Checking in on… the WCCPosted by Brian Goodman on January 27th, 2011
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
A Look Back
- Mighty Gonzaga, which had lost only six conference games in the previous five years, lost twice on a trip to Bay Area schools Santa Clara (85-71) on Thursday and San Francisco (96-91 OT) two nights later. The 14-point loss to Santa Clara was Gonzaga’s worst loss to a WCC opponent in the regular season since 1999, although the Zags were drubbed 81-62 by Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament Championship game last March.
- Portland, which had been gaining traction as a potential third-place conference finisher, also went down to both Bay Area schools. The WCC standings following the weekend seemed out of joint, with Saint Mary’s on top at 5-0, San Francisco in second at 4-1 and Gonzaga tied for third with Santa Clara at 3-2. Portland finds itself tied for fifth with Pepperdine at 2-3, with Loyola Marymount in seventh at 1-4 and San Diego in last place at 0-5.
- Loyola Marymount’s descent has been almost as rapid as Gonzaga’s. Picked by WCC coaches to finish second ahead of Saint Mary’s, the Lions fell to cross-beach rival Pepperdine 78-75 in the 153rd meeting between the two southern California schools on Saturday. It was Pepperdine’s 13th straight win over Loyola Marymount in Malibu and the 24th win in the last 28 matchups. There must be something about that 19-mile drive down Pacific Coast Highway that upsets the Lions.
- Saint Mary’s retained the top spot with a tougher-than-expected 67-56 win over San Diego last Wednesday, but the Gaels’ week was ruined with an 89-70 smackdown at the hands of Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday. The loss to the Dores cost Saint Mary’s some spots in the Top 25 rankings, but they held on to the #24 spot in the ESPN coaches poll as Vandy climbed from out of the Top 25 to #22 by virtue of the win.
Player of the Week: Anyone who watched Kevin Foster’s scintillating 36-point outburst against Gonzaga on January 20 would not be surprised to see the 6’2 redshirt sophomore guard from Santa Clara garnering Player of the Week honors. Foster, who sat out the entire last season with a broken foot, came back with 19 points in the Broncos’ 72-59 win over Portland to move over the 1,000-point mark in his brief Santa Clara career. Foster is leading the country with 74 threes this season, leads the WCC scoring (22.2 PPG) and is 35th in the nation in scoring average at 19.3 points per contest.
A Look Ahead
If there is a more compelling matchup this season than Thursday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in Spokane, I have missed it. Gonzaga, nearly impregnable on its home court, finds itself two games behind the Gaels in the conference race, with critics questioning whether its 10-year WCC reign of supremacy can be sustained.
Saint Mary’s, after gaining some national respect for its ruthless efficiency and guard-led offensive heroics, stumbled badly in last week’s warm-up against Vanderbilt. In addition, the Gaels have not won in Spokane since 1995, and have not beaten the Zags in a regular-season conference game since the 2008 season. Buoying the Gaels is hope that senior point guard Mickey McConnell will bounce back from a sub-par outing against Vanderbilt (six points on 2-9 shooting, including 0-4 from three-point range) and lead Saint Mary’s as he did in the WCC tourney championship last March. McConnell scored 26 points on 10-17 shooting that night, and also dished out six assists. Which McConnell shows up Thursday night may determine the Gaels’ fate.
If the Gaels have doubts, the Zags must be wondering who took over their previously dominant team and substituted the bunch that sleepwalked through the Santa Clara loss, then lost to San Francisco for the second year in a row. The twin Bay Area losses marked three straight defeats to WCC opponents outside of Spokane, and the Zags will be counting on a giant dose of home support to right the ship. At 13-7, with two losses in conference and difficult road games ahead at Saint Mary’s, Portland and Loyola Marymount, the Zags simply cannot afford another loss if they hope to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight season.
Meanwhile, the suddenly invigorated remainder of the WCC takes on this week’s games with relish. New second-place holder San Francisco must be licking its chops awaiting the outcome of the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga game and an equally tough contest for the Gaels two nights later in Portland. The Dons travel to southern California to take on shaky Loyola Marymount on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday. A stumble or two by Saint Mary’s and a sweep by the Dons could have far-reaching consequences as the first half of WCC play comes to a close.
Santa Clara is nursing identical hopes as San Francisco, as it travels with its Bay Area rival to the same southern California venues, facing Pepperdine on Thursday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Both San Francisco and Santa Clara can be forgiven if they are carrying brooms along with them to remind them of the week’s goal.
Portland also awaits a giant opportunity for redemption in the coming week, staying home to entertain a weak San Diego team on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday, following the Gaels’ gut-checking contest with Gonzaga. At 14-6 and 2-3 in conference, the Pilots certainly realize this is the time to salvage a season that seemed promising only a week ago. Should they sweep on their home floor, the Pilots might squint a little at a February 3 home encounter with Gonzaga.
San Diego comes off a rare victory, Saturday’s 76-65 toppling of Cal State Bakersfield, as it heads into the Pacific Northwest hoping to play spoiler against Portland on Thursday and Gonzaga on Saturday.