2009-10 Conference Primers: #14 – West CoastPosted by rtmsf on October 23rd, 2009
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference. Click here for all of our 2009-10 Season Preview materials.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Portland (11-3)
- Gonzaga (10-4)
- Saint Mary’s (8-6)
- San Diego (7-7)
- Santa Clara (6-8)
- Loyola Marymount (6-8)
- USF (5-9)
- Pepperdine (3-11)
- Matt Bouldin (G), Gonzaga
- Kevin Foster (G), Santa Clara
- Dior Lowhorn (F), USF
- Kevin Young (F), Loyola
- Omar Samhan (C), Saint Mary’s
6th man. Nik Raivio, Portland
Impact newcomer. Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
- Going International. The 2010 season marks the WCC’s most pronounced bow to international athletes, with every team having at least two foreign-born players and two of the predicted top three finishers – Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s – pinning their season hopes on the performance of foreigners. Saint Mary’s gave the trend its biggest boost by establishing an Australian pipeline that produced Daniel Kickert, the Gaels’ all-time leading scorer, and Patty Mills, who opted for the NBA after two sensational seasons. The Gaels continue as the Koala’s best friend this year, with five Aussies expected to make contributions and one, freshman guard Matthew Dellavedova, looming as a potential star. Gonzaga’s Pacific Northwest pipeline that supplied stars Adam Morrison, Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp, among others, may be temporarily clogged, but the Zags have turned to Canada (Manny Arop, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk), Germany (Elias Harris), and Sudan by way of Canada (Bol Kong), to maintain their position atop the conference. USF joined the crowd in a big way this off-season, luring a Czech (Tomas Bruha), two Frenchmen (Moustapha Diarra, Nikola Stojiljkovic) and a Canadian (Perris Blackwell).
- Room at the Top: Gonzaga, with nine WCC titles in a row, and Saint Mary’s, a perennial runner-up under Randy Bennett, have dominated the conference in recent years. But Gonzaga lost four of its main contributors from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team (Austin Daye, Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs) and Saint Mary’s said goodbye to Mills, all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker Diamon Simpson, starting forward Ian O’Leary and a trio of valuable back-ups in Yusef Smith, Lucas Walker and Carlin Hughes. That’s why Portland, with all five starters back from last year’s 19-13 team that finished third in the conference, can’t wait to shove its way into the top spot. Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating and USF’s confident newcomer Rex Walters, entering his second year, have recruited aggressively and well, indicating that they, too, are up to challenging Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the next few years.
- Multiple NCAA Bids: The conference was shocked last year when Saint Mary’s, 25-6 overall and second place in the conference behind Gonzaga, did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, leaving the Zags as the sole WCC entrant. Just the year before, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego received bids, the first time in anyone’s memory that three teams had gone to The Dance. Whether the conference elevates itself in the NCAA Selection Committee’s eyes in 2009-10 is one of the biggest question marks looming over the season.
Predicted Champion. Portland (NCAA Seed: #13). If the WCC Championship were housed in a room, the sign over it this year would read, “Vacancy – Come on in.” Suddenly, Gonzaga is not loaded with seasoned NBA prospects and Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a cadre of veteran defender-rebounders. Portland, on the other hand, has everyone back from the team that raised eyebrows throughout the league last year, plus the steady guidance of third-year coach Eric Reveno, the WCC Coach of the Year. Fate seems to be calling the Pilots to dislodge Gonzaga’s stranglehold on the league championship. Will they answer, or will they fade as they did down the stretch last year when they seemed to have an NCAA bid within their grasp but stumbled to a 3-4 record in their last seven league games, lost in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament and lost in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament? The overall numbers for 2008-09 were still pretty good, 19-13 and 9-5 in the WCC, but questions remain.
Will seniors T.J. Campbell, Nik Raivio, Robin Smeulders and Ethan Niedermeyer go out with a bang, or limp into the sunset with another opportunity squandered? Did Reveno rely too heavily on a pat hand by not bringing in any top-rated recruits? Can anybody beat Gonzaga?
Questions aside, the Pilots possess size, experience and outside shooting. In transfer guard T.J. Campbell, named to the WCC All-Conference team in his first year, they have an 11 ppg shooter who shot almost 50% overall from the field and a mind-blowing 53% from 3-pt range. Ready to come off the bench is another guard, Jared Stohl, whose numbers were only slightly less notable than Campbell’s: nearly 48% overall and 46% from 3-pt. range. That’s outside shooting, folks. Neither of those may be the Pilots’ best guard, however, because the 6’4 Raivio led all Portland scorers with a nearly 17 ppg average. Raivio is a pesky offensive threat who doesn’t seem to have a set position: he runs around the court taking potshots from just about anywhere.
The Pilots are big and strong in the front court, too. They rotate the 6’10 Smeulders, 6’9 junior Kramer Knutson, 6’8 junior Luke Sikma, son of the NBA’s Jack Sikma, and the 6’6 Niedermeyer in a versatile lineup. All four can score, defend and rebound.
Whether Reveno can push this veteran group to new heights and contend for a WCC championship and NCAA berth will be one of the intriguing questions of the 09-10 college basketball season. A lot of teams rise to the brink of national prominence only to falter at the end. It’s make or break time for the senior-dominated Pilots. Given Portland’s low profile on the national scene and lack of NCAA pedigree it is unlikely they would be given a high seed even if they did win a tournament berth outright or get an at-large invitation. They have only two potential break-out games on their OOC schedule – against Oregon at home on Nov. 21 and UCLA in Westwood on Nov. 26 – so would have to really shine to gain a 12 seed or higher come NCAA time.
Mark Few and Randy Bennett may be sharing the same thought as the new season unwinds: where did all the veterans go? Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have owned the WCC for the past several years, Gonzaga winning the championship a staggering nine years in a row in Few’s ten years there. Bennett’s Saint Mary’s team has never won the championship, but he has led the formerly woebegone Gaels to two at-large NCAA berths in his nine years at the helm, and most observers believe the Gaels were robbed of a third one last year. Both have major holes to fill if they are going to be back in the hunt in 2010, however.
Gonzaga saw Austin Daye take his 6’11 frame, shifty moves and deadly jump shot to the NBA after two years of making pro scouts drool and critics wonder whether he has the mental toughness to play for pay. Graduating were Josh Heytvelt, another 6’11 front court stalwart, 6’8 sharpshooter Micah Downs and veteran guard/floor leader Jeremy Pargo, who flirted with entering the NBA draft after his junior year. All will play professionally somewhere. To replace the Daye-Heytvelt front line tandem this year, Few has to hope 7’0 redshirt sophomore Robert Sacre has developed some offensive moves and lighter feet than he displayed as a freshman two years ago (he sat out last year with an injury). To back up and complement Sacre, Few has redshirt freshman Andy Polling, a 6’11 forward out of Portland, OR, lumbering 7’5 center Will Foster, who has failed to dazzle in three years of varsity competition, and a pair of 6’11 true freshman, Sam Dower from Osseo, MN, and Kelly Olynk from Kamloops, British Columbia. Other front line possibilities are a pair of foreigners, 6’6 Bol Kong from the Sudan and one year of prep work at Douglas College in Vancouver, BC, and 6’8 Elias Harris from Germany. It is almost impossible to rate foreign players because they escape the spotlight that shines brightly on American prep stars, but Kong and Harris are said to be highly valued.
Few will also welcome newcomer Manny Arop, a 6’5 swingman from Hamilton, ON, and returning standouts Matt Bouldin, a consensus candidate for Player of the Year in the WCC, smooth-shooting Steven Gray and streaking point guard Demetri “Meech” Goodson. The Bouldin-Gray-Goodson trio are expected to form the heart of Few’s team, augmented by the players listed above and another Goodson-type guard, G.J. Vilarino, a 6-footer from Texas who originally committed to Kentucky, only to leave with the coaching change there (Gillispie out, Calipari in). There’s a lot of talent scattered among this collection, but the challenge for Few will be to mold it into something resembling the juggernaut that finished off last season by going undefeated in WCC play, sweeping the conference tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament before being slapped down by North Carolina. No one is counting the Zags out, but most observers believe this is the most significant challenge Few has faced in several years.
Bennett of the Gaels can be forgiven if he casts longing looks at two players seated on his bench in street clothes this season. Kenton Walker, a 6’9 junior forward out of San Diego by way of Creighton University, must sit this year before becoming eligible in 2010-11. Expected to join Walker in the second semester is Rob Jones, a solidly-built 6’5 forward from San Francisco’s Riordan High who spent his first two college years under Bill Grier at San Diego. Jones is slated to enroll in Saint Mary’s in the spring semester 2010 and be eligible with Walker in the fall. Both would be warmly greeted this year if it were possible.
Patty Mills, the mercurial point guard from Canberra, Australia, joined Daye in the NBA draft after last season, and leaves a scoring gap for the Gaels. Diamon Simpson and Ian O’Leary, two tough defenders and fierce rebounders, graduated, so Bennett is facing the same concerns as Few. Like his Gonzaga counterpart, Bennett has options, but it is how those options pan out that will decide the Gaels’ chances this year. Bennett will build around 6’11 center Omar Samhan, a double-double specialist with Simpson for the past several years, 6’0 point guard Mickey McConnell, and 6’4 junior guard Wayne Hunter, the team’s – and perhaps the WCC’s – best perimeter defender. Hoping to fill Simpson’s shoes will be 6’11 senior Ben Allen, an Aussie who transferred to Saint Mary’s two years ago after two up and down years at Indiana. Allen fizzled in a substitute role last year, but the Gaels hope his improved play on a six-game Australian tour this summer portends a stellar senior year. If Allen can put up double-double numbers in the WCC as he did on the tour, the Gaels will once again be formidable in the front court. Spelling Allen will be 6’9 redshirt freshman Tim Williams out of Antioch High School in the far East Bay. Bennett is high on Williams, and he could be part of a potent one-two punch with Allen at the strong forward spot.
It’s the other forward spot that presents the biggest challenge to Bennett. Instead of the rugged, 6’8 O’Leary and similarly-sized backups Yusef Smith and Lucas Walker to provide a third rebounding/defensive presence, Bennett has to hope that 6’7 true sophomore Clint Stindl develops into a scoring threat, or that he can get by with moving Hunter into the three-spot and win with essentially a three-guard lineup. Bennett, who is the soul of caution in evaluating incoming players, was heard to remark about Stindl that he was only the second NBA prospect he had at Saint Mary’s – the other being Mills. Stindl has the prototype 3-spot body, long and lean, and a sweet shot. If he steps up and begins to validate Bennett’s early appraisal of him, Saint Mary’s could be well-served. He showed flashes last year as a freshman, but defensive lapses – he never saw a head fake he didn’t like – kept him mostly on the bench.
If he solves the front-court challenges, Bennett should like his guard prospects. McConnell will slide smoothly into the point guard position that he shared with Mills last year. Not as prolific a scorer as Mills, McConnell runs the offense efficiently, shoots a high percentage on the 3-ball (but doesn’t take many shots) and distributes well. He could be joined in the starting five by Hunter, or, in the scenario above in which Hunter plays the 3, by newcomer Matthew Dellavedova. The Gaels are not hyping Dellavedova’s arrival from Australia, at least not as loudly as they did Mills’, but he brings impressive credentials. Delly, as he was known Down Under, led the Australian under-19 team to the FIBA world championships last summer and then – topping Mills – made the Australian National Team at age 18 for a few games before he enrolled in Moraga. A rangy 6’4, Delly is a combo guard who can run the offense, defend well and score from the outside when needed.
In the wings Bennett has a teammate of Delly’s at the Australian Institute of Sport, Jorden Page, a Mills-like 6-footer, and Tim Harris, a smooth-shooting 6’4 guard from San Jose’s Valley Christian High School, both true freshmen. Saint Mary’s has already received a 2010 verbal commitment from highly-rated Oregon prep guard Stephen Holt, so the Gaels’ backcourt should be solid for the next few years.
The rest of the WCC should be fiercely competitive, with San Diego, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount fighting it out for the four, five and six spots, and USF posing an intriguing threat to crash the top half of the league standings under energetic coach Rex Walters. Only Pepperdine, still reeling from coaching changes and recruit departures, should be considered out of consideration for a mid-pack or better finish.
Top 10 RPI Boosters:
- Nov. 17, 2009: Gonzaga vs. Michigan State (NCAA runner-up last year) in East Lansing, MI
- Nov. 20, 2009: USF vs. Arizona State in Tempe, AZ
- Nov. 21, 2009: Loyola Marymount vs. USC in Los Angeles
- Nov. 21, 2009: Portland vs. Oregon in Portland, OR
- Nov. 25, 2009: San Diego vs. Oklahoma in Anchorage, AK (Great Alaska Shootout)
- Nov. 26, 2009: Portland vs. UCLA in Anaheim, CA (76 Classic)
- Dec. 5, 2009: Gonzaga vs. Wake Forest in Spokane, WA
- Dec. 5, 2009: Saint Mary’s vs. Utah State in Ogden, UT
- Dec. 12, 2009: Saint Mary’s vs. Oregon in Eugene, OR
- Dec. 19, 2009: Gonzaga vs. Duke in Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Key Conference Games:
- Jan. 9, 2010: Gonzaga vs. Portland in Portland, OR
- Jan. 14, 2010: Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga in Moraga, CA
- Jan. 14, 2010: San Diego vs. Portland in San Diego, CA
- Jan. 16, 2010: Saint Mary’s vs. Portland in Moraga, CA
- Jan. 16, 2010: San Diego vs. Gonzaga in San Diego, CA
- Feb. 4, 2010: Gonzaga vs. Portland in Spokane, WA
Although it is battling to rate as a consistent multi-bid conference, the WCC is slowly building a reputation for something else: a coaches’ league. Mark Few is already legendary, at least among people who consider basketball played west of the Mississippi, and would be a national figure of the Calhoun-Calipari-Pitino stripe if he had posted the same record at a power conference: 264-66 over ten years, an .800 winning percentage (that’s right, .800), NCAA appearances in each year, including four trips to the Sweet Sixteen.
Randy Bennett leads the pack of coaches taking over formerly awful WCC teams and restoring them to respectability, and more. Entering his eighth season in Moraga, Bennett has compiled a 127-90 record (.585 winning percentage), which must be considered against the backdrop of what he inherited in 2001: the fourth-worst program in D1 basketball (RPI rated 315 out of 319). He is the winningest coach in Saint Mary’s history, the only one to take the Gaels to two NCAA tournaments and the first to garner a post-season win (two, in fact, in last year’s NIT) since the 1959 team.
There are several coaches fighting for acclaim behind Few and Bennett: Bill Grier of San Diego, the longtime Gonzaga assistant who took the Toreros to the NCAA tournament and a first-round win over Connecticut in his first season in 2007; Eric Reveno of Portland, who has his team poised for a run at the WCC championship in his fourth season; Kerry Keating of Santa Clara, a former UCLA assistant and recruiting powerhouse who has brought several top-rated players to the Broncos in his first two years; and USF’s Rex Walters, a former college star at Kansas and NBA standout who has shown similar aggressiveness in bringing quality players to the Hilltop. Walters inherited a situation almost as grim as Bennett’s, as the Dons were reeling from the replacement of coach Jesse Evans and the fly-by appearance of Eddie Sutton for the last portion of the 2007 season.
These young, ambitious coaches have refused to settle for also-ran status after Gonzaga, and promise to make the WCC more competitive and more respected as time goes by.
Fun With KenPom. Gonzaga’s reputation for scheduling the best teams in college basketball precedes them. Because they were playing in the 13th toughest conference last season according to Pomeroy, the Zags made sure to improve their RPI play through the fifth most difficult nonconference schedule, including games against eight NCAA teams. That shouldn’t change this season, as Gonzaga has games scheduled against Michigan State, Duke, Wake Forest, Illinois, Oklahoma and a trip to the Maui Invitational on tap.
NCAA Tournament History. The WCC is a respectable 60-69 (.465) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, headlined by Santa Clara/San Francisco in the 50s, Loyola Marymount in the late 80s, and Gonzaga throughout the 2000s. In recent years, as noted above, Gonzaga has been the mainstay, but San Diego and St. Mary’s have been knocking on the door in terms of competitiveness at the national level. This year’s favorite, Portland, has only one appearance from 1996, where the Pilots got blitzed by #3 seed Villanova. This season will be their best chance to change that history.