WCC Tourney PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 5th, 2009
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference. He will be reporting from the WCC Tournament this weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. Check for his game liveblogs at RTC Live: WCC Tournament throughout the weekend.
A little unexpected news on the injury front has turned what looked to be a rather drab WCC Conference Tournament into a hotbed of excitement. The news concerned the broken right hand of Saint Mary’s star guard Patty Mills, who had been told by his doctor not to count on being ready for the tournament. That was before a visit with the doc on Monday (3/2), at which time Mills was pronounced fit to resume practicing with the Gaels. Current plans from coach Randy Bennett had Mills participating in non-contact drills on Tuesday and Wednesday and full five-on-five scrimmages on Thursday, Friday and maybe even Saturday since Saint Mary’s doesn’t have to be in Las Vegas for its first game until Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
The condition of Mills’ hand is significant because it permits speculation about a possible rematch between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga with revenge and an NCAA tournament bid in the balance. As the number one and number two seeds in the tournament, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s need only to get by a single semifinal contest to face each other for a third time this season in the WCC championship game Monday night, March 9. Their first game on January 29 on Gonzaga’s home court in Spokane was shaping up to be Mills’ finest effort as a collegian, as he rattled the Zags for 18 points in the first 17 minutes of the game. Then as he eluded the Zags’ Jeremy Pargo on a dash into the key, Mills lost his balance and fell to the floor, with his right hand striking the hardwood first. Given the spills taken regularly by the fearless Mills it didn’t seem to be much to be worried about, but appearances were deceiving. He had broken metacarpal bones, requiring surgery, insertion of pins to stabilize the area and fitting of a cast. Things immediately went downhill for the Gaels, who were 18-1 and possessing the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 heading into the Gonzaga game.
With Mills sidelined, Saint Mary’s lost the Jan. 29 game with Gonzaga, a game two nights later against upstart Portland and two out of its next three, including a rematch against Gonzaga on Feb. 12 in Moraga. The Gonzaga game might have marked a turnaround for the Gaels, however, as they battled the Zags to the wire before losing 72-70, then rattled off five wins in a row including a rematch with Portland and a non-conference win over Top 25-ranked Utah State. By defeating Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount on the road on the final weekend of the regular season, Saint Mary’s edged Portland for sole possession of second place and the semifinal bye in the conference tournament. Portland had its fate in its own hands, holding a half-game edge over Saint Mary’s entering the final weekend, but lost on the road to San Diego on Feb. 26 and Santa Clara in overtime on Feb. 28 to end up at 9-5 in the conference compared to the Gaels’ 10-4. Gonzaga notched its third undefeated WCC (14-0) season by edging Santa Clara and San Diego in two hard-fought contests, earning the number one tournament seeding and eliminating any doubts about an eventual NCAA bid regardless of how they fare in the WCC tournament. Gonzaga’s 23-5 overall record includes wins over Oklahoma State, Maryland, Tennessee and Indiana, preparing them for a high seed in the NCAA field that will be announced on Sunday, March 15. Saint Mary’s (24-5 overall) NCAA fate, however, may hinge on its performance in the WCC tournament, leading to the tournament buzz rousing the Orleans Arena this week. Before the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga rematch, however, some of the other capable WCC teams will have their shots at upstaging the top two conference finishers. Here’s how it shapes up:
The strongest team on Saint Mary’s side of the bracket appears to be Portland, which sagged a little at season’s end but still posted an 18-11 record that garnered WCC Coach of the Year honors for Eric Reveno and all-WCC honors for guards T.J. Campbell and Nik Raivio. Portland awaits the outcome of a first-round game between number six seed Pepperdine and number seven seed San Francisco to see who it plays on Saturday (3/7). Assuming Portland beats its quarterfinal opponent, the Pilots would face Saint Mary’s the next night. A Gaels-Pilots showdown for a chance at the WCC championship and automatic NCAA bid would be a lesser classic than Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga, but interesting nevertheless. The Gaels will easily remember the 84-66 pasting handed them by Portland on Jan. 31, their first game with no Mills in the lineup. Although Saint Mary’s regrouped to beat Portland 77-65 on Valentine’s Day in Moraga, a rubber match would be close. Saint Mary’s got back on the winning track by reviving its typically staunch defense, but cannot look ahead to a Gonzaga rematch in facing Portland and its three-point bombers. The Pilots beat the Gaels at every facet of the game in their first match-up and might be ready to explode after losing its last two WCC contests and dropping out of second place.
On Gonzaga’s side of the bracket lurks both San Diego and Santa Clara, who must be considered armed and dangerous as they enter the tournament. San Diego knocked off Portland 66-60 on the last weekend of the regular season, then played Gonzaga close two nights later before succumbing 58-47. The Toreros can’t help but remember their storybook romp through last year’s WCC tournament, when they defeated Saint Mary’s in overtime in the semifinals and then topped Gonzaga to win the championship and an NCAA tournament bid that they used to unseat perennial powerhouse Connecticut in the first round. It has been a bitter road to this year’s tournament, however, as San Diego suffered the loss of prolific scorer Brandon Johnson to an Achilles injury early in the season and the discipline-related dismissal of point guard Trumaine Johnson near season’s end. San Diego has a long way to go to repeat as champion in 2009, however, facing Loyola in a first-round game on March 6, then Santa Clara, then Gonzaga (if they beat Santa Clara) before getting to the championship game. It’s a tough order, but San Diego’s rugged defense and fundamental soundness under Bill Grier gives them a chance.
Santa Clara’s chances in the tournament can be summed up by looking at the WCC post-season honors: Senior Center John Bryant earned Player of the Year honors on the strength of awesome scoring-rebounding stats, capped by a 22-point, 21-rebound performance in Santa Clara’s season-ending 67-65 overtime win over Portland. Three Broncos – guards Kevin Foster and James Rahon and forward Marc Trasolini – dominated the league’s all-freshman team and Foster won co-newcomer of the year honors along with Portland’s Campbell. Those three freshmen, anchored by the redoubtable Bryant in the post, make Santa Clara dangerous, but also point up their vulnerability. Foster could go off for 20-plus points a game or revert to his two-for-twenty performance in the Broncos’ win over Portland, and Rahon has been bothered by a sore shoulder in the latter part of the season. Trasolini, a rugged 6-9, looks alternately scary and confused during games, and it is an open question which side of him will dominate in the tournament. If Santa Clara gets by the Loyola-San Diego winner on Saturday it will face a rested Gonzaga in the semis on Sunday. What kind of Zags’ team will that be – the efficient, high-scoring bunch that went undefeated in league competition, or a looking-ahead-to-the-NCAAs- team that could be vulnerable to a Santa Clara squad making a ferocious bid to salvage a 15-16 season?
If form prevails, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s will survive their semifinal challenges and face each other for the third time this season on Monday night. With a recovered Mills back in the Gaels’ lineup, that could be one for the ages.
Your fearless correspondent will be on hand to cover all the WCC Tournament action in Las Vegas, blogging away during live games and recapping each day’s action at RTC Live. What happens in Vegas during this tournament will definitely NOT stay in Vegas.