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Crumpacker - What We Learned - Nov. 22, 2016

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By John Crumpacker
#WCChoops Columnist 


If the season ended today, a lot of people around the WCC would have nothing to do until conference tournament time in March. That being said, after just a few games, BYU center Eric Mika is making a strong early case for WCC Player of the Year.

In powering the Cougars to a 4-0 start, including Monday night’s 92-62 victory over Saint Louis at a tournament at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Mika is averaging 20.8 points and 11 rebounds per game. He’s shooting nearly 64 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free throw line.

What’s all the more impressive about Mika is this season marks his return to competitive basketball following a two-year mission to Italy, where he clearly did not spend his time eating pizza and pasta while watching the world go by from the sublime vantage point of an outside table at some charming trattoria (as a certain columnist did more than 30 years ago on vacation).

From what little I’ve seen of Mika thus far, which would be all of one game, he appears to be a classic banger with a nice shooting touch from in close. He seems to treat every rebound as his and his alone. I was not familiar with his name when I saw it on the list of the WCC’s preseason all-conference team but I understand now.

I’m already anticipating a good show in the paint when Mika and BYU face Jock Landale and Saint Mary’s for the first time, Jan. 5 in Moraga, followed by the first encounter with Przemek Karnowski and Gonzaga’s other skilled big men on Feb. 2 in Provo.

A conference known for its guards now has a few big men worth watching as well.

What We Learned

  1. Saint Mary’s non-conference schedule is usually home-loaded to help the Gaels springboard into the WCC season with momentum. Given that, it was nice to see Randy Bennett’s team travel to Dayton for a game against the Flyers that it won 61-57 to improve to 3-0. Dayton was an NCAA Tournament team last season. Come tournament time in March, that game could help the Gaels if they are on the proverbial bubble for NCAA consideration.
  2. Not sure of the quality of the Bryant University team that traveled all the way from Smithfield, R.I., to Spokane to absorb a 109-70 loss to Gonzaga, but with Karnowski scoring 22 points, that’s definitely a sign that the big fellow is rounding into basketball shape (as opposed to modern pentathlon shape) after back surgery last New Year’s Eve.
  3. Based on early results, it looks like forwards Lamond Murray Jr. of Pepperdine and Jarvis Pugh of Santa Clara are improved from a year ago. Murray scored 28 points vs. Life Pacific College (San Dimas, CA.) while Pugh poured in a career-high 26 vs. Northern Colorado as their teams both won. Murray has steadily improved throughout his career in Malibu. As for Pugh, he’s taking up the slack until Jared Brownridge hits his stride in his final season at Santa Clara (which he did Monday night vs. Sacred Heart – see below). 

Lots of people may have heard of the seemingly mythical locale of Timbuktu as representing the literal middle of nowhere. But it’s an actual place, in an actual country – Mali in west Africa, to be specific, smack dab on the Niger River on the southern edge of the foreboding Sahara Desert.

We mention Timbuktu and Mali because new Portland coach Terry Porter recently signed a recruit from that country, by way of Japan. Tahirou Diabate grew up in Mali, grew up to be 6-foot-10, and spent his high school years in Japan studying and polishing his basketball game in order to attract the interests of college scouts.

Done, done and done.
Diabate’s high school team in Niigate won the Japanese national championship behind his prolific scoring. He’s had games of 101, 61 and 51 points and is clearly drawn toward odd numbers that end in 1. What’s not odd is Porter’s interest in a youngster who speaks four languages, including English fluently.

“He understands the game and has a lot of tools to work with,’’ Porter said of his prized international recruit. “Tahirou has the size, athleticism and talent to be a difference-maker in our conference. Tahirou’s visit last week really highlighted how good of a fit he will be.’’

Traveling back in time
One benefit to having a rich basketball tradition at your school is the creative ways to tap into it and promote it for the advancement of your program. Thus, San Francisco will peel back the decades and play San Francisco State on Dec. 6 at venerable Kezar Pavilion, home of the Dons from 1924-58. In conjunction with the Battle of San Francisco, USF will honor members of the teams that made it to three straight Final Fours in 1955-56-57 and won two of them. Fans are encouraged to dress in 1950’s-era style, and some concession prices will be rolled back to that simpler time.

Bill Russell made his USF debut in Kezar on Dec. 1, 1953 by scoring 23 points and blocking 13 shots against Cal. The 8 p.m. game on Dec. 6 will be preceded by the USF women taking on San Jose State at 6 p.m.

Sounds like a real hullaballoo in the making.

Stat line of the week
Even though Brownridge pumped in a season-best 32 points in Santa Clara’s 84-74 victory over Sacred Heart on Monday night at the Leavey Center, our choice for SLOTW (see above) goes to sophomore point guard Matt Hauser. Against SH, he shot 4-of-7 from the floor (2-of-4 from 3-point range) for 14 points and also distributed 11 assists while coming up with 3 steals. Hauser played in all 31 games as a freshman and has started all five games this season for the 3-2 Broncos.

Follow the three dots...
No real surprise that when Gonzaga plays Quinnipiac on Thanksgiving in a tournament in Orlando, FL., it will mark the first hoops meeting between these geographically disparate schools (Quinnipiac is located in Hamden, CT). … Of the games on this week’s schedule, the ones with the most interest include St. Bonaventure-Pepperdine on Wednesday at a holiday tournament in Cedar Park Texas; Arizona-Santa Clara on Thursday in the Thanksgiving week tournament at the Orleans Arena (site of the WCC Tournament in March); New Mexico State at San Diego on Saturday and UAB-Saint Mary’s Sunday at the Orleans.

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.