Checking In On… the West Coast ConferencePosted by rtmsf on February 9th, 2012
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
Gonzaga failed in its second big test of the season last Thursday, succumbing to the fast hands of BYU’s defenders and losing 83-73 in Provo. Coming after the Zags’ 21-point pasting by Saint Mary’s in Moraga back in January, the BYU loss cast serious doubts about Gonzaga’s chances to notch its 12th consecutive claim to at least a share of the WCC regular season title. Both Gonzaga and BYU play “fast,” meaning they bring the ball up quickly and go into high-speed motion offenses to catch defenders on their heels and score easy buckets. The problem last Thursday was BYU was better at that game than Gonzaga, forcing 19 turnovers consisting mostly of steals (14). The Zag back court tandem of Kevin Pangos and Marquise Carter were responsible for eight turnovers against five assists, and erratic forward Elias Harris committed four turnovers and scored just seven points. The Zags do not have a player as complete as BYU’s Noah Hartsock, who put on a clinic for Harris and various other defenders, scoring 24 points, pulling down 14 rebounds and committing just one turnover.
For a brief period last Saturday it seemed as if the WCC universe was about to tip off its axle: San Francisco was up big against Loyola Marymount in the second half; BYU was struggling against Portland; and Gonzaga, desperately needing a win following the loss to BYU, was having problems with the lowly Pepperdine Waves, who pulled within two points of the Zags (42-44) with 12:24 left in the second half. Order was restored, however, as Loyola made a furious comeback to erase a 17-point San Francisco lead with a little more than seven minutes left and handed the Dons a crushing 90-88 loss. BYU, making its first trip to Portland, figured out a way to overcome a four-point Portland lead with 16 minutes left – get to the free-throw line and turn ‘em over. BYU shot a mind-boggling 53 free throws, making 38, and turned over Portland 24 times en route to a 79-60 win. And Gonzaga righted itself long enough against Pepperdine to manage a 72-60 win.
- Saint Mary’s (22-2, 11-0) avoided the Saturday night drama, but had enough trouble with improving San Diego last Thursday before overcoming a 60-58 deficit at the 12:03 mark in the second half to post an 84-73 win. By continuing to win the Gaels continued to rise in the national rankings, notching a program-best #13 ranking in the ESPN/Coaches’ Poll and a #16 in the AP writers’ poll.
- Gonzaga (18-4, 8-2) finds itself two-and-a-half games behind Saint Mary’s heading into tonight’s crucial rematch with the Gaels in the frenzied atmosphere of their home court. A win and the Zags can hope for a repeat of last year’s swoon by Saint Mary’s that allowed the Zags to tie for the conference title. Another loss and the Zags fall three games behind in the loss column with only four games to go.
- Tie: BYU (20-6, 8-3) remained relevant and LMU (15-9, 8-3) remained ascendant with its wins over San Francisco and pesky Pepperdine. With only one game this week (Pepperdine at home on Saturday), BYU can watch tonight’s Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga game with high interest and hope for the best. LMU faces a tougher challenge with a road trip to the Pacific Northwest that takes it to tougher-than-its-record-indicates Portland and Gonzaga. This is a moment of truth for LMU.
- San Francisco (15-10, 5-6) saw its mid-season hopes for a rise to the conference’s top four crumble in the furious rush by LMU that some fans were calling the Lions’ greatest comeback victory ever. The Dons have a rivalry game against Santa Clara on Thursday, then travel to San Diego on Saturday, where Bill Grier’s energized Toreros probably won’t be feeling sorry for them. Hard to see a rosy scenario for Rex Walters’ team, although they still have a chance for redemption on Feb. 18 when Gonzaga comes to call.
- San Diego (9-14, 4-7) has reason for hope after a disastrous 2010 season and many stumbles this year. The Toreros gave Saint Mary’s everything it could handle before falling in Moraga, then ran all over Santa Clara in the early stages of what would turn out to be a nail-biting, 70-65 victory. Santa Clara trimmed a 19-point second half deficit to three (63-60) before San Diego straightened out and put ‘em away. You could look at the game as proof that San Diego still has to learn how to win or that they survived a close call but did not succumb. Grier probably holds to the latter theory.
- Portland (6-18, 3-8) had another close-but-no-cigar encounter with the conference’s top dogs, adding the BYU loss to an earlier eight-point loss to Saint Mary’s in Moraga. But by beating Santa Clara, 84-78, and giving BYU fits well into the second half, Eric Reveno’s team served notice that it will be troublesome in the conference’s final weeks. LMU comes calling on Saturday and Saint Mary’s on Feb. 23, so the Pilots can still cause some major heartburn to the leaders.
- Pepperdine (8-15, 2-10) followed up a sweep by LMU last Thursday with a tough challenge to Gonzaga, but it’s hard to tell if Marty Wilson’s team can add to its two conference wins. San Diego tonight at home is certainly possible, but a Saturday trip to Provo to face BYU might not turn out so well.
- Santa Clara (8-15, 0-10) raises eyebrows only in the context of a can-they-do-it scenario: after being picked solidly in the top four at the beginning of the season, can the Broncos go through the entire conference schedule without a win? After two close losses last week to Portland and San Diego, Santa Clara seems poised on a breakout game, but can it come on the road against San Francisco tonight or Saint Mary’s on Saturday?
- Thursday, 2/8, Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga, 8 p.m., Pacific, (ESPN2): It’s another prime-time showdown in the WCC tonight, as Saint Mary’s takes its undefeated conference record and Top 20 ranking into Spokane for a critical tip-off against Gonzaga. Can the Gaels replicate last year’s scintillating 73-71 victory behind Mickey McConnell’s last-second leaner in the paint? Or will Gonzaga storm back into contention for its 12th straight WCC conference title?
- Elsewhere: Generating less publicity but arguably just as important to the conference race is LMU’s two-game swing to Portland and Gonzaga that begins tonight against the Pilots. LMU barely kept its championship credentials valid with a huge comeback against San Francisco, and will have its hands full against both of the Pacific Northwest teams. If Max Good’s charges come out of this weekend with no more than three conference losses they will be legitimate contenders.
Check out some highlights from last year’s thriller in Spokane between the Gaels and Zags: