Jan 2, 2014

Clark hops to top ahead of region play

NWAACC Men's Basketball

It's funny how a two-year league like the NWAACC can change so quickly. Chemeketa, who won the 2013 title in thrilling fashion over Edmonds, went 4-8 in the preseason. Edmonds is just 8-5. 2012 champion Tacoma is 5-5 in their first year without former head coach Carl Howell, and Clackamas, who won the championship in 2009 and 2010, is just 6-7. That opens up the door for some new challengers and new head coaches. Portland, Treasure Valley and Clark's skippers are all fairly fresh, and though only Clark is leading their respective region, each team has a solid chance to make the postseason tournament as league play begins.

An added note for those who missed the initial set - a quick update on the rankings' author: Joward (me) now works for a little newspaper in Columbia County, Oregon. High school athletics are the game (literally), but the rankings will continue throughout the season, most likely every two weeks to coincide with the coaches poll. The NWAACC has graciously agreed to package the Power Rankings along with the coaches polls on their website for review.

Also, your responses, sports takes, arguments and venting are welcome here, as the original intent behind this system was to generate discussion. Your input is always greatly appreciated, and you can reach me in a number of different ways throughout the season by commenting on each story, sending me an email, or contacting me via twitter @JowardHoward.

The Coaches Poll, released on Dec. 24, are in italics below each team's ranking. Here are the top eight men's teams to start out 2013:


1. Clark (8-1)
No. 2 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 10 coaches
The Penguins had one of the most difficult schedules in the league over the past two weeks: taking on then-No. 1 Big Bend, then-No. 2 Whatcom and Lane at the Everett Crossover, and then hosting No. 2 Mt. Hood at home on Dec. 28, and Clark came through completely unscathed. They were the first team to knock off the Vikings, pulling away in the second half and beating Big Bend 79-72 (box). On the very next night, Clark held Whatcom to 38% shooting (box) and flattened Lane in the crossover tournament final. Then they turned their eyes to Mt. Hood and broke the Saints' 10-game winning streak with a 95-89 victory (box) in which they efficiently capitalized on MHCC's 13 miscues snagged 22 points off turnovers. They rebound well, they take high-percentage shots from inside the three-point line, and they're among the league's best from the field. Can Clark shake off the curse from their first-round upset in 2011? Maybe.


2. Mt. Hood (11-2)
No. 1 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 5 coaches

If not for a wild comeback from Yakima Valley in which the Yaks overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to win by two, 95-93 (box), Mt. Hood could very well be 12-1. Regardless, 11-2 is their best start in recent memory, and their only loss in the last few weeks was to Clark, who seemingly can't lose. The Saints picked up a solid overtime victory over No. 6 Treasure Valley on Dec. 22 before their loss to Clark, their 10th in succession, but something still isn't quite right. Other than the win over TVCC and an early-season victory over Spokane, the Saints feel a little unproven. However, they can hang with the league's best, and with Chemeketa struggling to start things off in the Southern Region, it may be time for the tables to turn in Mt. Hood's favor.


3. Big Bend (11-3)
No. 4 Coaches
Last set: No. 1, No. 2 coaches

It's impossible to mention Big Bend without leading with the play of sophomore guard Brennan Westendorf. Through 14 games, he easily leads the league in scoring with 31 points per contest. Of course, that was greatly helped by the 55 points, nine boards and six assists in a 160-99 (box) victory over Shoreline on Dec. 14. It's yet another of those are-you-kidding-me performances from Brennan, who went 20-22 from the field and 7-8 from downtown... in just 28 minutes. However, he can't do it ALL by himself, as performances like that won't happen every night. When the Viks get pedestrian games from their bench and the rest of the starters, they're beatable. No. 1 Clark showed when they handed BBCC a 79-72 loss (box) on Dec. 20. A (relatively) lackluster game from Westendorf against No. 5 Highline ended in a 78-75 loss (box), pointing out a few weaknesses, but taking advantage of them is much, much more difficult than it sounds.


4. SW Oregon (11-3)
No. 6 Coaches
Last set: No. 4, No. 9 coaches

Going back in to November, the Lakers have only lost to NWAACC competition twice, giving up a 105-99 game (box) to Everett and dropping a recent 105-102 contest (box) to No. 7 Spokane. Like Mt. Hood, SW Oregon feels a bit unproven thus far, and that should all change in a hurry on Jan. 4 when the two Southern Region squads will match up in Gresham to kick off region play. And what a contest - the Lakers are third in the league in scoring with 94.5 points per game, and though their assist numbers aren't great, they're (this is poetic) third in the league in offensive rebounding. They're second in the league in shot attempts for teams who have played 14 games, and the interesting thing is, they're middle of the pack in steals. That means one thing -  the Lakers excel second-chance points.


5. Spokane (9-4)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked coaches

Disregard a trip-up to North Idaho and a narrow 70-69 (box) loss to unranked Lane, and the Sasquatch have had a solid month. Spokane was able to take down No. 4 SW Oregon 105-102 (box) and No. 8 Whatcom 84-81 (box), thanks to a couple of big games from sophomores Chaase Haack and Kwinn Hansen, a pair of local products. With the league being so guard oriented (see, Mark McLaughlin, Kyle Impero, Brennan Westendorf, JT Terrell, Brady Bagby...) a scoring center like Hansen is somewhat of a luxary. In fact, several championship teams in the past, including Clackamas with Cheheles Tappscott, Peninsula with DeSean Freeman in 2011 and Chemeketa with Trevor Phillips in 2013 -- they all had a scoring threat in the post. That's not an endorsement of Spokane to win the 2014 title, but it makes them a candidate to succeed in the East.


6. Treasure Valley (7-4)
No. 3 Coaches
Last set: No. 7, No. 3 coaches
The 7-4 record is fairly misleading, right off the bat. Sure, TVCC lost their last games, but take a second look at the opponents: a pair of Idaho JC schools and No. 2 Mt. Hood. And the loss to the Saints was a nail-biter, with Mt. Hood prevailing 75-73 (box) in overtime. The Chuckars actually trailed at halftime, outscoring the Saints by two in the second half to force the extra period, and a game like that will pay huge dividends when Treasure Valley squares off against No. 3 Big Bend on Jan. 18. For now, it looks like the Chuckars have the firepower at guard to keep up with anybody, thanks to the 17 nightly points from sophomores John Fletcher and DeSean Mattox. Will they overtake Big Bend in the East? Probably not, but Treasure Valley has a solid chance to catch No. 7 Spokane and Yakima Valley, securing a postseason berth in Head Coach Ryan Zimmerman's second season.

7. Highline (9-2)
No. 7 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 4 coaches

Though the Thunderbirds have stumbled twice in the last few weeks, it's hard to ignore the glaring victory that stands as a milestone for Highline this preseason: the Dec. 13 victory over No. 3 Big Bend. Highline was able to hold Westendorf, the lights-out scoring talent, to just 15 points and forced him in to 8 turnovers. The Thunderbirds disrupted BBCC's high-octane offense and held the Vikings to just 37% from the field - 13% lower than their average. Highline is another one of those teams that wins by committee, thanks to having five players average in double figures for scoring and using their depth to carry the team when the starters are off the floor. Take HCC's win over Big Bend for example: only one player saw more than 30 minutes on the court, Doug McDaniel, and he finished with zero points and nine boards. They should do well in the West, but they seem to lack a big-time scorer, which is a solid asset in crunch-time. Thankfully Highline won't have to see No. 1 Clark for a month or so.


8. Whatcom (7-3)
No. 4 Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 1 coaches

Through the first seven games of the preseason, the Orcas looked excellent, perfect in each one of their contests. Then that success hit the fan, and Whatcom plummeted, losing three games in a row to close out the year before region play begins. Time will tell whether they can pick things up again, but even with their slide as of late, Whatcom continues to lead the Northern Region behind the scoring prowess of one Kyle Impero, who is among the league's best at just over 27 points per game. The problem is, they need quite a few minutes from Impero in order to be successful, and that's a model that can't keep pace down the stretch. The Orcas will need a little more scoring from the rest of their starting five - all of which average in double figures already - in order to win the North. That road starts immediately with a game against Peninsula on Jan. 4.

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