Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 13th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The scramble for second place in the WCC continued unabated last week, as Saint Mary’s and BYU held off defeats that would have made any conference title dreams impossible. As things stand now, they’re only just unrealistic. San Francisco and Pepperdine, two other teams harboring dreams for a lofty finish, stumbled.

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Gonzaga’s three-game lead in the loss column over BYU and Saint Mary’s seems impregnable, but the schedule-makers have done the Zags no favors. After entertaining Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount at home this week, Gonzaga hits the road for four season-ending games that could prove harrowing. BYU, San Diego and Saint Mary’s must be considered at least potential upset opportunities, and even Pacific has showed its Tiger teeth occasionally this season. What better way to salvage a disappointing return to the WCC than by knocking off the Zags?Saint Mary’s, which has stumbled on the brink of disaster several times this season, looked alternatively imposing and vulnerable in two road games last week. The Gaels breezed past a demoralized Loyola Marymount, 77-58, behind 58 percent shooting, but eked out a 69-67 overtime win against Pepperdine when that percentage dropped to 35.5. The constant in both games was senior point guard Stephen Holt, who won WCC Player of the Week honors for the second time by averaging 23.0 points in the two games, including a career-best 29 against Pepperdine. Holt joined BYU’s Tyler Haws and Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos as a two-time POW, and that trio, along with LMU’s Anthony Ireland, constitutes the WCC’s all-conference guard lineup.

BYU also solidified its challenger position with two wins, both at home. The Cougs brushed off Santa Clara, 89-76, then settled in for a battle royal against San Francisco, which came in at 8-4 and determined to leapfrog BYU for second place. It was a monumental struggle, but the Cougars triumphed 68-63 behind Haws and Kyle Collinsworth, who both tallied 19 points. BYU has something of a similar finishing stretch as Gonzaga, with Saint Mary’s and San Diego still to come on the road where it has yet to log a conference win.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (21-4, 11-1)
  2. BYU (17-9, 9-4)
  3. Saint Mary’s (18-7, 8-4)
  4. San Francisco (15-10, 8-5)
  5. Pepperdine (14-11, 7-6)
  6. Portland (13-11, 5-7)
  7. Pacific (13-10, 4-8)
  8. San Diego (13-13, 4-9)
  9. Santa Clara (11-15, 4-9)
  10. Loyola Marymount (11-14, 3-10)

WCC News & Notes

  • For the third week in a row, Gonzaga started defeat in the eye but didn’t blink, surviving a spirited upset bid by Portland on the Zags’ home court, 71-66. That followed a last-second 54-52 road win over Santa Clara on a last-second bucket by Sam Dower, and a 59-56 home squeaker over San Diego. The Zags are displaying either the steely-eyed character of a proven winner or the vulnerability of a questionable champion, and the latter interpretation could be placed on a non-conference road loss to Memphis, 60-54. The Zags were ahead of Memphis in the polls before the game, but fell out of both major rankings with the defeat.

    Mark Few and Gonzaga held on against upset-minded squads. (Getty)

    Mark Few and Gonzaga held on against upset-minded squads. (Getty)

  • BYU’s challenge remains the same as it has since the opening week of the season when it dropped two road games to LMU and Pepperdine – prove it can win in a hostile WCC arena. Three of BYU’s last five games are on the road, plus it entertains Gonzaga at home on February 20, so the story of Dave Rose’s 2013-14 season remains to be told.
  • Saint Mary’s has a similar challenge to BYU’s, although the Gaels’ last six games are weighed heavily toward its home court. The two road games are at San Francisco and Santa Clara, both of which will be difficult, especially considering Santa Clara’s 57-55 upset in Moraga last month. But neither is a road game in the sense of plane trips and hotel stays, so the Gaels might appear to have a more advantageous position than Gonzaga or BYU. Consistency has been the Gaels’ bugaboo this season, however, and whether Randy Bennett’s team can string together six straight wins, including games against BYU, Gonzaga and San Diego – all of whom defeated them earlier – is open to doubt.
  • San Francisco did just enough to hold off Pepperdine and remain in touch with the league leaders. First it sweated out a 74-67 win over San Diego on what has become one of the most difficult stops in the conference – the Toreros’ Jenny Craig Pavilion. Down by 10 points with 9:22 left, the Dons mounted a challenge down the stretch to get the win. Their effort in Provo was just as spirited, but BYU had too much firepower in the end and prevailed. The Dons go on the road for three of their last five games, but only one – a home game next Thursday against Saint Mary’s – is against the league leaders. Just as the schedule is rough on Gonzaga down the stretch, it is favorable to the Dons.
  • The significance of its loss to Saint Mary’s is staring Marty Wilson’s Pepperdine Waves right in the face as they begin a three-game road trip Thursday night at Gonzaga. Beating the Gaels would have moved Pepperdine into third place and given them momentum before facing the Zags. Without it, they face the reality of having only one more game against a WCC contender and three out of their last five on the road. Time may be running out on the Waves, but they have been the most improved team in the WCC this year, and UCLA transfer Brendan Lane has been the best new face in the conference.
  • Pacific, San Diego, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount look to constitute the field for the WCC Tournament play-in games on Thursday March 6. Two teams will emerge from that to join the rest of the field in the chase for tournament glory, and that seems to be the best this group can hope for.

Looking Ahead

  • The media focus is on Saint Mary’s this week, and the Gaels can only hope to do better than they did in a similar situation two weeks ago – losing to San Diego and BYU on the road. They host the same two teams this week, San Diego on Thursday on ESPNU (8:00 PM Pacific), and BYU on Saturday on ESPN2 (5:00 PM Pacific).
  • Also worth watching on Thursday will be Pepperdine at Gonzaga (regional coverage, TheW.tv, 6:00 PM Pacific) and BYU at Pacific (regional coverage, TheW.tv, 8:00 PM Pacific). On Saturday, San Francisco struggles to stay in the WCC race in a rematch against Santa Clara in Santa Clara on ESPNU (8:00 PM Pacific). The Dons won the first go-around at home and must win again before facing Saint Mary’s next week.
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