Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

Did the earth move or was it merely a hiccup?

Somehow, Randy Bennett And Saint Mary's Just Keep On Winning Games (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Randy Bennett is back for Saint Mary’s. (Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

One could see portents in Santa Clara’s upset of Saint Mary’s (57-55) on the Gaels’ court last Thursday, and in Gonzaga’s slip at Portland (82-73) the same night. After all, Gonzaga had won 22 straight conference games and 20 in a row over Portland, and Santa Clara had beaten Saint Mary’s only once before in Kerry Keating’s seven seasons at the helm. So, the upsets indicated anything but business as usual in the WCC. But don’t go rushing out and proclaiming the dawn of a new champion in the WCC, which has been dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the past decade. The Gaels bounced back from the Santa Clara loss with a solid 87-73 pounding of San Francisco, which came to Moraga with a 4-1 conference mark and intentions of staking a claim at the top of the standings. The San Francisco game also marked the return of Randy Bennett to the Gaels’ bench after an NCAA-imposed five-game ban on leading the team. Although top assistant Eran Ganot guided Saint Mary’s to a 3-2 mark, including two conference road wins, everyone in Gael Nation breathed easier with Bennett back in charge.

For its part, Santa Clara followed its inspired performance against Saint Mary’s by coughing up a fur ball two nights later against previously winless Pacific (80-68). Sensational freshman guard Jared Brownridge, who buried Saint Mary’s with 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including a three-pointer with less than a second left to win the game, limped to 1-of-7 against Pacific for seven points. Consistency, thy name isn’t Santa Clara. So, Saint Mary’s appears healed and has Bennett back to hold things steady. BYU, another preseason choice as conference contender, has rebounded from a rocky 0-2 start to move to 3-2 after cruising past San Diego (87-53), Pepperdine (84-72) and Loyola Marymount (91-68) in its last three home games. Gonzaga, which didn’t have another game last week after stumbling against Portland, is waiting to show that loss was an anomaly rather than a portent.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1).
  2. Saint Mary’s (13-5, 3-2)
  3. Pepperdine (11-7, 4-2)
  4. San Francisco (11-7, 4-2)
  5. BYU (11-7, 3-2)
  6. Santa Clara (10-9, 3-3)
  7. Portland (10-7, 2-3)
  8. Loyola Marymount (10-8, 2-4)
  9. Pacific (10-6, 1-4)
  10. San Diego (10-8, 1-4)

Weekly News & Notes

  • It’s hard to put your finger on the cause of Gonzaga’s collapse against Portland, as the Pilots had won only one of their first four home conference contests while the Zags had cruised in it first four. Leading scorer Kevin Pangos (17.4 PPG) had an off night statistically (12 points on 3-of-10 shooting), but the Zags got a boost with the return to form of forward Sam Dower, who led them with 14 points in 24 minutes after sitting out several games with a hip and back injury. One key was in the paint, where Portland’s Thomas van der Maars matched Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski, with 11 points, five rebounds to 11 points, four rebounds.

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    The Pilots can take heart over the continued excellence of 6’4” sophomore guard Bryce Pressley. (AP)

  • Saint Mary’s looks forward to three more home games in a row, and got a break with tonight off. That gives Bennett a full week to put his stamp back on the Gaels before they face Pacific on Saturday. One key for Saint Mary’s: consistent production from guards James Walker III and Kerry Carter, who combined for only 14 points against Santa Clara but bounced back for 31 against San Francisco. With Walker and Carter hitting consistently from the outside, point guard Stephen Holt has more room to operate and the Gaels’ frontcourt more opportunity to score.
  • Pepperdine refuses to go away, benefiting from outstanding freshman leadership from point guard Jeremy Major and a revamped frontcourt aided by UCLA transfer Brendan Lane. Both Lane and brilliant transfer guard Malcolm Brooks were out of the lineup for the Waves’ loss at BYU, but both were back in a road win over San Diego that kept them just one game out of first place. Forward Stacy Davis, last year’s WCC Newcomer of the Year, was unstoppable against San Diego, scoring 28 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
  • San Francisco roared into a first-place tie with Gonzaga on Thursday as the Zags lost in Portland and the Dons beat Pacific 81-72 (OT) in Stockton. The Dons’ rebuilding backcourt of Avry Holmes and Matt Glover combined for 34 points against Pacific, but Glover stumbled to a seven-point performance against the Gaels’ and the Dons gave up 33 points via the three-ball (11-of-21) to prevent the upset.
  • BYU is getting its swagger back after its conference-opening road trip to southern California that left the Cougars looking up from the league basement with a mark of 0-2. BYU won its last two against Pepperdine and LMU without freshman post man Eric Mika, who is nursing a hip injury. A familiar threesome of Tyler Haws, Kyle Collingsworth and Matt Carlino combined for 69 points in the Cougs’ 91-68 romp over LMU. Haws was named WCC Player of the Week after averaging 33.0 PPG in the Cougs’ two wins last week.
  • The WCC has often been described as a guard-oriented league, and no team takes that to the limit that Santa Clara does behind the dynamic duo of Brandon Clark and Brownridge. Indeed, it often seems as if the Broncos’ frontcourt is an afterthought to the two-man game run by Clarke and Brownridge in a search for an open look. When it works, as it did against Saint Mary’s (Clarke and Brownridge accounted for 43 of the Broncos’ 57 points), the Broncos can be tough to beat. When one falters, however, as Brownridge did against Stockton, Santa Clara is often bereft of answers.
  • Portland, vanquisher of Gonzaga, must go on the road for five of its next seven games, which will determine if the Zag upset was an indicator of latent strength or an aberration. The Pilots can take heart over the continued excellence of 6’4” sophomore guard Bryce Pressley of Jesuit-Sacramento. Pressley garnered a Player of the Week nod back in December, and had an outstanding game against Gonzaga with 16 points and nine assists.
  • It’s head-scratching time for Loyola Marymount, which followed two home wins with four road losses. The good news is the Lions have a two-game home stand coming up; the bad news is the games are against Portland and Gonzaga.
  • Pacific finally broke into the win column against San Francisco after a 0-4 start. The Tigers’ outstanding guard combo of Sama Taku (19 points) and Andrew Bock (16 points) led the way against the Dons, but Pacific also got a big lift from freshman guard David Taylor, who contributed eight points in 12 minutes. Taylor, the son of former LSU star Derrick Taylor, was raised in Germany and has played on Germany’s under-16 and under-18 national teams.
  • San Diego must take a gut-check this week or risk seeing its season deteriorate beyond repair. After opening with three straight road losses, the Toreros hoped to bounce back with two at home last week. After a split with LMU and Pepperdine, however, San Diego takes a 1-4 record into a four-game road trip that includes stops in Gonzaga and Portland.

Looking Ahead

There are a lot of intriguing games this week, including several that will identify participants as pretenders or contenders. Case in point: BYU at San Francisco on Thursday (ESPNU, 6:00 PM, Pacific), which gives BYU a chance to leapfrog San Francisco in the standings or for San Francisco to solidify its position in the top tier. Gonzaga gets an opportunity to show if its defeat at Portland was something to be concerned about as it travels to Pepperdine on Thursday and LMU on Saturday. That Thursday match-up is also an opportunity to judge Marty Wilson’s charges against their toughest competition this season.

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