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.


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