Checking In On… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on December 24th, 2013

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

College teams use their pre-conference slates in a variety of ways, but debate usually centers on two approaches: build RPI and team character by challenging strong teams, sometimes on the road; or marshal team resources by playing a home-centric schedule with a modicum of challenging opponents. No conference exemplifies this split more than the WCC in 2013-14.

Dave Rose and BYU bullied their way through a tough non-conference slate. (BYU Athletics)

Dave Rose and BYU bullied their way through a tough non-conference slate. (BYU Athletics)

BYU, donning Gonzaga’s suddenly-unused traveling clothes, has compiled the boldest preseason schedule by far, traveling to Stanford (112-103 win), Kansas City for a tournament (86-82 win over Texas, 75-62 loss to Wichita State), Utah State (85-74 win), UMass (105-96 loss), Utah (81-64 loss) and Oregon (100-96 loss). Straddling a home game against ranked Iowa State (90-88 loss), the Cougars have played seven games outside Provo, three of those against ranked teams. Other than a penchant for travel, however, BYU’s boldness hasn’t revealed much about what kind of team it will be in the WCC, much less the postseason, if there is one. For one thing, BYU lost four of those tough games and gave up a bucket-load of points (88.6 PPG), with three opponents topping 100. One could say the Cougars are battle-hardened but still unproven.

The polar opposite of BYU’s approach was taken by Saint Mary’s, which rattled off seven straight home wins, some over quality opponents (North Dakota State, Akron, Louisiana Tech) before venturing to Boise and conquering Boise State 82-74. Those who argue that only the road forges steel were given support by the Gaels’ 78-71 collapse against Frank Martin’s rebuilding South Carolina Gamecocks followed by a loss to Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic. The Gaels will play George Mason on Christmas morning in the ignominious seventh-place game. From an at-large resume perspective, Saint Mary’s will need to leave the islands with at least one victory.

Gonzaga, which used to be the WCC’s preeminent road warrior, has pursued a neutral course, playing only one true road game, an 80-76 win over West Virginia, although its 72-62 loss to Kansas State was played in friendly Wichita. Gonzaga went 2-1 in its Hawaii tournament earlier in December, and also beat South Alabama in Seattle. The radical change in philosophy by Gonzaga may have stemmed from Mark Few’s realization that the graduation of his entire front line (Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Mike Hart) would leave the Zags in weakened condition. When 6’9″ forward Sam Dower went down with a hip injury against Kansas State, those fears were heightened. There has been no word on Dower’s return.

The decidedly mixed bag from these differing approaches not only leaves unanswered the question of how to schedule in the preseason, but it also raises serious issues about the WCC’s chances in the postseason. None of these teams has shown itself to be a national power, and the conference may send only the recipient of the NCAA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. That makes one game in March – for the WCC tournament championship – more important than all the preseason games combined.

Power Rankings (through games of December 23)

  1. Gonzaga 10-2
  2. Saint Mary’s 9-2
  3. Pacific 9-2
  4. BYU 8-5
  5. San Diego 9-4
  6. Portland 8-4
  7. Loyola Marymount 8-4
  8. San Francisco 7-5
  9. Pepperdine 7-5
  10. Santa Clara 6-7

News and Notes

Gonzaga's Sam Dower

Gonzaga’s Sam Dower’s Hip May Hold the Key to the Season

  • For the first time in memory, Gonzaga’s season prospects depend on a medical result: How bad is Dower’s hip injury? Dower was the only returning frontcourt player with extensive experience, and was contributing at a rate of 14.6 PPG and 7.4 RPG before he landed hard in the loss to Kansas State. Few may have to utilize Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, who became eligible on the day of the Kansas State game, or go with 6’9″ true freshman Luke Meikle if Dower can’t return soon. Also troubling in Spokane: Brilliant point guard Kevin Pangos (18.7 PPG) continues to suffer the effects of turf toe on his right foot.
  • One of the sanctions coming to Saint Mary’s from the NCAA’s recent finding of recruiting and training violations is denial of participation in in-season tournaments for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Depending on how the rest of the Diamondhead Classic in Honolulu plays out this week, the Gaels may want to drop the NCAA a thank-you note. Cruising along at 9-0, the best start in Randy Bennett’s 13-year tenure at Saint Mary’s, the Gaels were ambushed by South Carolina in Honolulu on Sunday followed by host Hawaii on Monday. Saint Mary’s has experienced a pattern of underperforming in preseason tournaments in recent years: an opening-game loss to UTEP at the 2008 76 Classic in Anaheim; a stumble against USC in the 2009 Diamondhead Classic; and last year’s embarrassing two-fer at the DirecTV Classic, also in Anaheim – losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech. The Gaels will have one more chance for redemption against George Mason Christmas morning.
  • Pacific prepares to launch its first season as a WCC member in 43 years next week, and the Tigers are feeling pretty good about themselves. They lost only at Oregon and to Princeton in a Las Vegas tournament last week, and await Saint Mary’s in the Spanos Center in Stockton next Monday.
  • BYU will have to figure out whether letting Oregon get away – the Cougs were outscored 11-1 over the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation – bums them out or instills confidence for conference play. There is no question Dave Rose has fashioned a fast, high-scoring team around Tyler Haws (32 points against Oregon), Matt Carlino, Kyle Collinsworth and Eric Mika, but BYU has substantial trouble stopping its opponents.
  • San Diego played more games than anyone else in the WCC (13), and posted the second highest win total (nine). Why are the Toreros not generating any buzz as conference play begins? Probably because their wins included weak sisters such as Southern Utah, Pacifica College, Grand Canyon, San Diego Christian and Morgan State. San Diego’s two best games were close losses to New Mexico (73-66) and crosstown rival San Diego State (65-64), so maybe the Toreros can draw a lesson from the discussion about who to schedule in the preseason: better quality teams.
  • Portland had an up and down pre-season, but ended on a high note and has hopes of moving up in the league standings. After blitzing Princeton 93-79 following Princeton’s win over Pacific, the Pilots might be licking their lips over the thought of overtaking Pacific in the league’s upper echelon. The Princeton win came at a tournament in Las Vegas that brought Portland not only a second win over Bradley (74-53), but also WCC Player of the Week honors for sophomore guard Bryce Pressley, who averaged 17 points in the tourney and was named its MVP. Pressley is the son of former Villanova star Harold Pressley, who played on ‘Nova’s 1985 national championship team and also for the NBA Sacramento Kings.
  • Loyola Marymount traveled hither and yon during the pre-season, racking up more than 15,000 miles by playing eight of its first nine games on the road. But what does all that effort presage? With its best win being a 74-73 victory on the road against Long Beach State, the Lions ended by celebrating a 100-83 win over NAIA-affiliated La Sierra University. Will Max Good’s team achieve a turnaround from last year’s 1-15 conference mark? Will its bountiful group of new players merge into an upper-division challenger? After 15,000 miles the jury is still out.
  • San Francisco provided the WCC its most dramatic moments again this pre-season, as it has done with player defections in the past. This time one of its stars, three-year starter at point guard Cody Doolin, didn’t go to another institution, he just went home. Doolin, considered by many to be the Dons’ heart and soul, reportedly reacted negatively to a fight with another teammate when the Dons were playing Montana in Missoula. The university said he flew home to Austin and announced he would not return to the Hilltop. The Dons have gone 4-3 since Doolin’s departure, but only one of those games, a 72-61 victory over Vermont, was significant, and they were beaten handily by Oregon, Illinois State and St. John’s.
  • Pepperdine notched a couple of nice wins over Denver (68-56) and UC Irvine (75-69) as Marty Wilson worked to integrate freshman guards Jeremy Major and Lamond Murray Jr. (son of the former Cal and NBA star) into a lineup anchored by star forward Stacy Davis. Davis has been joined in the frontcourt by UCLA transfer Brendan Lane, and his team could be heard from as the conference season unwinds.
  • Santa Clara ventured from the safety of its home court and sub-standard competition a few times in the pre-season and was handled roughly by Notre Dame (84-69) and UNLV (92-71). The largely-rebuilt Broncos found victories mostly among lesser-knowns such as Sacred Heart, Radford, LaSierra and Bethesda University, so their readiness for conference play is unproven.

Looking Ahead

Pacific can be excused if it is chomping at the bit for the start of WCC play next Monday. Not only are the Tigers home but they play Saint Mary’s. The Gaels may be wounded from a rough tournament in Hawaii and will definitely be handicapped by losing Bennett for the Pacific game and four others. Bennett’s benching is another result of the NCAA investigation, and gives the Gaels an added measure of pressure to begin the conference schedule. After Pacific, Saint Mary’s heads to Gonzaga next Thursday and Portland the following Saturday.

Other lid-openers to watch include BYU at LMU this Saturday, the WCC game of the week to be televised over as well as regional sports networks (1:00 PM Pacific). Gonzaga can experiment with Dower’s replacement (assuming he doesn’t return) at home on Thursday and Saturday, as the Bay Area schools, Santa Clara and San Francisco, come calling.

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