|Sam Amsbaugh has keyed the Storm's hot start in what should be a very competitive IIAC this season.
Luke Behaunek, Simpson College
So, you were a little too focused on cookies and fruit cake. Maybe even away from home a few days.
Whatever your excuse is for not quite keeping up with West Region hoops over holiday break, it's nothing to fret over. We're here to help.
Let's take stock of each conference as league play heats up at the turn of the calendar.
Ranked or receiving votes: RV Wartburg (10-2, 2-1)
Preseason favorite: Central
Midseason favorite: Simpson
I'm not ruling Central (7-4, 1-1) out despite a poor showing at Coe (5-6, 2-1) in which the Dutch went cold (.382). After all, Central showed its potential with a home win over Washington U before Christmas. But Simpson (9-2, 2-0) and Wartburg have been the most consistent teams thus far. The Knights own the most impressive win, scoring 67 second-half points to down now-No. 7 UW-Eau Claire 103-90 behind 23 points from Jordan Cannon. That helps make the Storm's 81-68 conference-opening win over Wartburg look even better.
Midseason MVP: Sam Amsbaugh, Simpson
I think the team race will have a large say in who ends up winning this award. Since I picked Simpson above, I'm taking Amsbaugh here. The 6-5 junior is putting up 22.8 points and 8.5 rebounds thus far and has a 40-point outing to his name as well. Colby Taylor is on the verge of setting Central's all-time scoring record, averaging 23.0 points and 8.9 boards, so he'll definitely have a say. Both guys can get it done a variety of ways, each ranked in the top eight in 3-point shooting in the IIAC.
Games to watch: Central at Simpson (1/18), Simpson at Wartburg (1/28)
Central-Simpson is a rivalry anyway, so that first meeting is going to be a lot of fun. Wartburg can do itself a big favor by holding home court in the rematch. And as an honorable mention, keep an eye up in Storm Lake this week, where Buena Vista hosts Central on Wednesday and Wartburg on Saturday. The Beavers (6-6, 2-1) can add more questions to a conference already defined by parity.
Ranked or receiving votes: No. 11 Wartburg (11-1, 3-0)
Preseason favorite: Wartburg
Midseason favorite: Wartburg
Let's pause for a minute and reflect on this team's journey. After beating two ranked teams at its home tournament last December, I thought this core group of sophomores had arrived on the national scene. After a 1-5 start to IIAC play, it was clear there was still some maturing to do. All of a sudden, the Final Four run happened, and now Wartburg looks unstoppable in the conference. Even if the Knights can't run the table, some fun in March – and more games like last week's 87-84 loss to Washington U – likely awaits.
Midseason MVP: Katie Sommer, Wartburg
The 5-5 junior is 11th in the IIAC in scoring at 13.0 points per game, but it's Sommer's all-around game that gives her the nod here. She leads the conference with 5.6 assists and a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, is seventh in rebounding at 6.8 – remarkable for a small point guard – and shoots 37.2 percent from deep. There's tons of talent around her, but Sommer leads Wartburg in minutes (29.0), which I think says a lot. Yes, Central's Clare Marburger is the far-and-away IIAC scoring leader (24.0), but the floor general for one of the best teams in the country gets a little extra clout.
Games to watch: Wartburg at Luther (1/18), Buena Vista at Coe (1/18)
The Norse faithful are always ready when their rivals from the south visit, and their team (7-4, 3-0) is starting to round into form, too. On the same day, we'll learn more about some other second-place challengers when BV (7-5, 3-0) vists Coe (6-6, 1-2) in Cedar Rapids. Keep an eye on Loras-Wartburg on Wednesday. The Duhawks (6-6, 0-3) have struggled, but most believe they're still one of the most talented teams in the conference.
Ranked or receiving votes: RV Bethel (9-1, 5-0), RV St. Thomas (7-3, 3-2)
Preseason favorite: St. Thomas
Midseason favorite: Bethel
Remember when I wrote a month or so ago to check back later re: St. Thomas? Well, I'm saying it again. The defending national champs are still a little confounding at this point, losing at Hamline for the first time since 1979-80, but rolling St. John's in their next outing. Any team with coach John Tauer and point guard Grant Shaeffer leading the way has to be considered a contender, but right now, Bethel's arsenal is more fully stocked. So many guys can, and often do, get it done on a nightly basis. Five Royals average double figures: Brycen Wojta (16.2), Bridgeport Tusler (15.7), Derek Magnuson (12.3), Trevor Hall (12.0) and freshman reserve Granger Kingland (11.9). There's just no letting up with this team.
Midseason MVP: Collin Olmscheid, Augsburg
The Auggies (5-4, 3-1) look like they'll be in contention – they also scored a win over St. Thomas – and Olmscheid will be the guy that leads them there. The 6-8 junior averages 19.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and has an outstanding effective field goal percentage (accounting for the facts that 3s are worth more) of .651. He's 14 of 35 from 3-point range so far.
Games to watch: Bethel at St. Thomas (1/30), Bethel at Augsburg (2/11)
Yes, the Royals and Tommies meet Wednesday in Arden Hills and obviously watch that, but a UST team short on experience entering the season should be more comfortable when the rematch comes around in St. Paul. This is a really difficult stretch for the Royals, with Augsburg visiting Saturday, then a road trip to St. John's (7-2, 3-1) next Saturday. If they survive that and are still in position to end St. Thomas' reign near the end of the season, that road trip to Augsburg could be extra tricky.
Ranked or receiving votes: No. 4 St. Thomas (10-0, 4-0), RV Gustavus Adolphus (11-0, 4-0)
Preseason favorite: St. Thomas
Midseason favorite: St. Thomas
The Tommies might end up having more competition than we thought at the beginning of the season, but the fact is they've easily been the most impressive team to date, with a win against No. 8 Hope over the weekend their latest subhead on the resume. UST averages a league-high 18.2 assists on 28.4 made baskets, which speaks to how together this team is.
Midseason MVP: Kaitlin Langer, St. Thomas
Mikayla Miller of Gustavus is going to make a run here, but as long as the defending MVP is putting up MVP numbers with her team in national-championship contention, it's hers to lose. Langer, a 6-3 senior, and Miller, a 5-8 junior, are each averaging 18.5 points entering January. Langer adds 7.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.2 blocks, while Miller averages 4.8 assists, 4.3 steals and 3.8 boards. Miller can shoot it from deep too (.371) and if the Gusties make a run at St. Thomas, specifically grab a win in which Miller goes off, I wouldn't be surprised to see her swoop in and earn this award.
Games to watch: Bethel at St. Thomas (1/4), Gustavus at Bethel (1/11), St. Thomas at Bethel (2/1)
I think we'll find out quickly if Bethel (9-2, 4-0) is for real. Unfortunately, these three teams play each other just once this season. On the bright side, there should be heightened attention on these three games.
|Kaitlin Langer is at the center of it all for the reigning MIAC champs.
Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas
Ranked or receiving votes: No. 2 Whitman (11-0, 2-0), No. 5 Whitworth (10-1. 1-1)
Preseason favorite: Whitworth
Midseason favorite: Whitman
You would be correct in assuming the Northwest Conference is the only league with two top-five teams at the moment. Whitman made a heck of a statement with a 79-65 over its rival Dec. 6, but all the Pirates have done since is win. With the rest of the conference seemingly not as strong as in years past, this looks to be a potential four-games-in-one-year situation for the Whits.
Midseason MVP: Tim Howell, Whitman
Star players show up in big games, and Howell already did that with 27 points on 10 of 18 shooting against Whitworth. The 6-1 junior is hitting 46.6 percent of his 3-point attempts despite taking just 2.6 per game. I'd like to see his efficiency improve despite averaging an NWC-high 20.0 points. Whitworth's Kyle Roach and Christian Jurlina (17.4 ppg, .497, 5.2 rpg, 2.6 apg) and Kyle Roach (18.0, .578, 5.1 rpg, 1.9 apg) might end up canceling each other out.
Games to watch: Whitworth at Whitman (1/24), Whitworth at Puget Sound (2/11)
Obvious game to watch is obvious. But those NWC road back-to-backs can cause some chaos, so keep an eye on that Feb. 11 game in particular. UPS will have to be much more consistent to sneak into second place, but it's not like the Bucs are blowing above-average teams out at this point.
Ranked or receiving votes: No. 16 Whitman (11-0, 2-0), No. 18 Puget Sound (10-1, 2-0), No. 20 George Fox (9-2, 1-1), RV Lewis and Clark (9-2, 2-0)
Preseason favorite: George Fox
Midseason favorite: Puget Sound
Wow, this conference is loaded. It's easy to understand why programs like Willamette and Lewis and Clark have a difficult time rebuilding. Anyway, Whitman is the lone unbeaten team remaining, but I give a slight edge at this point to an experienced Puget Sound team that already has a win over George Fox under its belt. Those aren't easy to come by, especially against that pressure defense. I could see a two- or three-way tie here just as easily as George Fox storming back to defend its title. What I don't see: A team running the table. Or losing just one game, for that matter.
Midseason MVP: Elizabeth Prewitt, Puget Sound
Probably the most difficult decision so far. Samone Jackson of UPS is going to be right there. Ayisat Afolabi has been impressive for Lewis and Clark (14.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg), but how much longer will that continue against a rugged schedule? Puget Sound's Alexis Noren (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.1 apg) is a triple-double threat but doesn't have to worry about the scoring load with two of the top three NWC scorers on her side. It's tough to see Pacific winning enough to give Sarah Curl (18.7 ppg) a shot. So for now, it's Prewitt, also averaging 18.7 points. She's been clutch, hitting 80.6 percent of her free throws but struggles from outside (.308) and is sixth on her team in assists. Some last-minute heroics against top NWC competition, like Noren's game-winning 3-point play against George Fox, would aid her case greatly.
Games to watch: Puget Sound at Whitman (1/14), George Fox at Whitman (2/18)
The Blues should still be undefeated when the Loggers come to town in a week and a half. And the regular-season finale against the Bruins could obviously have title implications. To be honest, I'd like to include the whole dang NWC schedule here. But here are the dates of the other games between top contenders: Whitman at George Fox (1/20), Puget Sound at George Fox (1/27), Whitman at Puget Sound (2/10)
Ranked or receiving votes: RV Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (8-1, 1-0)
Defending champion: Chapman
Midseason favorite: Cal Lutheran (8-2, 1-0)
The SCIAC doesn't appear to conduct a preseason coaches poll, but Chapman had to have been considered a strong favorite after winning the league in 2015-16 and bringing back D3Hoops.coom Rookie of the Year and SCIAC MVP Cam Haslam. But I've been most impressed with Cal Lutheran – despite a couple iffy losses lately – which shot out to a 7-0 start even though its head coach retired before the season. The Kingsmen have a pair of exceptional scorers in Wolfgang Wood (19.1 ppg) and Adrian Francis (18.2 ppg). Austin Cole (15.3 ppg) and Caleb Richey (12.5 ppg) aren't too shabby either. All shoot 38.5 percent or better from 3-point range. CMS would be another popular pick at this juncture and we'd of course be foolish to rule out Chapman. I'd toss La Verne, Pomona-Pitzer and Whittier in as possibilities as well. And maybe Occidental too. Kind of wide open, huh?
Midseason MVP: Adrian Francis, Cal Lutheran
I could see this being another situation where multiple all-conference players sort of cancel each other out, like Whitworth in the NWC. But Francis' all-around game to pair with his scoring ability makes me confident picking him at the moment. The 6-0 senior averages 18.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals, all top six in the conference. Elsewhere, Andrew Johnson (20.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg) is putting up outstanding numbers for Occidental, and Hakim Arnold can be a monster for La Verne (18.5, 7.6 rpg). And hey, journeyman Wood could end up being the go-to guy on that CLU team down the stretch. For CMS, Michael Scarlett is shooting 55 percent from deep on 4.4 attempts per game. If he ups the production and maintains the efficiency, he could be in the running.
Games to watch: Occidental at La Verne (1/7), Chapman at Cal Lutheran (1/11), Cal Lutheran at La Verne (1/18) CMS at Chapman (1/18), CMS at Cal Lutheran (1/21)
There's still so much we have to learn about this conference. Hopefully these January games help, but I have a feeling the SCIAC race won't be decided until the final day, with plenty of shuffling occurring up until that point.
Ranked or receiving votes: None
Defending champion: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps
Midseason favorite: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (6-5, 2-1)
The Athenas began the season ranked but stumbled in the Midwest and then against Occidental, a 52-51, last-second setback that may have awoken this team a bit. CMS just knocked off then-No. 13 Bowdoin in overtime and followed that up with a convincing victory against Whittier. That's given me the confidence to tab them to repeat.
Midseason MVP: Sofia Cruz, Cal Lutheran
No one in the conference is putting up crazy numbers at this point, but Cruz had a big game of late and I'd expect CLU to be in conference contention again to give her the necessary publicity. The 5-6 senior is averaging 10.4 points but just had 22 in a win over Occidental. The 54.2 percent 3-point shooting is tough to argue against, as are the 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Teammate Jessica Salottolo has similar numbers, but she can't match Cruz's .561 effective shooting percentage
Games to watch: CMS at Cal Lutheran (1/21), Cal Lutheran at CMS (2/15)
These two battled it out for the crown last year and I'd expect that to be the case again, slippage here and there or not.
Ranked or receiving votes: None
Preseason favorite: Northwestern
Midseason favorite: Northwestern (7-4, 4-0)
Is this a Northwestern team that can make noise come March? The jury is still out, but at this point, the Eagles are still the favorites in the UMAC. Wins over St. Scholastica (6-7, 3-2) and Northland (5-7, 4-2) look about as good as any UMAC win can right now.
Midseason MVP: CD Douglas, Minnesota-Morris
I was ready to give this to Northwestern's Will Gisler on account of his 16.0 points and league-best 8.6 rebounds on what I believe is the best team in the conference, but the more I looked, I simply couldn't ignore Douglas' numbers. The 6-2 junior's 20.8 points rank second and 6.4 assists and 2.4 steals first in the UMAC, plus he's shooting 59.8 percent. Gisler, a 6-5 senior, shoots 84.3 percent from the free-throw line, but if the Cougars (7-3, 3-1) pile up enough wins, Douglas could be the guy.
Games to watch: Northwestern at Minnesota-Morris (1/7), St. Scholastica at Northland (1/27)
Morris lost by 14 at Northland, but that is a really tough road trip for the Eagles and this game is the second of a back to back. Plus, it's a chance to see Gisler and Douglas on the floor at the same time. I don't think Northland is ready to compete nationally, but the Lumberjacks have the makings of an upper-tier UMAC team. After a 105-102 OT loss to CSS in the first meeting, the rematch should be just as entertaining.
Ranked or receiving votes: None
Preseason favorite: UW-Superior
Midseason favorite: UW-Superior (9-4, 5-0)
Every team in the UMAC has had its share of non-conference struggles, but the Yellowjackets look to be at another level in league play. After running the table in its first season, UW-Superior has handily won all its UMAC games this year, other than a seven-point win against Northwestern. The Eagles (6-5, 3-1) will compete and so will Minnesota-Morris (6-4, 4-0), which has won six in a row.
Midseason MVP: Hailey Kontny, UW-Superior
The leader of the conference's best team is averaging 14.5 points on 41 percent shooting, not exactly earth-shattering, but it's getting the job done. The 5-8 junior won the award last season after transferring from Minnesota-Duluth and probably doesn't get as much usage as the players that lead this conference in statistical categories because of Superior's ... uh ... superior depth. Lizzy Swanson leads the league and North Central (1-8, 0-4) with 19.3 points while Nicole Huber of Northland (4-8, 2-4) averages 18.4 points and 5.8 boards. Jade St. Germaine, along with having an awesome name, is putting up numbers for Martin Luther (2-9, 2-3) as well: 15.5 points and 10.0 rebounds.
Games to watch: Minnesota-Morris at UW-Superior (1/13), Northwestern at UW-Superior (1/21), UW-Superior at Minnesota-Morris (2/18)
The Cougars have a chance to prove they're right up there with the defending champs, but have a tough test against Northwestern this Saturday first. Superior doesn't seem to be quite as strong as last season. Can we realistically expect them to go unscathed again? The regular-season finale could be crucial in that regard.
With that, I want to thank you for reading Around the West as 2017 gets underway. We'll have a lot of fun here over the next two months. If you have story ideas or suggestions, please feel free to contact me at Nathan.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (@NathanTFord).