Analysis | College basketball’s best story is headed toward its first Dance since 2008

Analysis | College basketball’s best story is headed toward its first Dance since 2008

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The argument over the best team in men’s college basketball is ongoing. Maybe it’s Connecticut. Perhaps Purdue. Possibly even Houston.

The discussion concerning the best story in the sport, at least when it comes to a team? That’s different, and Thursday brought it a bit closer to a resolution.

Yes, that’s Washington State in possession of a half-game lead in the Pac-12 after a poised 77-74 victory at Arizona. The Cougars (21-6, 12-4) completed their first season sweep of the Wildcats since 2009-10. They’re on their way to their first NCAA tournament since 2008. They might just win their first league title since 1941, when the Pacific Coast Conference had nine teams and Idaho was one of them.

NCAA tournament bracketology: Selection committee drops some early hints

Those who were paying attention to Left Coast Hoops might have seen a breakthrough coming a couple of seasons ago. And those Cougars did reach the NIT semifinals and win 22 games. But this year’s bunch was a bit more of an afterthought, getting pegged 10th in the league’s preseason poll.

So what aided this breakthrough? Plenty.

Idaho transfer Isaac Jones is the Cougars’ leader in scoring (15.7 per game) and rebounding (7.6). Division II import Jaylen Wells, who dropped 27 points on Arizona on Thursday, averaged 22.1 points at Sonoma State last year and has fit in splendidly as a floor-stretching forward who shoots 45.9 percent from three-point range.

Myles Rice, who redshirted in 2021-22 and sat out last year while receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is the top backcourt option at 15.5 points and 3.7 assists an outing. And senior Andrej Jakimovski is another capable outside shooter who provides a fourth option who averages double figures in points.

Overseeing all of this is Kyle Smith, an analytics guru who has become a specialist in winning at places not many coaches have in recent times. He won 101 games and a CIT title at Columbia, where his .552 winning percentage is the highest of any Lions coach since 1958.

In his first two years at San Francisco, he became the first coach to lead the Dons to back-to-back 20-win seasons since the program was revived in 1985. Then he did it again before leaving for Washington State.

The Cougars’ run takes place with the same backdrop of Oregon State’s football success in the fall. Conference consolidation ripped the Pac-12 asunder over the summer, with the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC each taking bits of the league. Washington State will find a temporary safe harbor in the West Coast Conference next season in most sports, including basketball.

But that’s a problem for the future Cougars. For now, they’ve won eight in a row entering Saturday’s game at Arizona State and will then close the regular season with three home games. It’s a heck of a script, and Washington State doesn’t seem anywhere close to being done with it yet.

Washington State, now 16 years removed from its most recent NCAA tournament appearance, isn’t the only team in viable shape to end a drought of a decade or more.

Some of these programs are in power conferences. Some absolutely need to win their conference tournaments. But all of them would surely savor a pass to the field of 68.

New Mexico (Last NCAA trip in 2014): The Lobos made seven NCAA appearances in a nine-year span in the 1990s, then four in five seasons from 2010 to 2014. Part of a potentially large Mountain West contingent, New Mexico (21-6, 9-5) just beat Colorado State on Wednesday and would be well served to pick off either Boise State or Utah State on the road down the stretch.

College basketball’s quietest kingdom has everything except its due attention

Nebraska (2014): The Cornhuskers (19-8, 9-7 Big Ten) have never won an NCAA game in seven all-time trips, and they have earned only one berth since 1998. Nonetheless, Keisei Tominaga has helped Nebraska float around .500 in the Big Ten for much of the season. The Huskers have won three in a row, and they close the regular season with a manageable stretch against Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers and Michigan.

South Florida (2012): The Bulls (20-5, 13-1 American Athletic) have won 12 in a row under first-year coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, and Wednesday’s triumph at Texas San Antonio allowed them to set a school record for conference victories in a season. An at-large berth is probably out of reach, but South Florida would be an interesting case for the committee if it got to 26-6 and lost the AAC title game to Florida Atlantic (itself a solid at-large option and a team the Bulls just beat Sunday).

Indiana State (2011): Larry Bird U. was rolling along nicely until tripping up against Illinois State and Southern Illinois last week. Nonetheless, the Sycamores (23-5, 14-3) share the Missouri Valley lead with Drake and could get into the tournament either as the Arch Madness champion or via an at-large if they limit their missteps the rest of the way.

McNeese State (2002): Will Wade’s return to coaching has gone off without much difficulty, either during or since his season-opening 10-game suspension. The Cowboys (23-3, 12-1 Southland) are undefeated at home and get to play their conference tournament on their own floor next month. McNeese will be a popular 12-over-5 or 13-over-4 pick if it gets in.

Samford (2000): The Bulldogs (24-4, 13-2 Southern) hold a two-game lead with three to play in what is routinely one of the country’s most underrated conferences. Samford plays at a rapid pace and deploys plenty of depth, and it would be a menace to prepare for in the postseason — perhaps even more for a round-of-32 game than a first-round contest.

Louisiana Tech (1991): The Bulldogs share the Conference USA lead with Sam Houston (last NCAA trip: 2010) and take a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s game at New Mexico State. Louisiana Tech’s next victory will give it a 20-win season for the 13th time in 23 seasons; a league tournament title is probably overdue.

Toledo (1980): The Rockets (17-9, 11-2 Mid-American) have been in the mix for an NCAA berth repeatedly under Tod Kowalczyk, averaging 23.2 victories over the past six seasons. Behind the steady Ra’Heim Moss and a stellar offense, Toledo should again approach (and perhaps surpass) that number in the coming weeks.

North Dakota’s path to the top of the Summit League wasn’t a breeze.

Quite the opposite, actually.

“The thing we’ve been emphasizing is just do the hard things,” Coach Paul Sather said. “Be so willing to go out there and do everything that you need to do to help our team win, defend and rebound, 50/50 balls and winning plays. I just think when you look where we’ve been good, we’ve been good defensively, we’ve been good defending the three, we’ve been good rebounding, and we’ve been good taking care of the ball. Those things are all things that have helped this team get a run going.”

The Fighting Hawks (17-11, 9-4) have won nine of 10 to earn a share of the Summit lead with South Dakota State. They’ve already matched their third-largest victory total since moving to Division I in 2009-10, and they are positioned to contend for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2017, when they were Big Sky members.

North Dakota has done it with a fair bit of continuity for a young team. Sophomore B.J. Omot, a 6-foot-8 forward who can defend one through four and even fives in a pinch, has a dozen 20-point games. Sophomore wing Treysen Eaglestaff dropped 33 points on Denver last week and is averaging 14.3 points while leading the Fighting Hawks with 69 made three-pointers.

But the most intriguing element might be guard Tyree Ihenacho, the Summit League’s freshman of the year in 2020-21 who then spent the past two seasons at James Madison.

“We were obviously disappointed when he decided to leave that year,” Sather said. “For him to have the courage, in a sense, and want to come back was something we needed to consider. I thought that wasn’t the easiest thing for him to do. One of the things we talked to him about was, ‘Don’t come thinking you’re going to get a waiver, because there’s a good chance you won’t. If that’s your way of thinking, you probably need to stay where you are.’ I think he came here with the right frame of mind.”

Ihenacho was an eager scout team player even as his waiver request and appeal for immediate eligibility was denied. But when the NCAA cleared two-time transfers to play without any potential penalty, Ihenacho was on the floor the next day for North Dakota. He averages 14.8 points, and his 60 assists are three shy of the team lead even though he sat the first 11 games.

Some teams go all-in on transfers, and others are committed to the traditional model of player development. The Fighting Hawks have used a bit of both, with Ihenacho, sophomore guard Eli King (Iowa State) and junior forward Amar Kuljuhovic (Minnesota’s Lake Land College) all playing vital roles in North Dakota’s charge over the past month.

It was Kuljuhovic’s layup that helped the Fighting Hawks pick off North Dakota State at home this month. North Dakota goes for a season sweep of its rival Saturday, looking to extend a run predicated on getting the basics right.

“They just stuck with it and really believed in each other and I think found that mojo, found that moxie, found that confidence in who we could become as a team,” Sather said.

Houston at Baylor (Saturday, noon, CBS): The Cougars (23-3, 10-3 Big 12) take their elite defense to Waco, Tex., to meet the Bears (19-7, 8-5) and their stellar offense for the only time in the regular season. Houston is 3-3 in conference road games in its first Big 12 season.

Duke at Wake Forest (Saturday, 2, ESPN): Winners of five in a row, the Blue Devils (21-5, 12-3 ACC) make the drive to Winston-Salem, N.C., in the hopes of completing a season sweep of the Demon Deacons (17-9, 9-6). Wake Forest owns six conference victories by margins of 19 or more points, but it could use another high-end victory to help distinguish its postseason profile.

Alabama at Kentucky (Saturday, 4, CBS): The Crimson Tide (19-7, 11-2 SEC) has hit the century mark in three of its past seven games. In two others, it has scored 98 and 99 points. All of which suggests Kentucky (18-8, 8-5) and its improving defense will get a mighty test as Mark Sears and Co. make the trip to Rupp Arena.

North Carolina at Virginia (Saturday, 4, ESPN): The Tar Heels (20-6, 12-3 ACC) have lost their past eight trips to Charlottesville and haven’t won at John Paul Jones Arena since 2012. Reece Beekman and the Cavaliers (20-7, 11-5), who could use a palate cleanser after a 75-41 thumping at Virginia Tech on Monday, need this one to realistically remain in the conference regular season title hunt.

Santa Clara at Gonzaga (Saturday, 10, ESPN2): Gonzaga (21-6, 11-2 West Coast) aims for some payback after losing by a point to the Broncos (18-10, 9-4) last month. The Bulldogs have won 10 of 11 since and need every victory they can muster to maintain at-large hopes for the NCAA tournament.

Creighton at St. John’s (Sunday, noon, CBS): Do the visiting Bluejays (20-7, 11-5 Big East) follow up a stellar shooting night against Connecticut with another solid effort? And does St. John’s (15-12, 7-9) — which was swept by U-Conn., Marquette and Seton Hall — finally upend one of the league’s top four teams?

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