Jan 13, 2014

SW Oregon advancing on Clark's top spot

NWAACC Men's Basketball

A few weeks ago, the rankings started off with a look into the Championship histories on the women's side. The East and South have dominated for well over a decade, but we've enjoyed considerably more parody with the men. The only region who has "lacked" in relative terms, is the Northern Region. It's an ironic twist, given the amount of attention the northern teams have gotten in the last few years from these rankings and the coaches, but the North has only won two titles since the early 1990s: Peninsula in 2011 and Bellevue back in 1993. Right now, the North is a little on the outside looking in, as Clark (West), SW Oregon (South) and Big Bend (East) seem on a collision course for one another by the season's end.

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 Jan. 7, are in italics below each team's ranking. Here are the top eight men's teams to start out 2013:


1. Clark (11-1, 3-0 West)
No. 1 Coaches
Last set: No. 1, No. 2 Coaches

The deeper we get into this season of NWAACC men's basketball, the better Clark looks. Their only loss remains an early preseason loss to Peninsula, and by just one point. Lately, they've displayed that they're able to win in just about every setting. They outlasted former No. 2 Mt. Hood and downriver rival Lower Columbia at home, but they also took care of business against Green River and No. 6 Pierce on the road. The latter of the two, a 66-63 victory (box) over the Raiders, was the closest game they've had since the loss to Peninsula in late November. The West being somewhat of a top-heavy region, Clark has three big games to watch the rest of the way: a pair of home games against Pierce and Highline, and a road game against Highline in the regular season's finale. Behind the scoring prowess of forward Sean Price and a nine-game winning streak, the Penguins are rolling toward another region championship, but remember: you could win the region by four games, but without momentum heading into the tournament, you're in trouble.


2. SW Oregon (14-3, 3-0 South)
No. 2 Coaches
Last set: No. 4, No. 6 Coaches

This is starting to look like SW Oregon's year in the Southern Region. Mt. Hood has faltered, giving the Lakers the region's best percentage record thanks to a 3-0 start to region play and a six game winning streak overall. That streak includes a gripping 81-80 victory (box) over No. 5 Mt. Hood on Jan. 4, the same margin that separated the teams at halftime. SW Oregon got outrebounded by 20 and still won, thanks to extremely efficient play on the break resulting in 26 points scored off Saint turnovers. Perhaps even more impressive is that the Lakers don't really have one standout scorer, they have two. Both DJ Anderson and Dexter Williams Jr. average around 19 points a game, and in many cases, they have an incredible amount of support from their compatriots. The Lakers' hold on the region lead will certainly get tested on Jan. 18 - they'll be visiting Chemeketa, who is on a four game unbeaten streak of their own.


3. Big Bend (13-3, 2-0 East)
No. 3 Coaches
Last set: No. 3, No. 4 coaches

 The league's streak and last-five stats for Big Bend are a little deceiving. Their only lost in their last seven games was to Capiliano, an NCAA DII school, and before that, to No. 1 Clark in mid-December. Since just about everybody is losing to Clark these days, you can't really fault Big Bend for that one, but taking a closer look at that match up, it was a game the Vikings really should have won. Star guard Brendan Westendorf was just 1-8 from long range, and though Big Bend got muscled by Sean Price in the paint, they still only lost by seven. At the moment, it doesn't look like many teams from the East are of the Vikings' caliber - only Spokane and possibly Treasure Valley will pose a threat to Big Bend, and the Vikings will get to play Spokane at home to close the regular season. I'll pencil them in as region championships, provided Westendorf, who leads the league in scoring, stays healthy and he gets support from his teammates.


4. Spokane (12-4, 2-0 East)
No. 7 Coaches
Last set: No. 5, Unranked Coaches

The Sasquatch, not to be quickly counted out of the Eastern Region race, are on a hot streak of their own. They've only had one loss to NWAACC competition since early December - a tough, one point loss to Lane on Dec. 21. Like Big Bend, Spokane hasn't seen a stiff challenge from their region so far, outpacing Wenatchee Valley 104-68 (box) and Yakima Valley 93-77 (box) thanks to some strong interior defending from Kwinn Hanson, who leads the team in blocks with a swat per contest, and is fifth in the league in scoring. In fact, the Sasquatch are second in the league in blocks, tossing away more than four of their opponents' shots each game. They have the tools to beat a team like Big Bend, who struggled to stop the post scoring of Clark in mid-December, but can they slow the perimeter game of Brendan Westendorf? We'll find out on Jan. 25. Keep you eyes peeled.


5. Mt. Hood (12-4, 1-2 South)
No.  5 Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 1 Coaches

 My, how the mighty have fallen. Three losses, all of them in narrow fashion, graced the Saints' start to 2014, including back-to-back losses in their first two games of Southern Region play. Now, since two of the three teams ahead of them in the South have beaten the Saints, they'll need both Chemeketa and SW Oregon to lose - and lose to THEM, in addition - in order for Mt. Hood to win the south. What has happened to the Saints, though? Their 10-game winning streak into the middle December got them a No. 1 ranking from the coaches (maybe it's cursed), but they've fallen off without losing one of their major pieces for any length of time. On the face of things, it looks like their somewhat sloppy play is catching up to them. Between their three losses, the Saints averaged 18 turnovers - two higher than their average - and gave up 12 more points off turnovers than they made themselves. Given that they lost the three games by a total of 10 points... you get the idea.


6. Pierce (10-4, 3-1 West)
No. 4 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked Coaches

It's been rounded a little, but here's an impressive stat right off the bat with Pierce: they average 21 assists on 33 made baskets every game. That's some really impressive ball movement, and given that they average less than 15 turnovers a game, they do it extremely well. Also impressive is that the Raiders don't get assists like many teams do. It's easy to pick up an assist when the play is to swing the ball around the perimeter to find an open three-point shooter. They're normally spotted up and shoot as soon as they catch the ball. Doing it from inside the three point line is more difficult, and that's exactly what Pierce is able to pull off. Of the ranked teams, only Mt. Hood has taken less treys than Pierce, and the system almost worked well enough to knock off No. 1 Clark, but a late rally fell short as the Raiders lost 66-63 (box). They'll get another chance, but not till Feb. 8.


7. Bellevue (9-7, 3-0 North)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 4 coaches

By the numbers, Bellevue has the best defense in the league. They're the only team to give up less than 70 per contest, but as they only score 75 on a given night, the margin still isn't that great. That said, they've been excellent as of late, winning their last six games against fellow NWAACC competition after falling to Big Bend on Dec. 15. They held fast-paced Shoreline 26 points below their average, and a few nights later, got just enough to outlast No. 8 Everett 77-73 (box) at home on Jan. 11. They're another team that takes great care of the ball, averaging just over 13 turnovers a game.


8. Everett (11-6, 2-1 North)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: No. 2, No. 1 coaches

The Trojans won five in a row before falling in a tough contest to No. 7 Bellevue on Jan. 11, and unlike many of the teams ranked in the top eight, Everett isn't afraid to shoot from down town. At all.
And they don't shoot an excellent percentage from long range, they make up for it in attempts. They're second in the league in three-point attempts per game, and so far, it seems to be working. The Trojans put up just over 92 points a game, good for fourth in the league, but then the stinker: they give up 87 points a contest, which is the worst of any team with a winning record. And unfortunately, history seems to point out that teams who run and score, but struggle to keep opponents from reciprocating, tend to fade as the championship tournament stretches on. If Everett can buckle down a little, however, they'll be a force in the Northern Region.


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