Feb 10, 2014

16 straight has Clark men in firm control

NWAACC Men's Basketball

If Clark doesn't end this year in the top spot, I'll eat my hat. At 18-1 and having won their last 16 in a row, they look positively unbeatable. The difficult one to call, and that's putting it rather lightly, I must say, is the Southern Region. Five teams are tied at 6-3 for the top spot in the South. Mt. Hood and Clackamas have the most momentum right now, but the five includes two of the top scoring teams in the league in SW Oregon and Chemeketa. The two teams combined for 225 points when they met on Jan. 18, and we'll have another look when they square off once again on Feb. 15. Clackamas and The Hood will also have another match up before the season is over, but at this point, the Southern Region could go any one of five different directions.

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 Feb. 4, 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 (18-1, 10-0 West)
No. 1 Coaches
Last set: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches

If defense wins championships, Clark has a solid shot. Solid. They've been the best so far, winners of their last 16 games and giving up a league-topping 69.7 points a game. Part of that, not to take away from the defensive accomplishment, has to do with Clark's pace, which at just over 62 shots per game is on the slow end in the NWAACC. They're a far cry from the run-and-gun teams like Chemeketa (74.8) and Everett (78.9), and because they shoot a very respectable 48% from the field (3rd in league) they're able to get away with it. Coupled with their defense, it makes for one of the widest margins of victory on average enjoyed by any team in the league at almost 13 points a game. They have a 1.5 game lead on the second place team in the West, and even if they lose to No. 2 Pierce on Feb. 17, they'll still end up taking the region if they win the rest of their contests. That's a likely eventuality, given the lack of depth in the West (see: S. Puget Sound, Centrailia, etc.) putting the Penguins into that cursed top-berth. Why cursed, you say? The top seed from the West has lost in the first round two years running.


2. Pierce (16-5, 9-2 West)
No. 5 Coaches
Last set: No. 6, Unranked Coaches

Pierce, as it happens (read the entry above, if you're confused. Always read the entry above) was that team last year. They were hot to finish out the regular season. Statistically strong and led by a stat-sheet-filler, they did extremely well... until the post season. Right now, it looks like they might have a chance to wash that stain away. They've won five in a row following a slightly confusing 89-73 (box) loss to Lower Columbia on Jan. 15, and remain the only team - other than Peninsula - to really give No. 1 Clark a run for their money. And even that was a game the Raiders should have won. They outshot Clark, hitting 25 field goals to the Penguin's 20. They hit more three pointers. They even shot a better percentage from the free throw line. Problem was, Clark had 36 chances to the Raiders' 11, and that made the difference. Pierce will have a chance to settle that score on Feb. 17, and what a game. The two team's numbers are almost exactly the same, and Pierce is the only team in the league to have a better scoring differential, averaging a margin of 13.3 points, including their five losses. One last impressive stat: the Raiders average just over 20 assists a game on nearly 38 made baskets. That's excellent ball movement.


3. Columbia Basin (15-7, 8-2 East)
No. 4 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 8 coaches

In the last three years, I honestly can't ever remember ranking the CBC men's team. And they deserve every ounce of it: before falling 82-75 (box) to Yakima Valley in their last outing, the Hawks had won eight in a row. They're leading the Eastern Region, ahead of all the traditional powers like Big Bend, Spokane and Walla Walla, all of whom have fallen on rough times since the beginning of the regular season. Right now, CBC has a huge opportunity in front of them. If they can hold on and win the East, they'll take on the fourth team out of the Northern Region, possibly Bellevue (13-10) if current trends (not standings, but trends) hold. That's a far better match up, and given that the Hawks should have momentum heading into the championships, they have and excellent chance to at least make the semi-finals.


4. Clackamas (12-10, 6-3 South)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked Coaches

I'll get flack for this one, I expect it. But if you unravel the absolute mess in the Southern Region, where five teams are tied for first place, the Cougars have to be the top choice. It's all about what you've done for me lately, and they've won their last five to climb into contention after starting off the year 1-3. It seems to be somewhat of a theme with Cliff Wegner's teams: they start off slow and make a fantastic run and squeak into the playoffs. They beat Mt. Hood on the road 81-71 (box) and thrashed Portland, but several slightly-scary match ups loom for Clackamas. They have to travel to play Chemeketa, who at over 97 points a game remains the best scoring team in the league. Clackamas is the second-best defensive squad in the Southern Region, partially due to their slower pace, making this one an interesting battle over tempo. The Cougars will also have the high-scoring SW Oregon Lakers, but they get that game at home, part of a three-game home stand (including No. 5 Mt. Hood) before finishing the season on the road at Linn-Benton. Clackamas has a likely chance for an unexpected league championship, if things roll the right way.


5. Mt. Hood (17-5, 6-3 South)
No.  8 Coaches
Last set: No. 5, Unranked Coaches

The Saints are another example of a team who started off red-hot, winning ten straight and 11 of 12 to kick off the season, but things have fizzled slightly since then. They lost the first two of Southern Region play by a combined five points, and with a loss to surging Clackamas (box), drop into a tie with four other teams for the top spot in the South. Other than decent rebounding numbers and the fact that Mt. Hood does the majority of their scoring from inside the arc - they're 28th in the league in 3-point attempts - nothing really sticks out. They're fairly average across the board when it comes to numbers, but there's something the straight stats don't tell. They're a team that has a nose for close games, playing in eight games decided by five points or less, five of them during league play. They've won their last three, all of which have been by four points or less, and they have an excellent finish to their schedule. They play all three of the teams at the bottom of the region standings, and the five teams left are a combined 48-60.

6. Whatcom (15-5, 8-2 North)
No. 7 Coaches
Last set: Unranked, No. 8 Coaches

While they've won seven of their last eight to tie up the top-spot in the Northern Region, the one thing holding the Orcas back from a higher ranking is a strange boo-boo on their record: an 76-59 loss (box) to Peninsula, who has since lost their last two and fallen to 10-9. Before that, their season had been going brilliantly, their closest game being a two point victory (box) over Bellevue in which they held off the Bulldog's second half rally. The game is a bit of a microcosm for Whatcom's offense, though. They're led by undoubtedly one of the best scorers in the league, sophomore guard Kyle Impero. He's good for 30.15 points a game, and has passed up scoring sensation Brennan Westendorf for league-high honors in that respect. The problem is, none of his teammates average more than 11.5 points a game. If you shut the rest of the team down, he'll have to carry the Orcas on his back. It might work, but it might not. And it's not a winning formula at the championship tournament, where a single star can get worn down if they're forced to carry a heavy load four nights in a row.


7. Big Bend (17-7, 6-4 East)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: No. 3, No. 4 coaches

Like No. 6 Whatcom, the Runnin' Viks are structured around a single prolific scorer. Sophomore guard Brendan Westendorf, who might remind Blazer fans of Nicholas Batum with those lanky arms and smaller frame, has put up nearly 30 points a game, and is in the top-20 in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists. And like Whatcom, he simply can't do it all by himself, though he tries. Westendorf scored 38 points against Yakima Valley on Feb. 1, only to see the rest of his team combined for 40 points in a 102-78 beat-down (box). Other than the blowout to start February, Big Bend has struggled in tight games, losing two region contests by two points apiece, and one by four. And with their high-scoring tenancies comes a major drawback: They might have the league's second-best offense at 93.3 points per game, but they're 0-7 (that's all their losing efforts, ladies and gents) when held under 80 points. And a strange stat to close: they've scored 78 points in four of their seven losses.


8. Edmonds (14-9, 6-4 North)
Unranked Coaches
Last set: Unranked, Unranked coaches

As silly as this might look, ranking the No. 4 team from the North ahead of their counterparts with the exception of No. 6 Whatcom, it makes sense when you look at - as I mentioned with Clackamas - what they've done lately. With four games remaining, and three games against teams behind them in the Northern Region standings, they've won five of their last six and were within a point of knocking off Whatcom until the Orcas went on a wild second-half run to win 64-63 (box). They'd need a colossal collapse from Skagit Valley to move into second in the North, but it's easy to see the Tritons beating Bellevue on Feb. 12 and moving into third.  That's not bad for a team with just two sophomores that could end up meeting Treasure Valley in the first round, should they move into the No. 3 spot. With momentum behind them, that's a match up the young Tritons could possibly win, especially if they keep up how they've played over the last few weeks.


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