CIO… the West Coast ConferencePosted by CNguon on February 27th, 2013
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Appreciating Assets – Solid weeks by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, plus a rebound by Santa Clara, marked the WCC’s next-to-last week in the regular season. All three teams enjoyed a rise in prospects, although the degree of ascent differed greatly.
Gonzaga, by tearing through Santa Clara (85-42) and San Diego (81-50) while #2 Miami sleepwalked through a pasting (80-65) from lowly Wake Forest, moved into the #2 position in both the AP and USA Today Coaches polls, the highest ranking ever for the Bulldogs. It is of a piece with a dazzling season that has seen, among other triumphs: a return to the top of the WCC after Saint Mary’s won the undisputed title last year; the highest number of regular-season wins in its history (27), with two conference games to go; and an undefeated conference record, only the third time in its history as a Division I team if it holds up. In addition, it is a given among most bracketologists that Gonzaga is a compelling favorite to be the #1 West seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, meaning the Zags will make an easy trip from Spokane to San Jose or Salt Lake City for the opening two rounds of the tournament.
Saint Mary’s may have removed itself from the shadow of the NCAA Bubble Watch by defeating BYU (74-67) and Creighton (74-66) at home last week, giving the Gaels a much-needed quality win over the previously high-ranked Creighton Bluejays and moving them into #23 in the Coaches poll. Of course, with the Gaels this year nothing comes easily, so the favorable comments on their chances are couched in must-dos: win the remaining two games on the WCC schedule (Pepperdine on the road and Santa Clara at home), and get to the finals of the WCC Tournament March 6-11 in Las Vegas. In a comment on the Darwinian nature of the competition for at-large berths in the NCAA Tourney, Creighton may have fallen from lock status to bubble team itself with the loss to Saint Mary’s.
Santa Clara, which has had more ups and downs than perhaps any 20-game winner in the country, could have taken an eight-count against Portland last Saturday after being eviscerated by Gonzaga two nights earlier. The 45-point loss to the Zags was its worst since 1998, but the Broncos rebounded for a 75-63 win over Portland and a sweep of that series to go with three other sweeps – against Pepperdine, San Francisco and San Diego. The latter sweep is important because the Broncos have a two-game lead over the Toreros with two games to go in a race for fourth place and a bye in the first round of the WCC Tournament. Third place is not out of the Broncos’ reach, as they enter the last week just one game behind BYU.
- Gonzaga (14-0, 27-2): The Zags are not just defeating conference foes these days, they are annihilating them. That is not good news for upcoming opponents BYU, in Provo on Feb. 28, and Portland, in Spokane on March 2. BYU might be playing for its last shot at an at-large NCAA berth, but even a gritty effort against Saint Mary’s came up short and the Cougars may not have enough left in the tank to stall an onrushing Gonzaga.
- Saint Mary’s (12-2, 24-5): There are some rewards ahead for Randy Bennett’s Gaels, including the number two seed in the WCC tournament, a sixth-straight 25-win season and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But the Gaels are thinking of a third match against Gonzaga in the WCC tournament finals, an automatic bid to the NCAAs that would come from a victory there and a higher seed than most bracketologists have forecast for them (11 or 12).
- BYU (9-5, 20-9): BYU continues to stumble in its second year of play in the WCC, and must hold off Santa Clara to match its third-place finish of a year ago. The Cougars have a chance to win a statement game against Gonzaga at home on Thursday, but failing in that may leave a miracle in the WCC tournament as their last hope.
- Santa Clara (8-6, 20-9): The Broncos won themselves some breathing room against San Diego by splitting two games last week while the Toreros lost two, and now can raise their sights to toppling wobbly BYU for third place. Beating Loyola Marymount at home on Thursday shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but upsetting Saint Mary’s in Moraga on the season’s last day will be more difficult.
- San Diego (6-8, 13-16): The gritty, determined squad that almost beat Gonzaga on Feb. 2 and then shocked BYU five days later is not recognizable in the team that has lost four straight. All that’s left is running out the string against San Francisco and Pepperdine.
- San Francisco (6-9, 13-15): The Dons, in contrast to San Diego, still have plenty of fight left, and their next target is securing the No. 5 seed in the WCC tournament. Standing in the way is San Diego, and the Dons will drop into Jenny Craig Pavilion on Thursday night with upward mobility in mind. This one will be a case study in how hard two also-rans can compete for a little face-saving.
- Pepperdine (4-10, 12-15): All that’s left is a spoiler role for the Waves, who will get a chance to enjoy it against visiting Saint Mary’s on Wednesday.
- Portland (4-11, 11-19): It has been a rough year for Eric Reveno’s Pilots, and a peculiar brand of irony brings it to a close in Spokane on Saturday against the rampaging Gonzaga Bulldogs.
- Loyola Marymount (1-13, 8-20): From WCC Coach of the Year last season to – what? – this season. That has been Max Good’s fate as the Lions have stumbled to twelve straight losses and must face Santa Clara and BYU – both teams with larger agendas – to wrap things up.
- There’s not much drama left in the 2012-13 WCC regular season, but BYU hosts the last little bit when it entertains Gonzaga on Thursday. The Cougars upset the Zags on their home court last year, but that was then and this is now. Now for Gonzaga means the unstoppable Kelly Olynyk, and a drive to perhaps achieve the #1 national ranking heading into the WCC Tournament.
- Saint Mary’s must keep its record clear of any last-minute losses, so will be careful not to overlook Pepperdine in Malibu on Wednesday. The Gaels will say goodbye to five seniors, including the incomparable Matthew Dellavedova, before entertaining Santa Clara on Saturday.
- The San Francisco-San Diego clash for fifth place and the LMU-Santa Clara contest finish off the Thursday slate, while Portland wanders into the Gonzaga meat grinder, Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara, BYU travels to LMU and Pepperdine winds up in San Diego on Saturday. That’s it until the WCC Tournament.