Feb 28, 2014

Clark men heavy favorites at NWAACC tourney

NWAACC Men's Basketball


The biggest shame of this years' tournament is that big-time scorers Brendan Westendorf and Kyle Impero, who have traded off the scoring title all season long and both average just under 30 points per game, are on opposite sides of the bracket. It's unlikely that both will make the finals, so we won't get the marquee match up between the two young stars. We will, however, get a handful of good contests in the first round, headlined by the early game when No. 3 Pierce and No. 7 SW Oregon will face off in a battle between defense and offense.

Also, it's always fun to look at the preseason rankings, which are generally off the wall. This year, though, seven of the eight initial teams made the post season, including Clackamas, Treasure Valley and Portland, who qualified for the tournament this season for the first time in program history.

I will be in attendance writing game recaps for the league, as well as handing social media throughout the event, beginning on Sunday. Most tweets will be via the league twitter account, @NWAACC, but you can also follow me @JowardHoward for additional news and notes. Feel free to send me an email, leave a comment or drop in to say hello.

The Coaches Poll, released on Feb. 25, are in italics below each team's ranking. Here are the top eight men's teams as we enter the season's final stages:

                                                                                                                         

1. Clark (24-1, 16-0 West)
No. 1 Coaches
Last set: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches

I'm tempted to simply write "22-game winning streak" and leave Clark's entry at that, but there is far more to talk about than can be summed up in four words. They don't score the most points, and they don't shoot the best percentage, but they have something far more valuable. The Penguins remain  the only team in the league to allow less than 70 points per game, and as things start to slow down in the latter stages of the tournament, that will come in handy. One thought provoking statistic is that Clark collects just under eight steals a game, and for a defensive team, that's particularly interesting. The Penguins don't play defense like the old Golden State Warriors (a favorite of my NBA punching-bags), where they frustrate the offense by jumping in passing lanes. In addition, they've committed the fewest fowls per game of any team in the league and are tied for second in the NWAACC in blocks with just over four swats per contest. All that boiled down? They can keep offensive players in front of them, don't make stupid mistakes if they let somebody get by, and they know how to block a shot without fouling players underneath. Here's the fascinating part: it's the NWAACC version of this year's super bowl. The league's top defense (79 ppg), and the league's top offense (97.5 ppg) will kick off round one.

No. 1 Clark will face off with unranked Chemeketa at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening.

                                                                                                                          


2. Clackamas (16-11, 10-4 South)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: No. 4, Unranked Coaches

Let's hope, for my pride, that the last few weeks from Clackamas haven't been a fluke. And even if the recent hot streak won't carry over into the playoffs, what a streak it has been. They won six games in a row from mid-January into the beginning of February, lost 109-108 to Chemeketa [box] in an absolute barn burner, and polished off their season by winning three games by a combined six points. The only playoff-bound team that Clackamas didn't beat during that stretch was Chemeketa, in fact, as the Cougars topped Portland by 18 points, and No. 7 SW Oregon 93-90 [box]. It was an incredible comeback from Clackamas in order to make the tournament for a record 14th consecutive year, especially as there are five teams from the south within a game of one another. Sophomore guard Grant Sitton has come up big in the last three games, averaging nearly 23 points per game over that stretch, but the Cougars have seven players who have scored at least 18 points at least one time this season. The offense can come from anywhere, and the Cougars have been feeding their magic beans.

No. 2 Clackamas will take on unranked Highline to start off their tournament at noon on Saturday.

                                                                                                                         

3. Pierce (20-6, 13-3 West)
No. 4 Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 5 coaches

It's pretty easy to excuse losing to a team whose won 22 games in a row, honestly. Although I think "excuse" might not be the term the Pierce coaches would use, Clark looks like they're on a mission right now, and it's not a huge surprise that Pierce simply didn't have the firepower to keep up. It's a little easier to accept that, and because Clark made for two thirds of the Raiders' losses since early in the month of December, there is plenty to feel good about. They've been rolling on teams all year long, cleaning up by an average of 13.5 points per contest, a league best. They are also in the upper echelon in three-point percentage, lead the league in assists and lead the league in steals. Unfortunately for Pierce, they have a difficult game right out of the gun with No. 7 SW Oregon in the first game on the men's court at 8 a.m. sharp. The Lakers' high-octane offense will definitely put Pierce to the test, as they score over 92 points a game and are one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the basketball.

No. 3 Pierce will play No. 7 SW Oregon at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                        

4. Big Bend (21-7, 10-4 East)
No. 5 coaches
Last set: No. 7, Unranked coaches

It's fairly unusual for a team to take second place in their region but get a better ranking than the region champion, but it's difficult to place the Runnin' Viks any lower. They've won their last six games, following a little mid-season bump in the road, and finished just one game out of a tie for first place with No. 6 Treasure Valley. Sophomore Brendan Westendorf was one of the highlight players from last year's tournament, and would have been playing for a league title if not for a phantom 22-point-comeback-in-seven-minutes performance from eventual champion Chemeketa in the semifinals. Westendorf has regained the scoring lead over fellow scoring sensation Kyle Impero at nearly 30 points per game, but they'll need some backup if they hope to make it into the championship game: they've got No. 1 Clark on their side of the bracket, which seems to be the easier side with that one glaring exception.

No. 4 Big Bend will face No. 8 Bellevue, the third seed from the Northern Region, at 10 p.m. to close Saturday's slate of games.

                                                                                                                         

5. Whatcom (18-6, 11-3 North)
No.  3 Coaches
Last set: No. 6, No. 3 coaches
The Northern Region isn't quiiiite as messed up as the south, but it's a close second, and one that Whatcom managed to squeeze out of with a region title on tiebreakers. An 87-85 loss [box] to Everett on Feb 19 was the only thing that kept the Orcas from clinching the region championship outright, and that game came down to offensive rebounds and second chance points. Everett was able to out-gain Whatcom by nine on the offensive glass, and netted 21 second-chance points to the Orcas' three. Even in that game, Whatcom got another standout performance from their star scoring talent, sophomore guard Kyle Impero, who averages 29.74 points per game, good for a narrow second in the league. Whatcom, though they're a 'low volume' squad from beyond the arc, is among the league's best in three-point shooting. They're incredibly efficient with the shots they take, and given that they're one of the top (or bottom) teams in turnovers, it becomes difficult to pick up easy points off of miscues or long rebounds. 
No. 5 Whatcom will play unranked Spokane at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
                                                                                                                          

6. Treasure Valley (18-8, 11-3 East)
No. 2 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 3 Coaches

This is one of those rankings where I'll get weird looks, but something just doesn't have me convinced. The coaches certainly love the Chukars, but their four-game winning streak to end the season is a little lackluster when you consider the teams they beat. Columbia Basin looks to be the most notable of those victories, but the Hawks lost four of their final five games in a freefall to close out the regular season. The other three didn't make the playoffs, and if you look before the mini-streak, there are a pair of losses to unranked Spokane and No. 4 Big Bend, who finished second in the region standings. That said, Treasure Valley has had a great year. They're one of the best in field goal percentage, and they shoot well from three-point range. They're second in the league in assists, and as a slower-paced team with just 66 shot attempts per game, that's an impressive stat. They average 20 assists per contest on 30 made field goals. Kindergarten teachers drool over that kind of sharing.

No. 6 Treasure Valley will face unranked Edmonds from the Northern Region at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                         


7. SW Oregon (21-7, 10-4 South)
No. 7 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked coaches

Choosing between about five teams that have nearly identical in-region records isn't a simple task, and the Lakers were one of two teams that popped out, much of the reason being what makes them dangerous to No. 3 Pierce, as mentioned in the entry above. (You didn't read it? For shame.) Simply put, the SW Oregon offense is fast and effective, but not the cleanest offensive machine at the state fair. The Lakers are second in the league in scoring with just over 92 points per game, but they don't shoot with the best, down to 41 percent by the end of the regular season. They also don't throw many assists, as they are last among the ranked teams, but they seem to make up for their deficiencies at the free throw line, where they lead the league in total makes. A system with few mistakes has treated them well so far, as they cough up the ball only 11.46 times in a game on average, and so there aren't many ways to take advantage. Just be sure to keep both hands up in the air and your feet planted when defending inside the key, and hope for a (relatively likely) miss.

No. 7 SW Oregon will match up with No. 3 Pierce in the tournament opener at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                         

8. Bellevue (17-10, 11-3 North)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked coaches

Like the Southern Region, there just had to be somebody plucked from the North. Whatcom, with Kyle Impero at the controls, was the easy first choice. Then it fell to Bellevue and Skagit Valley. Looking at the stats, the Cardinals seemed like the better team across the board, but Bellevue gets the nod for one reason and one reason only: one point. They beat Skagit Valley 73-72 [box] in the penultimate game of the season, knocking the Cardinals from their position of fighting for a league title, and thrusting themselves into the mix of things. The offense surrounds 6-foot-four sophomore forward Austin O'Keefe, but other than him, the Bulldog roster is chalk full of role players who take turns to step up. Only O'Keefe averages more than 10 points per game, but eight Bulldogs have scored 16 points or more at least once, meaning that Bellevue can keep opponents guessing.
No. 8 Bellevue will see No. 4 Big Bend in the first round's closer, with tip scheduled for 10 p.m. on Saturday night.

                                                                                                                        

Columbia Basin tops tournament preview

NWAACC Women's Basketball

The first round is often full of a few lop-sided drubbings, given the general unbalance between the powerful Eastern and Southern regions against the rest of the field, but a stronger Western contingent this season brings several intriguing match ups on Saturday. Lane and Highline, starting at 4 p.m., will be an interesting clash of styles; the Titans with a high-scoring offense, and the Thunderbirds slow, sure and defensive. The biggest gem of the first day is easily the game between No. 2 Clark and No. 6 Clackamas. The teams have already squared off with Clackamas taking the game at home by 15 points. They've had their struggles and Clark has been on fire, but if there's any upset alert in the first round, it's this one.

I will be in attendance writing game recaps for the league, as well as handing social media throughout the event, beginning on Sunday. Most tweets will be via the league twitter account, @NWAACC, but you can also follow me @JowardHoward for additional news and notes. Feel free to send me an email, leave a comment or drop in to say hello.

The Coaches Poll, released on Feb. 25, are in italics below each team's ranking. 
                                                                                                                        

1. Columbia Basin (23-4, 13-1 East)
No. 1 Coaches
Last set: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches 

In a conference and a sport where momentum means an awful lot, it's perfectly acceptable to raise the question: will the best team in the league feel the effects of a loss (69-57 [box] to No. 7 Walla Walla) in their regular season finale once the championship tournament rolls around? Heading into the last game of the season against the Warriors, the Hawks had already clinched the Eastern Region's top seed. There wasn't a point, really, of playing their starters because a loss wouldn't change their position in the standings. And to coach Cheryl Holden's credit, getting a little extra rest for the team will go a long way during the grueling, four-day tournament, but will rest turn to rust? The league's top defensive program - and we all know defense wins championships (hint) - will surely show up, but it will be interesting to see how they perform after snapping a 17-game losing streak in their last outing. 18 games would have been awfully intimidating.

No. 1 Columbia Basin will take on Peninsula, the 4-seed from the Northern Region, a 8 p.m. on Saturday evening.

                                                                                                                         

2. Clark (23-3, 15-1 West)
No. 2 Coaches
Last set: No. 4, No. 3 coaches

Every time there's a highly ranked Western Region team, the argument against  them is always strength of schedule. This year, however, the West seems to be the strongest it's been in several seasons. And with the exception of a few bottom-feeders on their schedule, Clark has had a far more difficult schedule this year than many people would give them credit for. They've only lost once since Dec. 7, and their loss to No. 4 Lower Columbia was only by four points. They continue to have one of the best defenses in the league as one of only five teams averaging lower than 60 defensive points per game. On the flip side, they're second in scoring behind Lane, averaging over 82 points a game. That's a good combination, and they'll likely need both to get past a brutal first-round draw: No. 6 Clackamas. The Cougars are one of only three teams to have beaten Clark this season, and given the hot finish for Clackamas, this will be the premiere match up on Saturday between two of the best defensive squads the league as a whole.

No. 2 Clark will have their hands full, playing the fourth-seeded No. 6 Clackamas from the Southern Region at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                         


3. Umpqua (21-6, 10-2 South)
No. 3 Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 3 coaches

Coming down the final stretch, the Riverhawks looked next to unstoppable. They have one of the highest scoring offenses, coming in third with just over 80 points a game. They'd recently blown out No. 5 Lane 85-66 [box] and had won seven straight. Then, the offensive buzz-saw that is Clackamas when they're on. It exposes a fairly delicate part of the Umpqua underbelly: they kinda can't stop anybody. They have the lowest rated defense of any ranked team at over 70 points per game, meaning they'll need all of those points on offense just to keep up. And as I've written about in the past, it's rare  that running teams do well at the NWAACC tournament. Sure, the first day or two they'll be fine, but you'll start to see them wear down. The press becomes a little easier to beat, they're not as fast down the floor, and by the time they get used to shooting in so much open space, their legs are tired. That said, they're excellent on the boards (51+ per game, best in the league) and very skilled on offense. Low assists and low steal numbers are unusual for such a high-scoring team, but they do it on the offensive boards. Catch a team napping, and they'll get their doors blown off.

No. 3 Umpqua will match up with unranked Centralia, the fourth seed from the West, at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

                                                                                                                         


4. Lower Columbia (21-6, 13-1 West)
No. 2 Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 2 coaches

The Red Devils had a pretty boisterous coming out party in early February when they knocked off No. 2 Clark and Highline in back-to-back games to take a slim lead in the rejuvenated Western Region. Amidst all the celebration, though, somebody forgot they still had Pierce on the schedule, and Lower Columbia netted a season-low 45 points in a 56-45 road loss [box] to the Raiders on Feb. 12, and with it they lost their shot at a region title. Going 1-23 from three-point range and not getting a single player to double figures will lose you a fair handful of games, but what's particularly puzzling about this one is that it came at the hands of a team that didn't qualify for the post season. Maybe it's a testament to the resurgence of the West, but it knocked them out of an extremely difficult first-round match up with No. 6 Clackamas and into an ironically more favorable game with unranked Chemeketa. The Storm has the "best defense" in the NWAACC, but they play at an extremely slow pace, allowing them to throw games into molasses and hope to grind it out. They're in the bottom five in shots attempted per game, and average less than 62 points per contest. The Red Devils have momentum here, will we see two Western teams win on day one?

No. 4  Lower Columbia will play unranked Chemeketa from the Southern Region on Saturday night at 10 p.m.

                                                                                                                         

5. Lane (19-5, 6-2 South)
No. 5 Coaches
Last set: No. 5, No. 4 coaches
Here's an easy way to break down Lane's offense: If you matched them up with Mt. Hood, the league lowest-scoring team at 53.5 points per contest, and allowed the Titans to score from only the free-throw line and from behind the arc, they might win. And that's just the current numbers: they average almost 44 points a game from those two sources alone, and when they're on from outside, awesome. More power to ya. The problem is, that doesn't always happen. They fit a fairly common format for a womens' basketball team that works for easy layups and shoots three pointers. They lead the league in free-throw attempts and are third in three-point attempts, but it's gotten them into trouble several times, most recently in their regular season finale. With a win, the Titans would have tied up No. 3 Umpqua for the top spot in the South and finished with a better overall record. Instead, they ended up dropping a 64-63 game [box] to unranked Chemeketa in which they went 4-24 from downtown. They've got Highline in the first round, another slow-paced team that likely won't get up and down the floor and into a run-and-gun game that would benefit Lane. Highline's best chance is to slow the game down and force Lane to beat them in the half court, but it'll be far more difficult than it sounds.

No. 5 Lane will take on unranked Highline from the West in the 4 p.m. game on Saturday.

                                                                                                                         


6. Clackamas (19-6, 8-4 South)
No. 7 coaches
Last set: No. 7, No. 5 coaches

Of any underdog team in the first round, the Cougars are easily the most dangerous, despite the ugly match up awaiting them in the first round. The haters always get on my case about being a homer, but look at some of the numbers: Since early in the year, nobody - absolutely nobody - has put a whipping on No. 3 Umpqua like Clackamas has, blowing past the Riverhawks 81-66 [box] on Feb. 15 to reignite their postseason push. Clackamas is one of those teams that is next to unstoppable when they get into a rhythm, and much of the reason is where they get their points. The Cougars lead in three-pointers made per game by a mile, hitting more than ten treys on a nightly basis. They also move the ball well, a common part of coach Jim Martineau's offenses, and have been gifted with one of the better multi-talented players in the league. Sophomore guard Laci Effenberger, who was featured recently in the Oregonian, is in on the leaderboards in scoring, steals, assists and three-point percentage, and is part of a Cougar squad that can be one of two very different: red-hot or ice cold. Thankfully, the defense is always there, and we know what defense does, don't we?

No. 6 Clackamas will play No. 2 Clark at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                         

7. Walla Walla (18-7, 12-2 East)
No. 5 Coaches
Last set: No. 3, No. 5 Coaches

Last set's entry for DubDub (That's Walla Walla, for you newbies) felt like somewhat of a pat on the back. Good job, guys, you're the second seed in the Eastern Region. That deserves something, right? And that might have been the case once again for the Warriors, if not for their season finale. In the entry for CBC this week, it talks about how the Hawks had already sewn up the region title, and didn't see much point in risking injury and overworking their players in a game that wouldn't change anything. Except, the Hawks didn't just  throw in the towel. Maybe they knew it didn't matter, but maybe - just maybe - the Warriors are that good. They've won seven in a row now, and the interesting thing about their win over CBC is that  they forced many of the Hawk players into horrendous shooting nights in their limited minutes. They'll get Skagit Valley in the first round, and if they make it to the second, the fast-paced Umpqua Riverhawks, which could make for an interesting game given that Walla Walla is one of the slower (successfully slower) teams in the league.

No. 7 Walla Walla will play the third seed from the Northern Region, the Skagit Valley Cardinals, at noon on Saturday.

                                                                                                                         

8. Bellevue (20-7, 13-1 North)
No. 8 Coaches
Last set: No. 8, No. 7 Coaches

Northern Region fans who have skimmed the first seven entries in disgust, you finally get your due. The most dangerous thing about Bellevue is mental: they've won 15 of their last 16 games, aside from a three-point loss to Skagit Valley, and enter the tournament on a eight game winning streak. Perhaps the most incredible part of the Bellevue ensemble, though is head coach Jeremy Eggers, who has coached both the womens' team AND the mens' team to the NWAACC tournament. Right off the bat, though, they've got to deal with a bull in a china shop in the Spokane backcourt, sophomore guard Riley Holsinger. She's broken just about every record the Sasquatch have to offer, and will be a difficult assignment, especially early in the tournament. Momentum can carry a team quite an impressive distance, though, and thankfully for Eggers, he'll at least have two hours to prepare for the mens' game after the women have finished playing.

No. 8 Bellevue will see unranked Spokane, the fourth seed from the Eastern Region, in the first round at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening.