Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on December 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

Maybe finals were unusually hard this year, causing a build-up of aggression within WCC members. Maybe the conference is ready to establish itself alongside the Mountain West as one of the best outside the Power Five. Whatever the motivation, conference schools celebrated their first post-finals games with a handful of memorable efforts on Saturday.

Kyle Wiltjer has fit right in with a talented Gonzaga squad. (AP)

Kyle Wiltjer has fit right in with a talented Gonzaga squad. (AP)

  • Gonzaga toyed with UCLA as if the Bruins were a middling WCC opponent, leading wire-to-wire in an 87-74 romp at Pauley Pavilion.
  • Saint Mary’s broke Creighton’s 24-game home winning streak with a 71-67 overtime win in Omaha.
  • BYU went 2-0 on the road by topping Weber State 76-60 in Ogden.
  • Santa Clara notched its fourth straight win by knocking off Washington State 76-67 – its first home win against a Pac-12 school in 10 years.
  • San Diego trounced New Orleans 85-60 to remain undefeated at home.
  • Pepperdine almost made it an epic fail for the Pac-12 against the WCC, leading Arizona State 43-42 with less than 12 minutes left before ultimately succumbing, 81-74.
  • Only rebuilding Loyola Marymount went down Saturday, losing 71-69 to Northern Arizona.

It has been a mostly satisfying non-conference performance so far for the WCC, with only one team, Loyola Marymount, posting a losing record through December 13.

Power Rankings (through games of December 15)

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

Conference Notes

  • Gonzaga has lived up to its preseason accolades with a 10-1 record marred only by a could-have-gone-either-way 66-63 overtime loss to No. 2 Arizona in Tucson. The Zags are hammering opponents from the inside, with Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer scoring on the low block and from three-point range, and from the outside as USC transfer guard Byron Wesley has come alive in his last two games with 20 points in each. Wesley and Wiltjer join Gonzaga stalwarts Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski in causing multiple match-up problems for opponents.

    Randy Bennett and Saint Mary's sit atop out latest power rankings. (Getty)

    No surprise here – Randy Bennett has his St. Mary’s team playing at a high level again. (Getty)

  • Randy Bennett has done much to forge a bunch of strangers into a cohesive unit, as Saint Mary’s has gone 6-1 with wins over Big West preseason favorite UC Irvine and WAC preseason pick New Mexico State, in addition to the Creighton upset. Bennett had to deal with 11 new faces and only four holdovers as the 2014-15 season began, but he has seamlessly integrated former Washington forward Desmond Simmons and former Stanford guard Aaron Bright – who had a career-high 22 points against Creighton – into a mix that includes indomitable post man Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) and surprising senior guard Kerry Carter (15 PPG, 6.7 RPG).
  • A national TV audience had to only watch a few minutes of BYU’s November 24 contest with San Diego State to answer any questions about the fitness of Kyle Collinsworth following ACL surgery last March. He’s back, and so is the Cougars’ excellent backcourt of Collinsworth and WCC leading scorer Tyler Haws (23.8 PPG), although the latter is expected to miss some time with a sprained left ankle. The two are joined by Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer to give Dave Rose three-fifths of an outstanding lineup. Who is going to step up for BYU in those other two positions is a key question, as big men Luke Worthington, Nate Austin and Corbin Kaufusi have not been impressive, and freshman Isaac Neilson was not a factor until scoring 15 points in the win over Weber State. As good as Collinsworth/Haws/Fischer have been, they’re going to need some help if BYU is going to challenge for a WCC title and/or an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
  • Santa Clara is doing a lot without a strong frontcourt presence. In addition to the win over Washington State, Kerry Keating’s troops made a strong run against Tennessee and Michigan State on the road. Keating’s only reliable inside presence, Yannick Atanga, was lost for the season with a torn ACL, while promising redshirt freshman Emmanuel Ndumanya has been sidelined with a foot injury. It’s been the usual suspects, backcourt mates Brandon Clark (17.3 PPG) and Jared Brownridge (14.3 PPG), leading the charge for the Broncos.
  • Johnny Dee is a senior now and surprises no one with his outside shooting game, but he has been sensational so far, averaging 20.8 PPG to lead San Diego. The Toreros registered a strong 79-65 win over UC Santa Barbara on the road, and lost narrowly to Boise State (75-81), San Diego State (48-57) and UCLA (68-75).
  • Portland has racked up seven wins behind a veteran roster led by point guard Alex Wintering (11.3 PPG, 5.4 APG) and center Thomas van der Mars (10.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG). Troubling to Eric Reveno is the loss of star Kevin Bailey, who was injured in the Pilots’ win over Portland State and hasn’t returned.
  • San Francisco has yet to score a significant win, losing against the only difficult teams it has faced: Florida Gulf Coast, Evansville, Colorado and Eastern Washington. It is undecided whether Rex Walters has figured out how to compensate for the transfer of point guard Avry Holmes to Clemson, as he has been bringing freshman Devin Watson along slowly so far.
  • If Marty Wilson’s Pepperdine Waves had carried off the upset of Arizona State on Saturday, they would have been the talk of the WCC following wins over Fresno State, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton. Junior forward Stacy Davis certainly did all he could, racking up 26 points in losing to a team that failed to recruit him out of a high school near the Tempe campus.
  • In leading Pacific’s return to the WCC last year, Ron Verlin was a new coach taking over a veteran roster. Most of that roster has graduated, so Verlin is building on returning guard T.J. Wallace (14.4 PPG) and JuCo transfers Dulani Robertson (11.9 PPG) and Eric Thompson (8.3 PPG) to stage a resurgence.
  • Loyola Marymount‘s new head coach Mike Dunlap had to scramble for bodies following an unusually large exodus of players in the wake of the departure of his successor, Max Good. The jury is still out on many of Dunlap’s recruits, so he has been leaning on holdovers Evan Payne, Godwin Okanji, Marin Mornar and Avodeji Egbeyemi to lead the Lions. Of those, sophomore point guard Payne has been brilliant, scoring at a 21.3 PPG pace and providing leadership Dunlap can count on down the line.

Looking Ahead

Of the remaining non-conference games of interest before WCC play begins on December 27, Portland will get its toughest test at UNLV on Wednesday (December 17), Saint Mary’s travels to No. 24 St. John’s on Friday (December 19), televised on Fox Sports 1 at 4:00 PM Pacific, and Stanford heads into Provo to battle BYU on Saturday (December 20), televised on ESPNU at 8:00 PM Pacific.

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