Dec 8, 2014

Umpqua leads initial womens' rankings

NWAC Women's Basketball

There's been a bit of a shakeup in NWAC womens' basketball for this season, and the most fascinating thing will be to watch how it affects the balance of power — especially for the Eastern Region. Cheryl Holden, head coach of the dominant and defending-champion Columbia Basin Hawks, announced her retirement in June due to health reasons. Former Blue Mountain head coach Christy Martin, who had turned the Timberwolves into an Eastern Region contender, was hired at Tacoma CC in October. There are still several perennial powerhouses in the east, but it definitely opens a door for a few new faces to join the discussion.

In other housekeeping news, the NWAACC has rebranded to become the Northwest Athletic Conference, or NWAC. They have a fancy new logo to go along with the new acronym, both of which I like. It's slick, it's shiny and it looks like a preview of the future for the league. Two questions for you higher-uppers: When will the championships move into a smaller, more-appropriate and less expensive venue, and when will the championships move to a larger metro area like Portland or Seattle?

The first set of coaches rankings were published on Dec. 11. They can be found here.

And with that, chomp away. The NWAC season is in full swing. The next set of rankings will publish on Dec. 21 as a preview for the holiday tournaments.

                                                                                                                        

1. Umpqua (5-1, 0-0 South)
No. 1 Coaches
2014 finish: Lost Championship 86-74 to Columbia Basin

When you write for a newspaper and have a sick appreciation for puns, you're constantly on the lookout for opportunities. And when Ashli Payne went off for 35 points to beat previously undefeated Lane 69-63 (box) in the final of the Bellevue Classic, a buzzer or two went off in the headline department. Titans dealt Payne-ful loss. Lane feels the Payne in defeat. Whichever way this one goes (and there will be plenty of other options if performances like that continue) Ashli Payne's performance is the highlight of the young season. The 5-foot-11 guard went three-of-nine from beyond the arc and shot 61% overall, also collecting 10 boards, four assists, a steal and a block. That said, they can't rely on Payne for numbers on that level night in and night out. Get some solid backup, continue the Riverhawks' tradition of excellent rebounding and scoring teams and the Umpqua ladies will be a tough match up.


                                                                                                                         

2. Olympic (4-1, 0-0 North)
No. 6 Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

Number of times Olympic has made the power rankings since 2011: None. Number of times Olympic has made the title game in league history: None. And while it's difficult to say that a program hasn't amounted to much — people tend to get angry when you say that — Olympic doesn't really have any hardware to show for it. The last time they made the tournament was 2006, and their best finish in program history was sixth place back in 1996. With that prefaced, Olympic may be off to one of their better starts in the last 20 years. It all started with a come-from-behind 79-78 defeat of No. 3 Clackamas on Nov. 22 in what heck of an opening contest. They shot so poorly (as in, 22% from the field kind of poorly) that I'm tempted to dismiss their 66-41 loss (box) to admittedly one of the best numbers-wise defensive teams in the league No. 4 SW Oregon, as they've averaged things out back at 44% and are on a three-game winning streak. One suggestion: Shoot some extra free throws at practice. They're dead last in the league for teams who have shot at least 40 freebees at — wait for it — 55%.


                                                                                                                         


3. Clackamas (4-1, 0-0 South)
No. 3 Coaches
2014 finish: 7th Place


This is more an end-of-the season trend, but I'm used to the age-old tradition of getting flack for giving Clackamas a high ranking. However, as their up to their usual tricks of up-tempo basketball, three pointers and winning, they can't escape this one. Their only loss, as detailed in the above ranking, was to No. 2 Olympic, and came on a night where they shot just 19% from distance and still only lost by one point. As usual, Clackamas is hit-and-miss depending on how well they shoot from outside. The Cougars lead the league in three pointers made and attempted (and missed) and shot nearly 50 treys in their win over No. 4 SW Oregon. At that point, you can actually afford to shoot 33 percent from the floor. They're second in the NWAC in offense behind Lower Columbia's absurd numbers, and are one of the best in steals and on the offensive glass.

                                                                                                                         


4. Lane (5-1, 0-0 South)
No. 2 Coaches
2014 finish: 4th place

In the NWAC womens basketball discussion, there are two names who should routinely come up as coach of the decade candidates, and there's a solid reason: former Columbia Basin coach Cheryl Holden and current Lane skipper Greg Sheley have combined for seven of the last nine women's titles. It's been a formula for Lane over ever since the Titans went to three consecutive title games from 2005-07, a formula in which they bring in a host of youthful talent, finish middle of the pack and then come out and blow the doors of the rest of the league in the next year. It worked in 2013, and until they faltered to No. 1 Umpqua (box) on Dec. 7 they had waltzed past opponents by an average of 32.4 points. That's when they ran into Umpqua's Ashli Payne, who managed to blister the Titans for 35 points. This was still a close one, and you can expect Lane to make the adjustments for the next time they see Umpqua in region play.

                                                                                                                         


5. SW Oregon (5-3, 0-0 South)
No. 9 Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

The Lakers are part of a three-ring circus in the tough Southern Region between themselves, Umpqua and Clackamas. People who live north or east of the Willamette valley might be miffed at the amount of attention the top half of the South is getting at the moment, but the top four teams have a combined win streak of 14 games. SW Oregon's saving grace is that literally anything can happen in the first game of the season when things — teammates, offense, gyms — are fresh and unfamiliar. We'll give the Lakers a mulligan for their first two games, a blowout by Highline and a close loss to Green River, and focus on the stretch of play they've had since then. In the last six games, SW Oregon has held opponents to an average of 31.4% from the field. That's not limiting possessions, that's not slowing the game down or getting steals. That's defense, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe the 22% opponent FG percentage in the win over Olympic wasn't a fluke after all. *Mutters something about how defense wins championships*

                                                                                                                         

6. Peninsula (3-1, 0-0 North)
No. 5 Coaches
2014 finish: Did not place

Normally splitting a pair of games against Wenatchee Valley wouldn't be enough to get you a spot in the top-eight, but considering that the No. 8 Knights have allowed just 48 points per game this season and the only loss was a one-point trip-up in the first game of the season, they'll get a pass. Adding a win over Walla Walla IN Walla Walla gives Peninsula a huge bump here. In that game, the Pirates trailed at halftime but put together an excellent final period and hit 19 of 20 free throws to win 72-63 (box). Oh yeah, and they opened the tournament in Walla Walla by rolling over Columbia Basin 96-82 (box) and while the Hawks are under new leadership, it's a shock to see the proud CBC program nearly surrender the century mark. CBC nearly made the rankings as their 2-3 record is a little deceiving: two losses to nearly unbeatable North Idaho and a loss to No. 5 Peninsula. Props, Pirates.

                                                                                                                         


7. Centralia (4-1, 0-0 West)
No. 4 Coaches
2014 finish: Did not place

Every year Centralia has a good team, their fans always complain that they aren't ranked in accordance with their record. The usually-week Western Region has plenty to do with that, as normally the West can suck the luster out of a dominant program by fluffing up their final record. That said, the preseason is when Centralia needs to make hay. So far, they're undefeated against NWAC opponents with their only loss being to North Idaho (box). They've beaten Walla Walla and Treasure Valley and Spokane, all from the East, and were perfect down the stretch to beat Clark (box). The Trailblazers have four more non-Western Region opponents left before region play begins, and if they can run the table against the three eastern-region teams they have on their schedule they can solidify a spot in the rankings for the time being.


                                                                                                                         

8. Wenatchee Valley (2-1, 0-0 East)
No. 10 Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

Wenatchee Valley is one of those teams you have to guess on early in the season, as it's difficult to sort out the winners and, well, not-winners without much to go on. That said, the Knights have an interesting stat they've ridden for the first three games of the year: they might just be the slowest-paced team in the league. Most would scoff at their measly stat of just 63 points a game, but consider this: they average only 62 SHOTS per game. High scoring teams like No. 3 Clackamas (88.2 ppg) average around 73 or 74 attempts a night, and while the Knights aren't particularly good at taking care of the ball, that may fade in time as they become more comfortable with the new faces in the program. The slow pace greatly contributes to their excellent defensive stat: they've allowed just 51.3 points per game this season, including a 31-point effort against winless Shoreline.

                                                                                                                        

Dec 7, 2014

High-flying Spokane tops initial men's rankings

NWAC Men's Basketball


I make the preseason speech every year: This first set of rankings is more of a starting place than anything else, and things are likely to be completely upside down by the end of the year. However, the eventual league champion has been ranked in every initial set of rankings since the system's inception. Example: In the first-ever set of rankings, Tacoma was ranked 6th. They won a title that year. The next season, Chemeketa was ranked first initially and finished as champions. Last season, there was one set of rankings that had Portland ranked sixth before they came in as a cinderella team and won it all. Just food for thought.

Also edible: Only two currently ranked teams actually placed at last years tournament: Clark and Chemeketa. Three ranked teams didn't make the tournament at all in 2014.

In other housekeeping news, the NWAACC has rebranded to become the Northwest Athletic Conference, or NWAC. They have a fancy new logo to go along with the new acronym, both of which I like. It's slick, it's shiny and it looks like a preview of the future for the league. Two questions for you higher-uppers: When will the championships move into a smaller, more-appropriate and less expensive venue, and when will the championships move to a larger metro area like Portland or Seattle?

The first set of coaches rankings were published on Dec. 11. They can be found here.

And with that, chomp away. The NWAC season is in full swing. The next set of rankings will publish on Dec. 21 as a preview for the holiday tournaments.

                                                                                                                         

1. Spokane (6-2, 0-0 East)
No. 1 Coaches
2014 finish: Did not place

There's one thing that speaks pretty loudly when starting the conversation about Spokane basketball: They've outscored NWAC opponents* by an average of 23 points through their first seven contests, their only loss being a close one to No. 4 Lower Columbia. That game is an interesting cross-section of the league's highest-scoring team. Spokane freshman guard Jacob DeVries went OFF from beyond the arc and nailed seven of ten attempts from distance. The Sasquatch are one of the few teams for whom it is actually a better idea to take a three-pointer than a two pointer: they're shooting 45% as a team and lead the NWAC in three-pointers made and three-point field goal percentage. Whether it's the offensive system or the recruiting system at Spokane, the Sasquatch have a roster chalk-full of freshman — 12, in fact — who can really shoot. Freshman Martin Race leads the team with just over 23 points per game... and is shooting 73% from beyond the arc.

*Ranking before 84-80 loss to N. Idaho Sunday evening

                                                                                                                          


2. Bellevue (6-1, 0-0 North)
No. 2 Coaches
2014 finish: Did not place

The season-opening overtime loss to Clark will sting, but the longer Bellevue spends "recovering" from it, the better they'll do. The Bulldogs held a six-point lead on No. 5 Clark at halftime and watched it slip away by one measly point. Ever since then they've been perfect, winning their last five contests by almost 10 points per game. In four of those games, they held their opponent under 70 points. It's one of the better marks in the league, and unlike "good" defensive teams in the past the Bulldogs do it fundamentally. They don't rack up a ton of steals or blocks, and are top-10 in total fouls. Meaning? They play stand-up 'D. In their last four games, they've held opponents under their average by nearly 10 points. I'm starting to sense a pattern here.

                                                                                                                         

3. Wenatchee Valley (5-1, 0-0 East)
No. 6 Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

And speaking of patterns, the numbers between Bellevue and Wenatchee are almost exactly the same. Bellevue shoots a little better, Wenatchee moves the ball a little better and both are among the top defensive teams in the league. The difference? Wenatchee takes far better care of the rock. The only thing dropping the Knights, who have won their last four contests, is a lack of a signature victory early in the preseason. Their only loss was a second-half collapse to Portland in the Skagit Valley tournament in late November, and should they keep their defensive number where they're at, it'll be a fascinating game when they travel to No. 2 Bellevue on Dec. 12 and host No. 1 Spokane on Jan. 10 in a few contests which should help iron things out considerably.

                                                                                                                        

4. Lower Columbia (4-2, 0-0 West)
No. 7 Coaches (tie)
2014 finish: Did not place

You can go ahead and cue the haters on this one, especially for a team who has lost their last two games to unranked opponents. Still, their 84-81 defeat of top-ranked Spokane on Nov. 29 speaks volumes. The only big difference was on the boards. The Red Devils got five extra freebes off the offensive glass, allowing them the extra scratch to hand Spokane their only loss this season. The only major concern for Lower Columbia was their Dec. 6 loss to Everett in which they held the Trojans to just 36% shooting and still dropped the game. They're among the league's best in assists with 18, and they have 6-foot-4 freshman Throstur Kristinsson from Menntaskolinni Kopavogi secondary school in Iceland. That's a win, right there.

                                                                                                                         

5. Clark (3-1, 0-0 West)
No. 3 Coaches
2014 finish: 5th Place

It's been a few seasons now since Alex Kirk was hired to take over an "underachieving" Penguin basketball program that had finished the season with the No. 1 coaches ranking the season before, and we're beginning to see the fruits of his success at Clark College. Fruit No. 1: Clark trailed 29-23 at halftime to Bellevue AT Bellevue, and managed to outscore the home team by six to force overtime and win it 73-72 in one of the most impressive victories of the young season. The win is what is keeping the Penguins in the top-10 at the moment, but they're — pardon this pun, if you would — on thin ice. In the very next game, Clark was out-boarded, out-defended and out-shot in a nine-point loss to No. 8 Chemeketa. Since then, they've picked apart unranked Shoreline and unranked Clackamas and don't have another win to back up their opener. A chance arrives on Dec. 18, when they'll visit No. 1 Spokane and attempt to make a statement.

                                                                                                                          

6. Umpqua (5-0, 0-0 South)
Unranked Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

Ranked sixth, you say? But Umpqua is undefeated! Yeah, but look at who they've played. Props, Riverhawks, on running the table through the first five games. They're the only team to have done it, and that's great, but their opponents are virtual unknowns. They've beaten the JV squads from Simpson, Willamette, Concordia and Multnomah and topped New Hope Christian but have yet to face any NWAC competition. They'll have S. Puget Sound (1-4) on Dec. 12, and then things get quite a bit more difficult: No. 3 Wenatchee on Dec. 19 and then a visit to Portland to start Southern Region play on Jan. 10. All that said, the Riverhawks have put up some impressive and telling numbers. They play almost all of their game inside the three-point line. The Riverhawks are dead last in three-pointers attempted at 12.6 per game, lead the league in rebounding at 51 boards per contest and yet are second in scoring at 91 points per game. Those numbers are likely to change, but it's a solid start.

                                                                                                                         


7. Green River (5-2, 0-0 West)
Unranked Coaches
2014 finish: No tournament berth

While Green River has two losses on their schedule, they likely have the strongest two losses of any team in the league. It's difficult to call a loss "good" but looking at the pair of miscues for the Gators, the only one you can really feel badly about is the 106-62 debacle (box) at the hands of No. 1 Spokane. It's an example of what happens when you allow an opponent to hit 15 three-pointers and shoot just 39% yourself. The other slip-up isn't quite so bad. Green River leapt on a sloppy performance by No. 2 Bellevue, outscoring the second-ranked Bulldogs in the second half but falling just two points short. Green River managed to capitalize in a big way on 25 turnovers from Bellevue and huge performances from Glenn Brooks (26-4) and Trevante Williams (27-8). If they can get a little help from the rest of the squad, they have a chance to reach the tournament for the first time since 2010 and possibly compete for their best finish since 2003, when the Gators won the Western league title.

                                                                                                                         


8. Chemeketa (5-3, 0-0 South)
No. 7 Coaches (tie)
2014 finish: 8th place

Clark is one of the unknown teams we tend to see every year with a schedule similar to No. 6 Umpqua. They've played a bunch of non-NWAC teams, and it's difficult to figure out where they stand with those results muddying the water. What we do know is, Chemeketa has a history of good big men and pure shooters. We also know Chemeketa went and bulldozed No. 5 Clark, breaking open a tight game to win by nine at 91-82 (box). In fact, the Storm are undefeated in their three NWAC games, winning a nail-biter on the road at Treasure Valley by a point and putting up 98 points in a win over Centralia. It's difficult to say exactly where Chemeketa might finish, but expect them to be in the mix of things in the Southern Region by the time the season is over.