RTC Conference Primers: #10 – WCC

Posted by rtmsf on October 27th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Reader’s Take I

 

Top Storylines

No. 1. The West Coast Conference has a ready-made top storyline for 2011-12: the addition (and possible subtraction) of Brigham Young University to the league. Initially seen as a coup for highly-regarded WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, BYU’s status as a WCC member got caught up in the latest craziness involving BCS football conferences. With some sources insisting the Cougars were just waiting for an opportune moment (or invitation) to bolt to the Big 12, much criticism has come down upon the institution for flirting with WCC membership while seeking greater opportunities elsewhere. Sadly, as in all the BCS conference upheavals, the uncertainty is driven by football and possible revenues therefrom. BYU officials have done little to reassure WCC members that they’re in it for the long run, so fans will just have to watch and wait to see what happens. Regardless of long-term prospects, however, the Cougars are competing in the WCC for the 2011-12 season and that is the top storyline.

BYU is a Member of the WCC, But For How Long?

BYU’s inclusion brings a perennial top 25 team into a league that was already on the upswing with the continued success of Gonzaga, the emergence of Saint Mary’s as a postseason regular and the upsurge in other programs such as Portland, San Francisco and Santa Clara. Expectations that the WCC might become a consistent three-bid NCAA conference have fueled excitement for the coming season, and sparked hot stove league discussions over which of the conference’s consensus top three programs will emerge as the champion and recipient of an automatic NCAA Tournament invitation. Strong arguments can be made for BYU, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s capturing that prize, and strong arguments are what fuels fan interest.

No. 2.  Will Elias Harris have a break-out season in 2011-12 and carry Gonzaga past the early-round NCAA departures (GU’s last Sweet Sixteen appearance was in 2009) that have haunted the Zags the last two years? It is hard to pinpoint where this surge in Harris excitement comes from – certainly not the tight-lipped Gonzaga basketball program under non-boaster Mark Few – but it has been repeated enough to take on a life of its own. It seems to be based on the fact that he burst on the scene as an explosive scorer and rebounder as a 20-year-old freshman from Germany, posting 15/7 scoring and rebounding averages. He fizzled somewhat last season, at least partially stemming from shoulder and Achilles injuries, and so the stage is set for a comeback. What Harris boosters don’t take into account is that the league may have found ways to defend him based on his weaknesses in putting the ball on the floor, a sameness in his offensive moves (you can only make that power spin move so often) and his penchant for giving up the ball when pressured. Whether it’s a break-out or something less, Harris’ junior season will establish whether he is a superstar or just a good small forward.

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WCC Wrap-up and Postseason Primer

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Power Rankings and Postseason Outlook

1)      Saint Mary’s (24-8, 11-3). The record puts them slightly ahead of Gonzaga, but the Gaels would gladly trade places with the Zags as the NCAA Tournament looms. Without an automatic bid, the Gaels and their mediocre out-of-conference record are at the mercy of the NCAA Selection Committee. Hope for the Big Dance, but consider the NIT a strong possibility.

2)      Gonzaga (24-9, 11-3), WCC Tournament Champions, recipient of automatic NCAA bid. How well a rugged out-of-conference schedule will hold up to the Selection Committee’s scrutiny will determine where the Zags are seeded. They are definitely on an upsurge at regular season’s end, something the committee considers favorably.

3)      San Francisco (17-13, 10-4), not an NCAA Tournament contender but an intriguing late-season story, the Dons gave Gonzaga a tougher game in the WCC Tournament semis (lost 71-67) than Saint Mary’s did in the championship game. The NIT is definitely a possibility for Rex Walters’ team.

4)      Santa Clara (19-13, 8-6) seems to fit the profile for a bid to the College Basketball Invitational or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.

5)      Portland (20-11, 7-7) posted another 20-win season and played in the CollegeInsider.com tourney last year, but would seem to rank behind Santa Clara for a bid this year.

6)      Pepperdine (12-21, 5-9) finished with a small push to stay out of the bottom of the conference, but will have to settle for that. Team anomaly: the Waves played better with the dismissal of star guard Keion Bell than they did with him in the lineup.

7)      San Diego (6-24, 2-12). The Toreros ruined Randy Bennett’s season with their improbable upset of the Gaels on February 16, but did little else to give Bill Grier a reason for an upbeat off-season.

8)      The hands-down Disappointment of the Year in the WCC, Loyola Marymount ended in last place after being picked second ahead of Saint Mary’s in a pre-season coaches’ poll. Does embattled Max Good have a future with the Lions after his team’s utter collapse? Only time will tell.

A Look Back

When the nets were cut by the victorious Gonzaga Bulldogs Monday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, there was a sense of déjà vu for the West Coast Conference. The same foes, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, battled it out for the WCC tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid that went with it. Gonzaga won this year’s title, 75-63, avenging an 81-62 pasting administered by the Gaels in 2010, and could claim WCC supremacy for the 11th straight year even though the Zags and Saint Mary’s tied for the regular-season championship with 11-3 records.  Gonzaga now stands at 24-9, and Saint Mary’s at 24-8 with a rare Friday contest in between against Weber State – added as a warm-up for possible post-season play – still to come in Moraga.

For all the apparent similarities, however, the story of the Gaels and Bulldogs was marked by differences. The turning point in both teams’ season came in a January 27 game between the two on the Zags’ court in Spokane. Saint Mary’s gutted out a 73-71 win on the strength of Mickey McConnell’s last-second one-handed leaner from the free throw stripe with the Zag’s seven-footer Robert Sacre draped all over him.

The game should have been a difference-maker for Saint Mary’s, marking the first victory in Spokane during the immensely successful 10-year reign of 2011 WCC Coach of the Year Randy Bennett. Instead of using the victory to spark a late-season run to the outright WCC championship and a secure NCAA seeding, however, the Gaels stumbled badly from that point on. They were routed 85-70 by a pesky Portland Pilots team two nights later in Portland, followed that up with an inexplicable 74-66 loss to cellar-dwelling San Diego on February 16, lost an ESPN Bracketbuster contest against Utah State 75-65 in Moraga on the 19th, and then dropped the rematch against Gonzaga, 89-85 in overtime on the 24th to give the Zags a shot at a conference season tie. Only a regular season-ending victory over Portland in Moraga on February 26 enabled the Gaels to avoid total collapse heading into the WCC Tournament.

Gonzaga, on the other hand, used the Saint Mary’s loss to spur itself to a 9-0 WCC run marred only by a 62-58 non-conference setback against Memphis on February 5. Gonzaga’s spurt was fueled in part by the ascension of JC transfer Marquise Carter to the starting point guard spot that had eluded him previously. On the strength of his late-season play, Carter garnered Newcomer of the Year honors in the WCC and was named Most Valuable Player in the WCC Tournament, indicating the realization by other conference coaches of his impact on what had been a wavering Gonzaga offense.

As Selection Sunday looms, Gonzaga considers NCAA life with possibly a lower seeding than they are accustomed to – perhaps a 9 or 10 seed instead of a 5 or 6 – but they know they’re in. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, will be Nervous Nellies on judgment day, hearkening back to two years ago when they were stiffed by the NCAA Selection Committee and won two games in the NIT instead. Most bracketologists had the Gaels in the NCAA field despite the WCC tournament result, but Bennett has been burned before and will probably not relax until he knows the Gaels’ fate for sure. The game against Weber State was not intended, nor will serve, to sway the Selection Committee.

All-Conference Honors:

McConnell, the Gaels’ crafty senior point guard, was voted Player of the Year and his stats – 16.8 points and 6.0 assists per game – reflected that. McConnell was joined on the All-Conference Team by his sophomore backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova, who contributed 13.5 points and 5.3 assists-per-game, and junior transfer forward Rob Jones, who totaled 13.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Others were:

  • Kevin Foster, Santa Clara, the WCC’s leading scorer at 19.4 ppg
  • Steven Gray, Gonzaga 13.8 ppg and 3.9 apg
  • Rashad Green, San Francisco guard, 11.8 ppg, 2.8 apg
  • Nemanja Mitrovic, Portland guard, 13.7 ppg
  • Mikey Williams, San Francisco guard, 15.0 ppg
  • Robert Sacre, Gonzaga center, 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg
  • Luke Sikma, Portland forward, 13.1 ppg and a league-leading 10.5 rpg
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 10th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference

A Look Back

The budding Battle Royale for second place in the conference standings – and the valuable bye to the WCC tournament semifinals that goes with it – was joined last week with San Francisco’s 68-62 win over Santa Clara on the Dons’ court. The win moved San Francisco (6-2) into sole possession of second and dropped the Broncos into a tie for third with Gonzaga at 5-3. It also gave San Francisco a series sweep over Santa Clara, which will help if tie-breaking rules are invoked at season’s end. In a signal that conference games are tightening up, all six last week were decided by nine points or fewer.

Gonzaga, which appeared to right itself with two straight conference wins after dropping a rare home court game to Saint Mary’s on January 27, stumbled at home against Memphis 62-58 last Saturday. The loss dropped the Zags to 15-9 for the season and dimmed their hopes for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they don’t secure the WCC’s automatic invite that comes with winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas in March.

Saint Mary’s (8-1) held its place atop the league with home wins over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, but neither win came easily. In a rematch with up-and-down Loyola Marymount, whom the Gaels routed 98-75 in Los Angeles in early January, the Gaels eked out a 79-70 win even though Loyola Marymount was without leading scorer and rebounder Drew Viney, who was sidelined with problems stemming from migraine.

Player of the Week: Rashad Green, the 6’4 Long Island native who transferred to San Francisco last year, won the honors with his performance in the Dons’ win over Santa Clara: 18 points on 7-12 shooting and a stellar defensive effort against Santa Clara’s high-scoring guard Kevin Foster. Green, brother of former North Carolina star Danny Green, helped the Dons to their best start since 1981.

Power Rankings

1. Saint Mary’s (20-4, 8-1) has not scared anyone with its last three conference outings – an 85-70 pasting by Portland following the inspirational upset of Gonzaga in Spokane and lackluster wins over Pepperdine (79-71) and Loyola Marymount last week. Maybe it’s just February blahs, but the Gaels will have to shake them off to get through this week’s games against traditional foes Santa Clara and San Francisco. It is not a long journey from Moraga to Santa Clara and San Francisco, but it is one fraught with peril for Randy Bennett’s crew. A stumble or two while its foes sweep their games would knock the Gaels out of first place for the first time this season.

2. The excitement is building in San Francisco (12-11, 6-2), as the Dons remind their fans of the glory days of the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s. Rex Walters has worked out a solid rotation featuring the improving Cody Doolin at point, high-scoring Mikey Williams at shooting guard, Anthony Caloiaro at one forward spot, Green at the other and the formidable Perris Blackwell in the post. He is getting solid minutes off the bench from 6-3 freshman guard Avery Johnson from Huntington Beach, California, and 6’10 senior Moustapha Diarra. The rotation is tight and is working well together as the Dons prepare for the home stretch and their first shot at a significant role in the conference race in a long time.

3. Santa Clara (15-10, 5-3) faces a moment of truth this week, as the promise created by its 85-71 upset of Gonzaga on January 20 fades into the memory of last week’s loss to San Francisco. A loss to Saint Mary’s on Thursday would give the Broncos four league losses and make its attempt at a second-place finish extremely difficult.

4. The same can be said for Gonzaga (15-9, 5-3), which goes on the road against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine in its attempt to hold its league loss total to three. The Zags looked anything but road-ready in their contest with Memphis in the Spokane Arena, and must put that disappointment behind them as they head to Los Angeles.

5. Portland (17-7, 4-4) lost a chance to end Gonzaga’s league hopes and vault itself back into contention with a 67-64 loss to the Zags at home on Feb. 3. The Pilots now must win out and hope the leaders stumble down the stretch to get back in the hunt.

6. Pepperdine (10-16, 4-5) racked up its fourth league win by topping San Diego 70-63 in overtime on the road, then gave Saint Mary’s all it could handle before succumbing 79-71. The Waves suspended high-scoring but high-maintenance guard Keion Bell after the Saint Mary’s game and will finish out the season without him.

7. Loyola Marymount (9-15, 1-8) continued to be the team no one can figure out, losing to San Diego and Saint Mary’s and causing observers to wonder if they will win another game this season.

8. San Diego (5-19, 1-8) picked up its first conference win with the 66-63 home victory over Loyola Marymount and hopes to leap over the Lions and get out of the WCC cellar.

A Look Ahead

Push comes to shove Thursday at the Leavey Center on the Santa Clara campus, when Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara square off at 8 p.m. Pacific in an ESPNU featured game. The Gaels smacked down the Broncos 84-59 in Moraga on Jan. 15, but no one expects the rematch to be so one-sided. Santa Clara can fall back on its upset of Gonzaga five days after the Saint Mary’s loss and its rise to third place in the standings for inspiration. Backed by a big and vocal student body, Kerry Keating’s team will go all out to remain in contention by upsetting the Gaels.

If Saint Mary’s survives the Leavey Center snake pit it will find itself in another one, the venerable War Memorial Gymnasium on the San Francisco campus, two nights later. The resurgent Dons will have more on the line in this game than for any other contest in recent memory, as beating the Gaels following a victory over San Diego on Thursday night could propel them into a tie or sole possession of first place.

Another potentially dramatic showdown will take place in Los Angeles on Thursday night when Gonzaga takes on Loyola Marymount at 8 p.m. Pacific on ESPN2. Despite their disappointing season, Loyola Marymount still possesses the horsepower to stun somebody this year and the Lions faithful hope it’s the Zags. In their 79-70 loss to Saint Mary’s last week, the Lions without Viney closed to within four points of the Gaels with a few minutes left. They got solid performances from their Big Three of Ashley Hamilton, Edgar Garibay and Godwin Okonji and their Little One of Anthony Ireland to hammer the Gaels inside and out. If Viney is healthy enough to play against the Zags, Loyola Marymount has more than enough firepower to pull off the upset.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 27th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • Mighty Gonzaga, which had lost only six conference games in the previous five years, lost twice on a trip to Bay Area schools Santa Clara (85-71) on Thursday and San Francisco (96-91 OT) two nights later. The 14-point loss to Santa Clara was Gonzaga’s worst loss to a WCC opponent in the regular season since 1999, although the Zags were drubbed 81-62 by Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament Championship game last March.
  • Portland, which had been gaining traction as a potential third-place conference finisher, also went down to both Bay Area schools. The WCC standings following the weekend seemed out of joint, with Saint Mary’s on top at 5-0, San Francisco in second at 4-1 and Gonzaga tied for third with Santa Clara at 3-2. Portland finds itself tied for fifth with Pepperdine at 2-3, with Loyola Marymount in seventh at 1-4 and San Diego in last place at 0-5.
  • Loyola Marymount’s descent has been almost as rapid as Gonzaga’s. Picked by WCC coaches to finish second ahead of Saint Mary’s, the Lions fell to cross-beach rival Pepperdine 78-75 in the 153rd meeting between the two southern California schools on Saturday. It was Pepperdine’s 13th straight win over Loyola Marymount in Malibu and the 24th win in the last 28 matchups. There must be something about that 19-mile drive down Pacific Coast Highway that upsets the Lions.
  • Saint Mary’s retained the top spot with a tougher-than-expected 67-56 win over San Diego last Wednesday, but the Gaels’ week was ruined with an 89-70 smackdown at the hands of Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday. The loss to the Dores cost Saint Mary’s some spots in the Top 25 rankings, but they held on to the #24 spot in the ESPN coaches poll as Vandy climbed from out of the Top 25 to #22 by virtue of the win.

Player of the Week: Anyone who watched Kevin Foster’s scintillating 36-point outburst against Gonzaga on January 20 would not be surprised to see the 6’2 redshirt sophomore guard from Santa Clara garnering Player of the Week honors. Foster, who sat out the entire last season with a broken foot, came back with 19 points in the Broncos’ 72-59 win over Portland to move over the 1,000-point mark in his brief Santa Clara career. Foster is leading the country with 74 threes this season, leads the WCC scoring (22.2 PPG) and is 35th in the nation in scoring average at 19.3 points per contest.

A Look Ahead

If there is a more compelling matchup this season than Thursday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in Spokane, I have missed it. Gonzaga, nearly impregnable on its home court, finds itself two games behind the Gaels in the conference race, with critics questioning whether its 10-year WCC reign of supremacy can be sustained.

Saint Mary’s, after gaining some national respect for its ruthless efficiency and guard-led offensive heroics, stumbled badly in last week’s warm-up against Vanderbilt. In addition, the Gaels have not won in Spokane since 1995, and have not beaten the Zags in a regular-season conference game since the 2008 season. Buoying the Gaels is hope that senior point guard Mickey McConnell will bounce back from a sub-par outing against Vanderbilt (six points on 2-9 shooting, including 0-4 from three-point range) and lead Saint Mary’s as he did in the WCC tourney championship last March. McConnell scored 26 points on 10-17 shooting that night, and also dished out six assists. Which McConnell shows up Thursday night may determine the Gaels’ fate.

If the Gaels have doubts, the Zags must be wondering who took over their previously dominant team and substituted the bunch that sleepwalked through the Santa Clara loss, then lost to San Francisco for the second year in a row. The twin Bay Area losses marked three straight defeats to WCC opponents outside of Spokane, and the Zags will be counting on a giant dose of home support to right the ship. At 13-7, with two losses in conference and difficult road games ahead at Saint Mary’s, Portland and Loyola Marymount, the Zags simply cannot afford another loss if they hope to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight season.

Meanwhile, the suddenly invigorated remainder of the WCC takes on this week’s games with relish. New second-place holder San Francisco must be licking its chops awaiting the outcome of the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga game and an equally tough contest for the Gaels two nights later in Portland. The Dons travel to southern California to take on shaky Loyola Marymount on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday. A stumble or two by Saint Mary’s and a sweep by the Dons could have far-reaching consequences as the first half of WCC play comes to a close.

Santa Clara is nursing identical hopes as San Francisco, as it travels with its Bay Area rival to the same southern California venues, facing Pepperdine on Thursday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Both San Francisco and Santa Clara can be forgiven if they are carrying brooms along with them to remind them of the week’s goal.

Portland also awaits a giant opportunity for redemption in the coming week, staying home to entertain a weak San Diego team on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday, following the Gaels’ gut-checking contest with Gonzaga. At 14-6 and 2-3 in conference, the Pilots certainly realize this is the time to salvage a season that seemed promising only a week ago. Should they sweep on their home floor, the Pilots might squint a little at a February 3 home encounter with Gonzaga.

San Diego comes off a rare victory, Saturday’s 76-65 toppling of Cal State Bakersfield, as it heads into the Pacific Northwest hoping to play spoiler against Portland on Thursday and Gonzaga on Saturday.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 18th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

It’s been mostly preliminary skirmishing in conference play so far, but the race heats up next week with some key showdown games. Saint Mary’s (4-0) and Gonzaga (3-0) remained undefeated in conference play, with Portland and San Francisco tied for third with 2-1 marks. Santa Clara (1-2) kept a half-game lead over Loyola Marymount, which continued to struggle at 1-3, the same record as Pepperdine, while San Diego (0-4) is still searching for its first win.

Saint Mary’s boasts the conference’s longest winning streak at ten in a row, and the Gaels eased into the national rankings for the first time after strong home victories last week over San Francisco (71-57) and Santa Clara (84-59). The Gaels were ranked 22nd in the AP Top 25 poll and 21st in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, while Gonzaga placed 29th in the AP poll and 30th in the Coaches poll.

Portland may be looking over its shoulder at three teams who look as if they could challenge for third or fourth place behind the Gaels and Zags: San Francisco, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount. San Francisco may have gained the most confidence – and the most respect – in last week’s play, as the Dons fought Saint Mary’s hard in the first half in Moraga and ended up losing by “only” 14 points. The face-saver in that is the Gaels’ average margin of victory this year has been 22-plus points. The Dons also chalked up road wins over Santa Clara (74-67) on January 8 and over San Diego (65-55) on Saturday.

While the Dons surged, Portland treaded water frantically. The Pilots blew a seven-point lead with less than three minutes remaining against Loyola Marymount last Thursday, then needed two overtimes to beat the Lions 79-78. Two nights later, they shot only 30% from the field in the second half in a 57-42 win over Pepperdine. One factor remained constant for the Pilots, however – Luke Sikma continued his outstanding season with 24 and ten against Loyola Marymount and 15 and nine against Pepperdine. For the season, Sikma is averaging 13.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

Although Loyola Marymount went 0-2 in its Pacific Northwest swing, falling to Gonzaga 79-59 two nights after the heartbreaking Portland loss, Max Good finally has his full team available. Slow-recovering post man Edgar Garibay played 34 minutes in the Portland loss, contributing 10 points and four rebounds, then came back for 14 minutes against Gonzaga. Perhaps more cheering for Lions fans, Garibay was joined in the frontcourt by Ashley Hamilton, coming back from a hand injury, who logged 33 minutes against Portland and 19 against Gonzaga in putting up six points and five rebounds. Baby steps, but Good will gladly accept them.

Santa Clara squeezed in a 61-52 road win over San Diego last Thursday between the disappointing loss to San Francisco and the scorching by Saint Mary’s to keep alive its hopes of a top-four finish.

Player of the Week: Gonzaga’s 7’ post man Robert Sacre has been solid all season, anchoring a sometimes-sporadic offense with consistent production. He outdid himself in a pair of games last week, however, earning WCC Player of the Week honors for his performances against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. The LMU game was a somewhat typical Sacre outing with 18 points and seven boards, but he was literally perfect against Pepperdine, notching 24 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field and the same mark from the free throw line. Perfect is good.

A Look Ahead

Now it gets interesting, as someone once said. Saint Mary’s undergoes the biggest trial-by-fire of its season with a three-game sojourn to Nashville to take on previously-ranked Vanderbilt on Saturday (1/22), then to Spokane for a barnburner against Gonzaga on Thursday (1/27). If the Gaels have anything left in the tank they’ll take it to Portland two nights later (1/29) to finish off the trifecta against the Pilots. The Vanderbilt game is the closing act of a home-and-home set that began with a 72-70 Vandy win last season in Moraga. Ironically, the Gaels moved into the national rankings the same week the Commodores fell out following their 67-64 loss to Tennessee in a game they once led by 17 points. The ‘Dores (12-4, 1-2 SEC) would love nothing more than to move back in to the Top 25 courtesy of a win over the Gaels.

The Thursday night matchup between the Gaels and Zags is the most compelling West Coast game of the season so far. All that is at stake is the Gaels’ national ranking, their desire to post their first win at Gonzaga since 1995, first place in the WCC and Gonzaga’s unwillingness to cede leadership in the conference it has dominated with ten straight regular-season titles. Some games need no excess hype, and this is certainly one of them.

Portland is hoping to play the role of coup de grace administrator as it has the past two years. Saint Mary’s limped into Portland following a deflating loss to Gonzaga in 2009 which saw a near-season-ending injury to Patty Mills, and last year after failing to engage the Zags in an 80-61 embarrassment heightened by McConnell’s 0-for-5 shooting night. McConnell rebounded with a 25 and 4 effort against Portland, but it wasn’t enough to stave off an 80-75 overtime loss. Ouch! and double ouch! has been the tale for Saint Mary’s the last two years in the Great Northwest, and it will be a true test of their mettle to avoid that fate in 2011.

At the other end of the conference geographically, Loyola Marymount will visit Pepperdine in Mailbu on Saturday for the annual slugfest between the two LA-area schools. Loyola Marymount has not won on the Waves’ court in many years, and Pepperdine will be geared up to continue that trend. After bombing out at Portland and Gonzaga last week, Loyola Marymount cannot afford to drop another conference contest. Game on.

Gonzaga will repeat the annual Bay Area trip to Santa Clara and San Francisco that proved difficult last year with a narrow (71-64) win over the Broncos and an 81-77 OT loss to the Dons. Portland will also be along for the ride.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

With the pre-conference season all wrapped up, let’s look all the way back to October and the WCC coaches poll for a reset on conference expectations. The coaches overwhelmingly picked Gonzaga to finish first, giving the Zags 48 total votes and six for first place. By a total of 42 to 39 they also picked Loyola Marymount to finish second over Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara (28 votes) to finish fourth and Portland (25 votes) fifth. How would the coaches vote if the polling were held today?

Gonzaga, with quality wins over Baylor, Marquette, Xavier and Oklahoma State, would probably retain its rank as conference favorite because no other team either matched the scope and difficulty of the Zags’ schedule, or conquered as many top-notch teams. Only Saint Mary’s, with wins over St. John’s, which might make some noise in the Big East, and Long Beach State, which could challenge for the Big West title, came close. The Gaels did post wins over two BCS teams, Texas Tech and Mississippi State, but those teams had early-season troubles that dimmed their luster.

It would be hard for WCC coaches or anyone to favor Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s based on results so far, and the same could be said for Santa Clara over Portland. It is safe to say that the performances of Loyola-Marymount and Santa Clara have been disappointing, while the Gaels and Pilots have surprised opposing coaches. The coaches’ early-season predictions notwithstanding, a survey of informal discussions around the league breaks down the race this way: Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s for first place; Portland in third; Loyola Marymount in fourth; Santa Clara and San Francisco in a dog fight for fifth; Pepperdine for seventh and San Diego in the cellar. Those last two match what the coaches saw in October, as neither team has done much to change perceptions.

Player(s) of the Week

Saint Mary’s senior point guard Mickey McConnell was named Player of the Week both by the West Coast Conference and TheHoopsReport.com after sterling efforts in Gael victories over Mississippi State and Hartford. He rocked Mississippi State for 28 points and 13 assists – his first double-double of the season – and followed that up with a 21-point, seven assist game against Hartford. The effort in the Gaels’ final two pre-conference games brought his scoring average to 14.2 ppg and assist total to 5.4 per game. McConnell’s 2.68 assist to turnover ratio is ranked 26th nationally, and he is shooting 46.3% from beyond the arc and 90.5% from the free throw line.

Power Rankings:

1. Saint Mary’s (12-2) has breezed to six wins in a row since being dusted 69-55 by San Diego State on Dec. 1, and has found its groove with a lineup featuring four players averaging double figures: Mickey McConnell at 14.2 PPG, Jones at 13.7 PPG, Matthew Dellavedova at 13 PPG, and Young (nominally a substitute, Young is garnering the majority of minutes at post) at 11.1 PPG. Clint Steindl, the fifth starter, is not far behind at 8.4 PPG, and can rightfully point to his duties as the Gaels’ primary defensive stopper as an excuse. Besides, Steindl, currently averaging nearly 42% on three-point shots, can light it up when the occasion warrants. Team balance, unselfishness and good backcourt play from McConnell and Dellavedova – averaging nearly 12 assists per game between them – have Randy Bennett smiling as league play begins.

2. Portland (12-3), also cruising with five straight wins after a lopsided 94-72 loss at Washington, has answered most of the questions critics might have raised following the loss of several quality players from last year. Yes, Luke Sikma can put up All-Conference numbers consistently at one forward spot; yes, Kramer Knutson is a steady warrior at the post position; yes, Mitrovic is ready to be a starter, possibly a star, in his junior year; yes, Jared Stohl can still scorch it from three-point land, and yes, either junior Eric Waterford, true freshman Tim Douglas or sophomore transfer Derrick Rodgers – or a combination of the three – can provide leadership at the point. Coach Eric Reveno has done his usual excellent job of molding his troops into a smooth-flowing force, ready to challenge Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s as the conference season unfolds.

3. Gonzaga (10-5), also boasting a six-game winning streak – notice a pattern here? – can actually breathe easier as the WCC gets underway. Following a whirlwind 36 hours consisting of 1) pasting formerly 11-2 and cocky Oklahoma State by 21 points (73-52) on Friday night in Spokane, and 2) flying cross-country to Winston-Salem, NC, for a 73-63 win over Wake Forest on Sunday, the Zags returned home to await Portland for an early home showdown on Saturday (1/8). Piece of cake. Mark Few has a core of Steven Gray (14.1 PPG), Robert Sacre (13.1 PPG) and Elias Harris (12.3 PPG) that is functioning smoothly enough to almost allow him to forget his trouble finding a commanding point guard. Meech Goodson, holding down the position for the third year in a row, is providing only 5.4 PPG and 3.3 assists per game, but no one else has been able to sit him down. Another troubling position for Few has been the second forward spot opposite Harris, as promising German freshman Mathis Monninghoff (there is an umlaut over the first vowel to make it sound like “Merhninghoff”), recently went down with an ankle injury after starting five straight games. Few swapped in another Mathis, this one a 6’5 freshman from France whose last name is Keita, and received a good effort in the wins over Okie State and Wake.

4. Santa Clara (9-7) is sitting in fourth place, right where the coaches predicted it to finish, but has hardly cemented its position with inconsistent pre-conference play. Zero quality wins, troubling losses such as 69-59 to Pacific and 54-53 to Delaware in its own holiday tournament, and a shifting lineup have raised questions about Kerry Keating’s squad. Kevin Foster has moved right back into a starring role after a year’s absence with injury, and Keating has uncovered another budding backcourt star in freshman Evan Roquemore. But Keating apparently has been unhappy with Marc Trasolini’s contribution in the frontcourt, bringing him off the bench instead of starting him, and sophomore Niyi Harrison is even farther down in Keating’s doghouse. That leaves the Broncos with a starting lineup of second-year forward Chris Cunningham, rugged Aussie Ben Dowdell and guard-forward Ray Cowels to go with Foster and Roquemore. Even with Trasolini contributing heavily off the bench, as he did with 22 points in the Broncos 85-70 win over Fordham on December 30, that is not a lineup calculated to challenge anyone above them. Is it strong enough to fend off Loyola-Marymount or San Francisco for fourth place in the conference standings? We’ll soon have the answer to that question.

5. Loyola Marymount (7-7) enters the 2011 conference race hobbled with injuries as it did last year. From a lineup that promised to feature 6’10 redshirt freshman Edgar Garibay, 6’8 sophomore strong forward Ashley Hamilton and 6’7 scoring whiz Drew Viney in the frontcourt, the Lions have morphed to Viney and freshman Godwin Okonji. Garibay has still not fully recovered from the ACL injury that sidelined him last year and Hamilton broke his hand a few weeks ago. To supplement the survivors, Max Good uses a three-guard lineup of super senior Vernon Teel, Big East refugee Larry Davis and newcomer Anthony Ireland, subbing for the injured Jarred DuBois. Ireland and Okonji, a 20-year-old from Nigeria who spent two years at Nevada’s Findlay Prep, are true freshmen forced into carrying a heavy load. The Lions’s pre-season-ending 87-80 road win over UC Irvine on Dec. 30 gave hints at what Good’s patched-up crew can accomplish: Viney and Teel combined for 42 points and Ireland chipped in 15 point and six assists. They will need to keep it up for the next eight weeks if the Lions are going to redeem their pre-season promise.

6. San Francisco (6-9) probably can’t take much solace from blasting Division II Dominican University 68-47 on New Year’s Day, but the Dons also topped Hampton 69-57 two days earlier to enter the conference season with a two-game win streak. Rex Walters counts on a threesome of Michael Williams, Rashad Green and Angelo Coloiaro to carry the scoring load, augmented by true freshman Cody Doolin at the point. The problem has been in the frontcourt, where Perris Blackwell and Moustapha Diarra, backed up by freshman Justin Raffington, have been inconsistent. The Dons’ hopes of moving up in the WCC standings will get an early test, as they kick off the conference race on Saturday, Jan. 8 at Santa Clara and travel the following Thursday to Saint Mary’s.

7. Pepperdine (6-11) was buoyed by an 84-64 home win on Jan. 2 over up-and-down Seattle (wins over Virginia, Oregon State and Montana State), but hope that Keion Bell’s absence from the game was only precautionary. The Waves will need a healthy Bell if they are going to emulate his YouTube antics and leap over their opponents when conference play begins.

8. San Diego (3-11) proved its harshest critics wrong with a Christmas Day win over Utah (67-64), but reverted to form on New Year’s Day with a 76-54 hammering by North Carolina State in Raleigh, NC. Those critics posited that the Toreros might not beat a Division I opponent this season (its other wins were over Occidental and LaVerne), but Bill Grier’s crew scuttled that by beating once-powerful Utah. Next order of business is adding some WCC wins to the ledger.

A Look Ahead

You don’t have to look far ahead to get some early answers to questions about possible conference standings: Saint Mary’s opens WCC play with a Thursday (January 6) battle against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles; Portland travels to Gonzaga on Saturday (January 8); San Francisco heads up Highway 101 to Santa Clara on Saturday also; and Pepperdine entertains San Diego on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday. A couple of upset possibilities (Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s, Portland over Gonzaga), a key battle for fifth place (Santa Clara vs. San Francisco) and a leg up on avoiding the cellar (Pepperdine vs. San Diego) all in the first week of conference play.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It was an “almost” week for Santa Clara and San Francisco, Gonzaga got its mojo back, Saint Mary’s picked up its first true road win of the year and Portland kept on cruising. Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine and San Diego continued their losing ways.
  • As Santa Clara battled Washington State evenly on Dec. 19 before succumbing 85-79 in overtime, and San Francisco took undefeated San Diego State to the wire two nights later in a 61-56 loss, visions of a stronger, more successful West Coast Conference flickered before fans’ eyes. It was that old conference war horse, Gonzaga, however, that gave the conference two big wins last week – 68-64 over then ninth-ranked Baylor in Dallas on Dec. 18 and 64-54 over Xavier in Spokane on the 22nd.
  • Saint Mary’s continued its cautious way through the pre-conference season, topping Long Beach State 82-74 at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 18, and New Mexico State 73-53 in Las Cruces on the 23rd. The New Mexico State game was only the Gaels’ second true road game of the season.
  • Portland, meanwhile, stayed on course to a successful pre-conference slate by topping old nemesis Portland State 78-67 on the road – across town – and kicking off a three-game home stand on Dec.  22nd with an 88-79 win over Boise State.
  • Loyola Marymount continued to confound observers who picked them to challenge for the WCC title, losing to Florida State at home 74-63 on the 18th and to South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, 82-70 four days later.
  • It was the same ol’ same ol’ for conference bottom-dwellers Pepperdine and San Diego, with the Waves splitting home games against UC Irvine (W 76-69) and Cal Poly SLO (L 70-64), and San Diego falling to Baylor (83-50) and Mississippi State (69-52) in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Player of the Week

As Portland has continued its steady re-adjustment under Eric Reveno, shoring up the point guard position vacated by the graduated T.J. Campbell has been a prime goal. True freshman Tim Douglas, all 5’10 of him, gave Reveno plenty to smile about last week with a strong performance against Portland State that netted him Player of the Week honors. Douglas, a gutsy penetrator who is not afraid to crash the lane, came off the bench to score27 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 from the free throw line. It was his third straight game in double figures, moving his ppg average to 7.2 in less than 16 minutes per outing.

Team-by-Team

  1. Saint Mary’s (10-2) notched a pair of wins away from Moraga and elevated its third candidate to the position of Omar Samhan’s successor. During a hard-fought win over Long Beach State, Randy Bennett inserted 6’8 sophomore Mitchell Young in the post following earlier try-outs by transfer Kenton Walker and redshirt sophomore Tim Williams. Voila! Young exploited Long Beach’s over-emphasis on controlling forward Rob Jones by working himself open for a succession of bunnies and jump hooks, racking up a career-high 28 points in the Gaels’ 82-74 win. Showing the LBSU game wasn’t a fluke, Young went for 20 against New Mexico State.
  2. Portland (10-3) has provided a model of pre-season scheduling, losing to a few toughies – Kentucky, Washington State and Washington – but beating respectable teams like UC Santa Barbara, St. Louis and Montana to keep up morale. The Pilots’ win over Boise State put them in position to glide into the conference schedule with another two winnable home games against rebuilding Nevada and up-and-down Utah.  That would put them at 12-3 and make a 20-win season and post-season tournament consideration within reach. Not bad for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding if not recovering from major graduation losses.
  3. Gonzaga (7-5) shook off an unfamiliar losing record (4-5) with a three-game winning streak that established 7’0 center Robert Sacre as their go-to guy. Sacre and front-court mate Elias Harris were the big stories in the Zags’ wins over Baylor and Xavier, a development made even more important by the loss of senior guard Steven Gray to back spasms against Baylor. Gray sat on the bench as the Zags engaged in hand-to-hand combat with low-scoring but defensively nasty Xavier, leaving Sacre and Harris to account for 35 of their team’s 64 points. No other Zag – and Mark Few used a bunch of ‘em – scored more than six points in the Xavier win. No word on when Gray will return, but it cannot be soon enough for the Zags’ fortunes.
  4. Santa Clara (7-6) made Washington State re-think the wisdom of stopping off at the Leavey Center en route to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, pushing the Cougars to the limit before dropping an overtime heartbreaker. Last year’s outstanding point guard Robert Smith left the team before the Washington State game, putting pressure on the Broncos to solidify a shaky offense, and Smith’s replacement, Evan Roguemore, did his part. Roquemore contributed 16 points to accompany Kevin Foster’s 29 against Washington State and ease the sting of losing Smith, by some counts the 14th player to leave or be dismissed from the Santa Clara program since Kerry Keating became head coach four years ago. Foster and Roquemore continued their excellence in the Broncs’ 99-79 road win over Cal State Northridge on Dec. 22, scoring 38 points between them, but Keating is suffering from a guard shortage with injuries to Julian Clarke and Michael Santos in addition to Smith’s departure. He reached far down the bench to insert walk-on Nate Mensah for a few minutes against Northridge.
  5. Loyola Marymount (6-7) might have erased the memory of a less-than-stellar pre-conference season by easing into a three-game home winning streak over weak sisters Cal Poly and Sacramento State and so-so South Dakota. Reality returned, however, in a visit by the ACC’s Florida State Seminoles, whom the Lions battled evenly before faltering in the stretch. The Lions, who were counting on front-court strength from redshirt freshman post Edgar Garibay and solid strong forward Ashley Hamilton, have seen Garibay struggle to recover from last year’s ACL tear and lost Hamilton to a hand injury. Garibay saw only 10 minutes action against rugged Florida State big man Chris Singleton, leaving freshman Godwin Okonji to bear most of the rebounding and defensive duties. As if losing a close one to Florida State weren’t bad enough, LMU next travelled east to complete a home-and-home engagement with the South Dakota Coyotes. Reversing a 72-67 loss to the Lions 11 days earlier, South Dakota piled on 50 points in the second half to win 82-70.
  6. San Francisco (4-8) had a season-making win seemingly in sight as it battled undefeated San Diego State deep into the second half on Dec. 21. A few breaks went the Aztecs’ way down the stretch, however, and the Dons fell 61-56 in the opening game of the Las Vegas Hoops Classic. The Dons’ bad luck continued against IUPUI in the second game of the Classic on Thursday, as they fell to the Jaguars 69-68 when San Francisco guard Michael Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one with his team up 68-66. The Jaguars Sean Esposito drained a three with five seconds left to give IUPUI the win.
  7. Pepperdine (5-9) found a way to lose to a weakened Cal Poly SLO – falling behind 12-0 was a good way to start – after posting a 76-69 win over UC Irvine. Leaving Malibu for the final two games of the pre-conference season, the Waves flow into the Deep South for games against Alabama and Miami.
  8. San Diego (2-10) did not find a visit to Honolulu for the Diamond Head Classic relaxing, as it ran into the meat-grinder that is Baylor’s zone defense and Mississippi State with embattled forward Renardo Sidney back in action. The results were not pretty.
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 15th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It was a slow, after-finals week for most WCC teams, but the pace picks up considerably this weekend. Early-season top dogs Saint Mary’s and Portland cruised to expected wins – the Gaels by a score of 75-56 over UC Riverside at home and the Pilots in a closer-than-expected 71-64 win at Denver – and Gonzaga continued its slide against Top 25 teams, losing to Notre Dame in South Bend to fall to 4-5 for the first time in many people’s memory.
  • Loyola-Marymount and San Francisco scored home wins, Santa Clara lost on the road to Pacific, Pepperdine fell in Fresno and San Diego snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 82-57 thrashing of Laverne.
  • Player of the Week: Rob Jones, Saint Mary’s - Gaels coach Randy Bennett has said his goal with transfer forward Rob Jones is to turn him into a scoring leader, and Jones may have gotten the message this week with lines of 24 and 11 against UC Riverside following a 17 and 11 outing against Denver. Jones, who was a solid but unspectacular force in his first two years at San Diego, took on more responsibility for the Gaels in its need to replace the frontcourt scoring and rebounding punch of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen. He has shown signs of being able to surpass Allen’s production, lessening the pressure on Kenton Walker, Tim Williams and Mitchell Young to collectively fill Samhan’s shoes. Standing out in the UC Riverside stat sheet: Jones’ 6-9 mark from the three-point line.

Power Rankings

  1. Saint Mary’s (8-2): One of the knocks on Saint Mary’s so far this season is a lack of true road wins, with a 69-55 loss at San Diego State its only foray into an opponent’s gym. That could change before Christmas, as the Gaels travel to Las Cruces to face the New Mexico State Aggies next Thursday, following a December 18 matchup with Long Beach State in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim. New Mexico State (3-7) is a far cry from the NCAA team of last year, but the Aggies are still smarting from the 100-68 loss suffered in Moraga last November. They will do all they can to repay the Gaels’ rude hospitality.
  2. Portland (8-3): While they picked up their third true road win on Saturday, a 71-64 victory over Denver, the Pioneers (2-8) made the Portland Pilots work for it. Denver led by one at halftime before the Pilots’ three-point-shooting duo of Nemanja Mitrovic and Jared Stohl, aided by rebounding machine Luke Sikma, powered the Pilots down the stretch. Mitrovic, the game’s leading scorer with 18 points, made three three-pointers in a row to spark an 11-2 run in the game’s final minutes that sealed the win. Mitrovic and Stohl combined for 9-15 shooting from beyond the arc, while Sikma notched his fifth double-double of the year with 11 and ten.
  3. Loyola Marymount (6-5): The Lions are nursing a three-game home win streak, the latest victory being a 72-67 come-from-behind effort over South Dakota on December 11. The wins have come over lowly competition, including Cal Poly and Sacramento State, but the fun ends this coming Saturday, when the considerably tougher Florida State Seminoles roll into Gersten Pavilion. Some of Florida State’s wins in a 7-2 season have come over suspect teams like Mid-Continent and North Florida, but the ‘Noles recently topped Clemson 75-69 and have lost only to in-state rival Florida (55-51) and Big Ten power Ohio State and its dynamic freshman Jared Sullinger (58-48). You could say the bar will be raised considerably higher for Max Good’s revamped Lions, who have been improvising with the loss of stars Jarred DuBois and Ashley Hamilton and the slow rehabilitation of Edgar Garibay. New names such as freshmen Anthony Ireland, Godwin Akonji and Ayodeji Egbeyimi (call him “Deji”), have been finding their way alongside veterans Vernon Teel, Drew Viney and Larry Davis.
  4. Santa Clara (5-5): SC looked to be steadying itself with a 67-63 road win over cross-town rival San Jose State on Friday, but the wheels fell off when the Broncos went a little farther afield against Pacific in Stockton on Tuesday. Starting the unconventional lineup featuring Chris Cunningham in place of Marc Trasolini for the second straight game, the Broncos fell behind by as many as 21 points (60-39) late in the second half and lost by ten, 69-59. Pacific (6-4) has no signature wins this year and lost to Pepperdine last week, but handled Santa Clara easily. Kerry Keating has a chance to continue experimenting with his lineup on Friday, when the Broncos host Houston Baptist, but had better settle on his best troops before they face Washington State on Sunday.
  5. Gonzaga (4-5): The Zags found some balance in its not-as-close-as-it-looks 83-79 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, but they’re still struggling to find a floor leader (did I hear the name “Bouldin” whispered in the wind?). Elias Harris had 19 points, Steven Gray 18 and Robert Sacre 16 for the Zags against Notre Dame, and those numbers are what the world was expecting this year. But even with strong production from its core players, the Zags found themselves trailing the Irish by 14 in the second half, with another rout seemingly in the works. Only a lethargic effort by Notre Dame down the stretch prevented that, and the Zags are struggling to find a steadying force in the backcourt to supplement their power players. Transfer Marquise Carter doesn’t look like the answer so far, and veteran Meech Goodson has not put a strong stamp on the team. With a breather Thursday against Lewis Clark State in Spokane, the Zags are thrust right back into the fire on Saturday with a game against Baylor in Arlington.
  6. San Francisco (4-5): A light week was good news for a team struggling to find healthy bodies, and the Dons rewarded themselves with a 50-48 overtime win over rugged Montana. Guard Cody Doolin, who went down in the Dons’ loss at Louisville last week, returned to help his teammates hold off the Grizzlies, but it was his backcourt mate Michael Williams who stole the show. Williams accounted for 23 points and 13 rebounds in the low-scoring affair, and was joined by Perris Blackwell with 12 and ten. The Dons will need efforts like those and much more as it travels to Seattle on Saturday to face streaking Washington.
  7. Pepperdine (4-8): The Waves racked up 27 turnovers in its 64-51 road loss to Fresno State. Conference POY candidate Keion Bell had eight of them. Pepperdine will hope to get back on track Saturday when it hosts UC-Irvine.
  8. San Diego (2-8): USD had something to celebrate with Monday’s 82-57 pasting of Laverne, and could overlook the fact that its first victory in nine tries came at the expense of a 3-4 NCAA Division-III squad that doesn’t grant athletic scholarships. Why quibble? Bill Grier may have found some answers with the second straight strong games from burly 6’11 center Chris Gabriel and transfer guard Darian Norris. Adding fuel to a small glow of hope for the Toreros was the play of freshman forward Trevor Fuller, who elicited some excitement as a star for Episcopal School of Dallas, but has mainly sat the bench for San Diego. Gabriel, Norris and sophomore Ken Rancifer scored 14 points each, while Fuller contributed six points in 17 minutes. Things might not be so cheery next week in Honolulu when the Toreros take on the likes of Baylor, Washington State or Mississippi State in the Diamond Head Classic.

A Look Ahead

This Saturday will be the broadest showcase for WCC teams in the current season. Some of the marquee matchups include Saint Mary’s vs. Long Beach State in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim; Gonzaga vs. Baylor in Arlington; Loyola vs. Florida State in Los Angeles; San Francisco vs. Washington in Seattle; and Portland vs. Portland State in – where else? – Portland (Portland State is the home team).

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It began as a whisper earlier in the season, but recent events have given it full throat – the WCC is down this year. Gonzaga, which has waved the conference’s banner brilliantly for over a decade, has stumbled to a 4-4 record, most recently Wednesday’s 81-59 beat-down at Washington State. Saint Mary’s, coming off a Sweet Sixteen year with high expectations, has whiffed in its only two statement games, losses to BYU (close, 74-73) and to San Diego State (not so close, 69-55). A rout of a weak opponent, Wednesday’s 77-47 win over Denver, did little to erase the sting of those defeats.
  • Even the newest pretender to WCC superiority, Loyola Marymount, has under-performed mightily so far in 2010-11. Weakened by injuries to starting two-guard Jarred DuBois (ankle – out for season) and strong forward Ashley Hamilton (hand – out 4-6 weeks), and the slower-than-expected recovery of 6’10 post man Edgar Garibay, the Lions have managed only an 80-77 overtime win at Long Beach State as a quality win. Fans were even rejoicing over Tuesday’s 69-49 win over woeful Sacramento State (2-6 record, including an 84-36 loss to Washington State) that brought them to 5-5 on the season. Talk about lowered expectations.
  • Among this carnage, one team has managed to exceed expectations and set itself up for a successful season – Eric Reveno’s Portland Pilots. Because Portland lost so much talent to graduation, most observers forecast a retreat from two seasons of challenging Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for conference leadership. Instead, Reveno has leaned on veterans Luke Sikma and Jared Stohl, quietly given junior guard Nemanja Mitrovic a stronger role and nursed freshman point guard Tim Douglas into the spot vacated by T.J. Campbell. The result: a 7-2 record, including eye-openers such as a 69-60 win over St. Louis at home and a 58-54 win over Montana in Missoula. True, they were spanked 79-48 by Kentucky, and, most recently (Dec. 6) 94-72 by Washington, but are in position to enter WCC play with 11 or 12 wins.

Player of the Week: Keion Bell, Pepperdine

You loved him in those YouTube videos vaulting over five – then six – teammates en route to a monster dunk, now Pepperdine’s Keion Bell is proving himself in game action. How good has he been? How about 25.3 PPG, good for sixth in the nation. Among his performances are a 25-point outburst in the Waves’ breathtaking 70-60 road win over Pacific on December 1 and 31 in an 86-81 loss to Texas-San Antonio last Saturday. For good measure, he put up 17 as the Waves came oh-so-close to upsetting Utah on Tuesday before losing 67-60.

Power Rankings

  1. Saint Mary’s (7-2) romped over Denver, shooting nearly 60% and out-rebounding the Pioneers by a 39-15 margin. The biggest development, however, was in the Gaels’ starting line-up, where redshirt sophomore Tim Williams replaced Kenton Walker in the post position. Walker, counted on to step into the departed Omar Samhan’s shoes, has been disappointing, creating an opportunity for the explosive Williams and hyper-active Aussie Mitchell Young. Williams was less-than-overwhelming in his maiden start, however, preferring to watch Denver’s Princeton offense (translation: boring) rather than chase his man through the endless dribbles, back-door cuts and switches that constitute its attack. Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett, who likes mid-season adjustments to his starting line-up as much as he does root canal, jerked Williams several times and gave him only 14 minutes on the floor, the same as the deposed Walker. Young, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunity, racking up 14 points in 22 minutes. Will Bennett juggle the line-up once more for the Gaels’ next opponent, UC-Riverside, on the 14th? Stay tuned.
  2. Portland (7-3) had only the loss at Washington on its schedule last week, but the Pilots were not handled as easily as the 94-72 score would indicate. They moved to within 68-62 with a little more than eight minutes remaining – after trailing by 15 at the half – but couldn’t corral Washington’s three-point shooters down the stretch. Sikma notched his fourth double-double of the season with 14 and 16 against the Huskies, Mitrovic added 15 and Stohl and Douglas contributed 12 each. Portland should get its eighth win on Saturday (Dec. 11), when they travel to Denver to meet the Pioneers, who were unimpressive against Saint Mary’s on the 8th.
  3. Loyola Marymount (5-5) got another of its walking wounded, stellar forward Drew Viney, back for the Sacramento State game, and he responded with 15 points off the bench, including 3-5 from long range. Injuries have forced the Lions to lean on newcomers Anthony Ireland at guard and Godwin Okonji at forward, and the results have been positive: Okonji racked up 11 points, five rebounds and six blocked shots in the Sac State win, and Ireland dished out six assists. Holdover guard Larry Davis has also stepped up with DuBois’ injury, firing for 13 points. The Lions’ four-game home stand continues Saturday against South Dakota, and the Lions would do well not to take the team from Vermillion, SD lightly. Although only 3-6 on the season, South Dakota boasts an 80-70 win over Wyoming and a close loss (76-61) to Wisconsin. Besides, the Coyotes will be so glad to be in southern California and out of the frozen steppes of South Dakota that they might put up quite a fight.
  4. Gonzaga (4-4) is in shock. Not only did the Zags lose decisively to Washington State, a team they used to treat almost as a practice squad, but they face five more difficult games before the conference gets underway in January: Notre Dame in South Bend this Saturday, Baylor in Dallas, TX on the 18th, Xavier and Oklahoma State in Spokane and then Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, NC.  Holy Schedule-Maker, Batman! Speaking of which, Zags coach Mark Few commented after the Washington State shellacking, “The schedule is just beating us up and really taking its toll.” Uh, just who signs off on that schedule, Mark? As tough as things are for the Zags, they showed no progress in figuring things out against Washington State. Gonzaga has traditionally acted as if defending the three is a criminal offense, but giving up 11 of21seems to be stretching a point. Elias Harris remains a mystery, proving to be ineffective again against the Cougars: six points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Is he still recovering from the Achilles strain suffered against San Diego State? Does he have shoulder problems as well? No answer from Zagland, but he is a ghost of the slashing, dunking whirlwind who blew into the conference last year.
  5. Santa Clara (4-4) continues to take one step forward and two steps backward. Kerry Keating seems to be leaning toward a three-guard attack featuring returning superstar Kevin Foster, last year’s rookie point guard Robert Smith and newcomer Evan Roquemore (no Frenchified American, he pronounces it “rock-a-more”). Fair enough – they’re all talented and Keating’s front-line recruits, Niyi Harrison, Yannick Atanga and John McArthur haven’t exactly dazzled. So, push the three guards along with the steady Marc Trasolini, plug in workmanlike Ben Dowdell and see what happens. Except, Trasolini scored zero points in the Broncos only game last week, Saturday’s 80-69 loss to UC-Santa Barbara. How can that happen? Trasolini is a load, able to score from outside or inside equally well, but he took only four shots against Santa Barbara, missing all of them. ‘Tis a mystery, one that probably won’t be resolved when the Broncos “travel” (well, they will probably get on a bus) to the San Jose Event Center to take on San Jose State on Saturday.  The improved Spartans are 5-2 this year, including a 74-64 win over San Francisco back in November.
  6. San Francisco’s (3-5) Season of Promise may be turning into a Season of Surgery, as injuries reduced the Dons to eight available players in Wednesday’s 61-35 slaughter at Louisville. Those eight accounted for only 11 points in the second half, putting their production at a little more than 1.4 points-per-person. Promising freshman guard Cody Doolin was the latest Don to go down, following Dominique O’Connor’s second season-ending injury in a row and injuries to Marko Petrovic and Rashad Green. Until Petrovic or Green return, coach Rex Walters is left with only two guards on his roster, sophomore Mikey Williams and freshman Avery Johnson. Walters’ diminished forces will face a rugged Montana on Sunday (12/12) at home, then powerful Washington in Seattle on the 18th.
  7. Pepperdine (3-7) almost pulled off another shocker to go with its 70-60 road win over Pacific, but faded in the second half against Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday and lost 67-60. The Waves led at the half, but Utah shot 53.6% in the second half to pull away. The Waves face Redlands at home on Thursday (12/9), then travel to Fresno to face Fresno State on the 11th.
  8. San Diego (1-7) fought hard but was unable to hold on for a home win over Fresno State on Tuesday, falling 74-70. Continuing his search for a consistent contributor among a host of new bodies, coach Bill Grier turned to JC transfer Darian Norris for leadership on Tuesday, and Norris responded with a team-high 14 points and five assists. Things don’t get any easier for the Toreros this week, as they face #14 San Diego State on Saturday. The cross-town rivals have run roughshod over the WCC this pre-season, vanquishing Gonzaga in Spokane on November 16 (79-76) and Saint Mary’s (69-55) last week. San Diego may not be the team to end SDSU’s pillaging of the conference.

A Look Ahead

The next week is only sprinkled with games on the schedule with finals nearing. Only 19 games are on the docket between Friday and next Sunday. For teams like San Francisco, it’s a good chance to buy time for injured players, while talented schools like St. Mary’s and Gonzaga can gear up for the start of conference play.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 2nd, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC Conference

A Look Back

Saint Mary’s lost two out of three from tough opponents outside Moraga, Gonzaga got a brief respite from its grueling pre-conference schedule and Portland righted itself after losses to two tough foes. The expectation of a pulse from pre-season darling Loyola-Marymount was raised by a win over Long Beach State (then dashed by a loss to UC Santa Barbara), and the rest of the pack stumbled along with no break-out performances.

Player of the Week

Portland’s unapologetic three-point bomber, Jared Stohl, shot himself into Player of the Week honors with strong performances against Washington State and UC Santa Barbara: 5-12 on threes in the Pilots’ 84-68 loss to Washington State and 6-9 in their 75-63 win over Santa Barbara. For the week, Stohl averaged 23.5 PPG, shooting a combined 12-23 from the field, 11-21 from three-point range and 12-13 at the foul line.

Power Rankings

1. Saint Mary’s (6-2) roared into the South Padre Island Invitational finals with a convincing 88-56 win over the Big 12’s Texas Tech, but got Jimmer-jammed in the championship game against soon-to-be conference foe BYU. Cougar All-American guard Jimmer Fredette gave the Gaels fits all night, capping off a 24-point performance with a three-pointer with a little over 10 seconds remaining that put BYU up 72-70. Saint Mary’s called timeout, planned its last-second strategy and then watched in disbelief as Matt Dellavedova’s mugging in the lane failed to draw a foul call. Two BYU free-throws following Dellavedova’s miss and Mickey McConnell’s desperation three-pointer at the buzzer made the final 74-73. There was no suspense in the Gaels’ match-up with sizzling San Diego State, however, as the Aztecs revenged a 22-point loss last year in Moraga with a convincing 69-55 victory in San Diego.

Looking Ahead: The Gaels ease into the winter term break with home games December 8 against Denver and December 14 against UC Riverside.

2. Portland (6-2) continued to be near-invincible on its home floor, easily topping UC Santa Barbara 75-63 and holding off Rick Majerus’ Saint Louis Billikens 69-60 in the Chiles Center. The one-two combination of Stohl on the outside and Luke Sikma on the inside paced the Pilots in the two wins. Sikma recorded his third double-double of the season against Santa Barbara, going for 12 and 13, and topped that with a 26-point barrage against Saint Louis.

Looking ahead: The Pilots face two difficult road opponents in the week ahead, travelling to the unfriendly confines of Missoula, MT to take on Montana on Friday (Dec. 3) and to Seattle to face Pac 10 powerhouse Washington in Seattle on Dec. 6.

3. Gonzaga (4-2) had an easy week, polishing off Eastern Washington at home by 86-57 and resting up for its showdown with Big Ten contender Illinois before meeting Washington State in the Battle in Seattle on Saturday. They didn’t need him against EWU, but Elias Harris was held out of the game, still feeling tightness in his foot. Will his heel ever heal?

Looking ahead: After facing the Illini, the Zags have two more difficult road contests against Washington State on Wednesday and

4. Santa Clara (4-3) faced its first tough competition of the season, losing to Arizona 82-59 and Ohio 78-72 in the Las Vegas Invitational. Junior forward Marc Trasolini was the Broncos’ stalwart for the week, pouring in 19 points in each of the two losses, while early-season scoring leader Kevin Foster fell off to 13 against Arizona and ten against Ohio on 3-of-14 shooting.

Looking ahead: It’s the Broncos turn to host UC Santa Barbara on Saturday, then go on the road against Bay Area foes San Jose State next Friday and Pacific the following Tuesday.

5. San Francisco (3-3), which gave its fans a thrill with an overtime win over Colorado, suffered a road loss to Montana State (76-59) and a heartbreaking 63-62 home loss to Loyola (Chicago) before squeaking by the Bay Area’s Holy Names University 89-86 on Wednesday.

Looking ahead: The Dons will try to create some road momentum against Cal State-Bakersfield on Saturday before upping the ante in a big way against Louisville in Louisville on Wednesday.

6. Loyola Marymount (3-5) saw a jolt emanate from Max Good’s beleaguered Lions last week. Fans certainly hope the 80-77 overtime road win over Long Beach State was the beginning of the end to their pre-conference woes. Clearly the game preceding it, a 55-48 road loss to Cal Poly, didn’t do their nerves any good, but the strong performance against Long Beach – picked as one of the favorites to compete for the Big West title – gives hope. For one thing, senior guard Vernon Teel, one of the objects of Good’s wrath earlier in the season, had the type of game fans had been expecting, going for 20 points and 11 rebounds. Junior forward Drew Viney continued the excellent play that has carried him to fourth place in WCC scoring at 16.1 ppg. UC Santa Barbara dimmed the Lions’ enthusiasm with a 77-67 win in Santa Barbara on Wednesday.

Looking ahead: The Lions can look forward to their first home game after six on the road with a rematch against Cal Poly on December 4, the first of four home games that could go a long way to curing their early-season blues.

7. Pepperdine‘s (3-5) fans received great new in the form of the return of junior guard Keion Bell, who was out for two games with a wrist injury, in the Waves’ 88-74 loss to Northern Arizona. Bell dropped 33 points on the Lumberjacks, along with six rebounds and six assists, but his teammates couldn’t top Northern Arizona’s Gabe Rogers (31 points) or Cameron Jones (23 points). Pepperdine bounced back with an impressive 70-60 road win against Pacific on Wednesday.

Looking ahead: The Waves entertain Texas-San Antonio in Malibu on December 4, then travel to Salt Lake City to battle Utah next Tuesday.

8. San Diego (1-5) continued to struggle, losing to New Mexico 75-46 at The Pit and to UC Irvine in a fast-paced game Wednesday night at home.

Looking ahead: The Toreros travel to Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, then host Fresno State on Tuesday.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 25th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

  • With an overall record of 24-16 through games of Nov. 23, the WCC might appear to be cruising along in the non-conference portion of the 2010-11 season. But looks can be deceiving, as only Gonzaga and Portland have faced challenging schedules so far while the rest have been staging versions of Patsy of the Week. Saint Mary’s is the poster child for weak competition, as Randy Bennett’s Gaels have romped over College of Idaho, Point Loma Nazarene, Mississippi Valley State and, most pathetically, Chicago State, whom they blistered 121-52. If the hapless Cougars from the Great West Conference had doubled their scoring through Divine intervention they still would have lost. A 76-71 win over St. John’s of the Big East has been the Gaels’ only proud moment so far.
  • Gonzaga has posted an unusually mediocre 3-2 record, including a rare two-game losing streak, but the Zags have faced, in succession, a tough San Diego State (L, 79-76), third-ranked Kansas State (L, 81-64) and Marquette, whom they topped 66-63 to end the brief skid. Portland took on powerhouse Kentucky and Pac-10 up-and-comer Washington State, but probably wished they hadn’t, being demolished by Kentucky 79-48 and wilting against Washington State 84-68.
  • Loyola Marymount has been given a chance for a break-out season and a challenge to Gonzaga’s stranglehold on the league championship (ten in a row), but the Lions haven’t given any indication so far that they are up to the task. Max Good has had trouble getting his players’ attention, going so far as benching fifth-year senior guard and putative team leader Vernon Teel in a 73-63 loss to Rider. LMU has also gone down to Morgan State and Bradley, while topping only weak sisters Chapman, LaSierra and Dowling.
  • San Francisco has probably had the most hopeful pre-season, as Rex Walters’ young Dons have beaten Seattle (97-76) and Colorado (83-81, OT), while losing on the road to an improved San Jose State (74-64).

Player of the Week

Angelo Caloiaro – San Francisco: The rangy small forward has done a lot to ease fans’ concern over the departure of high-scoring Dior Lowhorn, winning WCC Player of the Week honors following his stellar effort against Colorado. Caloiaro, whom the Dons list as 6-8, scorched the Buffalos for 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range en route to a career-high 26 points. It’s a close call whether that effort eclipsed Saint Mary’s forward Clint Steindl’s 7-for-10 three-point barrage against St. John’s, but it’s clear the Bay Area has a nice rivalry between sharpshooting small forwards.

Team-by-Team

  1. Saint Mary’s (5-0) wasn’t challenged beyond the St. Johns game, but Bennett was concerned with shaking the rust off transfers Kenton Walker in the post and Rob Jones at power forward, and he has accomplished that, along with the rehab of starting guard Matthew Dellavedova. Dellavedova missed the entire pre-season practice schedule along with the Gaels’ two scrimmages with an injured hamstring.
  2. Santa Clara’s (4-1) big question mark – the fitness of returning two-guard Kevin Foster – has been removed by Foster’s strong start. Although the Broncos have not beaten anyone of note (Cal State-Bakersfield, Rice, Bethune-Cookman and Northern Colorado), Foster has been exceptional, averaging nearly 19 points per game.
  3. Portland (4-2) is still searching for a point guard to replace T.J. Campbell, but junior Eric Waterford and freshman Tim Douglas have shown flashes of leadership. Senior forward Luke Sikma has been a beast on the boards for the Pilots, averaging nearly 13 per game.
  4. San Francisco (2-1) is smiling over the poise and savvy of freshman guard Cody Doolin and Caloiaro’s all-around excellence.
  5. Gonzaga (3-2) has encountered several problems in its early-season stumbles, most notably finding someone to run Mark Few’s usually high-powered offense. Few reached far down his bench for redshirt freshman David Stockton, son of legendary Zags and NBA guard John Stockton, for help in the pasting by Kansas State. Stockton showed some of the poise and playmaking ability of his dad, but seems smaller than his listed height of 5’11 and may prove a defensive liability for the Zags.
  6. Loyola Marymount (3-3) has tested Good’s short temper by its showing so far, with players and the Gatorade container feeling his wrath. Lions’ fans hope Good can solve the team’s problems before the WCC race begins.
  7. Pepperdine (2-4) showed signs of a resurgence with a win over Nevada, but is sweating out the return of star guard Keion Bell, who is nursing an injured thumb that kept him out of the Waves’ last two games.
  8. San Diego (1-3) has juggled many players in the early going, but Bill Grier has yet to find a combination to get the Toreros on track.

A Look Ahead

  • The honeymoon is over for many of the WCC teams who have been skating over weak opponents: Saint Mary’s heads into the finals of the South Padre Island Classic this week with a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Friday, followed by either BYU or South Florida on Saturday.  After the Gaels digest that post-Thanksgiving feast, they will face undefeated San Diego State in San Diego on December 1.
  • Santa Clara faces by far its toughest test of the year on the 26th as well, facing off against Arizona in the Las Vegas Invitational.
  • Portland will close out the month with a pair of home games against difficult teams: UC Santa Barbara on the 27th and St. Louis on the 30th.
  • The path ahead doesn’t get any easier for Gonzaga, as they face always-pesky Eastern Washington at home November 30, then take on Big Ten power Illinois in the Battle in Seattle four days later.
  • If Loyola Marymount can figure some things out through tonight’s  game against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, it will be tested further in a pair of road games versus Long Beach State on the 27th and UC Santa Barbara on December 1.
  • A tough road also beckons for San Francisco, as it goes to Louisville on December 8 to face Rick Pitino’s Cardinals and to Seattle on the 18th for a game with the Washington Huskies.
  • A trip to The Pit on the Albuquerque campus of New Mexico is probably not what Grier would prescribe for his struggling Toreros, but it is what the schedule has in store for San Diego on November 28 nonetheless.
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on February 23rd, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Standings (through games of 2/20/10)

  1. Gonzaga                       10-2 (22-5)
  2. Saint Mary’s                 9-3 (22-5)
  3. Portland                       8-4 (17-9)
  4. San Francisco               7-5 (12-15)
  5. Loyola Marymount       6-6 (15-13)
  6. Santa Clara                  3-9 (11-18)
  7. Pepperdine                   3-9 (7-21)
  8. San Diego                    2-10 (9-19)

San Francisco or Loyola Marymount?

Figuring out who is going to seize fourth-place in the regular-season WCC standings and a first-round bye in the March 5-8 conference tournament in Las Vegas is the compelling storyline in the last week of conference play. LMU, finally at full strength after months of nursing various players through injuries, completed the most impressive and surprising week in recent conference history by topping both Gonzaga (74-66) and Portland (77-68 in OT) at home. Not surprisingly, three of the restored Lions contributed mightily to the wins: redshirt freshman Ashley Hamilton with 17 against Gonzaga and 12 against Portland; junior guard Larry Davis, a transfer from Seton Hall, with 12 and 10; and sophomore guard Jarred DuBois with 10 and 10. They were joined by another transfer, forward Drew Viney from Oregon, with 16, and junior forward Kevin Young with 11, to place all five starters in double figures against Gonzaga. With all that offensive firepower, however, it was tough man-to-man defense that did in Gonzaga, as LMU held the powerful Zags to 34.4% shooting overall and a puny 25.9% in the second half.

San Francisco had only one game last week, edging Bay Area rival Santa Clara 71-68 in overtime on the road to hold onto fourth place, but will be hard-pressed to keep the Lions at bay this week. While the Dons must travel to the frenzied atmosphere of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday (Feb. 25) to face a wounded giant smarting from both the LMU loss and an equally-surprising 81-77 loss to San Francisco in January, LMU heads down the road to San Diego. Bill Grier’s Toreros, struggling with the loss of senior guard De’Jon Jackson, have offered little resistance to anyone in recent weeks, and LMU should be able to maintain its momentum at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. Thus, San Francisco and LMU could find themselves knotted at 7-6 in the standings after Thursday’s games, heading into the season-ending weekend. Both have tough contests on Saturday, with the Dons taking on a Portland squad looking to bounce back from its disappointing loss to LMU and the Lions facing an equally-motivated Saint Mary’s in Moraga.

The Gaels benefitted most directly from LMU’s upset of Portland, as that loss moved Saint Mary’s one game in front for second place and a bye to the semifinals of the WCC tournament. Saint Mary’s must defeat struggling Pepperdine on Thursday and LMU on Saturday to assure that precious semifinal bye that guarantees they will only have to play twice in Las Vegas. That is a major consideration for Randy Bennett’s Gaels, who go only seven deep and are down to three guards with the early-season loss of Wayne Hunter to a torn ACL and the pre-season loss of freshman Tim Harris to a torn hamstring. The Gaels’ backcourt trio of junior Mickey McConnell and freshmen Matthew Dellavedova and Jorden Page has provided yeoman service so far, but showed signs of fatigue in recent losses to Gonzaga and Portland. Saint Mary’s bounced back somewhat with a grind-it-out 61-49 victory over San Diego last week, but will have to suck it up to finish off the season with two more wins.

Gonzaga, despite the upset by LMU, does not seem in danger of surrendering its top spot and missing an opportunity to win a tenth straight WCC crown. San Francisco will come to Spokane pumped up by its January upset of the Zags, but Mark Few’s team has usually responded to adversity with a strong bounce-back. The Dons may face the wrath of a wounded warrior Thursday night, while Santa Clara faces an equally unpromising fate in the Zags’ season-ender on Saturday. With Saint Mary’s just a game behind in the loss column, look for Gonzaga to hold off both San Francisco and Santa Clara and head to Las Vegas with the top seed.

Portland has a shot at second place if it can also defeat San Francisco and Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s stumbles against Pepperdine and/or LMU. If Portland and Saint Mary’s tie for second with identical 10-4 records, Saint Mary’s would get the semifinal bye on the strength of a higher RPI, but if the Gaels fall to Pepperdine the nod would go to Portland even if Saint Mary’s beats LMU because Pepperdine is so low in the standings. There is a lot riding on the last week of conference play.

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