CIO… the West Coast ConferencePosted by CNguon on February 14th, 2013
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Walk-on Wonders – There are many undiscovered threads in any college basketball season, but one of the most significant hidden stories in this year’s WCC race is the role that walk-ons have played in the battle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga for conference supremacy. By now everyone (or at least everyone who has viewed an ESPN telecast) knows the story of Gonzaga’s hard-nosed redshirt senior forward, Mike Hart. A walk-on through friendship with some of Gonzaga’s scholarship players, Hart eventually worked his way into a starting position and, for a brief time, a scholarship of his own (he gave it up this year to facilitate a bumper crop of recruits). He doesn’t score much in his 16 or so minutes per game – he’s made 14 of 23 shots this year – but he affects the game through dogged work on defense and the boards.
Hart has an analogue in Saint Mary’s redshirt junior forward Beau Levesque. Lightly recruited after a stellar career at East Bay powerhouse De La Salle High School, Levesque was a walk-on with an agenda – to become an integral part of Randy Bennett’s program. He made a splash in the Gaels’ Sweet Sixteen run in 2010, playing in all three NCAA tournament games, then sweated out his sophomore year with surgeries on both hips. As a redshirt sophomore last year he showed more promise in nearly 10 minutes per game, but he has blossomed this season into an outright star and potential all-WCC performer, averaging 11.0 PPG and 4.5 RPG in a little more than 20 minutes per game. He has had outbursts of 24 points on 6-of-7 three-point shooting against Santa Clara and 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting against San Diego.
For pure rags-to-riches drama, however, it doesn’t get any better than the story of Saint Mary’s other premier walk-on, redshirt freshman guard Jordan Giusti. Giusti was another East Bay standout (San Ramon Valley High School, alma mater of the Gaels’ Omar Samhan) who fell under everyone’s scouting radar except Bennett’s, and the Saint Mary’s coach thought enough of Giusti to ask him to redshirt his freshman year – unusual for a walk-on. He made a big splash in the Gaels’ December 31 home game against Harvard, showing down Harvard’s excellent freshman guard Siyani Chambers, and eventually forcing a turnover against Chambers that played a key part in the Gaels’ 70-69 victory. He has since become an indispensable part of the Gaels’ attack, giving Bennett a defensive stopper and allowing the coach to rest the other Gael guards, including do-everything whiz Matthew Dellavedova. With Giusti contributing in every game, Bennett has a more rested and versatile guard tandem than in any time in the past several years as the conference race goes down to the wire.
- Gonzaga (10-0, 23-2): The Zags had an easy week at home, easily topping Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, but face a more daunting schedule from here on in, including three away games against foes that defeated them last year, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco, and BYU.
- Saint Mary’s (10-1, 21-4): The Gaels continued their strong end-of-season play, humbling Santa Clara 84-63 on the Broncos’ court and stopping San Diego’s cheeky uprising against the conference’s top teams, 74-64, at the Slim Gym.
- BYU (8-4, 18-8): Dave Rose’s charges have not withstood a tougher skid in their short WCC history than last week’s double-whammy: a 74-68 upset by San Diego on the Toreros’ home floor followed by a 99-87 ambush by San Francisco in Provo after leading by sixteen in the second half. Wham!
- San Diego (6-5, 13-13): It was almost a magical week for Bill Grier’s squad, with a near upset of Gonzaga, an upset of BYU and a miraculous overtime win over Loyola Marymount under its belt before Saint Mary’s came to town. The determined Gaels, however, wanted no part of a reverse Cinderella story and swatted down San Diego by ten. Still, the Toreros leapfrogged Santa Clara into fourth place and evened their overall record – not a bad week’s work.
- Santa Clara (5-5, 17-8): The hype preceding the Broncos’ home game last Thursday against Saint Mary’s was overwhelming: this was going to be the game that Santa Clara used to jump into the WCC’s upper regions and set itself up for a big conference tournament push. Someone forgot to read the script to Saint Mary’s, however, as the Gaels rode Levesque’s 24 points to a convincing win. The Broncos now find themselves looking down with trepidation instead of up with hope.
- San Francisco (4-7, 11-13): If anyone can figure out this team, which started the conference race 0-5 and has won four out of its last six, clean off your crystal ball for Saturday’s (Feb. 16) showdown with Gonzaga. The Dons have beaten the Zags at War Memorial Gymnasium three years in a row, and could not have had a better prep for four-in-a-row than the win over BYU.
- Pepperdine (3-8,11-13): The gritty Waves survived an 82-56 pasting by Gonzaga in Spokane to beat Portland 72-68 in overtime at Portland and keep their season on a hopeful note.
- Portland (2-9, 9-17): The Pilots dumped fellow cellar-dweller Loyola Marymount 69-60, but let Pepperdine slip away.
- Loyola Marymount (1-10, 8-16): There are five games left in the conference season, but the Lions would be forgiven if “Wait ‘till next year” was an unspoken motto around their clubhouse. Losses to Portland and Gonzaga did nothing to boost their chances of exiting last place.
- It will be hard to miss Thursday’s showdown between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in Moraga because it will be an ESPN featured game with Gonzaga ranking in the AP top five. Saint Mary’s has a chance to redeem the promise of its oh-so-close comeback in Spokane in January (an 83-78 loss), and in so doing move a half-game ahead of the Zags into first place.
- Also of notice on Thursday is San Diego traveling to Santa Clara to either stomp out any reasonable hope the Broncos have of achieving a top-four finish or give Grier further heartache. Portland warms up San Francisco for its Saturday showdown with Gonzaga, and LMU goes to Pepperdine to hunt for a second conference win.
- On Saturday, Gonzaga completes its rough Bay Area weekend with a fourth try at defeating San Francisco in the Dons’ gymnasium; Saint Mary’s tackles its next-to-last road game at LMU; Portland gives BYU a chance for recovery in Provo and Pepperdine travels to Santa Clara.