Friday, December 27, 2013

Ranking the Saturday WCC Opening Slate

Two years ago, the Lions beat BYU 82-68 in Provo; can the Lions Do It Again in LA Saturday?

WCC conference play officially begins Saturday with four games. With a slew of others college games worth watching tomorrow (Syracuse-Nova and Louisville-Kentucky, especially), I wanted to rate the WCC games in order of "watch-ability" (I know it's not a word, but let's just go for it; and if you want some music while reading this, check this out're welcome).

1. BYU Cougars (8-5, 46th in KPR) versus LMU (8-4, 142nd in KPR), at Gersten Pavilion, Los Angeles, Calif., 1 PM PCT.

I can't stress enough how awesome this game is going to be. I know it's on at the same time as Kentucky-Louisville, but if you really do care about WCC Hoops, you're going to TIVO that Blue-Blood classic and watch this game instead. Here's why:

1.) There's going to be lots of points

BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation at 78.6. LMU is currently 19th in the nation in adjusted tempo at 73.1 Ken Pom projects the score to be 93-88 in favor of BYU. I mean seriously, for WCC fans yearning for the days of Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and "The System" this is about as good as its going to get. Neither team is very defensively inclined, and both teams will get theirs on the offensive end. At the very least, this game is going to be in the low 140's in combined points and could get up to the 180's, maybe more. BYU's Matt Carlino and LMU's Anthony Ireland both like to chuck it up (Carlino has a 31.1 shot percentage and Ireland has a 27.7 shot percentage), so whoever has the better night from the field (and both players have had their history of inconsistency despite being centerpieces of their respective tams) could put their squad over the top. If you like offense (as I do), then watch this game, even if it requires you to go on the W.TV site. (And hey, you can have this on your computer playing if you must insist on watching Calipari-Pitino).

2.) Could set the tone for one of the teams as a conference dark horse

Statistically speaking, BYU has been very good, but pretty unlucky (-.071 in luck factor according to Ken Pom, 298th in the nation). They like to play fast, and they have been relatively efficient on the offensive and defensive end (hence their 46 ranking despite being 8-5). LMU on the other hand has benefited from a relatively soft schedule, and their best win was a 20-point runaway at home against Cal Poly. Good is in a crucial year from a contract standpoint, and he can make his case for an extension if he can have LMU be competitive and finish in the Top 3 in the WCC (he certainly has the tools due it with Ireland a senior and leading the charge). As for BYU, a big win, and they may separate themselves from the pack as legitimate contenders to dethrone St. Mary's and Gonzaga for the WCC Regular Season crown.

2.) San Diego Toreros (9-4, 139th in KPR) versus Pepperdine Waves (7-5, 204th in KPR), at Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, Calif., 5 PM PCT

It'll be a battle of styles in this one as San Diego's defensive, grind-it-out game will go against Pepperdine's more offensive-oriented squad. Pepperdine is ranked in the top-100 in many offensive categories, including 2 point percentage, 3 point percentage and effective field goal percentage, while San Diego is ranked defensively in 2 point percentage against and 3 point percentage against. Both play relatively slow tempos (San Diego's tempo is 66.4 and Pepperdine's is 67.6), so it will be interesting to see if Pepperdine will be able to be successful on the offensive end against a Bill Grier squad that puts such a strong emphasis in preventing points to earn victories. Ken Pom projects this to be close, as he predicts a 69-68 slugfest in favor of the Waves.

A key match up will be in the post as San Diego's Dennis Kramer will match up against Pepperdine's Brendan Lane. Both have been extremely efficient on the offensive end this year (Kramer has a offensive rating of 122.8 and an eFG% of 63.3 and Lane has a rating of 121.0 with an eFG% of 63.5), so it'll be interesting to see who'll take advantage and have an upper hand in the post. Kramer's size could be an issue for Lane, as he has two inches on the Waves senior, but Lane has been the more physical player over the course of the year as Lane posts a better offensive rebounding percentage (11.4 to 9.6) and block percentage (8.3 to 2.9) than Kramer. Whoever wins this match up will be key in helping their team to victory, and it'll be interesting to see if Lane can continue his effectiveness down low against the much bigger Kramer.

3.) Santa Clara Broncos (7-6, 175th in KPR) versus Gonzaga Bulldogs (10-2, 27th in KPR), McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, Wash., 6 PM PCT

Ken Pom actually rates this as the least interesting WCC game of the day, as he projects an 83-67 beatdown in favor of the Bulldogs. While statistically I don't question the reasons for the projection, I am going to call the under on that projected point spread. The Broncos have traditionally played okay in the Kennel over the past decade, and though Santa Clara has had their fair share of issues this year, they still have some talent on the board. Furthermore, the seriousness of Sam Dower's injury and the lack of frontcourt depth for the Zags makes this a very vulnerable team. Add in the factor that they are coming off an emotional loss to Kansas State in Wichita as well as the unpredictability of Christmas Breaks that puts a lot of teams in funks (see St. Mary's at Diamond Head) and I just don't really see the Zags beating the Broncos by 16 or more points.

Another reason to watch is a match up that features arguably two of the best guards in the WCC. Kevin Pangos has established himself as a go-to guy for the Zags, as he is posting a 138.1 offensive rating, tops for the team and WCC for players who are used on 20 percent or more possessions. Brandon Clark has been more effective as a playmaker this year (almost a 10 point decrease in turnover percentage from a year ago), which has resulted in him improving his offensive rating to 119.5. Now, Clark hasn't faced a guard like Pangos this year, but it'll be interesting to see if the junior guard from East Chicago will be able to hold his own against the WCC Player of the Favorite in front of a raucous Kennel Crowd (though to be honest it'll be a down crowd due to the Christmas break and most students being home; another boost in the Broncos' favor).

4.) San Francisco Dons (7-5, 179th in KPR) versus Portland Pilots (8-4, 101st in KPR), Chiles Center, Portland, Ore, 7 PM PCT

Portland is coming off a pretty good win over Princeton (65th in KPR at time) on a neutral court, so the Pilots are looking to transition that momentum into their first WCC game of the year against the Dons. As for USF, they are looking for a decent win, as they have no wins over teams who are in rated in the top 120 according to Ken Pom (their best win is over Cleveland State at home; CSU was rated 121st).

A lot is at stake here this conference season for both coaches (USF's Rex Walters and Portland's Eric Reveno), as it could be their final WCC campaigns if they have lackluster finishes. Both have had seasons of success and 20-plus wins, but both are coming off years where their teams under-performed badly. While both have had decent starts record-wise to start the year, a winning record in conference play this year would do wonders in helping them keep their current positions. A key area to victory will be the offensive glass, as USF has been great in terms of getting second chance opportunities (35.4 offensive rebounding percentage, 80th best in the nation), while Portland has been good at preventing them (27.7 percent allowed, 43rd in the nation). Kruize Pinkins has been a beast on the offensive glass this year, as his 16.7 offensive rebounding rate is 26th best in the nation. The Pilots will need to neutralize the athletic forward down low and match his energy to boot. Luckily for the Pilots, they have a guy who may be able to match Pinkins in senior Ryan Nicholas, who is not only sporting a 27.5 defensive rebounding rate, but an 11.3 percent offensive rebounding rate as well. It's going to be a slugfest down low on the glass between Pinkins and Nicholas, and if Pinkins can overcome and outplay the senior forward, it could lead to a big upset for the Dons (Ken Pom projects this game to go 86-77 in favor of the Pilots).

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