WALLA WALLA - Longtime NWAACC Championships basketball fans may not recognise this year Walla Walla representative in the men's 16-team field that begins a four-day run Saturday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.
Although known through the years for their 3-point prowess and offensive firepower, the 2012 Warriors are a little different. They hang their hat on defense.
"I don't think there's any question that this is the best defensive team I've ever had here," said WWCC coach Jeff Reinland, who is in his 19th season. "For whatever reason, these kids were all pretty decent defenders coming out of high school, and they have continued to improve their defensive skills here at WWCC."
Two of the Warriors, sophomores Michael Crane and Mac Stannard, were named to the Eastern Region's all-defensive team. And a third sophomore, Wa-Hi product Colton Arias, is a stud defender coming off the WWCC bench, Reinland said.
"We have a couple of guys on our team who guys on other teams don't want to see guarding them," Reinland said of Crane and Stannard. "And there's no question that it rubs off on some of our other players. Dallen Bills is a good defender down low. And then you bring Colton Arias in off the bench, who may be our best defender on the perimeter period."
Offense, on the other hand, has been somewhat spotty for the 19-8 Warriors.
Eastern Region freshman of the year Dylan Radliff, a 6-foot guard out of Richland, leads the Warriors in scoring with a 15.8 points-per-game average. Stannard is next at 12.5 points per game (15.2 in league play) while sophomore Jay Payne is at 12.2 and is the team's best 3-point shooter.
"He's knocked down 89 3s and is shooting 37 percent from out there," Reinland said of Payne.
"But we have not been a good shooting team," the coach added. "We're 42 percent from the floor overall and 33 percent from 3, and our 3-point shooting is down to 31 percent in league, which is very low. And our free-throw shooting is about a B+."
And Reinland doesn't expect those numbers to improve in the more spacious Toyota Center.
"Like any bigger major college arena that our kids are not used to, depth perception is different," Reinland said. "And the rims are tight, too, for whatever reason. I have never seen anybody shoot well in there."
Which is not to say the Warriors will forsake the 3-point shot.
"We're still taking them, it's part of our repertoire, we're just not making as many," Reinland said.
Likewise, the coach said, his team's offense in the paint has been sub-standard this season.
"Traditionally, Walla Walla has always had one guy down low who can really score," Reinland said, rattling off a long list of past post players. "But we are not as good inside as we have been, either.
"The difference is, this team guards better."
That defensive personality will be imperative Saturday morning at 8 when Walla Walla tips off the tournament against a Tacoma team that is regarded as one of the favorites to take this year's men's title.
"They are real athletic with a lot of good athletes," Reinland said of the Titans, who enter Saturday's game with a 22-5 record after finishing second behind Clark in the final Western Region standings. Clark, 25-2, is the second-ranked team in the most recent NWAACC poll and Tacoma is fourth.
"Tacoma has a lot of quick, slasher-type players who are difficult to guard," Reinland said. "And they have a transfer from Baylor University who is averaging about 25 points a game."
Reinland was referencing Mark McLaughlin, a 6-foot-6 sophomore out of Inglemoor High in Bothell, Wash., who is actually averaging 28.4 points a game and leads the NWAACC in scoring by a wide margin. J.T. Terrell of Peninsula is second on the list with a 25-point average.
"They have to be two of the favorites," Reinland said of Tacoma and Clark. The Penguins open tournament play Saturday night at 6 against Yakima, one of the Warriors' East rivals.
Reinland also pointed to top-ranked Whatcom (23-3), the Northern Region champ, as a strong contender for the NWAACC title. And he didn't rule out his East rivals, Spokane and Big Bend, who finished first and second in the division standings.
The Sasquatch, who are 23-4 and ranked third in the NWAACC poll, open tournament play at 4 p.m. against South Puget Sound. The Vikings, 21-4 and ranked seventh, face Lower Columbia in Saturday night's late show at 10.
"I certainly wouldn't throw any of those teams out of the mix," Reinland said. "Big Bend might be the most dangerous team in the tournament because they have two of the best players in the league and so much offensive firepower."
Radliff picks up East first team, freshman of the year
WALLA WALLA - Freshman Dylan Radliff is Walla Walla Community College's lone representative on the NWAACC Eastern Region's men's basketball first team.
Radliff, who prepped at Richland and led the Warriors with a 15.8 scoring average, was also honored as the East's freshman of the year.
Walla Walla sophomore Mac Stannard, who averaged 12.5 points per game, was named to the all-East second team as well as the division's all-defensive team. Another sophomore, Michael Crane, was also named to the all-defensive team.
Blake Skidmore of Big Bend and Preston Wynne of Spokane were co-recipients of the Eastern Region's most valuable player award. Joining Skidmore, Wynne and Radliff on the all-East first team are Amir Royal of Yakima and Antonio Snow of Big Bend.
Wynne also received defensive player of the year honors and Clint Hull of Spokane is the division's coach of the year.