Checking in on… the West Coast ConferencePosted by Michael Vernetti on January 1st, 2014
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Every week in a conference season is its own self-contained drama with winners, losers, and in-betweeners. The opening week is more dramatic than most because portents are seen and chances are calculated. After the opening weekend of the nine-week WCC season, some definite winners and losers emerged. Whether they stay that way will depend on what happens from now until March 1.
Winners: Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine, and Gonzaga made the most of opening at home by sweeping both opponents. Most impressive: Pepperdine’s 80-74 win over BYU, which had defeated Stanford and Utah State on the road and Texas at a neutral-site game.
Losers: Portland and Pacific, which blew opportunities to start the season with solid home wins, BYU, which bombed on the road at LMU and Pepperdine, and San Diego, which also lost two road games. It’s a toss-up whether Portland or BYU was most disappointing. Portland had winnable games against San Francisco and Santa Clara, but lost both, and BYU looked like anything but the team that is going to threaten Gonzaga for the conference title. Pacific had a wounded Saint Mary’s that was coming into the Spanos Center after a disastrous Diamond Head Classic performance (0-3) and was without head coach Randy Bennett, who was serving an NCAA-imposed five-game suspension. The Tigers lost anyway, 88-80, blowing a chance to make its debut in the WCC (after a 43-year absence) with a positive statement.
Treading water: Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Santa Clara. The Gaels showed resiliency in leading wire-to-wire against Pacific after the Hawaii faceplant, and Assistant Coach Eran Ganot made a successful start in Bennett’s place as head man. The Gaels face two more daunting road games at Gonzaga and Portland and a home contest against Santa Clara before Bennett returns. San Francisco looked competent in ruining Portland’s WCC opener at the Chiles Center (87-81), then awful in scoring just 41 points in a subsequent loss at Gonzaga (69-41). Ditto Santa Clara, which suffered a routine pasting by Gonzaga (74-60) but recovered to edge out Portland.
- Gonzaga (12-2, 2-0)
- Saint Mary’s (10-3, 1-0)
- Loyola-Marymount (10-4, 2-0)
- Pacific (9-3, 0-1)
- Pepperdine (9-5, 2-0)
- San Diego (9-6, 0-2)
- Portland (8-6, 0-2)
- BYU (8-7, 0-2)
- San Francisco (8-6, 1-1)
- Santa Clara (8-7, 1-1)
News and Notes
- The news continues to be glum for Gonzaga on the medical front, as star guard Gary Bell Jr. broke his hand in the win over Santa Clara and is out for 6-8 weeks. Sam Dower, who injured his back and hip in a fall against Kansas State, is still listed as day-to-day and missed both games last week. Kevin Pangos continues to struggle with turf toe, but has not missed any game time so far. Mark Few can find solace in the early performance of Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, the 6’8” forward who inserted energy and scoring in his initial appearances.
- Saint Mary’s difficult early-season schedule ratchets up a notch with a road trip to the Pacific Northwest to face Gonzaga and Portland this weekend. The Gaels have a notable injury as well, with USC transfer Garrett Jackson dinging his knee against George Mason. Jackson is out indefinitely, putting pressure on true freshman Dane Pineau to back up forward Beau Levesque on the front line.
- Loyola Marymount may be surprised about the ease with which it dispatched BYU, posting an early double-digit lead and holding on throughout the second half. The Lions’ outstanding recruiting class continued to pay dividends, as freshman guard Evan Payne from Akron, Ohio, led all scorers with 27 points and freshman forward Gabe Levin from Oak Park, Illinois, contributed 12 points and seven rebounds.
- Although the loss to Saint Mary’s was disappointing, Pacific’s senior-laden roster should not suffer any lingering effects. Led by Andrew Bock with a career-high 23 points, the Tigers wouldn’t let the Gaels put them away and were battling down to the last possession. Bock’s backcourt mate Sama Taku notched 17 points, forward Ross Rivera 10 and forward Tony Gill grabbed a career-best 12 rebounds to go with seven points. The Tigers are solid.
- Pepperdine is another program that has been revitalized by stellar recruits, as the Waves’ remade backcourt of freshman Jeremy Major and JuCo transfer Malcolm Brooks has erased all memories of Lorne Jackson and Jordan Baker. Major has given the Waves speed and energy at the point, and Brooks, a transfer out of Brooklyn who attended Lamar (CO) Community College, was electrifying in Pepperdine’s wins over San Diego and BYU. The WCC Player of the Week, Brooks went for 20 against San Diego and 24 against BYU, hitting 6-of-9 three-pointers.
- Just as Pepperdine and LMU are reveling in opening-week success, San Diego must be wondering what hit them. Coming off a 9-4 preseason in which they scared the wits out of cross-town rival San Diego State (losing, 65-64) and tested Mountain West powerhouse New Mexico in Albuquerque (losing, 73-66), Bill Grier’s charges were flat in two road losses. Brilliant shooting guard Johnny Dee certainly did his part to lift the Toreros, scoring 26 points against Pepperdine and 28 against LMU. Those would be Player of the Week numbers if San Diego had won the games.
- Portland might spend the next several days wiping egg off its face, disappointing fans who were expecting a resurgence this season after several less-than-stellar campaigns. Instead, they got back-to-back losses against teams they considered beneath them, San Francisco and Santa Clara. Eric Reveno must figure out the problems quickly, as Portland gets another two home games this week against Pacific and Saint Mary’s before heading out on a lengthy road test.
- As BYU looks up at seven teams ahead of it in the conference standings, it may be wondering what has happened. Battling ranked Iowa State to the wire before losing by two, beating Stanford and Utah State on the road and toppling Texas on a neutral court surely didn’t pave the way for losses at LMU and Pepperdine. The Cougars are desperate to find frontcourt help for freshman center Eric Mika, who may be letting the stress of following Brandon Davies get to him. Scoring only 10 against Pepperdine, the highly-regarded Mika fouled out and earned a technical because of his vociferous objection to the fifth foul. Dave Rose essentially plays four against five on offense, so completely is starting forward Nate Austin excluded from the offensive schemes, and he benched sometimes-star Matt Carlino for long stretches in the second half at Pepperdine.
- It’s one step forward and one step backwards for Rex Walters’ embattled San Francisco Dons. After ruining Portland’s home opener with a convincing win, the Dons barely registered a pulse against a Gonzaga team playing without starters Dower and Bell.
- Santa Clara fared better against Gonzaga than did San Francisco, but ultimately the lack of anything resembling an inside game cost Kerry Keating’s Broncos. Talented guards Brandon Clark, Even Roquemore and freshman Jared Brownridge can keep things interesting for awhile, but eventually the threes stop falling and the Broncs need someone to score in the frontcourt.
The most-watched game this week will come Thursday, when Saint Mary’s squares off against Gonzaga in Spokane (ESPN2, 6:00 PM Pacific). Both teams are beat up, and the Gaels will once again be without Bennett at the helm. The contest may determine who leads the conference after week two. Also of note will be efforts by early surprises LMU and Pepperdine to keep the momentum going on the road. The Lions and Waves head to the Bay Area for two winnable games at San Francisco and Santa Clara. BYU gets a chance to get on track as it entertains San Diego in the Marriott Center on Thursday, its only game of the week.