Checking in on the… WCCPosted by nvr1983 on February 16th, 2009
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
There is no drama left in the race for the WCC conference title and favorite’s role heading into the conference tournament – it’s Gonzaga by a landslide – but that doesn’t mean the excitement is over in the West Coast Conference. With Portland’s emergence as a threat to Saint Mary’s for number two behind the Zags and a wild scramble underway to fill out the top four league spots, the last two weeks of play will be interesting.
Here’s how it is shaping up:
Saint Mary’s vs Portland
The Gaels may have righted themselves following the loss of Patty Mills on Jan. 29 by losing a winnable rematch against Gonzaga 72-70 (2/12) and pulling away from Portland in the second half to win 77-65 (2/14), both games in Moraga. Not only did the win over the Pilots give the Gaels as a team a much-needed confidence boost, it may have given even more to sophomore point guard Mickey McConnell. McConnell rebounded from a miserable outing as Mills’ stand-in against Gonzaga – six turnovers and five points is not a line to be remembered – to score 20 against Portland and post a gleaming line: four-for-four from three-point land and six-for-six from the foul line. McConnell has been up and down this year for the Gaels, but may be coming into his own at a crucial time. A coaches’ son from Mesa, AZ, McConnell has held coach Randy Bennett’s praise and confidence since arriving in Moraga, and now has a perfect opportunity to show everyone else what Bennett sees.
As much as McConnell stepped up against Portland, another Gael guard who has been laboring in Mills’ considerable shadow this year had a coming out party against Gonzaga. Redshirt junior Wayne Hunter hit four of seven three-point attempts to lead SMC with 18 points, by far his highest-scoring game of the year. Hunter, a rangy 6-4 who is considered the Gaels’ best perimeter defender, showed spurts of offensive promise in his first two seasons before sitting out last year. His long-range jump shot has always been his most suspect weapon, but he found a comfortable spot on the right side of the three-point arc against Gonzaga and gave Saint Mary’s a huge lift in a game they could have won with better ball management. After Zags’ guard Matt Bouldin missed the second of two free throws, Saint Mary’s had the ball trailing by one point, 71-70, with some 12 seconds on the clock. Veteran Zags guard Jeremy Pargo, knowing his team had a foul to give, interrupted the Gaels downcourt push by fouling one of their guards on the right sideline with about six seconds left. That forced the Gaels to inbound against 6-11 Austin Daye and his 7-5 wingspan, and Hunter had trouble finding an opening. He bounced a pass to senior guard Carlin Hughes, but Hughes couldn’t handle it and it went off his chest out of bounds. The Zags had escaped a close one, but the Gaels got some swagger back, which carried over in the victory over Portland two nights later.
But Portland still has the upper hand in the battle for second place and a bye to the semifinals in the WCC tourney, with a 7-3 conference record with four to go versus the Gaels’ 7-4 record with three to go. If Portland hangs on to edge out Saint Mary’s it will complete a remarkable season under third-year coach Eric Reveno, coming after back-to-back 10-23 campaigns. The Pilots are 16-9 overall and have compiled their most wins since going 19-11 in 1996. The remaining schedule is definitely manageable, with two games at home this week against suddenly-resurgent Pepperdine on Thursday (2/19) and lowly Loyola-Marymount on Saturday (2/21). They finish the season on the road against Santa Clara and San Diego, two teams who will be battling for conference positioning after up and down seasons. The Pilots can’t afford to lose any of those games, but can guarantee second place by winning out.
Saint Mary’s notched its 20th win of the season against Portland and must win everything from here on in to redeem a season that seemed headed toward a second-straight NCAA berth. The Gaels were 18-1 and ranked 18th nationally before Mills went down with three minutes left in the first half of the Jan. 29 game against Gonzaga in Spokane. They have lost four out of six since then and definitely have their backs against the wall heading into the last three conference games. They face backsliding San Diego at home on Thursday (2/19), and finish on the road against Loyola and Pepperdine with no room for error. The Gaels are pinning their hopes for salvaging this season on Mills’ recovery in time for the WCC tournament March 6-9. The four weeks anticipated recovery from surgery on his right (shooting) hand ends the week of the tournament, and their rosy scenario envisions him contributing something in the tournament and rounding into shape by the time the NCAA tournament begins. The Gaels probably need to win the tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid because of their late-season collapse and lack of a top-50 win this season. Winning one of the Gonzaga games was their best hope for doing that, but after having lost both regular-season games to the Zags they can only hope to conquer them in the WCC tournament. A showdown against Gonzaga with Mills back in the lineup would certainly bring national attention to the WCC championship game on Monday, March 9th.
Rest of the Pack
Santa Clara (6-5), Pepperdine (5-5) and San Diego (5-6) all head into the last two weeks of conference play with eyes on fourth place, and it would take a mighty accurate crystal ball to predict who will emerge. Santa Clara seemed to have the momentum heading into last week’s games, touting a 70-52 pasting of Saint Mary’s on Feb. 7 along with a six-game winning streak as it faced Pepperdine in Mailibu on Thursday (2/12). But the Broncos lost starting guard James Rahon and his 11-points-per-game average to a shoulder injury in the Pepperdine game and lost 66-60. Rahon played limited minutes two nights later as Santa Clara scraped out a 69-64 win over Loyola, as the Broncos other outstanding freshman guard Kevin Foster scored 26 points. Foster, the sensation from Katy, TX, has emerged as the top WCC newcomer with a per-game average of 16-plus in conference games. He is shaping up to become a you-can’t-stop-me-whatever-you-try scorer in the image of San Diego’s injured Brandon Johnson, and his team will lean on him even more if Rahon is unable to come back. Santa Clara has a tough rivalry game against USF in San Francisco Thursday (2/19), then finishes up at home against Gonzaga and Portland in the final week – a tough way to end the year.
Pepperdine may be emerging as the conference sleeper, following the Santa Clara upset and a 57-52 win over San Diego on Saturday (2/14). The San Diego win was the Waves’ third in a row and gave them their most conference wins since 2005. Pepperdine boasts its own stellar freshman guard in Keion Bell, who went for 18 points and 10 rebounds against San Diego. The road ahead is tough for Pepperdine, though, as they must play Gonzaga and Portland on the road this week before concluding the conference season at home against Saint Mary’s and USF. Their improved play lately will keep all their last four opponents from taking them for granted and will make them a definite upset possibility in every game.
San Diego will have the final two weeks of the season to figure out who they are and what kind of year they wish to have. Entering this year, the Torreros were poised to join Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s as potential NCAA teams, but the injury to Johnson and discipline problems with point guard Trumaine Johnson have undermined them. They seemed to bounce back under second-year coach Bill Grier to post an impressive 64-61 overtime win over Mississippi State on Dec. 30 and open the WCC season with four straight wins. But a 65-42 undressing by Saint Mary’s on Jan. 22 – with the Gaels cruising under Mills’ leadership – derailed them, and they have lost five out of six since then. More troubling, Grier has also put Johnson and fellow starter Gyno Pomare in his doghouse, with both getting limited minutes against Pepperdine. If San Diego straightens out it can wreak havoc and salvage its season with remaining games against the league’s top three teams, Saint Mary’s on Thursday (2/19) in Moraga, and Portland and Gonzaga at home in the final week.
All these possibilities leave only USF (1-10) and Loyola (1-9) out of the hunt, with both looking to be spoilers in the final weeks. Gonzaga seems to be cruising, and will face Loyola and Pepperdine at home this week before ending up the conference on the road against Santa Clara and San Diego. Even if it did stumble over one or two of these teams, the Zags will claim the regular-season title and enter the tournament as top seed. That potential Saint Mary’s rematch with Mills back in the Gaels’ lineup should be the Zags’ only worry as they head into the post-season.