RTC Summer Updates: West Coast ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on July 5th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our first update is from the West Coast Conference and comes courtesy of Will Green, an editor and writer with The Slipper Still Fits.
Readers’ Take One
- Brigham Young University Joins The Conference: When this story was first reported back in September, it was largely forgotten. BYU’s move was a football one with basketball repercussions, not the other way around. If anyone was talking about the Cougars, the dialogue was centered around how much money it would receive from it slew of nationally televised football contests this coming fall, and how many years the vaunted program would remain as an independent before choosing to join another league, securing even more lucrative contracts. The move, however, might make a greater impact on the collegiate basketball landscape than the football one, competitively speaking. For one thing, resident king Gonzaga’s streak of conference championships – which is older than most of your children – or at least its general reputation as the WCC’s top dog, is seriously endangered. With Jimmer Fredette seizing all available national attention like a Venus flytrap, lost on many fans last year was the fact BYU was not merely a fortuitous program enjoying an unusually good year. The Cougars have been a top 40 RPI team since 2006, with a pair of top 20 finishes. That’s not a second Gonzaga — that’s better than Gonzaga. They also bring by far the largest student body and largest fan base that the league has ever seen. Indeed, the league can leverage BYU’s prominence to grow its influence and scope (more on that later). Despite being a “football move,” BYU’s departure from the Mountain West Conference is not, as so many of the recent realignment moves have been, a casualty of circumstance. The aforementioned “repercussions” became a mutually beneficial improvement for both the Cougars and the league. Credit alert diplomacy and geographical convenience to why commissioner Jamie Zaninovichwas able to lure a team into his league that’s also, statistically speaking, better than any team in his current league.
- The League Gets A New TV contract: Over the course of the 2000s, the WCC did a remarkable thing: It became the most widely televised college basketball league of all the leagues in the West, while being only the fourth highest-rated league by RPI of the six in the region. Resident behemoth Pac-12 trusted its games to the insipid hands of Fox Sports’ cluster of regional networks. The Mountain West conference was largely marooned out on “The Mtn,” a network that truncated both its name and its audience by being available in a far more limited number of homes than the heavy-hitting Pac-12. The Western Athletic Conference enjoyed the occasional ESPNU game. The WCC, on the other hand, had its most intriguing matchups beamed into peoples’ living rooms in prime time on Thursday and Saturday nights (and for a time, on Big Monday) via ESPN or ESPN2. Both sides had such a good time putting the whole mess together that when their previous contract expired on June 1, it took exactly one week to renegotiate an eight-year extension. The new deal increases the amount of ESPN games featuring WCC teams by an average of at least five per year, possibly much more, and is spread across Thursday, Saturday and select Monday nights. While some critics contend the new ESPN contract isn’t much of an improvement over the previous one, their voices were provoked loudest during the rather dwarfing aftershock of the Pac-12’s mammoth deal with the same network. While this upcoming season could mark the first time in a long while that the WCC won’t be the most-watched west coast league, the league strengthened its relationship with ESPN and is poised to showcase what should be its most successful year ever in front of its widest audience to date. In an era of scrambling realignment and a fragile economic landscape, this is a still a huge win.
- The University of San Diego Suffers A Bribery Scandal: In April, this story looked crippling. San Diego had just finished one of the worst seasons by any WCC team ever when news broke that Toreros’ all-time leading scorer and current Memphis Grizzlies protégé, Brandon Johnson, was allegedly used to solicit current USD player Ken Rancifer on behalf of a delinquent named Steven Goria and several others to fix a game against the University of Portland on February 24. Also revealed was the news that Johnson himself had allegedly fixed a game during his senior season one year earlier. The good news for USD is that the story is quickly losing momentum, due in large part to the recent news that the 2011 team has largely been cleared of wrongdoing (Rancifer turned down the bribe from those attempting to fix the game) Repercussions from the 2010 game will ensue once the FBI is done investigating the entire case, and could involve recruiting sanctions or a postseason ban. Frankly, the Toreros are so deep in the throes of rebuilding that they might not enjoy any such postseason for the NCAA to ban in the first place. All told, this could have been much, much worse for USD. The true damage of the scandal is neither physical nor fiscal, but is still potentially very heavy. While it’s growing steadily, the WCC is not yet a national brand and one dominant negative story can define the WCC and USD for a large group of fans who aren’t very familiar with a non-power six league that’s on TV after they go bed. Show-stealing years from perennial contenders like Gonzaga and BYU, as well as postseason disruptiveness by the likes of St. Mary’s and Santa Clara, would be a good first step toward taking casual fans’ focus off of the scandal. Of course, if USD itself can somehow bounce back from a 6-24 record and win a few games they’re not supposed to, they just might turn themselves into national feel-good story.
- Gonzaga – The pick isn’t logical; the Bulldogs’ moments of mediocrity exacerbate each year, league parity is at an all-time high, and the once ill-populated queue of opponents who enjoy sneaking out of the woodwork every once in a while to embarrass randomly flat-footed Zag teams is now moderately sized. But the Bulldogs always win enough regular season games to capture some share of the WCC championship. If ever there was a year for the Gonzaga to roll over as a disgraced darling, it was this past one during the month of December, when the team found itself reeling from a trio of embarrassing losses to Kansas State, Illinois and Washington State. But they didn’t, and instead scraped together a remarkable January and February run which earned themselves a share of the WCC title. One could argue the team is even more destined for a sea change this coming season. For the first time perhaps ever, more Zags will have left the team due to the fact they didn’t want to be there than due to matriculation or early draft registration. Starting point guard Demetri Goodson surprised everyone by forgoing his senior season in order to play football at Baylor. The divisive and mysterious Manny Arop surprised no one by bolting to Indiana State for more playing time. Only guard Steven Gray was lost to graduation. But the good news for the Zags is the core of their talent lies either in those who stayed (Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower), and those who are coming in (blue chip recruits Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Ryan Spangler). While underclassmen like Pangos and Bell will rule the 2011-12 Zags’ backcourt, those underclassmen are really, really good, and they’ll play cohesively enough with the best frontcourt in the West to take the WCC championship, just as they have for the past 11 years.
- BYU – So that one dude, the guy who shot from 35 feet without regret and won multiple National Player of the Year honors — he left. The Jimmer’s absence leaves a uniquely massive vacuum, the size and crippling extent of which are both subjects of intense debate. One thing became certain, however, during a preview of future WCC powers in last year’s NCAA Tournament, when the Cougars trounced Gonzaga: BYU had several options, and they could smoke you with each of them if you weren’t careful. Not surprisingly, another year has passed, Jackson Emery and Logan Magnusson are gone, and even if Jimmer Fredette hadn’t joined them in Cougar heaven this past summer, BYU still wouldn’t be a one-man band. Beyond star forward Brandon Davies (assuming he is reinstated to the team before the season begins), the return of big men Noah Hartsock and Chris Collinsworth is stabilizing news for the Cougars. UCLA transfer Matt Carlino is expected to take over duties at point guard, and is joined in the backcourt by exceptional but under-the-radar shooting guard DeMarcus Harrison. The Cougars have also stolen away former Utah Ute commit, 6’8 swingman Josh Sharp, and have recently landed three separate 6’10 freshman centers. Head coach Dave Rose and inimitable new assistant Mark Pope have many new toys at their disposal. Rose’s central and perhaps lone struggle this coming year should be devising the best way to utilize them all. The team’s biggest tests could come in conference play, as BYU’s only notable non-conference opponents are a lackluster Utah team, Nevada and possibly Wisconsin. A young Cougars squad loaded with talent but coming into conference play flatfooted will get surprised a few times by notoriously road-tested teams like Gonzaga, and by WCC up-and-comers whom they’ve never faced before, such as…
- Santa Clara – This is a really, really big year for head coach Kerry Keating, the type of year where mid-major coaches become candidates for high-major jobs because they overachieve. The Broncos comfortably won the College Insider Tournament last postseason, and return their three leading scorers, Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore and Marc Trasolini. A five-man freshman class features 6’11 center Robert Garnett and Canadian U19 National Team member Julian Clarke. While the Broncos have spent the last few years battling injuries and developing a winning program, they haven’t tested their mettle against the best teams in the country. This year, however, they’ll potentially face as many top 50 non-conference programs in one weekend as they’ve faced in the past three years. This Thanksgiving’s 76 Classic is a pivotal moment for SCU. Early, injury-free wins against the likes of Villanova, Boston College, Oklahoma or Washington State that garner some national attention would not only communicate something to us eager fans about whether Santa Clara has finally arrived in the elite class of the WCC; a good performance would also give the Broncos some desperately-needed confidence. On the other hand, a shellacking from any of the aforementioned teams would situate SCU in painfully familiar territory: as a quality win-less, middle of the pack WCC team. I’m squeaking them ahead of Saint Mary’s because I see them potentially winning one or more of their 76 Classic games. If they lose out, look for the Broncos to finish fourth or fifth.
- St. Mary’s – Perhaps the most broadly encompassing testament to St. Mary’s success is that the team has had alumni in each of the past three years whom college basketball fans east of the Bay Area can name. Trail Blazer Patty Mills (’09) is quickly becoming an NBA fan favorite in Portland and in the Twitterverse. Omar Samhan (’10), still fondly remembered as the grinning oaf who dropped a 32-point bomb against Villanova in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, has the most recognizable mug of any NCAA player that’s recently graduated to Europe in the past several years, and was the last man cut off the practice squad by the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. And Mickey McConnell (’11) most recently made waves in Moraga by being drafted – by a Major League Baseball team. The trio formulates a perfect microcosm of head coach Randy Bennett’s recruiting strategy: Mine the hell out of Australia (see: Mills, McConnell, Matthew Dellavedova, Clint Steindl, Mitchell Young), and grab the best homegrown talent available to fill in the gaps. So far, it’s worked quite well, and Lord knows what international networking opportunities Bennett’s currently mining while acting as an assistant to Paul Hewitt’s American U19 Team in Latvia. But I don’t think it will work as well this season. Even less than normal news has surfaced about this year’s Gael recruiting class. Southern Utah center Matt Hodgson recently transferred to the school but will sit out this coming season under NCAA rules. The only official recruit listed on Rivals.com is unranked California guard McKenzie Moore. Unless some names from Down Under start popping up later this summer, this is a team that got progressively worse over February and March of last year, has now lost its star McConnell and starter Phil Benson, and gained nothing.
- San Francisco – The Dons had the Hilltop murmuring last year with some rare accomplishments. They vanquished Gonzaga, made a quarterfinal appearance in a postseason tournament that doesn’t begin with the letter ‘N,’ and most importantly, finished one game out of first place in the WCC. They showed flashes of brilliance against San Diego State and during an overtime win over NIT semifinalist Colorado. They also managed only 35 points in a blowout against Louisville, and dropped games to Montana State and Cal State Bakersfield. This year’s team is an even bigger unknown, since the Dons lose only Moustapha Diarra (fifth in scoring and seventh in minutes) and Marko Petrovic (seventh in scoring and sixth in minutes), both to overseas professional careers. They also gain a 6’8 forward and pair of locally sourced 6’4 shooting guards that even Bay Area basketball fans haven’t heard of before. There are a few knowns: Juniors Michael Williams and Perris Blackwell provide sneaky good upside behind the arc and on the glass, respectively. Seniors Angelo Colario and Rashad Green will receive the most minutes of anyone on the team. But this is a still a team without a ceiling and without an identity. They’re in the middle of the pack in just about every statistical category save Opponent Turnover % (not good) and Offensive Rebounding (see: Blackwell). Dominating a weak field at the Great Alaska Shootout this November would be a good start to a year that San Francisco can pretty much define as it wants. This isn’t the year the Dons run off with the league, but an NIT berth and a top four finish are reasonable goals that can build off of the team’s heretofore-anonymous success.
- Portland – Portland had so much going for it last year, and then…nothing happened. Aside from being the best three point shooting team in the country, they wrenched respectable results out of a respectable non-conference schedule, going 12-3 with losses only to Kentucky, Washington and Washington State, and wins over Utah, Boise State and Nevada. Then, after New Years Eve, the team promptly went 8-9, looked increasingly lost, and limped out of the first round of the CIT, which should be renamed the WCC-Run Off Classic. The formidable three-point threat, which other teams learned to permit in favor of exploiting the Pilots’ mediocre defense, was lead by Jared Stohl and Nemanja Mitrovic. Meanwhile, Luke Sikma averaged a double double in the post. Now, Stohl and Sikma are gone. While the Pilots will still maintain some perimeter presence this year, there are big problems on the low block. Along with the 6’8 Sikma, 6’9 Kramer Knutson and 6’10 Jasonn Hannibal are gone. True freshman and Netherlands import Thomas van der Mars, redshirt freshman John Bailey and the little-used Riley Barker are the trio coach Eric Reveno is relying on to anchor the post. Essentially, look for Mitrovic to be the team’s main offensive catalyst, senior Eric Waterford to attempt to mimic Stohl’s role, and some promising but young frontcourt talent to get dominated by the league’s more experienced, more physical big men. Don’t expect a washout from the Pilots, but don’t expect anything great, either. Perhaps the most piercing revelation of Portland’s 2011-12 season, a rebuilding one nonetheless, will be that last year was the program’s best one to experience success, and they missed it.
- Loyola Marymount – The 2008-09 to 2009-10 turnaround for the Lions was nothing short of a miracle. Perhaps the all-time worst season by any WCC team, a 3-28 campaign, was quickly forgotten when the Lions posted a winning record the following year and even gained a berth in the CIT. Instead of improving on 09-10’s success, last year’s squad grew divisive, lost now-Kansas Jayhawk Kevin Young to transfer, and receded. The team dropped 21 games, in large part to a crippling inability to shoot the ball, and plopped right back into the cellar of the WCC, joining San Diego in a tie for last place. With the departure of Vernon Teel, swing forward Drew Viney becomes the team’s central offensive focus all the more. College Insider Freshman All-American Anthony Ireland will lead the Lions at point guard, and be teamed in the backcourt with Jarred DuBois, a hot starter for the team last year before he was lost after six games to an ankle injury. Incoming freshmen CJ Blackwell and Christopher English are known for their athleticism and defense, but despite the attractive yellow stars next to their name on Rivals.com, probably won’t make a huge impact early on. The team has an intriguing out-of-conference itinerary already lined up. Games versus Florida State, UCLA, Idaho State, as well as a nationally televised matchup (thanks, ESPN contract) against St. Joseph’s will provide some form of an early season barometer that the Lions have lacked in previous years. Crucial to victories in these early games is a team-wide adherence to not breaking themselves. Who knows what could develop if Viney, Ireland and DuBois spend 32 games together on the same court at the same time, injury-free. Max Good’s most crucial goal this year should be providing his considerable talent with some form of consistency.
- San Diego – Picking San Diego to not finish last isn’t necessarily a rational or even a data-driven one. It’s a gut feeling, perhaps bolstered by sentimentality more than I’d like to admit. But the fact remains that Billy Grier is smarter and more tenacious than he looks, and whether or not it actually is, his credibility shouldn’t be damaged by the situation. The impending legal ramifications of the bribery scandal that will dominate discussion of a team that rarely merits any to begin with will be mitigated. Any punishment resulting from the matter will likely end in recruiting sanctions, and those will affect future teams, not this one. What Grier needs to focus on is the present, specifically, eradicating the vacant and bored look that inhabited the faces on last year’s team. If by no means other than sheer exasperation, he should be able to fire up a group that should come away from the scandal a stronger and tightly-knit bunch; there’s nothing like the presence of gangsters threatening a teammate who defied their advances to fortify a team whose back is already against the wall. And who better to lead a defiant campaign than the almost storybook figure of 5’7 Christopher Anderson. The younger brother of UCLA’s eponymous Jerime won the Southern California high school Wooden Award and was voted the best basketball player in Orange County. The notoriously infectious Anderson will most likely back up Darian Norris at point guard, who will hopefully be feeding the ball a lot to forward Ken Rancifer. Monitoring Rancifer’s play this season as he copes with being at the center of the NCAA’s investigation – largely for doing nothing wrong – will provide a very intriguing storyline. By most accepted barometers of performance, USD probably won’t have a good season. But another and perhaps more sound reason to feel positive about the Toreros next campaign is that it’s nearly impossible to finish worse than they finished last year. No one is expecting the Toreros to do anything in 2011-12 other than suit up. If only for this reason, look for USD to scrape together just enough improbable victories to climb a few steps out of the WCC’s basement.
- Pepperdine – After an oddly quiet dismissal from the team in the middle of last season, Keion Bell is now headed for Missouri, which, while outstanding news for the Waves’ psyche, is pretty devastating news for their on-court performance. Bell is a clubhouse cancer, but he’s also alarmingly talented. The team’s only wins last year after he was dismissed came at the hands of historically awful (we’re talking Centenary Gentlemen-bad) San Diego, and those were squeakers. Bell and second-leading scorer Mychel Thompson weren’t the only departures, however. Longtime assistant Marty Wilson is finally succeeding former Waves’ head coach Tom Asbury (1989-94, 2008-11), who spent three seasons charitably attempting and failing to resurrect a frustrating program. Wilson’s biggest challenge will be somehow instilling to a surprising amount of remaining upperclassmen the necessities of defense. An already poor-shooting offense with Bell and Thompson might sputter in the wake of their departure, but the Waves’ most pressing issue is their astoundingly bad 53.3% opponent effective field goal percentage. Wilson might be well on his way to righting this: he has publicly lauded JC imports Niko Skouen and Moriba De Freitas for their defensive abilities. But seniors Corbin Moore and Taylor Darby are currently better offensive rebounders than they are defensive ones. They, as well as their three-star, 6’8 freshman backup Ramon Eaton, need to translate their physicality into a defensive presence for this team to have a legitimate shot at winning. Same thing goes for guards Lorne Jackson and Darby. If experience was the main predictor of success, the Waves would be set. Sadly, it is not. Look for Pepperdine to struggle this year.
Santa Clara – Kevin Foster: After leading the WCC in scoring last year, this kid should already have more buzz than he can handle. However, for whatever reason (be it the tepid performance of the Broncos or the still-growing exposure given to the conference), the national landscape has yet to pick up on him. He’s a pure shooter and spent the better part of 2010-11 developing a killer instinct that helped deftly carry his team to a CIT championship and wallop hated in-conference bully Gonzaga by 14 points. He led the entire NCAA in three pointers per game last year with 3.7, and has an odd penchant for making ridiculously long shots. He took 35.4% of his team’s shots (7th-highest in the nation) and was utilized on 31.2% of his team’s possessions (22nd) as an underclassman (a sophomore), and his role is only going to increase with time. Sometime during the 2012-13 season I’m probably going to regret writing this, but Foster is a scary good scorer with a cornbread-fed physique, unlimited outside range, and per-possession involvement that uncannily resembles someone who was only a year away from playing in the WCC, Jimmer Fredette. Deride the comparison all you want, just wait until after Foster’s senior season to do it.
A Look Ahead
If this isn’t the year the WCC starts grabbing casual college basketball fans by the shirt collar, it’s at least the year it starts attempting. From a numeric standpoint, the conference has been stuck in its 14th place RPI rut since the early years of Gonzaga’s run. To a lot of mid major conferences, being ranked 14th out of 32 would be more of a godsend than a rut. But recent underachievement, like last year’s touted Portland team’s failure to even make the NIT and Saint Mary’s post-Valentine’s Day collapse has left the league flirting all too sparingly with national success. In 2011-12, the ability of SCU and USF to have breakout seasons will mean just as much as a solid performance from the big three schools, Gonzaga, BYU and SMC. Without other programs ready to grab the baton from the same old perennial contenders, the WCC can’t improve upon itself. The league will surely overtake a decimated WAC (13th place), and could sneak past a Horizon League (12th place) who won’t be enjoying as stellar years from Butler or Cleveland State as they did last year. But the WCC needs to match the weakening of those around them with individual improvement. Conference leadership has done a fantastic job of increasing the conference’s national exposure, and bringing in a new member who could also easily become its best member. The key here is not so much a competitive conference race, but a tougher out-of-conference schedule and more prominent postseason berths (read: NIT, not CIT). It’s admittedly hard for teams other than BYU or Gonzaga to do this, but they have a better chance now than they’ve ever had. Teams from the WCC need to continue to step out on their own and introduce themselves to the college basketball landscape not by beating up on each other, but on non-conference teams. A good year for the WCC is if Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s finish in the Top 50 RPI ratings and make the NCAA Tournament. A great year for the WCC is if dangerous sleeper teams like Santa Clara and USF mimic them as closely as possible.
Readers’ Take Two
Mark Your Calendar
Non-conference schedules are still being finalized, and only Santa Clara will take part in a non-conference tournament, but here are a few matchups to which you can look forward:
- Nov. 24: Santa Clara vs. Villanova/Boston College/Washington State/Oklahoma @ 76 Classic – The highest ranked out-of-conference team Santa Clara has beaten during the Kerry Keating Era? The Iona Gaels. Yea. A victory over any one of these power six teams isn’t merely vital to the Broncos postseason potential. It would be unprecedented. Why will it be any different this year than in the past? The Broncos are actually talented enough this time around to beat each of these teams.
- Nov. 25: BYU vs. Nevada/Wisconsin/Bradley @ Chicago Invitational – Here’s hoping the Cougars and the Badgers both win their first round games and play each other in the championship. Either BYU will show the Big Ten a thing or two about scoring the basketball, or the Cougars will wilt in the face of the stiffest defense they’ll see all year. Either way, it might be the only truly enlightening date of a light BYU non-conference schedule.
- Dec. 18: Gonzaga vs. Arizona – Arizona has won the last four contests between these two teams. Spokane is still smarting from the 2008 loss in Phoenix, much less the heartbreaking 2OT thriller in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. The undersized Wildcats, lead by Solomon Hill and Kyle Fogg, will try and make it five in a row against a physical Zags frontcourt.
- Dec. 22: St. Mary’s vs. Baylor/West Virginia/Missouri State @ Las Vegas Classic – A cryptic tournament with about as random a slate of teams as you’ll ever find, the Las Vegas Classic will also showcase deceptively high quality basketball. St. Mary’s will get valuable competition from whichever two of these three teams they play – and don’t be surprised if the most difficult contest is against Missouri State. Who will take up the charge and hit the crazy game winning shot for the Gaels in Mickey McConnell’s absence?
- TBA: Michigan State @ Gonzaga – No date has been set yet, but that doesn’t even matter; the Big Ten is voluntarily coming to play a WCC team on its home court. The Bulldogs will have an opportunity to make a major splash before the calendar turns, even if the game is in Spokane. This is as important a statement game for Gonzaga – who are trying avoid a repeat of last year’s marquee games versus Illinois and Kansas State – as it is an event for the WCC.