Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 1st, 2009

checkinginon

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

Standings

  1. Gonzaga     5-1
  2. Portland      5-1
  3. San Diego      5-2
  4. Saint Mary’s     3-1
  5. Santa Clara     3-3
  6. Pepperdine    3-4
  7. USF    2-4
  8. Loyola-Marymount    2-5

Looking Back

Zags, Pilots, Toreros Notch Tournament Wins to Lead WCC Teams

It has been a tournament-heavy pre-season for the WCC, and it was in venues ranging from Maui to Anchorage to Anaheim that the early-season leaders made their marks. Gonzaga led the charge by winning the venerable Maui Invitational with victories over Colorado (76-72), Wisconsin (74-61) and Cincinnati (61-59) in a hard-fought tournament championship in overtime on Thanksgiving eve. The Zags had padded their resume with early home wins over Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Mississippi Valley State, and put the college hoops world on notice that 2009-10 is not a rebuilding year by taking second-ranked Michigan State to the wire in a 75-71 loss in East Lansing, MI on Nov. 17.

In battling Michigan State evenly and winning in Maui, Gonzaga answered the question of how it would replace departed front-line stars Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt. Seven-foot redshirt sophomore Robert Sacre moved commandingly into the post position for the Zags with an eye-opening performance against Michigan State – 17 points in 19 minutes of play limited by foul trouble. In case no one noticed that, they certainly took note of Sacre’s front-line counterpart Elias Harris, who notched 17 points of his own against Michigan State in the first big-game college appearance for the 20-year-old freshman forward who has logged considerable time internationally with the German national team. Harris has emerged as the early star of Mark Few’s collection of international players, which includes Sacre, freshmen Kelly Olynk and Manny Arop from Canada and Bol Kong, also from Canada by way of Sudan.

As much as Sacre and Harris elicited oohs and aahs, it was the Zags’ veteran trio of guards Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson that led them. Bouldin has emerged in his senior year as the indispensible hub through which all things offensive pass for Gonzaga. An intimidating 6-5 guard, Bouldin stage manages the entire offensive show, plus contributes double-figure scoring from both outside and inside. He can spot up for a three-point jumper or take his man off the dribble. Gray, who has struck many observers as a marvelously talented but under-performing member of the Zags offensive show, evidently decided that his junior year was the time to answer the nay-sayers. He has been virtually unstoppable, moving constantly without the ball and receiving Bouldin’s pinpoint passes anywhere from beyond the arc to under the basket. His jump shot is as sweet as ever, but he is infinitely more aggressive and confident this year.  If opponents somehow limit Bouldin and Gray, Goodson might steal the show as he did in the Zags’ impressive win over the fearsome Cincinnati Bearcats in Maui. On a night when Bouldin was struggling on 1-7 shooting and totaled only 6 points, Goodson made key baskets in clutch time to rack up 12 points. Bouldin and Gray shared the MVP trophy in Maui, but Goodson was an unsung hero.

Up until a meltdown against 8th-ranked West Virginia on Nov. 29, it was an open question whether Portland had posted a more impressive early-season record than Gonzaga. Even losing to the talented Mountaineers 84-66 in the championship game of the 76 Classic in Anaheim (with Jerry West watching from the stands), Portland captured the attention of hoops experts nationwide. They were rewarded with a No. 25 ranking in the AP poll on Monday, Nov. 30 (Gonzaga was ranked no. 17 in the AP poll and no. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today poll), the first time they had received a national ranking in 50 years.

Portland earned its honors with a string of victories including an 88-81 win over Oregon at home on Nov. 21, a 74-47 shellacking of seriously-depleted UCLA in the opening round of the 76 Classic and a gritty 61-56 win over then-16th-ranked Minnesota in the second round. Eric Reveno’s veteran squad displayed the same tenacious defense and unselfish offensive teamwork that marked them in their breakout 19-13 season last year. The guard tandem of Nik Raivio and T.J. Campbell bedeviled Oregon (24 for Raivio, 16 for Campbell), UCLA (15 for Campbell, 13 for Raivio) and Minnesota (23 for Campbell, 9 for Raivio), before West Virginia’s tall, athletic guards slowed them down – Raivio managed 15 points against the Mountaineers but went 0-5 from 3-pt. range and only 4-12 overall. Campbell, among the nation’s leaders in 3-pt. shooting, managed only 2 of 6 from long range and settled for 12 hard-earned points. The third member of the Pilots’ sharpshooting corps, reserve guard Jared Stohl, who had raked UCLA for 15 points on 5-5 shooting from 3-pt. land, was harassed into a 2-7 night.

Up front for the Pilots, 6-8 senior Robin Smeulders has been consistently strong, aided by Luke Sikma, Kramer Knutson and Ethan Niedermayer. Although their inside-outside combination had been effective in the first five games, West Virginia has a trio of outstanding forwards in Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks and the incomparable Da’Sean Butler, who scorched Portland for 26 points. They were too much for the Pilots to handle.

San Diego was bidding to match Portland’s storybook early-season run with an outstanding performance in the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage, including wins over 25th-ranked Oklahoma (76-64) and offensive-minded Houston (76-65), which was averaging 90 points a game until they ran into Bill Grier’s tight defense and methodical offense. The wheels fell off against Washington State and its high-flying sophomore guard Klay Thompson, who went off for 43 points in a 93-56 beat-down on Nov. 28. San Diego had started the WCC’s rout of Pac 10 teams with a 77-64 win over Stanford in its second game of the season, and notched additional wins over lowly Occidental and Point Loma. Before the Alaska tournament, the Toreros lost a 56-55 heartbreaker to WCC-slayer Pacific in Stockton.

The best news for San Diego has been the return to action of star guard Brandon Johnson, who suffered an Achilles injury last year that forced him to the sidelines. Johnson is still not 100% recovered from the injury, so his gutty performances against Oklahoma and Houston in the first two rounds of the Alaska tournament – 22 points against Oklahoma and 15 against Houston – were especially commendable. Grier also got a career-high 21 points from junior forward Clinton Houston in the Houston win, and San Diego has received encouraging contributions from freshmen forward Chris Manressa and guard Patrick McCollum, along with strong play from veterans De’Jon Jackson at guard and fifth-year senior forward Chris Lewis. Johnson, Jackson and Lewis were all named to the all-tournament team in Alaska.

Saint Mary’s stayed out of the spotlight, and out of tournament play, in its first five games, and looked alternately promising and puzzling. The Gaels started strong with a 100-68 thrashing of New Mexico State (which was missing two probable starters), followed up that with another strong performance against highly-regarded San Diego State, winning 80-58, but then stumbled against 23rd-ranked Vanderbilt 72-70 – all three games in the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion in Moraga. The Gaels won the featured match-up against Vandy, fifth-year senior center Omar Samhan demolishing highly-touted Vandy center O.J. Ogilvy with a 25-pt., 19-rebound effort that limited Ogilvy to 2 pts. and 7 boards. But the tall Vandy guards intimidated SMC point guard Mickey McConnell and forced several costly turnovers that spelled the difference. Saint Mary’s bounced back with a convincing 92-67 win over rebuilding Cal Poly SLO, but has to answer questions whether its guards and on-again, off-again forward Wayne Hunter can score consistently enough to keep the pressure off Samhan and his frontcourt teammate, 6-11 senior Ben Allen. Bringing a smile to Randy Bennett has been the play of Australian freshman Matthew Dellavedova, a 6-4 guard who has been Mister Consistent so far with an 18.5 ppg average in the Gaels four D-I games (the fourth win was a 100-59 romp over NAIA team Cal-Maritime).  The Gaels face their first three road opponents beginning Nov. 30 against improved San Jose State, then head to unfriendly Ogden, UT for a rematch against Utah State (the Gaels upset the 23rd-ranked Aggies 75-64 last February) on Dec. 5, and face the Oregon Ducks for the third year in a row in Eugene on Dec. 12.

It has been a mixed bag for the bottom half of the WCC, but everyone has found something to be hopeful about. Loyola Marymount proved you don’t have to win a pre-season tournament – or even to win a majority of your games – to feel good about yourself. The Lions, who have the most new players among WCC teams, lost to Boise State (90-87) and host Montana (64-63) in Missoula before Thanksgiving, but took heart from the close losses and an 83-60 win over North Dakota. They provided reason for chest-thumping by their fans with a 67-59 win over seriously-undermanned USC, but then had those same fans scratching their heads with a loss at home to UC-Irvine (84-78), one on the road to Tulsa (79-65), then another home loss against UC-Santa Barbara (89-84) on Nov. 28. Max Good has been balancing transfers Drew Viney, a sophomore forward from Oregon, and Larry Davis, a junior guard from Seton Hall, with holdover stalwart Kevin Young and promising freshman forward Edgar Garibay to find the right mix for the Lions, but they have been close enough in several games to give him hope for the future.

Santa Clara is 3-3 so far, but the wins have come over weaklings such as Menlo College and Cal State-Bakersfield, and the losses have been confidence shakers at the hands of San Diego State (86-53), Pacific (84-57) and Northern Arizona (88-72), the latter at home. The Broncos saw some light with a 74-67 win over Fresno State at home on Nov. 28, a game in which Kerry Keating shook up his lineup by starting four freshman. Returning star guard Kevin Foster came off the bench to lead all scoring with 25 points, and Keating got another strong contribution from highly-regarded freshman guard Robert Smith, who notched career highs of 17 points and six rebounds. Another sophomore expected to lead the Broncos this year, 6-9 forward Marc Trasolini, also came off the bench for 9 points and 12 rebounds.

Pepperdine has been getting outstanding play from sophomore guard Keion Bell to soothe some early-season setbacks. The Waves lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to Pacific (67-64) and in the finals to Wyoming (86-82) in the World Vision Challenge in Laramie, but also won two of the three games there to win the overall tournament title. Bell scored 28 points in the overtime loss to Wyoming and averaged nearly 27 points in the tournament. He has teamed up with freshman guard Joshua Lowery, junior forwards Jonathan Dupre and Mychel Thompson and sophomore Dane Suttle Jr. to make Tom Asbury contemplate the future with some hope.

Rex Walters has to temper frustration over his University of San Francisco Dons’ early-season struggles with the realization that a young team takes time to hit its stride. In USF’s most recent loss, for instance, a 91-75 double-overtime defeat by Colorado State in Fort Collins, one of the Dons’ promising freshmen, Rashad Green, broke out with 21 points. Green and fellow freshman Perris Blackwell, a 6-8 forward from Canada, have been logging major minutes along with holdover senior star Dior Lowhorn, and sophomores Angelo Caloiaro and Kwame Vaughn.

Looking Ahead

San Diego will settle city bragging rights with a Dec. 2 game against San Diego State at the Jenny Craig Pavilion; Santa Clara faces Mountain West power UNLV on Dec. 5 in Santa Clara; Gonzaga has an intra-state rivalry game against Washington State on Dec. 2 at home, plus the annual Battle for Seattle against Davidson on Dec. 12; and Portland continues to battle Pac 10 teams with a 12/19 contest with the University of Washington in Seattle.

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One Response to “Checking In On… the WCC”

  1. Patrick Coony says:

    Mike – In response to your question on GIAG I should have mentioned that Brandon’s injury at the moment has more to do with his hamstring. At least that is what the TV commentators were speculating when he pulled up lame in the first half of the Houston game. Good work on the column – quite an undertaking.

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