olynyk leave a year early (can’t really blame him) to become a first round draft pick by the Boston Celtics. As for the Gaels, not only did they lose all-conference stud Dellavedova, but they also lost big man Mitchell Young to graduation. While both teams returned a lot of key pieces from their successful 2012-2013 squads, they also lost some key players whose productions would have to be replaced in order to replicate last year’s successes and be competitive not just in the WCC, but at the national level again in 2013-2014.

How have the results been so far? So far good for both squads. Entering Saturday’s game, the Zags came to Wichita with a 10-1 record to face a talented, but inconsistent Kansas State squad. As for the Gaels, they were away for the holidays, traveling to Hawaii to take on South Carolina, another inconsistent squad that was coming off head scratching losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate in consecutive games, in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (another interesting subplot was if the Gaels took care of business, they could have faced Boises State, who are coached by former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice).

Contribute it to the travel or Christmas break or whatever, but things did not go as well as planned for both squads. The Zags struggled against an athletic and scrappy Wildcats team, and without the services of big man Sam Dower, who went down in the first half with a hip injury, the Zags’ lack of size was greatly exposed on both ends of the court. As for the Gaels, they were unable to stop the hot-shooting Gamecocks defensively, and they ended up getting surprised by a team that looked to be a bottom feeder for the second straight year in the SEC.

Is this a cause for concern for Gonzaga and St. Mary’s fans? Or is this another case of the “Christmas break letdown” blues? (This has been the case for Gonzaga a lot in the past decade). Let’s take a deeper look into both games:

Gonzaga versus Kansas State (72-64)

For the year, Kansas State has struggled to find offensive consistency for the year. Their adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy is 102.2 (roughly 1.02 points per possession), and their effective field goal percentage is 46 percent, 283rd best in the nation. Their inability to find consistent offense explains why they have some letdown losses to teams like Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (neutral court). However, if you want to give credit to second-year coach Bruce Weber (and I don’t like to give him credit for anything the way he drove that Illinois program into the ground), you have to applaud his ability to keep the Wildcats solid as a defensive squad. This year, their 94.3 adjusted defensive rating is 20th best in the nation, and they excel in terms of contesting and forcing bad shots and turnovers, as they are holding teams this year to a 45.1 effective field goal percentage (44th best in the nation) and have a turnovers forced percentage of 21.9 (27th best in the nation). The big story was this: could the sweet-shooting Zags succeed against a K State team that held teams in check on the perimeter and from beyond the arc (the Wildcats are holding teams to a 25.8 percent three point percentage for the year, 4th best in the nation)?

Well, Kansas State succeeded on the defensive end for the most part. Sans the performance of Kevin Pangos (more on him later), Drew Barnham and the limited performance of Sam Dower before he went out with injury, the Zags were immensely poor on the offensive end. While Karnowski shot well from the field (5-of-6), his 0-for-6 performance from the charity stripe hurt the Zags as he finished with an offensive rating of 92 for the game, according to Ken Pom. David Stockton and Kyle Draginis also provide mediocre performances on the offensive end, as they finished with offensive ratings of 92 and 90, respectively. But the worst offender of the game? Gary Bell, who has showed some strong consistency this year in his junior season, posted a rating of 64, as he struggled from beyond the arc, missing some key three point shots down the stretch and finishing 1-of-7 from the field with a mere 3 points. The Zags for the game finished with only 1.03 points per possession, greatly down from their 1.16 season average (which went down from that game, so it was higher but I don’t have the number yet). Kansas State needed to shut down the Zags on the offensive end to have a shot in this game, and when Dower went down, the Zags’s lack of size (minus-2.0 effective height for the year, 299th in the nation, and that is WITH Dower) and presence in the post was greatly exposed and the Wildcats were able to put more pressure on the perimeter with only Karnowski as the legitimate threat in the paint.

However, another story for the game was the Wildcats’ offensive breakout. Kansas State averaged 1.20 points per possession in this game, helped by 52.8 percent shooting on their two point shots (though they continued to struggle from beyond the arc, as they only made 5 out of 18). Furthermore, they were able to out rebound the Zags on the offensive end (10-8 on the offensive glass), get to the free throw line more as well (25 to the Zags’ 15), and they turned the ball over less than the Zags (4-to-12). Considering the Zags lost all four factors of this game, the fact that they only lost by eight is pretty remarkable. Forward Thomas Gipson proved to be the thorn for the Zags individually, as he scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, good for an offensive rating of 163 in only 21 minutes.

So, should Zags fans hit the panic button yet? Well, it all depends on the health of Dower. X-Rays have come back negative on Dower’s hip, but it’ll be interesting to see how he recovers and how this will affect his play for the year. While the Zags have transfer forward Angel Nunez eligible, he did not play in the Wildcats game, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get an increased role with Dower’s health a question over the coming weeks. That being said, I think this was the perfect storm game for the Zags, as the loss of Dower, combined with the rare offensive outburst of the Wildcats put the chips stacked against the Zags from the beginning. As I said before, the fact that they only lost by eight, despite losing all four factors of the game is pretty remarkable. I will say this: Pangos is certainly the backbone of this team, and I think it’s his “WCC Player of the Year” award to lose this year. Despite getting shut out in the first half, Pangos made the necessary adjustments in the second half and finished with 14 points, 6 assists and an offensive rating of 120. Pangos is proving he’s “The Man” on this Gonzaga team, and I think the confidence he got from this game will bode well for the Zags going forward, since they aren’t going to face a lot of teams that are as big a threat defensively as the Wildcats in WCC play.

St. Mary’s vs. South Carolina (78-71)

The big issue with Randy Bennett’s squads in the past is that they have played soft non-conference schedules. This year has been no different, as the Gaels have only played one game away from home (Boise State) and have not played anyone in the Top-50 according to Ken Pom’s ratings. So, while the 9-0 record was nice, many wondered how the Gaels would stack up against the Zags in conference play, since their record was padded by such an easy early schedule.

I expected a letdown of some sort from the Gaels in this tournament, but I did not expect it to come at the hands of South Carolina, a team that was coming off brutal losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate (rated 84th and 154th, respectively by Ken Pom). However, the Gaels, while again efficient on the offensive end (12th in the nation in offensive efficiency), have displayed inconsistency this year on the defensive end, as evidenced by their 101.1 defensive rating, 128th in the nation. The Gaels don’t cause a lot of turnovers (only an 18 percent turnover rate, 208th in the nation) and they don’t get a lot of steals (7.9 steal rate, 252nd in the nation), so they rely on their presence and ability to force bad shots in order to be effective on the defensive side of the ball. It has worked for the most part, as teams are only shooting an effective field goal percentage of 47.1, so when the Gaels are able to settle down defensively in the half court, they do show some ability on the defensive end to prevent points on possessions.

However, for whatever reason, the Gamecocks came lighting it up in Hawaii, as they shot 58.5 percent on their two points shots, and four of seven from beyond the arc. The offensive performance was a surprise for the Gamecocks, as they were shooting a woefully bad 44.9 on their two points shots this year, and post an overall effective field goal percentage of 46.5. And yet, the Gamecocks were able to shot almost 14 percent higher than their season average on two point shots, which lead to them scoring 1.24 points per possession against the Gaels. Surprisingly, the Gaels didn’t slouch on the offensive end, as they averaged 1.13 points per possession thanks to the performances of Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker, who posted offensive ratings of 137, 124 and 142, respectively. Waldow also scored a team-high 20 points, though his 112 offensive rating and 28 percent possession percentage made his performance less impressive to the other three.

So where did the Gaels go wrong? While the Gamecocks did get to the line more, they didn’t make it count, as evidenced by their 62.1 percentage from the charity stripe. One of the big factors had to be on the offensive glass, as even though the Gamecocks had less for the game, they had a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (44 percent) to the Gaels (38.2 percent). Add that with a superior shooting day for the Gamecocks, and the Gaels, despite playing effectively on the offensive end, just weren’t able to pull this one off. Guards Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice had effective games against the Gaels’ perimeter players, as they scored 13 and 11 points, respectively (good for ratings of 129 and 183). Additionally, they got excellent production off the bench from 6-11 big man Laimonas Chatkevicius (12 points 7 rebounds, 119 rating) and guard Brenton Williams, who hit two key threes in the game. This was a stark contrast to the Gaels, as they got limited production from their bench in this game, as only guard Kerry Carter had much of an impact as a reserve, and even he struggled to get going in this game (91 rating, 5 points).

Much like Kansas State against the Zags, the Gamecocks outplayed their usual output on the offensive end, and that proved to be the Gaels’ undoing, especially since they are not a team that generates a lot of turnovers on the defensive end (they depend more on shutting down opponents and limiting second chance shots). The Gaels are not a very deep team, as they only got 12 minutes this game from their other bench players other than Carter (who had 36), and their bench only has accounted for 24 percent of game minutes for the year, 322nd in the nation. This will be interesting to see come WCC play, for the Gaels could be in trouble if key players get into foul trouble (which they have avoided for the most part this year). One through Five, the Gaels can play with anyone, and their ability on the offensive end is for real as well. But the perimeter depth (though certainly not front court depth) of Gonzaga could pose problems for the Gaels when they face each other in WCC play. That being said, I still believe the Gaels are legitimate contenders in the WCC, even despite the soft non-conference schedule and loss to South Carolina on Sunday.