Jan 6, 2015

Centralia women finally ascend to top spot

NWAC Women's Basketball

With the Holiday Tournaments behind us — and a host of fascinating results with them — we can begin to take a look at the upcoming region schedules. The South looks like it'll be a grudge match between Umpqua, Clackamas and Lane once again. Centralia looks awesome through their first 14 games of the year, and has a good chance of blowing through the Western Region, while Spokane, Wenatchee Valley, Treasure Valley and Walla Walla each have a shot in the East. 

We'll get to each of these match ups as the rankings roll on, but a few highlights from the last week: former No. 1 Umpqua got rolled by 39 points by Snow College, current No. 1 Centralia beat Snow College by two and Clackamas is having another one of those preseason runs with five in a row.

There are a few questions which stand out as we enter the next section of the year. Spokane looks like a leader in the East, but how will they stand up to decidedly tougher competition once they've had to run through the brutal Eastern Region schedule? Umpqua has lead us on several times over the past few years with great preseason play, only to fade as the season continues. Will they hold up their end of the bargain?

And lastly, we rolled out a new efficiency rating system last week with fairly positive results. This edition adds a few things, including a free-throws per game stat which helps to show exactly why certain teams can accomplish their high points-per-possession numbers.

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 67 possessions per game. Current average points are in parenthesis next to each ranked team's efficiency numbers.

From this point on, expect the rankings to be published about every two weeks on Sunday or Monday until the NWAC tournament arrives in early March. Updated coaches rankings, released Jan. 8, have been posted under each team's rating.


1. Centralia (12-2, 1-0 West)
Previous ranking: No. 2, No. 4 Coaches
Pace: 62 | Offensive Efficiency: 73.7 (68)
Coaches: No. 2

I felt uncomfortable ranking Centralia second last week, but the Trailblazers backed up their ranking and did more than enough to add an extra spot to their standing in what will likely be the biggest test they'll see until the NWAC tournament in March. Centralia saw a seven-game winning streak snapped [box] by Juco power North Idaho — still the only team to beat Centralia this season — in the second round of the Lower Columbia Holiday Classic. What that did was set up the Trailblazers for a championship date (have a look at the bracket) with Snow College who had just finished rocking previous No. 1 Umpqua by nearly 40 points. Cue Urban Meyer saying: "Snow won by 40? Whew. I've gotta go, We've gotta go get ready." Halfway through Centralia's game with Snow, it looked like it might end up as ugly as Umpqua's meeting as the Trailblazers were shooting just 33% and had fallen behind 33-26. Then, the second half: Centralia outscored their competition by nine to win 52-50 [box]. If Centralia does well in region play, they could very well ride this one for the rest of the season.


2. Clackamas (11-3, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 3, No. 3 Coaches
Pace: 71 | Offensive Efficiency: 78.39 (83)
Coaches: No. 3

At five games, Clackamas now has the longest active winning streak in the league. And as one of the fastest-paced and most efficient teams in the league, they have an offense which becomes more and more difficult to stop as a game goes on — which is exactly what managed to sting Yakima Valley in the first game of the new year for both squads. The Yaks actually had a one-point lead at the break, and had a 17-point edge in second-chance points and points off turnovers and still lost 88-84 [box] to a Clackamas team simply playing their game. The Cougars turned around and pounded the George Fox JV squad, and will have a stiff challenge ahead of them to kick off region play: No. 6 Lane looms in the first contest on Jan. 10.


3. Spokane (11-4, 0-0 East) 
Previous ranking: No. 6, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 64 | Offensive Efficiency: 75.04 (72)
Coaches: No. 8

We're used to the usual suspects in the Eastern Region taking over at this point, but heading into region play, there's a new leader in the clubhouse. Spokane becomes the first Eastern team to reach double-digit wins, and has won eight of the last nine games. Now to be fair, the Sasquatch don't really have a signature win among the 11 victories so far. They've beaten up on Bellevue twice, and have blown the doors off Edmonds and S. Puget Sound, but — as was mentioned in Spokane's ranking last week — their signature seems to be defense. Even in the NWAC contests they've lost, they manage to hold the opposition far, far below their usual offensive output and keep themselves within striking distance. Example: The Sasquatch held No. 2 Clackamas 15 points below their average, and lost by only five. They also kept up with North Idaho, who has gone 5-1 against NWAC teams so far. Defense and slower-paced but efficient teams have a tendency to do very, very well at the tournament. Look for Spokane to challenge for a region title. Maybe.


4. Umpqua (12-2, 0-0 South)
Previous ranking: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches
Pace: 68 | Offensive Efficiency: 79.06 (80)
Coaches: No. 1

It feels bad to drop the top-ranked team in the league by four spots after only three games, but let's take into consideration what those three games showed us. Disclaimer: You might want to pop a dramamine (that's for motion sickness, for the un-traveling-folk), as this ride is about to get bumpy. Sunday night, Umpqua thumps unranked Yakima Valley by 34 points [box] on Dec. 28. They then turn around and get absolutely rolled by Snow College — and by 39 points at 91-52 [box]. And since the weekend couldn't get any crazier, Umpqua finished things off with a 75-71 [box] win over North Idaho College, handing the Cardinals their first lost to an NWAC team all season long. As impressive as the win over North Idaho is — it's something few, if any, NWAC teams do in a typical season — the blowout loss to Snow College more or less rests on three things: Snow had 18 steals, a +18 edge in points off turnovers and a 28-9 edge in turnover margin. Translation: Pressure the ball at the top of the three-point line, and Umpqua will have trouble catching the runner before they reach the basket. It seems to be the only way to stop such an efficient offense, which is a good reminder that running isn't always the best way to score points.


5. Wenatchee Valley (9-4, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 66 | Offensive Efficiency: 71.69 (71)
Coaches: No. 4

Four wins in a row will often give teams a big bump, but it's rare that a team garners a bigger bump than Wenatchee Valley picked up this last week. And to call the Knight's 96-77 thrashing of former No. 5 Lane [box] a "bump" is on par with referring to the Ducks woodshedding of Florida State as a game that "could have gone either way." Nobody does  that to Lane. Nobody. And the impressive part about it is that Lane actually played a decent game. They shot above average, and committed fewer turnovers, but simply couldn't slow down a red-hot Wenatchee offense that shot 15% above their average — and 61.3% from inside the arc. The Knights aren't normally a team who pounds the ball inside, as they're in the top quarter of the league in three-pointers taken, but the opposite approach worked against one of the traditionally better defensive teams in the NWAC. Comfortable wins over Mt. Hood and Chemeketa are great, but a blowout of Lane and a 38-point win [box] over Edmonds? Boom goes the dynamite.


6. Lane (13-3, 0-0 South) 
Previous ranking: No. 5, No. 2 Coaches
Pace: 69 | Offensive Efficiency: 74.37 (77)
Coaches: No. 5

If you've actually read through the first five rankings (that's how this whole thing works, you know), you've already caught up on the Titans' ugly loss [box] to then-unranked Wenatchee Valley a few days ago. Lane hasn't had their doors unhinged by 19 points in a while, it doesn't happen often and at the end of the day, Lane is still 13-3 and sits just behind No. 4 Umpqua for second in the heavyweight Southern Region. Also, they took Columbia Basin behind the woodshed shortly before the Wenatchee game and beat the Hawks by 20 while only making five three pointers [box]. Their wins over CBC and Peninsula, and a close game with previous No. 1 Umpqua show a boatload of potential, especially if the Titans can continue to bring down their turnover percentage. During the last three games, they've average 18.6 miscues — which is down from their season average of 21. However, there's another huge challenge ahead of them: How will Lane contend with one of the highest-paced teams in the league when they host No. 2 Clackamas on Jan. 10?


7. Treasure Valley (8-6, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: No. 4, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 65 | Offensive Efficiency: 73.03 (71)
Coaches: No. 6

I feel a little guilty dropping Treasure Valley when they haven't lost to an NWAC team since falling to No. 1 Centralia on Nov. 21, especially since they recently went on a six-game winning streak. The thing is, and I'll go ahead and discount it by saying it was to a non-NWAC team and on a trip to Salt Lake City to face the 14-4 Salt Lake CC Bruins, but Treasure Valley got walloped by 39 points [box] in their first game at the Salt Lake tournament. The second game wasn't as bad — only 20 points [box] — but in a sport where momentum and confidence means an awful lot, the Chuckars will have to pick up the pieces in a darned hurry. Columbia Basin looms as the first opponent of the region schedule, and though the Hawks (8-6) aren't what they used to be, playing in Pasco has traditionally been one of the more difficult places to play over the past decade. Oh yeah, and then Treasure Valley travels to No. 3 Spokane. Talk about a trial by fire.


8. Walla Walla (9-3, 0-0 East)
Previous ranking: No. 7, Unranked Coaches
Pace: 60 | Offensive Efficiency: 77.05 (69)
Coaches: No. 7

Walla Walla coach Bobbi Hazeltine liked last week's efficiency chart enough that the Warriors used it during one of their film sessions. My guess is because Walla Walla is one of the best in the league in terms of efficiency and points per possession at 1.15 — which has the Warriors tied for fourth behind Clark, Umpqua and Clackamas. And while Umpqua and Clackamas play at quick paces relative to the rest of the league, both Clark and Walla Walla play at around 60 possessions per game. The difference is at the free-throw line. Walla Walla is one of the best in the league at 72%, but they simply don't get there very often. Instead of doing their scoring from the charity stripe like Clackamas, the Warriors accomplish nearly the same per-possession scoring clip by consistently having one of the best shooting percentages in the league. Their respectable 1.15 point average isn't bolstered by easy three-point shooting, fast-break buckets or freebies: it's simply solid offense.


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