It’s such a wonderful time of the year for college basketball. This week alone there are mid-major tournaments unfolding in Florida, the Bahamas and Cancun, among others, featuring teams at different stages of development playing on consecutive nights at odd times in interesting arenas, enabling coaches to evaluate and fans to feel confident, concerned - or both about the season that lies ahead.
The flurry of games present a snapshot of what’s to come but what we know right now is the west is the best. The West Coast Conference that is. The top five teams all remained unbeaten entering Tuesday night and had combined for nine victories over top-100 teams.
Gonzaga, perennial No. 1 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25, pounded UCLA in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, setting up another showdown Friday night with Duke.
BYU’s impressive wins over Oregon and San Diego State aren’t surprising either. Mark Pope would’ve had the Cougars in the 2020 NCAA tournament had it not been canceled and led them to a 20-7 record and 6 seed in last year’s bracket. Alex Barcello just might be the best shooter in the country. Through three games, he’s 8 of 13 on 3-pointers, 12 of 14 on 2s and perfect on 18 free throw attempts. He’s made 44 percent from beyond-the-arc during his career.
The emergence of Kiwi forward Dan Fotu gives this Saint Mary’s team an interior scoring and versatility missing from recent teams. The 6-7 forward scores inside and outside as the key cog of the Gaels’ offense. He scored 22 points in 22 minutes Monday night to lead Saint Mary’s past Notre Dame and added 16 in the convincing defeat of Oregon in the Maui Invitational semifinals in Las Vegas.
With wins over Davidson and Nevada, the San Francisco Dons are rebounding from a disappointing 2020-21 season, streaking to a 6-0 start. Like their conference contender brethren, Todd Golden’s squad can shoot from the perimeter (37 percent on 3s) and are relentless in the paint, connecting on 63 percent of 2-pointers, the second-best rate in the nation.
The early surprise is Santa Clara, which has defeated Stanford, Nevada and TCU by double-digit margins. The Broncos beat TCU despite 6-9 center Josip Vrankic missing the game with an illness.
Things have gone so well, coach Herb Sendek was caught smiling on camera, briefly. Santa Clara ranks fifth in 2-point shooting (62.0) and 13th in 3-point shooting (42.5) entering tonight’s game against Fresno State.
Those five teams have a combined 27-0 record. The West Coast Conference has placed three teams in the NCAA tournament before. Could this be the year the number stretches to four?
THE CORNER 3
1. Drexel and Tulane played the longest game of the season on Monday in the Bahamas.
Their opening round matchup in the Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship tipped at 2:30 p.m. It ended at 8:48.
Tulane led 57-53 with 12:15 remaining when officials stopped the game due to a leak in the convention center roof. Once it became apparent the issue couldn’t be fixed quickly, the teams were sent back to their rooms in the adjacent hotel, ate dinner and returned to resume the game at 8 p.m. on one of the practice courts teams use during the tournament.
After all that, the game needed overtime to determine a winner. Tulane held on for a 90-87 victory over the defending Colonial champs as Camren Wynter’s 3-point attempt missed at the buzzer.
2. A player you’ll want to watch: Fardaws Aimaq of Utah Valley. Entering the week, the 6-11 center was tied for third in the nation in scoring (24.8 ppg), helping coach Mark Madsen’s squad to a 4-1 start.
Aimaq racked up awards last season, including the Riley Wallace Award as the nation’s top transfer, WAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been even more consistent and dominant so far this season, hitting 59 percent of shots and collecting 61 rebounds in Utah Valley’s last four games.
3. Chattanooga was the preseason favorite in the Southern Conference and looks the part. The Mocs opened the season with an impressive win at Loyola Marymount, whipped UNC-Asheville by 30 points at home and won at VCU 56-54 on Malachi Smith’s contested 15-foot jumper with less than a second remaining.
Chattanooga is the only Division I team with two road victories over KenPom Top 125 teams.
The Mocs have all the ingredients required to win a title: veteran guards in Smith and David Jean-Baptiste (pictured above), a willingness to defend and coach Lamont Paris, who has pushed the program on a positive arc since he took charge in 2017.
Silvio de Sousa, the 6-9 transfer from Kansas, gives Chattanooga a blend of size, talent and athleticism most Southern opponents will struggle to match. There’s good reason for excitement this winter in the eastern region of Tennessee.