Dec 27, 2014

Efficient Umpqua women lead NWAC once again

NWAC Women's Basketball

Welcome back to issue two of the JOWARD NWAC Power Rankings, where we'll take a look at how things have shaken out in the aftermath of crossover tournament [league recaps] action. It's one of the best chances to see the top squads from around the NWAC get out of their regions and match up against some unfamiliar faces, and it gives us an opportunity to see how the individual regions compete against one another. So far — and no surprise here — the south is really good, as is the East. 

The mens' rankings, which were released earlier this week, debuted a fresh stat dealing with offensive efficiency. The beta numbers added together shots, turnovers and adjusted free-throw attempts with a shot at determining a team's pace, or the number of possessions they play in a given game. The league has (graciously, thank you Tracy Swisher) stepped up and provided points-per-possession stats, and we now have a better view of what pace actually looks like.

Here are a few explanations of how this system [You can see the top-16 teams here] works:

Pace is determined by taking a team's total points and dividing it by their average points-per-possession to get the number of possessions they've played. Total possessions divided by games is what the "pace" number is.

Offensive efficiency is what a team would score if they played at the average pace of the top-16 teams, which is 66 possessions per game. Current average points are in parenthesis next to each ranked team's efficiency numbers.

The first set of coaches rankings were published on Dec. 11. They can be found here. The second set of coaches rankings should be out at some point next week.

We'll be back with the next set of rankings soon, which is likely to be Dec. 4 once the Holiday Tournaments are finished and before league play has begun. 


1. Umpqua (10-1, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches
Pace: 66 | Offensive Efficiency: 81.84 (82)

If you forced me to pick an early candidate to win a championship here in December, I'd bet all my clams on Umpqua's pony show after having seen the Riverhawks win their last nine games. The league released points per possession numbers, and Umpqua is blowing away the rest of the league at 1.24 points every time they go down the floor. And while Umpqua is shooting a few more three pointers than usual, the philosophy is the same as we've seen from the Riverhawks in recent years as they've built to this point: Rebound, and force the ball inside the paint for high-percentage shots. We saw it from their towering Hawaiian a few seasons ago, and it's working again behind their considerable height-advantage. Nine Riverhawks stand at at least 5-foot-10. They shoot a league-best 49% from the field, and are in the top third in three-point percentage. Meaning? You can't stop them inside, and if you collapse the defense on their bigs they'll kill you from long range. Oh, and they manage over 83 points per game while playing at league-average pace, so once they get a lead they're almost impossible to come back on.


2. Centralia (9-1, 0-0 West)
Previous ranking: No. 7, No. 4 Coaches
Pace: 60 | Offensive Efficiency: 73.92 (67)

It feels a little uncomfortable to rank Centralia this high, what with the upcoming romp through the Western Region schedule I expect Centralia to have. As I've mentioned before, their relatively weak schedule normally knocks them down a rung or two, but ten games in they still have yet to drop an NWAC game. They got a big first half to beat No. 6 Spokane 63-53 [box] in early December and came from behind to beat previously-second-ranked Olympic 64-61 [box] on Dec. 20. The pair of impressive wins are all part of a six-game winning streak, which is tied for the second-longest current stretch in the league. The Trailblazers play at a little slower pace than the league average, which contributes to their excellent defensive stat of allowing just 58.2 points per game, which is sixth-best in the NWAC. Coming up in a hurry, they'll have a chance to prove whether or not they belong in the top-two: Centralia gets unranked Blue Mountain in the first round of the Lower Columbia invitational [bracket], but they have a likely second-round match up with North Idaho, the only team to beat Centralia this year. No. 1 Umpqua is across the bracket, which could be a finals match up.


3. Clackamas (9-3, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 3, No. 3 Coaches
Pace: 72 | Offensive Efficiency: 76.56 (83)

Two losses in the last five games put Clackamas on the edge of dropping in this set of rankings, only pulled out by a three-game streak including a solid 68-63 [box] win over No. 6 Spokane. They're one of the fastest-paced teams in the league -- which is by design, as it has been for quite some time -- and they're among the best teams in terms of offensive production per-possession. That's the good, time for the bad & the ugly. While Clackamas is scoring plenty of points, their shooting percentage isn't what it once was. The Cougars play with the philosophy that the best shots in women's basketball are three-pointers and layups, and true to form, Clackamas is first in three-pointers attempted by a wide margin and is top-five in free-throws made and attempted. If you look at their percentage inside the arc, they're a full eight-percent worse than No. 1 Umpqua: 56% to 48%. Both marks are good, but when taken into account that Clackamas takes many of their non-three pointers at the rim and they like to run opposing teams out of the building? You're gotta make a few more of those layups. 


4. Treasure Valley (8-4, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 64 | Offensive Efficiency: 75.9 (74)

Welcome Treasure Valley to the womens' rankings for -- I believe -- the first time. And while we're on the topic of teams who like to pound the ball inside, Treasure Valley is the only team in the top-eight to have taken less than twelve three pointers per GAME. They also lead the league in free-throws made and attempted. They don't play particularly fast, but their attempts at the free-throw line allow Treasure Valley to score with the clock dead and bump up those efficiency numbers to fifth in the league. Enough about stats, though. The most impressive part of Treasure Valley's resume is their current six-game winning streak, and their 7-1 mark against NWAC teams. The only loss to league-competition was a 64-51 loss [box] to No. 2 Centralia in the opener. Since then, they've been red hot. Highlights include a 62-point victory over Edmonds [box] and a statement 70-62 win over No. 5 Lane [box] on Dec. 20. It'll have to stand the test of time, but we might be seeing the glimmer of a new power in the Eastern Region. They'll have the fastest-paced team in the league (Columbia Basin) in the region opener, followed by a match up with No. 6 Spokane. Welcome to the big leagues.


5. Lane (11-2, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 4, No. 2 Coaches
Pace: 71 | Offensive Efficiency: 69.96 (75)

I'm as likely to eat my own shoes with this ranking as any, but I'm not as impressed with Lane's league-leading 11 wins as I could be. They definitely have the offensive and defensive tools to win, but being careless with the ball isn't a winning formula in the long term, regardless of who the opponent is. The Titans play at the fifth-fastest pace in the league, and yet manage only 75 points per game. Their defense is top-notch given the number of possessions they have to defend, but their turnovers are dragging the Titans into some dangerous waters. Lane throws the ball away on 30% of their possessions. That's thirty per-cent, for a little extra clarity. Shoreline, the 0-7 Dolphins who are dead last in the league in scoring possessions, are only at 28%. And while some of that can be contributed to the Titans' fast pace -- Clackamas is at 26% as another fast team -- the numbers have to come down or the pace has to slow down if Lane hopes to continue avoiding losses. The 70-62 [box] loss to No. 4 Treasure Valley was particularly telling: 27 miscues to go along with an 0-7 night from beyond the arc.


6. Spokane (8-4, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked coaches
Pace: 65 | Offensive Efficiency: 73.26 (72)

Normally teams who have ridiculous defensive numbers also tend to play slower, eat up the clock and get into grind-it-out games. Spokane, however, is a major exception. They play barely below the league average in pace, but hold opposing teams to just under 51 points per game. It's the best mark in the league, and has led to some impressive stats. They've held six teams under 50 points and three teams under 40 points, and at just 14 turnovers per game simply don't allow much of a chance at fast-break points. Their only two losses to fellow-NWAC teams have been a 63-53 [box] loss to No. 2 Centralia and a 68-63 loss [box] loss to No. 3 Clackamas, a game in which the Sasquatch actually led at halftime. Their defensive numbers are likely to change with the start of league play, but that five-game winning streak in December should be enough to turn some heads and gain real respect in the East.


7. Walla Walla (8-3, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked coaches
Pace: 60 | Offensive Efficiency: 76.56 (70)

Had unranked Bellevue been kind enough to give up the ball a few more times than eight (the Bulldogs' average of 15) in their game against Walla Walla on Dec. 20, the Warriors might have walked into the Holiday break on a five-game winning streak. Instead, Walla Walla finished with one fewer shot, one fewer free throw attempt and exactly as many three-pointers and dropped the game 77-74 [box]. They turned around and blew the doors off of previously second-ranked Olympic the next day, and have now won five of their last six. The Warriors are second in the league in scoring efficiency at 1.16 points per possession, which is just above Clackamas though Walla Walla plays at a far slower clip -- 12 possessions fewer per game, to be exact.  Sadly we won't get to see how the Warriors stack up in any of the Holiday Tournaments, as they'll skip the festivities and take on Whitman JV before starting Eastern Region play in January.


8. Skagit Valley (7-5, 0-0 North)
Previous ranking: No. 2, No. 2 Coaches
Pace: 57 | Offensive Efficiency: 71.94 (62)

It's difficult to call Olympic's 2-3 stretch a "fall from grace," but it was a few slip-ups from the Rangers and a strong run of play from Skagit Valley that warranted the switch. The Cardinals are just a half-game back in the Northern Region standings and proved their worth against a handful of the league's less-fortunate as part of a four-game winning streak. Skagit Valley are easily the slowest team in the top-16 at just 57 possessions per contest and are still averaging 62.6 points per game. For a little perspective, their efficiency numbers would have them scoring just under 72 points per contest if they played at a league-average pace, which puts them darned close to the scoring average of the top half of the NWAC. They seem to be a solid challenger in the North, but it remains to be seen wether the Northern Region will present a challenger at the NWAC tournament in March. The gap between the highest-ranked team in the South and the highest-ranked team in the North is wide: No. 1 Umpqua beat Skagit Valley 92-57 [box] on Dec. 20.


Dec 23, 2014

Week 2: No. 1 Bellevue Men cruise to top spot

NWAC Men's Basketball

I'll tell anyone who will listen how much I love stats, and I tend to envy people like John Hollinger who have endless information at their fingertips. And so, simply for some extra fun and a few different numbers to satisfy the statistical munchies, I've messed around with a few numbers and the results are interesting. It's turned this edition into a kind of "Mr. Fix-it" list, which is bound to be a little less positive and might point out a few glaring holes in some of the top teams' resumes.

I don't yet (hint to the NWAC brass) have access to per-possession averages that pop up in the box scores (points per possession), so I've created what I'll refer to as "Joward" numbers. They're not perfect and the formula is likely to change, but I've applied it equally to each ranked team. These numbers, for reference, are different from those used in common NBA power rankings. I've posted the eight ranked teams ratings, just for fun.

The free-throws number (1.25) is an attempt at figuring out how many free throws are attempted per-possession, which is a shot in the dark. It assumes that an average of 1.25 free throws are taken each time a player is awarded free throw(s). Average pace for the top eight ranked teams under this system is 99 and should correlate somewhat with a team's average number of possessions, though it'll be higher. 

Pace: (Shots attempted + Turnovers + (Free throws/1.25))/games played

Offensive Efficiency: (Average points/Pace)*Average pace

The first set of coaches rankings were published on Dec. 11. They can be found here. The next set should be out this week.


1. Bellevue (11-2, 0-0 North)
Previous ranking: No. 2, No. 2 Coaches
Pace: 93 | Offensive Efficiency: 78.77

Normally heading into the holiday slate of tournaments with an 11-2 record will be easily enough to get a team near the top of these rankings, and the steady success of Bellevue's young season is strong enough to drown out the number of out-of-league opponents and four-year JV squads NWAC teams tend to play. The Bulldogs balanced out their schedule well, and have a solid handful of good wins with which to state their case. The 70-68 Nov. 28 win over Green River [box] is starting to look better and better, and the Bulldogs managed to come from six points down at halftime to beat one of the slowest-paced and best defensive (stats-wise) teams in the league with a 62-57 win over No. 3 Wenatchee Valley [box]. They played and won two close games against a tough Highline team, and while they've continued their stint as one of the better statistical defensive teams in the NWAC, one thing has changed: they've upped their blocks numbers. Meaning? When an opponent does get a shot off, they're swatting it back where it came from. The only way to beat Bellevue, it seems, is to wait for an off-night and pounce. Pierce might have played a great defensive game, but Bellevue get out-shot 36%-51% and only lost by seven.


2. Big Bend (9-3, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 93 | Offensive Efficiency: 84.1

While Big Bend had a rocky and somewhat unremarkable start to the season, it's their play of late -- remember that whole "what have you don..." you get it -- that has them jumping from unranked to second in the second installment. In the last two seasons, the complaint about Big Bend was always similar to this: Brenden Westendorf [see: Westendorf scores 55 vs. Shoreline] is an excellent scorer, but how is the supporting cast. This is the first season without one of the best scorers the NWAC has seen in a few years, and the result has paid off for Big Bend. Over their current six-game winning streak, they've been led in scoring by four different players. Wyatt Johnson has done it thrice, and he's their third-highest scorer. Donovan Wright, who leads the Viks this season, has only done it once. Depth goes an awfully long distance, and being able to get big 20-point games from four different players could be huge come tourney-time.


3. Wenatchee Valley (9-3, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: No. 3, No. 6 Coaches
Pace: 91 | Offensive Efficiency: 78.33

Wenatchee Valley is one of those teams whose numbers on defense can be a little deceptive. They allow just over 84 points per contest, which is good for the best mark in the league. However, they are also the slowest-paced team in the top eight, and likely the slowest in the league. There's nothing wrong with slow, but it does mean the opposition has fewer chances to score. If Wenatchee gets a lead, they're difficult to come back on. It also means less defensive possessions they need to work on, and this Knights team will not only play close to home -- should they make the tournament -- but they'll also have more energy after four consecutive days of games. They also take better care of the ball than almost all of the other teams in the top eight, even adjusting for their slower pace.


4. Edmonds (7-3, 0-0 North)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 105 | Offensive Efficiency: 74.49

I had to sit and do the math several times with Edmonds, simply to make sure I was seeing their pace correctly. They've average 105 "Joward" possessions a game, and have the best turnover per-possession rating of any team in the top eight — 13.59%, in case you were interested. Their quick pace got them rolling with a six game winning streak, but with those kind of numbers, they should be scoring in bunches and they simply aren't. The reason, and don't take offense to this my friends up north, is a pretty bottom-of-the-barrel shooting percentage. Take, for example, their loss to Peninsula. The opposing Pirates shot just 32% from the field... and won. That's what happens when Edmonds shoots 30% from the field and goes 0-12 from beyond the arc. If Edmonds can start hitting a few more of their shots — at least the easy ones — they'll be an absolute offensive monster.


5. Green River (8-4, 0-0 West)
Previous ranking: No. 7, Unranked coaches
Pace: 95 | Offensive Efficiency: 78.16

Green River plays a little faster than teams like Bellevue and Wenatchee Valley, and with their top-three shooting percentage they should be able to bury teams on the offensive end. When they get shots, they tend to get good shots from inside the arc which makes for a huge majority of their offensive output. Three-point shooting teams are streaky, and have a tradition of struggling in the first few days of the tournament because of the space behind the backboards in the much larger Toyota Center. That's the good stuff, here's the bad and the ugly: There's a reason Green River is one of only two teams who average less than 76 points per game who also shoot at least 46%. The reason is why their offensive efficiency rating is so low compared to a team with similar pace and scoring average, and it's because they turn the ball over on a fifth of their possessions. 25 miscues were the reason they lost 88-82 [box] to Edmonds, and they lost 82-78 [box] despite having 12 additional possessions and a 9-board edge on the offensive glass. Easy mistakes to fix, and it could turn huge profits.


6. Spokane (8-5, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches
Pace: 104 | Offensive Efficiency: 90.43

Ahh how the mighty have fallen. When last we met, Spokane was sitting atop the rankings at 6-2. They've gone 2-3 since then, dropping their last three games to S. Puget Sound [box], Clark [box] and No. 8 Chemeketa in a 107-105 thriller [box]. There's a common thread here, and it's that in each of their last three losses, two members of their big three haven't stepped up to the plate. The power-combo of Martin Race, Jake Love and Dean Richey make up almost 52 of their league-best 95 points, and that's great. But if two players average half of their usual output — such as Martin's one-for-seven night against Clark — they're in trouble. That's a 17-point chunk taken out of their 95 points, and because Spokane gives up over 81 points a game due to their pace, the swing suddenly drops them into the danger-zone. One saving grace is that Spokane is the second-best of their top eight teams in taking care of the ball, turning over the rock on just 13.98% of their possessions leading to the best offensive efficiency of the ranked teams.


7. Chemeketa (8-6, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 7, No. 7 (tie) coaches
Pace: 106 | Offensive Efficiency: 82.19

In one of the earlier drafts of this installment, Chemeketa hadn't even made the top eight. And why would they? 8-6 isn't wildly impressive, especially since five of those games have been against non-NWAC teams. But then you take a second look at their latest stretch and though they haven't won every time out, the level of success has been impressive. First came a five-point loss to a very solid Highline team on the road [box]. Two games (and two days) later, they were a point away from rallying to beat No. 3 Wenatchee Valley but lost 69-68 [box]. Oh, and here's the kicker: they were down 63-51 at halftime to No. 6 — and then No. 1 Spokane — and came back to win 107-105 [box]. We're used to such antics from Chemeketa, and we're also used to Chemeketa hitting their stride late in the year and proving all the critics wrong. As one comment said a season ago, "don't sleep on Chemeketa."


8. Lower Columbia (7-5, 0-0 West)
Previous ranking: No. 4, No. 7 (tie) coaches
Pace: 105 | Offensive Efficiency: 79.2

Last week's entry on Lower Columbia began with a disclaimer about haters, and this one will follow suit. Once again, the Red Devils have lost two of  their last three games, both to unranked teams. But looking back at the games beginning on Dec. 5, there are actually quite a few good things. As it turns out, losing to No. 2 Big Bend is something everyone does these days, and Everett has proven to be a run-with-or-be-run-over type of squad. They score in bunches, and are scored on in bunches — think the Golden State Warriors under Don Nelson in 2008-09. The Devils also lost to No. 6 Spokane in one of the Sasquatch's better games as of late. But we're through discounting losses. Their two losses as of late are from two different issues, one being taking care of the ball (see: 24 points off 19 turnovers = loss to Lane [box]) and playing some second-half defense against Walla Walla [box]. In the game against the Warriors, Lower Columbia managed to stick within two points at halftime after shooting just 29.8% in the first period. Then Walla Walla went and shot the freaking doors off the building in the second half, and... well. You get it.


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.