RTC Conference Primers: #10 – WCCPosted by rtmsf on October 27th, 2011
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Reader’s Take I
No. 1. The West Coast Conference has a ready-made top storyline for 2011-12: the addition (and possible subtraction) of Brigham Young University to the league. Initially seen as a coup for highly-regarded WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, BYU’s status as a WCC member got caught up in the latest craziness involving BCS football conferences. With some sources insisting the Cougars were just waiting for an opportune moment (or invitation) to bolt to the Big 12, much criticism has come down upon the institution for flirting with WCC membership while seeking greater opportunities elsewhere. Sadly, as in all the BCS conference upheavals, the uncertainty is driven by football and possible revenues therefrom. BYU officials have done little to reassure WCC members that they’re in it for the long run, so fans will just have to watch and wait to see what happens. Regardless of long-term prospects, however, the Cougars are competing in the WCC for the 2011-12 season and that is the top storyline.
BYU’s inclusion brings a perennial top 25 team into a league that was already on the upswing with the continued success of Gonzaga, the emergence of Saint Mary’s as a postseason regular and the upsurge in other programs such as Portland, San Francisco and Santa Clara. Expectations that the WCC might become a consistent three-bid NCAA conference have fueled excitement for the coming season, and sparked hot stove league discussions over which of the conference’s consensus top three programs will emerge as the champion and recipient of an automatic NCAA Tournament invitation. Strong arguments can be made for BYU, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s capturing that prize, and strong arguments are what fuels fan interest.
No. 2. Will Elias Harris have a break-out season in 2011-12 and carry Gonzaga past the early-round NCAA departures (GU’s last Sweet Sixteen appearance was in 2009) that have haunted the Zags the last two years? It is hard to pinpoint where this surge in Harris excitement comes from – certainly not the tight-lipped Gonzaga basketball program under non-boaster Mark Few – but it has been repeated enough to take on a life of its own. It seems to be based on the fact that he burst on the scene as an explosive scorer and rebounder as a 20-year-old freshman from Germany, posting 15/7 scoring and rebounding averages. He fizzled somewhat last season, at least partially stemming from shoulder and Achilles injuries, and so the stage is set for a comeback. What Harris boosters don’t take into account is that the league may have found ways to defend him based on his weaknesses in putting the ball on the floor, a sameness in his offensive moves (you can only make that power spin move so often) and his penchant for giving up the ball when pressured. Whether it’s a break-out or something less, Harris’ junior season will establish whether he is a superstar or just a good small forward.
No. 3. Will the real Loyola Marymount step forward? There was possibly not a bigger NCAA disappointment last year than the Lions of Max Good, who were everyone’s darlings following a breakthrough 2009-10 season that saw them post an 18-16 record including road wins over USC and Notre Dame and a home win over Gonzaga. With virtually everyone coming back, including some key contributors who had been injured in the 2009-10 season, LMU seemed poised to challenge for the WCC title. Instead, they imploded from injuries, squabbles between the irascible Good and key players and an overall malaise that dropped them to 11-21 overall and 2-12 in the conference, tied for last place.
But, guess what, they’re back with another strong team on paper and a chance for redemption. Although the Lions’ prospects were dimmed when two-time all-WCC forward Drew Viney underwent foot surgery in October that will keep him out until November, they still have an electric point guard in Anthony Ireland and a potentially dominating front court composed of Ashley Hamilton, Godwin Okonji, Alex Osborne and Edgar Garibay. Viney’s absence will allow quality recruits Quincy Lawson, a 6’6″ forward from the San Diego area who injured a hip early in his freshman season, and explosive freshman forward Cory Blackwell, who led his Taft High School team to the state CIF championship, a chance to shine. Another eagerly-awaited recruited is 6’1″ guard Bruce English from Lutheran High School in LaVerne, California.
So, Good again has the tools to cause some damage in the WCC. Will his intense style, marked by profane name-calling that often reverberates throughout the Lions’ small Gersten Pavilion, goad his team to excellence or cause them to shrink in rebellion? This is a storyline that might tell the story of a coach’s future.
All-Conference First Team
- G Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s). 13.4 ppg, 5.2 apg. Mickey McConnell’s sidekick the past two seasons, Dellavedova moves into the lead guard position this year and by all indications is poised for a dominating season.
- G Kevin Foster (Santa Clara). 20.2 ppg, 3.7 apg. That a volume shooter like Foster could dish off nearly four assists per game is just one indicator of his value to Santa Clara. Wind him up and watch him go again in 2011-12.
- F Rob Jones (Saint Mary’s). 13.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg. Playing out of position last year, Jones put up stellar numbers. He will be looked upon to provide even more scoring this year, while the Gaels should be stronger on the front line and won’t need as much rebounding from him.
- F Elias Harris (Gonzaga). 13.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg. All eyes are on the sometimes spectacular Harris this year as he attempts to fulfill the promise of a thunderous freshman debut. If injury free, he could be a contender for Player of the Year honors.
- C Robert Sacre (Gonzaga). 12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg. Although his numbers have never been spectacular, Sacre is the most experienced and feared post man in the league. If he doesn’t score down low he draws a foul, and he sinks free throws at an 82.3% clip.
6th Man — Mitchell Young (Saint Mary’s). As the Gaels’ sixth man last year, the 6’8″ Young out-performed both the players who started in front of him, averaging 10.2 PPG and 5.1 RPG, while shooting a remarkable 59% from the floor. He may start at strong forward for Saint Mary’s this season, ending his sixth-man status there but earning it for the league.
Impact Newcomer: Jordan Baker, freshman guard, Pepperdine. The 6’4″ Baker averaged 27.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG and 4.5 APG for Tempe (AZ) High School, en route to being named the Gatorade Player of the Year. Miss Keion Bell and his spectacular pre-season dunk extravaganzas featuring a leap over five or six teammates? Not if Baker lives up to expectations.
How They’ll Finish
It’s fairly easy to rank the WCC teams into groups of three, the top tier consisting of BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s (in no particular order); the middle tier consisting of Portland, San Francisco and Santa Clara; and the bottom tier consisting of LMU, Pepperdine and San Diego. The devil is in making a rational projection of where each team will fall within its tier or which ones will break into a higher ranking. But that’s why they pay me the big bucks, so here goes:
No. 1. Saint Mary’s (13-3). When you compare the programs of Saint Mary’s, BYU and Gonzaga by key statistical markers, you come up with deadlock. Head coaches Mark Few of Gonzaga (.800 winning percentage, 11 straight WCC titles, 13 NCAA appearances), Dave Rose of BYU (.778 winning percentage over the past five years, five straight NCAA Tournaments, five straight 25-win seasons) and Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s (.785 winning percentage over the past five years, four straight 25-win seasons, five postseason appearances, including a Sweet Sixteen berth in 2010) have unassailable resumes. You simply can’t pick a conference champion on the basis of one of these three being better than the other two.
Based on returning players, it’s an almost equal dead heat. Saint Mary’s returns four of five starters representing 79% of its scoring and 92% of its rebounding, but loses WCC Player of the Year Mickey McConnell. BYU returns its strong frontcourt core of Charles Abouo, Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies, with Chris Collinsworth returning from injury, but loses its starting backcourt of the ineffable Jimmer Fredette and his underrated companion Jackson Emery. Gonzaga likewise has a strong frontcourt group returning in Sacre, Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk, plus starting point guard and WCC Newcomer of the Year Marquise Carter, but loses all-around star performer Steven Gray and reliable defensive stopper Meech Goodson.
Neither of the three has a surefire superstar recruit, although Gonzaga is high on freshman guards Kevin Pangos from Canada and Gary Bell, Jr., from Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington, and JC star Guy-Landry Edi (think Jean-Claude Killy – he’s French). BYU can’t wait for guard Matt Carlino, a transfer from UCLA, to become eligible on Dec. 17, and Saint Mary’s welcomes back redshirt sophomore guard Jorden Page, and looks forward to contributions from transfer guard Paul McCoy, a former star at SMU who has been slow to recover from ACL surgery, and 7’0″ post man Kyle Rowley, a transfer from Northwestern.
So, with comparable coaching pedigrees and similar rosters, why pick the Gaels to come out on top? The answer lies in what the Gaels can become with roster flexibility available to Bennett that he didn’t have last year. Rowley is the key to this flexibility, because if he can hold down the post position as a lane clogger and strong rebounder, that will allow potential WCC Player of the Year Rob Jones to move to a more natural small forward position and rising star Mitchell Young (10.2 PPG, nearly 60% field goal percentage) to start at the strong forward. Jones did an admirable job as an undersized strong forward last year (he’s the league’s leading returning rebounder and fourth-leading scorer), but should be even more effective at the small forward position manned last year by sharpshooter Clint Steindl (42% three-point accuracy). Steindl is back for his senior year, and could be an effective instant offense substitute for Jones.
The Gaels’ backcourt is solid, with junior Matthew Dellavedova, the WCC’s top returner in assists, free throw percentage, assist/turnover ratio and minutes played, stepping into McConnell’s point guard shoes. Dellavedova spent this summer earning a position on Australia’s national team and may be the only U.S. college player playing in the 2012 Olympics. He will be joined by WCC all-Freshman team member Steven Holt and backed up by Page, who was emerging as a freshman star until he tore his ACL toward the end of the 2009-10 season. McCoy is a potential off-the-bench boost for the Gaels, but Bennett may have to ration his time to determine how stable his repaired knee is.
No. 2. Gonzaga (12-4). Gonzaga met BYU, playing without suspended post star Davies, in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament and was plastered 89-67, with Fredette having a field day. So why pick the Zags over the Cougars? Because BYU seems to have lost more with the graduation of Fredette and Emery and done less to replace them, although Carlino is expected to be a star. Gray was a consistent performer for Gonzaga for four years, but the Zags’ strength for the past several years has been in the frontcourt and that comes back intact. With Carter secure at one guard spot, Few can experiment at the other position among steady sophomore David Stockton and newcomers Bell and Pangos. Many Gonzaga observers expect Bell to supplant Stockton sometime during the season, with Pangos providing additional competition.
Few also has another weapon he is fond of – an athletic wing man in the presence of the 6-5 Edi. Manny Arop was Edi’s predecessor, but he had problems that contributed to the Zags’ mid-season stumble last year, and has left the program. His departure made way for Manny II in the person of Ivory Coast native Edi. Edi is intriguing, although a bit of a mystery. A star for the relatively unknown Ivory Coast, he enrolled in basketball factory Findlay Prep and was among a stellar 2008 recruiting class that included Abdul Gaddy (Washington), Avery Bradley (Texas), one-and-done Kentuckian Brandon Knight and Mississippi State problem child Renardo Sidney. For some reason Edi did not receive a scholarship after graduating from Findlay, enrolling instead at Texas’ Midland College and helping Midland win the National Junior College Division I national championship last year. Whether he can provide the spark Few wants from the wing position remains to be seen, but the Zags won’t drop off much with key reserves such as Dower and Olynyk to bolster Sacre and Harris. It’s a solid group.
No. 3. BYU (11-5). BYU’s frontcourt won’t dominate the WCC, with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and LMU all fielding strong squads. The Cougars’ success will depend on the performance of its backcourt, and there are too many questions about that contingent to pick them any higher than third. Until Carlino enters the lineup in mid-December (before league games get underway), the controls will fall to junior Nick Martineau, who has 45 games under his belt, transfers Craig Cusick and freshman Austin Nelson of Henderson, Nevada (but not from Findlay Prep). Rose used 6’6″ junior wing man Brock Zylstra at the point during the Cougars’ tour of Greece this summer, and Zylstra may find himself running the show when the season opens.
No. 4. San Francisco (9-7). The infighting among San Francisco, Portland and Santa Clara for the fourth spot in the standings will be intense. The Dons seem to be the strongest of the three because they return their entire starting five that led them to a 10-4 conference record and an overall record of 19-15, including two wins in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. That fivesome, Perris Blackwell in the post, Cody Doolin and Michael Williams at guard, all-WCC guard/forward Rashad Green and his frontcourt mate Angelo Caloiaro, will be joined by some injured players who are looking to make their mark. Foremost could be guard Dominique O’Conner, a former best in his class while a senior at Los Angeles’ Westchester High, who has gone down in two successive seasons. Charles Standifer, a 6’5″ jumping jack who averaged more than 25 PPG and 10 RPG as a senior at Capital Christian High School in Sacramento, showed early promise last year before he, too, suffered an injury that kept him on the bench. Another new face who could make an impact is 6’7″ combo forward Khalil Murphy, a star at Fishburne Military School in Willingboro, New Jersey, who redshirted last year. Justin Raffington, a plodding 6’9″ center from Germany who played sparingly as a freshman, will be counted on to back up Blackwell in the post, stepping in for graduated big man Moustapha Diarra.
No. 5. Santa Clara (7-9). This should have been an exciting year for Kerry Keating’s Broncos, coming off a 24-14 season that included winning the CollegeInsider.com Post Season Tournament with five straight wins including the last three on the road. As an extra bonus, they eliminated San Francisco along the way and won the championship against a team called the Gaels (it was Iona, not Saint Mary’s, however). As a reward for his stellar three years as the Broncos’ premiere inside scorer and all-around standout, Marc Trasolini was featured as the star attraction at an exhibition game in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, in September. Alas, he came down wrong on his left leg in the first two minutes of the first game of the Canadian tour, tore his ACL and is out for the 2011-12 season.
More than losing one of his two key offensive contributors – the other being superstar guard Kevin Foster – Keating lost one of his most reliable inside players with Trasolini’s accident. Although he has recruited a number of excellent guards, including Foster, his backcourt mate Evan Roquemore and departed standouts James Rahon and Robert Smith, Keating has not been as successful recruiting and developing big men. With Trasolini’s inaction, Keating will have to rely on underwhelming junior forward Niyi Harrison and promising sophomore John McArthur to bolster the frontcourt. Some help could come from 7’0″ freshman Robert Garrett from Sacramento High, but Garrett has yet to be tested in the conference.
Foster, a 6’2″ junior from Katy, Texas, can flat out stick it. He averaged 20.2 PPG last season and ranked number one nationally in three-point shots made and attempted, his 140 made threes breaking the WCC single-season record. He does it with defenses stacked against him, often facing double and triple-team sets. He is a leading candidate for Player of the Year in the WCC, and will be called upon to do even more with Trasolini’s demise. Roquemore has proved a solid complement to Foster and the Broncos are hoping that redshirt Canadian freshman Julian Clark can also contribute in the backcourt. If not, Keating can turn to true freshman Brandon Clark from East Chicago, Indiana; one way or another, a Clark should help Santa Clara. Still, in a season that Santa Clara thought could see them crack the WCC’s upper echelon, Trasolini’s injury may set them back. His downfall is the difference between San Francisco or Santa Clara being picked for fourth place.
No. 6. Portland (6-10). Where have the promising Portland Pilots of two years ago gone? That team was considered a contender for the league championship, but stumbled into a third place finish at 10-4 and was eliminated in the second round of the WCC Tournament. Last year’s squad fell to 7-7 and fifth place in the league, although it compiled a 20-12 overall record. Gone are Portland’s formidable frontcourt stars Robin Smeulders (graduated in 2010), Kramer Knutson, Luke Sikma and Jasonn Hannibal (2011 graduates) that gave Eric Reveno’s teams their hard-nosed personality. To say nothing of sensational three-point bomber Jared Stohl, who has graduated along with the rest. Reveno must rebuild around sweet-shooting WCC all-Conference guard Nemanja Mitrovic, highly-rated recruits Kevin Bailey from Clovis East High School in Clovis, CA and Dorian Cason from Summit High School in Fontana, CA, and a promising big man in 6’10″ Thomas van der Mars from The Netherlands. Reveno has led Portland to the best three-year string in its history, but he has a big job ahead of him for the coming season.
No. 7. (Tie — Pepperdine (5-11). Welcome to the WCC, Marty Wilson, the league’s only new head coach for the 2011-12 season. Following a lackluster three years under Tom Asbury, Wilson takes over with the Waves’ two top scorers from last year, Keion Bell, Mychal Thompson, gone and the third, up and coming senior guard Lorne Jackson, out for the season with a knee injury. It is not as though tough times at Pepperdine are something new to Wilson, however, as he has been an assistant there for nine years. What can he count on to lift Pepperdine from its 5-9 league record and sixth place finish of last year?
For one thing, the league’s highest rated and potentially most exciting freshman in 6’4″ guard Jordan Baker from Tempe (Arizona) High School. Baker tore it up in his senior year, averaging 27.3 PPG and leading his team to the Class 4-A Division II state final, good enough to earn a third-team selection on the Parade All-American team. Baker will likely team with junior Joshua Lowery in the backcourt, and veteran frontcourt returnees Taylor Darby and Corbin Moore. In addition to Baker, Wilson can look for help from promising freshman forwards Ramon Eaton and Manny Ochenje, who was rated by one scouting service as the 124th best overall player in the class of 2011. Will it be enough to rise higher than seventh (or avoid falling farther)? Only the season will tell.
No. 7. San Diego (Tie — 5-11). Except for LMU, the team suffering the hardest fall from grace in the last couple of years has been Bill Grier’s San Diego Toreros. Last year saw almost everything go wrong, as the Toreros fell into a tie for last place in the conference with a 2-12 mark and an overall record of 6-24. Grier’s troubles have been well-documented, as he came to San Diego in 2007 after being Few’s top assistant at Gonzaga and inherited a talented team that upset Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s been all downhill since then, including the shocking news that San Diego’s all-time leading scorer Brandon Johnson was implicated in a point-shaving investigation centering on the 2009-10 season.
Still, where there is talent there is hope, and Grier has some talent at his disposal. Start with an imposing three-man frontcourt rotation of giant Chris Gabriel (6’11″, 275 lbs.), baby giant Chris Manressa (6’9″, 245 lbs.) and skinny giant Dennis Kramer (6’11″, 235 lbs.). They have all played considerable minutes and have all shown promise of excelling, with Kramer being the most versatile with a deadly three-point shot. Waiting in the wings is redshirt freshman Simi Fajemisin, a 6’10″ forward/center from Lynnwood High School in Lynnwood, Washington.
In the backcourt, Grier will probably lean on senior guard Darian Norris, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College who showed signs of excellence last year. Getting on the court after a redshirt season will be highly-touted freshman Ben Vozzola, a McDonald’s All-American nominee while at Centennial High School in Las Vegas. Vozzola, a scant 180 pounds spread across a 6’5″ frame, might have been the only redshirt player whose instructions last year included spending more time at the training table. Other promising freshman guards are tiny (5’7″, 150 lbs.) Christopher Anderson, a standout at Canyon High School in Anaheim, and spectacular scorer Johnny Dee, a 6-footer who averaged nearly 33 PPG at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, California. Veterans Cameron Miles, Ken Rancifer and Jordan Mackie round out San Diego’s remaining hopefuls. Can Grier turn them into something good enough to escape the cellar in 2011-12? That’s his challenge as he hopes to return to some of the glory of that 2007 squad.
No. 9. Loyola Marymount (4-12). Okay, we’ve discussed LMU’s outstanding talent earlier. How do they rate a projected last-place finish? Simply because any team that fails as spectacularly as LMU did last year deserves to be picked last until they can prove themselves deserving of a better fate. The talent is there, but is Good the man to develop it? We’ll see.
WCC Tournament Champion: Saint Mary’s
Following its first outright regular season championships since 1989, the Gaels sweep the WCC Tournament by beating Gonzaga 81-79 in the title game. They are awarded a 9th seed in the NCAA Tourney. The difference-maker for Bennett’s Gaels compared to last year’s squad that faded down the stretch is stability in the post provided by transfer Rowley, the powerful front line combination of Jones and Young and the Gaels’ backcourt trio of Dellavedova, Holt and Page. If McCoy’s knee allows him to contribute, the backcourt will be even stronger; if he can’t, the Gaels may fall victim to guard exhaustion as they did last year when McConnell and Dellavedova logged nearly 40 minutes per game each. Page, who has had knee problems of his own, must provide significant relief for the two starters, and if he goes down the Gaels are in trouble.
Also in the Postseason: Gonzaga (NCAA); BYU (NIT); San Francisco (NIT)
Gonzaga, on the strength of its challenging non-conference schedule, gets an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney and is seeded 10th. BYU just misses an at-large bid to the NCAA, but hosts a first-round NIT game. San Francisco is also picked for the NIT but has to play elsewhere than its home court.
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Gonzaga’s Harris was once the darling of the NBA draft-watchers, being pegged as high as a lottery pick following a strong freshman season. He has the prototypical body and explosiveness the NBA covets, but he cooled a lot of enthusiasm with a below-par (for him) sophomore season. Back in form for 2011-12, Harris could once again have the pros waiting.
Santa Clara’s Foster has a pro scorer’s attitude and spectacular numbers to back it up, but is a bit bottom-heavy to have NBA scouts salivating. He may overcome that with pure strength, however, and give coach Keating some palpitations about leaving after his junior year. The same could be said for Dellavedova of Saint Mary’s, who has almost none of the athletic hallmarks – great leaping ability, spectacular finishes at the rim, etc. – that the NBA values. Also, his shooting form is a bit unorthodox and the pros don’t draft unorthodox unless the player can leap through the roof. He made the Australian National Team, however, so may get some consideration for performing well on the world’s stage.
Spotlight on Great Coaching
More so than the outstanding careers of Few, Bennett and Rose highlighted earlier, the WCC has become a haven for great coaching. Santa Clara’s Keating turned considerable doubts about his coaching ability – abetted by an early penchant for referee-baiting that he has softened – into admiration through last year’s success in the CollegeInsider.com Post-Season Tournament. Winning five games in a row in the postseason is not easy, indicating that Keating had the respect and attention of his players long after they were accustomed to performing. He will need all that respect this year as he faces the season minus his strongest inside player, Trasolini.
Right up Highway 101 from Santa Clara, San Francisco’s Rex Walters is showing his experience playing in a top college program, Kansas, coupled with a solid NBA career can be parlayed into success as a Division I coach. Walters has recruited far and wide, including internationally, to build the team that finished third in the WCC last year. With all five starters back, Walters has the Dons ready to crack the league’s top level.
Before Keating and Walters, Portland’s Reveno took a Portland team that was synonymous with failure and turned it into a 20-game winning, postseason appearing up-and-comer. His hallmark is rough and tough inside play, and he will be working to re-construct that successful formula this year following the graduation of several key players.
Final Thoughts: Who Needs the BCS?
What is the relevance of BCS affiliation in constructing a top-level basketball conference? This question has come into focus more than ever with the recent chaos among BCS football programs, who seem willing to sacrifice anything – including the stability of their basketball programs – to chase the big money than can accrue to a BCS football championship appearance. The Big East won acclaim and unprecedented success for its basketball teams, plus the reputation as one of, if not the best conference in the land. Despite that history, two hallmark Big East teams, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, recently quit the conference because its football success was not great enough to crack the top tier.
If the institutions so clearly favor football over basketball, will that inattention allow non-BCS conferences and colleges to compete successfully with the six power conferences? Those conferences still overwhelmingly draw the blue chip high school athletes, but as more Butlers, Gonzagas, Virginia Commonwealths and George Masons drive deeper into the NCAA Tournament, high school hoops stars may begin looking to go to places that unabashedly favor basketball.
The WCC is a fascinating place to see this phenomenon develop because BYU chose it as a place to compete in all sports besides football. BYU chose to take on the football wars as an independent, but other schools may choose a variation of the BYU formula: compete for football in one conference and basketball in another. As the dollars-driven college football scene continues to turn off fans and influential media voices, basketball-first conferences such as the WCC may see its prestige – and the quality of its play – continue to increase.