Checking in on the… WCC

Posted by nvr1983 on February 24th, 2009

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Bye-Bye Blues
My, my, what an intriguing set of scenarios is emerging in the WCC’s final week to determine the number two seed in the conference tournament. Oh yeah, Gonzaga wrapped up the conference title – its ninth consecutive – with a pair of routine wins over Loyola-Marymount on Thursday (2/19) and Pepperdine on Saturday (2/21).

The two seed is important because the holder gets a bye straight to the conference semifinals. That means no game on Friday, March 6 or the following Saturday – a chance to watch the lower-echelon teams scramble for position from the comfort of the stands. The top two teams play for the first time on Sunday, with the winners advancing to the championship game and chance for the automatic NCAA bid on Monday night in Las Vegas. At this time of year no team wants to play an extra game, and the thought of playing three games in a row over a weekend is daunting. That’s the kind of thing teams do early in the season, in such balmy climes as Honolulu, when they’re fresh.

Portland (18-9 overall, 9-3 conference) and Saint Mary’s (22-5 overall and 8-4 conference) did nothing to change the dynamics of the second-place race last week. Portland clobbered Pepperdine 74-45 on Thursday behind T.J. Campbell, then sweated out a 73-65 win Saturday over Loyola, which figured to be the easier of the two games, both at home. Saint Mary’s had only one conference game last week, a gritty, scratch-and-claw 65-61 win over San Diego in Moraga. Even though San Diego coach Bill Grier benched starting point guard Trumaine Johnson for still another undisclosed team infraction, the Toreros gave the Gaels all they could handle. Up-and-down post man Gyno Pomare had his best game of the season, scoring 25 points on 10 of 21 shooting over the Gaels’ Omar Samhan, who scored 20 himself. It was one of the best big-man battles in the WCC this year, and was indicative of San Diego’s overall resurgence for a possible late-season run to respectability. Showing it was no fluke, San Diego evened its season record at 14-14 on Saturday with a 66-60 non-conference win over Pacific at home.

Saint Mary’s had an even more impressive non-conference win, knocking off a Top 25 team in the 25-3 Utah State Aggies, 75-64, at home. Nationally broadcast over ESPN2 as part of the network’s “BracketBuster” promotion, the game gave the NCAA selection committee something to think about as it ponders a possible at-large bid by Saint Mary’s. Samhan had another strong game, putting up 17 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against Utah State’s respected post, Gary Wilkinson. Point guard Mickey McConnell, ramping up his learning curve on the heels of superstar Patty Mills’ hand injury, had another perfect game from the floor, going 6-for-6 and nailing 9 of 11 free throws for 22 points. In his sometimes rocky stewardship of the Gaels’ offense since Mills went down eight games ago, McConnell has posted perfect shooting percentages in wins over Portland (4-for-4, all 3-pointers) and Utah State. During the Gaels’ current three-game winning streak, he is 13 of 17 from the field for 49 points and just four turnovers. Note to Mickey: shoot more.

So, the Gaels and Pilots head into this week’s season-concluding games a half-game apart and desperately seeking the semifinal bye. How that will be determined requires a crystal ball and understanding of the WCC’s tie-breaking formula in case Portland slips up in one of its last two games – at San Diego on Thursday (2/26) and at Santa Clara on Saturday (2/28). If Portland wins out, of course, it’s all over – the Pilots finish number two behind Gonzaga, get the bye and start thinking about Las Vegas. On the flip side, if Portland loses both games and Saint Mary’s wins its final two – on the road against weak sisters Loyola and Pepperdine – then the Gaels finish second at 10-4 and claim the bye for themselves.

The eyestrain sets in from contemplating one Portland loss against a Saint Mary’s sweep, creating a tie between the two for second place. One strong school of thought contends that if the Portland loss is to San Diego, the Pilots get the two seed, but if they lose to Santa Clara the Gaels get the coveted bye. This is an interpretation of the tie-breaking formula that considers W-L records in descending order of finish, but is not totally convincing because no one knows exactly how the league will sort out from the number three position on down. Santa Clara is currently ahead of San Diego in fourth place at 6-6 in conference play, with the Toreros at 5-7. Both Santa Clara and San Diego finish against Gonzaga and Portland at home, and no one knows how they will fare against the league’s two top teams. There are too many possible scenarios to make a confident forecast.

Which of the fourth-place contenders, Santa Clara and San Diego, seem better prepared to upset the front-runners? On the basis of last week’s games, the nod would go to San Diego, who played well against Saint Mary’s in Moraga and defeated Pacific at home, both games without Johnson (who apparently is done for the season). San Diego could gather some momentum by beating Portland Thursday night, then call on Grier’s anti-Gonzaga mojo from his years as assistant coach there to pull off the upset of the season two nights later.

Santa Clara, on the other hand, seems to be flatlining. The Broncos managed to lose to the University of San Francisco in overtime Saturday (2/21), and don’t seem to have recovered from the loss of starting guard James Rahon. Rahon didn’t play against USF, forcing coach Kerry Keating to start low-scoring guards Michael Santos and Charles Johnson alongside prolific freshman Kevin Foster. None of the Bronco guards seems capable of causing enough distress to the opposition to give Foster some breathing room, so the Broncos rely much too heavily on their rock in the post, Big John Bryant. Burly forward Marc Trasolini contributed 16 points against USF on 8-9 shooting from the floor, but he is only a freshman and sometimes gets lost in the Broncos offense.

Mills’ future
One advantage of Saint Mary’s playing on national TV was the appearance of their injured guard Patty Mills as a guest commentator during the game. Mills seemed to spill cold water on the Gaels’ hopes that he will recover from his broken right hand in time to contribute during the WCC tournament, stating his doctor recommends returning the week after the tournament. Thanks, doc.

nvr1983 (1397 Posts)

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