Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 5th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The previous week’s play might have sealed the WCC’s fate as a one-bid league. With the shocking demise of Saint Mary’s as a serious contender for an at-large NCAA berth, only Gonzaga has an overall resume and a potential WCC Tournament championship firmly in its grasp. BYU proved its strength in the Marriott Center with an 84-71 victory over Saint Mary’s, but still has road games against the Gaels and up-and-down San Diego and has posted a so-so 15-9 record so far. San Francisco may be better positioned than BYU to challenge for second place behind Gonzaga, with a Saturday showdown in Provo looming to possibly settle that question, but second place will not win an at-large bid for the Dons either.

Bennet's Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary's to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Bennet’s Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary’s to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

The Gaels’ meltdown against San Diego – a 61-43 humiliation in which they barely registered a pulse – and subsequent loss to BYU marked several milestones for Saint Mary’s, none of them positive. In absorbing four losses with eight games to go, the Gaels have guaranteed their worst WCC performance since going 10-4 in 2008-09. Saint Mary’s record of winning at least 25 games a year for six straight seasons also seems doomed, with possibly 11 games left (assuming three games in the WCC tournament) and only 16 wins so far.

The only apparent path to a second bid for the conference lies in an upset of Gonzaga at the WCC Tournament in March. In that case, the victor would receive the automatic NCAA bid and Gonzaga would presumably receive an at-large bid based on its history of 14 straight NCAA appearances and its overall resume in 2013-14. But which team is likely to pull that off? There is no bye to the semifinal round this year, as each potential champion must play at least three times in Las Vegas. None of the would-be contenders has shown the consistency to pull off three tournament wins, which would include a victory over Gonzaga along the way. A single bid seems all but assured.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (20-3, 10-1)
  2. BYU (15-9, 7-4)
  3. San Francisco (14-9, 7-4)
  4. Saint Mary’s (16-7, 6-4)
  5. Pepperdine (13-10, 6-5)
  6. Portland (13-10, 5-6)
  7. San Diego (13-11, 4-7)
  8. Pacific (12-9, 3-7)
  9. Santa Clara (10-14, 3-8)
  10. Loyola Marymount (11-12, 3-8)

WCC News & Notes

  • Gonzaga continues to look vulnerable but also continues to avoid a second conference loss. Their luck seemed to run out last Thursday at Santa Clara, as the Broncos overcame a 10-point deficit with five minutes left to take a one-point lead on a floater by the indomitable Brandon Clark. All the Broncs had to do was defend well for 28.6 seconds and they would have a season-redeeming win. They did just that for about 27 seconds, until Santa Clara forward Yannick Atanga decided to come off Zags’ forward Sam Dower, Jr., and try to double-team the ball-handler. Bad move, as Dower took a pass from the guard and had an open look at a three-pointer, which he sank for a 54-52 win. Gonzaga rolled to a routine 75-65 win over San Francisco two nights later, and now enjoys its largest WCC lead in several years.
  • BYU also looked vulnerable to falling out of contention in the WCC as it trailed Saint Mary’s by 14 in the first half of their showdown in Provo. The Cougars roared back in the second half, however, to pull away for the win. Coming after a 10-point win over Portland, the week seemed to set up BYU for a strong stretch run. Games against Saint Mary’s and San Diego on the road and San Francisco at home loom as the biggest obstacles.
  • San Francisco continues to avoid a knock-out punch in its bid to rise higher in the WCC standings than at any time in Rex Walters’ tenure. The Dons took care of Portland easy enough and were in good position to challenge Gonzaga after its close call in Santa Clara, but couldn’t seal the deal against the Zags. A moment of truth looms for San Francisco in the coming weeks, as it travels to San Diego, BYU and Santa Clara, then faces Saint Mary’s at home. Those games will say a lot about who takes over second place behind Gonzaga.
  • For Saint Mary’s the full effect of losing prized recruit Cullen Neal may have hit home last week. Neal, the New Mexico prep standout who de-committed from Saint Mary’s when his dad, Craig, was given the New Mexico head coaching position, would just now be rounding into shape as a backcourt stalwart for the Gaels, as he is at New Mexico. Without him, however, Gaels’ point guard Stephen Holt is without a wing man, and has proved unable to spark an offense that intermittently slows to a crawl. It’s always been a two-man backcourt for Saint Mary’s – Patty Mills and Mickey McConnell; McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova; Dellavedova and Holt. Neither James Walker III nor Kerry Carter has proven equal to those predecessors, however, and the Gaels have struggled all year.
  • Pepperdine also faces a climactic stage of its on-again, off-again assault on the top tier of the WCC, facing Pacific and Saint Mary’s at home. The Waves dispatched Loyola Marymount handily, 80-69, last week, and are now perched just one game behind the cluster of four-loss teams chasing Gonzaga. They lost to both the Tigers and the Gaels on the road, but figure to post a much tougher test for both on their home court.
  • Portland continues to prove a beast at home and patsy on the road, splitting with San Francisco (L) and Santa Clara (W) last weekend. Its next road game, tonight in Spokane against Gonzaga, doesn’t seem calculated to end its road woes.
  • If Portland has proved unpredictable with its home wins against Gonzaga and BYU and losses to more beatable teams, San Diego can match the Pilots head-scratcher for head-scratcher. After dealing Saint Mary’s one of its most lopsided defeats in recent history, the Toreros collapsed against Pacific, handing the Tigers their first road conference win at 84-67.
  • Pacific is showing some signs of life for the first time in its return to the WCC, winning two out of its last three, including the victory over San Diego.
  • Santa Clara played its heart out against Gonzaga, but showed little heart in losing to Portland 76-64.
  • There may be a heartbeat to be detected with Loyola Marymount, losers of eight out of its last nine games, but it is a faint one.

Looking Ahead

  • Tonight’s Portland-Gonzaga rematch in Spokane will be worth watching, as the Zags hope to avenge their single WCC loss. Unfortunately, nothing other than regional TV and the conference’s own Internet feed, TheW.tv, will broadcast it. Santa Clara at BYU on Thursday earns ESPNU coverage (8:00 PM Pacific), but the sure nail-biter between San Francisco and BYU on Saturday merits airing only on BYU TV.
  • Zags’ fans will surely tune into ESPN on Saturday (6:00 PM Pacific) to watch Gonzaga take on #24 Memphis in Memphis, but that game has no bearing on the WCC race. A loss could hurt Gonzaga secure an at-large NCAA bid in case of a catastrophe in the rest of the conference season, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.
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