Checking in on the… WCCPosted by rtmsf on January 9th, 2009
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.
WCC Conference Action opens this week. After what can only be characterized as a mediocre non conference season, the eight west coast teams will begin play on Friday. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are heads and heels above the rest of the competition, the Gaels sporting an impressive 13-1 record and GU coming out 9-4 after playing the most brutal non conference schedule in the country. Other than the two headliners only Portland has exceeded expectations this season, posting a winning record going into action this weekend.
Looking towards March, I would say that if Saint Mary’s or Gonzaga do not win the conference tournament, don’t expect both to get a bid to the Dance. Although both teams may be deserving, the bottom half of the conference is simply terrible. Loyola Marymount hasn’t even won a game yet. With that said, here are some things to watch for over the conference season:
(1) Which Gonzaga team comes out to play?
When the Bulldogs are playing confident, as they did against Tennessee last night, they can play with anyone in the country. Between Stephen Gray, Austin Daye, Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt, and Micah Downs, they have as many scorers and perimeter threats as anyone in the country. Additionally, this team has shown they have some heart, playing team defense without a force in the middle. However, as Mark Few has said himself, the Zags are thin down low. If their confidence takes a shot, they could be in for a few upsets and a surefire loss to the Gaels. However, if they hit their stride, and continue to stroke it, as they are capable of doing, watch out.
(2) Can Saint Mary’s handle the pressure?
For the first time in WCC action the Gaels will go to every hostile court with a big fat target on their back. Unlike Gonzaga who has faced hostile crowds for the past 10 seasons at some of the biggest venues, the Gaels have never been targets like they will be this year. Last year, when they were put into a similar position, Saint Mary’s folded, losing to San Diego and Kent State while being ranked in the Top 25. This team is much stronger mentally this season, as Coach Randy Bennett scheduled a non conference schedule exclusively of away games and only lost one of those contests. Additionally, this is a mature Gaels team, with five seniors and three juniors on the roster, two of which are four year starters (Diamon Simpson and Ian O’Leary). If Saint Mary’s can hold it together, they are my pick for the WCC Championship.
(3) Who will emerge as third in the conference?
The sexy pick should be the Portland Pilots, as Eric Reveno has them playing well. But this team is very hot-and-cold. One week they beat Washington and then lost to Eastern Washington, and then only beat Seattle University (who were Division 2 last year) by only four points. There is a good case for San Diego, was still has Gyno Pomare and three other starters from last seasons cinderella tournament run. However, as Santa Clara has shown with John Bryant, one big body will not get it done. My pick for third is USF (San Francisco). That’s right, the Hilltop just got little bit better. Rex Walters is doing a very solid job in his first season at War Memorial Gym. I really like the duo of senior guard Manny Quezada and forward Dior Lowthorn. If teams don’t take these guys seriously, they could be enormous giant killers in conference play.
(4) WCC Player of the Year
Unlike other years in the conference where there is one clear cut MVP (ie, Adam Morrison, Dan Dickau, Doug Christie, and Steve Nash), this year the conference has at least three of four candidates including the reigning MVP from last year (Jeremy Pargo; Gonzaga), the defensive player of the year (Diamon Simpson; Saint Mary’s), Rookie of the Year (Patty Mills; Saint Mary’s), a host of talented seniors (Josh Heytvelt, Gonzaga; Gyno Pomare, San Diego; Jon Bryant, SCU;. Dior Lowthorn, USF) and two potential first round draft picks (Mills; Austin Daye, Gonzaga). Thus someone is going to get left out in the cold. Although I believe they will give the award to either Mills or Pargo, my pick is none of the above. I’m going to go out on a limb and take Omar Samhan (SMC). At best, he is the most improved player in the league. This year he is averaging 14.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He has been the most consistent player on the team and really might be the Gael’s biggest advantage against the likes of Gonzaga.