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.


  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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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on February 16th, 2010

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

Standings (through games of 2/13/10)

  1. Gonzaga 9-1 (21-4)
  2. Saint Mary’s 8-3 (21-5)
  3. Portland 7-3 (16-8)
  4. San Francisco 6-5 (11-15)
  5. Loyola Marymount 4-6 (13-13)
  6. Pepperdine 3-7 (7-19)
  7. Santa Clara 3-8 (11-17)
  8. San Diego 2-9 (9-18)

The Dynasty Continues

Barring a collapse of unimaginable proportions, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will win their tenth straight WCC Championship in 2010 – an almost-unprecedented string of single team domination in college basketball. After swatting down pretenders Portland (76-49) and Saint Mary’s (80-61) on consecutive Thursday nights at home, the Zags face a road trip this week to the less-than-fearsome Loyola Marymount Lions and Pepperdine Waves, then finish up the conference schedule at home against lowly Santa Clara on the 25th and San Francisco on the 27th. San Francisco brings the only substantive credential – an 81-77 upset of the Zags on Jan. 30 – into the final weekend, but Gonzaga showed by its overwhelming defeats of strong Portland and Saint Mary’s teams that it has recovered from whatever jim-jams caused it to lose to San Francisco. The Zags never let either Portland or Saint Mary’s get into their offenses, bringing stifling defense and potent offensive efforts by Matt Bouldin, Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and others to authoritatively separate themselves from their closest pursuers. There is no reasonable hope that anything will keep the Zags from running the table on the remaining games, including the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas March 5-8. The Zags’ main preoccupation for the next several weeks will be determining how high a seed they will receive in the NCAA Tournament.

Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s Gaels had a terrible trip to the Pacific Northwest after posting six straight wins following a closely-contested 89-82 loss to Gonzaga at home on Jan. 14. The Gaels were 8-1 in conference play and 21-3 overall heading into the Feb. 11 showdown against Gonzaga with the conference lead in the balance. With a win, Saint Mary’s would have put a little daylight between itself and the Zags because of the Zags’ earlier loss to San Francisco. For about 24 minutes the Gaels played as if they were serious about threatening Gonzaga’s long reign as WCC champs, but unfortunately college games are 40 minutes long. After an Omar Samhan basket tied things at 43 all with 16 minutes left, it was all Gonzaga. The Zags’ hounding defense produced numerous turnovers by Gael guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova, and to underline the worst game of his college career, McConnell – averaging nearly 14 points per game – was shut out.

McConnell bounced back with a team-leading 25 points in the Gaels’ game against Portland two nights later, but his teammates were unable to stem Portland’s strong guard play and lost 80-75 in overtime. Pilots’ senior point guard T.J. Campbell scored a career-high 24 points and backcourt mate Jared Stohl added 16 to lead their team. Portland pulled even with Saint Mary’s in the loss column with the victory, and is looking to finish its final four games on a roll to gain the number two WCC Tournament seed and an automatic advance to the conference semifinals. The Pilots accompany Gonzaga on the southern California road trip this week to Pepperdine and LMU, then return home to face San Francisco and Santa Clara to end the season. If the Gaels, who have a road game against San Diego and two home contests against Pepperdine and LMU, also win out, they and Portland will tie for second place at 11-3. It will take a lot of head-scratching to determine who earns the number-two seed in that case, as the teams split against each other, with both games being decided by five points, and both lost twice to Gonzaga. Portland, however, had a larger point differential in its two losses to Gonzaga – 30 – than Saint Mary’s, which had a 26-point deficit.

With the league-leaders completing conference play against bottom-tier teams, there are many opportunities for those teams to score significant upsets. San Francisco is playing the strongest ball among the non-contenders, having won four out of five games including a 77-47 rout of Pepperdine and a convincing 75-66 win over LMU at home last week to solidify its hold on fourth place. However, the Dons travel to Bay Area rival Santa Clara on Feb. 20 for a rematch against a team that edged them 66-65 earlier, then head to the northwest to end the season against Gonzaga and Portland. Hard to predict a Dons’ upset of the northwest squads.

LMU and Pepperdine both entertain Gonzaga and Portland this week, and LMU especially will be looking to earn back some respect it has lost since an early-season upset of Notre Dame in South Bend. Max Good has most of the LMU walking wounded back for the Gonzaga and Portland showdowns, with transfer guard Larry Davis the only prominent player still on the sidelines. The Lions are a game-and-a-half back of San Francisco and would love to redeem their early-season promise by ruining the seasons of the top dogs and moving up in the standings. They have the opportunities, but will have to overcome strong momentum to topple either Gonzaga or Portland this week, or Saint Mary’s in the final conference game on Feb. 27 in Moraga.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on February 8th, 2010

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

Standings (through games of 2/6/10)

  1. Saint Mary’s                 8-1 (21-3)
  2. Gonzaga                       7-1 (19-4)
  3. Portland                       5-3 (14-8)
  4. San Francisco               4-5 (9-15)
  5. Loyola Marymount       3-5 (12-12)
  6. Pepperdine                   3-5 (7-17)
  7. Santa Clara                  2-7 (10-16)
  8. San Diego                    2-7 (9-16)

Moment of Truth, Part II

Gonzaga triumphed in its trial-by-fire three-game stretch to Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego last month, and now it’s Saint Mary’s turn to run the gauntlet. After holding serve at home last week against Santa Clara (74-62) and San Francisco (73-57), the Gaels face a showdown with the Zags Thursday night (Feb. 11) in Spokane, a tough rematch with Portland two nights later, then a final road game on Feb. 18 against San Diego. This is make or break time for Saint Mary’s, which can sew up a regular-season WCC title and a probable NCAA bid with a sweep, or face the same uncertainty it did last season when it failed to beat Gonzaga in three tries.

Although the Gaels could salvage their season with a win over Gonzaga in the WCC tournament March 5-8 in Las Vegas, it would do wonders for their peace of mind if they did the trick Thursday night before a sold out and rockin’ McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Zags have lost only four times in the last six years. The epic contest, perhaps the most meaningful west coast college basketball game this year, will be televised at 8 p.m. Pacific on ESPN2. Are Randy Bennett’s Gaels up to the task?

The consensus of most observers, including Zag fans, is that an upset is possible but Saint Mary’s must be hitting on all cylinders to pull it off. Gonzaga dispelled any thoughts that they had fallen into a mid-season funk with their stunning loss to San Francisco on Jan. 30 by thrashing Portland at home 76-49 on Feb. 4, then pulling one of their patented cross-country jaunts to knock off a tough Memphis squad 66-58 two days later. The Zag express is rolling toward a certain trip to the NCAA tournament and will not want to be derailed by the Gaels on its home court.

To accomplish the improbable, Saint Mary’s must show it has learned some tough lessons from its 89-82 home loss to Gonzaga on Jan. 14. One of these is not to provide another contribution to a highlight reel that could be entitled “Forwards Go Off,” featuring huge games by the Zags’ Elias Harris (31 pts), Santa Clara’s Marc Trasolini (19 pts), Loyola Marymount’s Kevin Young and Drew Viney (27 pts each) and Portland’s Robin Smuelders (29 pts), among others. Simply put, the Gaels have inside defense issues stemming most directly from the departure of stout forwards Diamon Simpson and Ian O’Leary. Their replacements, Ben Allen and Clint Steindl, have given Bennett strong offensive performances from the 4-and 3-spots, but have not exactly played shutdown D. The Gaels don’t have to worry about their powerful offensive machine, which has proved to be a reliable provider of 80-plus ppg, but must clamp down on the Zags’ trio of Harris, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray.

Eric Reveno must work hard this week to keep his Portland Pilots from licking their lips in anticipation of ambushing the Gaels two nights after they face the Zags. Portland will have a tuneup against unraveling San Diego on Thursday night, then can hope to inflict a disappointing second league loss on the Gaels if they upset Gonzaga or a crippling third one if the Gaels lose in Spokane. “Payback is hell” will be the Pilots’ motto this week, remembering their 77-72 loss to Saint Mary’s last month.

The hotly-contested fourth-place spot in WCC standings stayed with San Francisco this week, as the Dons squeaked out a 72-70 overtime win over San Diego before stumbling at Saint Mary’s. LMU supplanted Pepperdine in the fifth spot by beating the Waves 77-61 at Gersten Pavilion, but both southern California squads travel to San Francisco this week to stage a battle royal for the fourth-place position and first-round WCC tournament bye that goes with it. San Francisco is in the driver’s seat by hosting both of its nearest competitors, but even if it wins both games it faces a killing season-ending schedule of Santa Clara, Portland and Gonzaga on the road. This one isn’t over yet.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on February 1st, 2010

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

Standings (through games of 1/30/10)

  1. Saint Mary’s                 6-1 (19-3)
  2. Gonzaga                       6-1 (17-4)
  3. Portland                       5-2 (14-7)
  4. San Francisco               3-4 (8-14)
  5. Pepperdine                   3-4 (7-16)
  6. Loyola Marymount       2-5 (11-12)
  7. San Diego                    2-5 (9-14)
  8. Santa Clara                  1-6 (9-15)

Now it Gets Interesting

San Francisco’s 81-77 overtime win over Gonzaga at home on Jan. 30 did several things, among which were stopping the Zags’ current nine-game winning streak, its 22-game WCC winning streak and its 27-game streak in regular season play (its last loss was in the 2007 conference tournament final against San Diego). More important than all that, however, it gave new life to the second half of the WCC season.

By proving itself vulnerable against a fired-up San Francisco team that had suffered mostly disappointment this season, Gonzaga may have opened the door for Saint Mary’s or Portland to entertain serious hopes of stopping its most impressive streak – that of nine straight conference championships. A tenth straight seemed likely after the Zags swept its most difficult stretch of road games against Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego Jan. 14-21, but signs of Zag distress turned up before the San Francisco stunner: they allowed Pepperdine to score 55 second-half points in an unexpectedly close 91-84 home win on Jan. 21, struggled to a halftime tie against Loyola Marymount two nights later before winning 85-69, then trailed Santa Clara almost the entire game on Jan. 28 before pulling out a 71-64 squeaker. The San Francisco loss two nights later before a packed and vocal War Memorial Gymnasium crowd seemed like the next stop on a trip to Problem City.

But is that trip over now? Or do the Pilots and Gaels have a better chance during the second phase of the conference season than they did in the first? It won’t take long to find the answer, as Portland rolls into Zagland Thursday night (Feb. 4) fresh off a weekend trip to the Bay Area in which it played more like Gonzaga than Gonzaga. The Pilots first handled San Francisco 74-58 behind Jared Stohl’s 22 points on 6-12 three-point shooting that put Stohl just three behind Portland’s all-time long-range record of 211. Stohl quickly broke that record two nights later as the Pilots dismantled the same Santa Clara team that had stymied Gonzaga, 74-52. The junior from Marysville, WA, canned four three-pointers against Santa Clara on the way to a team-high 16 points. Since moving into the starting lineup for injured guard Nik Raivio four games ago, Stohl has averaged 18.5 ppg and Portland has won all four contests.

So, does Portland have the momentum that will allow it to accomplish this week at Gonzaga what it couldn’t pull off at home on Jan. 9? In that game, the Pilots played the Zags tough and rallied late to close within three points in the final seconds. Stohl’s seemingly-impossible buzzer-beater from the sideline looked good until it rimmed out to give the Zags an 81-78 win. Portland certainly looked confident against Santa Clara, holding off the same furious defensive pressure that Kerry Keating’s troops showed against Gonzaga. The Pilots relentlessly pounded the ball into the paint to Luke Sikma, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half. Robin Smuelders, the more prolific of the Pilots’ frontline stalwarts, scored only six against Santa Clara, but was almost unstoppable in the first Gonzaga game. The rugged 6’10 senior from Braunschweig, Germany, made 9 of 10 shots against Gonzaga on the way to a game-high 24 points. The matchup of Smuelders and Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, another German, will be one of the most intriguing of Thursday night’s game. It will be televised by ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Pacific.

Saint Mary’s begins the second half with games at home against Santa Clara on Thursday and San Francisco on Saturday. The Gaels handled both easily on the road to open the season, and are coming off an impressive road swing to southern California last week in which they throttled Pepperdine 88-71 and Loyola Marymount 85-67. The games against two long-time Bay Area rivals, both energized by their performance against Gonzaga, will set the stage for the Gaels’ own Zag showdown next week. Saint Mary’s also played Gonzaga tough in their initial meeting in Moraga on Jan. 14, losing 89-82 after cutting a 15-point second-half lead to 84-80 with less than a minute left. But they haven’t won in Spokane since 1995, and Gonzaga has won 32 of 38 games since then.

The Feb. 11 showdown will give the Gaels a chance to overcome that history and record a signature win for the season that will improve their chances for an at-large NCAA bid if they fail to capture the WCC’s automatic invitation. Saint Mary’s has the memory of last year’s NCAA snub, when they were 26-5 but lost all three games to Gonzaga and, thus, didn’t get an at-large bid, etched deeply in its memory. Regardless of how Portland fares this Thursday, the Gaels will head north on a mission, and their road success this season (8-0) gives them added hope. They are only one of two teams in the country to be undefeated in true road games, the other being Syracuse with a 5-0 road mark.

By beating Gonzaga, San Francisco not only enlivened the WCC race, but also gave hope to its fans for a worthwhile season under second-year coach Rex Walters. The Dons are tied with Pepperdine for fourth place in the league, and maintaining that position would make this year worthwhile. The schedule is not promising, however, as the Dons have a difficult road trip this week to San Diego on Thursday and across the Bay Bridge on Saturday to face Saint Mary’s. The San Diego game counts as a must-win, as the Toreros are one of the teams currently below San Francisco in the standings and must be beaten to stay that way. The Saturday contest against Saint Mary’s in Moraga will be a difficult rematch as the Gaels romped 83-62 in their first game. The Dons have the best chance to cement their position with a Feb. 11 rematch with Pepperdine at home, although the Waves creamed them 83-68 earlier in Malibu. After that game and a contest against LMU two nights later, San Francisco finishes with a brutal road swing to Santa Clara, Portland and Gonzaga. If Walters’ crew holds on to its fourth-place position, it will have earned it.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on January 25th, 2010

Standings (through games of 1/23/10)

  1. Gonzaga                       5-0 (16-3)
  2. Saint Mary’s                 4-1 (17-3)
  3. Portland                       3-2 (12-7)
  4. Pepperdine                   3-2 (7-14)
  5. San Francisco               2-3 (7-13)
  6. Loyola Marymount       1-4 (10-11)
  7. Santa Clara                  1-4 (9-13)
  8. San Diego                    1-4 (8-13)

Who Wants Fourth Place?

All things considered, it’s not a bad spot to be in: satisfaction of finishing in the top half of conference play, first-round bye in the WCC tournament, hope for next season. Yet, the various contenders for the spot keep falling all over themselves to pass it up. Pepperdine holds the spot this week, San Francisco had it last week and who knows what next week will bring?

Among fourth-place hopefuls, Loyola Marymount at 10-11 holds the most wins for the season and boasts that upset of Notre Dame in South Bend back in December. But the Lions fell hard on their trip to the Pacific Northwest last week, suffering a scorching 79-39 loss at Portland, but bouncing back to play better against Gonzaga, eventually losing 85-69 after being tied at the half. Lions coach Max Good can rightly point to injuries that have cost his team the services of Edgar Garibay, Jarred DuBois, Ashley Hamilton, Drew Viney and Larry Davis at various times this season (Garibay is done for the year), but still questions remain: can the Lions overcome crosstown rival Pepperdine, who beat them for the 12th straight year in Malibu two weeks ago; can they do better against the Zags and Pilots on their home court; how will they handle Saint Mary’s high-powered offense? Only by answering those with some wins can LMU hope to finish in the top four, and they get a chance this week with games at home against San Diego on Thursday, Saint Mary’s on Saturday and Pepperdine on Feb. 6.

Pepperdine and USF are at least as hard to figure as LMU, and both had a tough time last week. The Waves also lost both games in the Northwest, giving Gonzaga something to worry about with a 55-point second half behind Keion Bell’s outrageous 37 points in a 91-84 loss, then falling meekly to Portland 80-64 when Bell had “only” 21. Bell’s average for the week was 29 PPG but his team still suffered two losses and fell from a tie for first to fourth. USF had only one game, a rivalry contest against fellow Bay Area Jesuit institution Santa Clara, and lost 66-65 after closing hard in the final minutes and having the ball trailing by one point in the final seconds. The inbounds pass went right through the hands of sophomore guard Rashad Green, however, and with it the Dons’ chance for a victory. USF’s next two home games don’t get any easier, as they face Portland on Thursday and Gonzaga on Saturday.

Santa Clara’s victory over USF was its first in conference play, and it shares the cellar with San Diego, which fell 71-56 at Saint Mary’s, succumbing to an early display of Gael offense that bolted them into a 23-5 lead after 12 minutes. Santa Clara faces the Portland-Gonzaga onslaught at home along with USF this week, and San Diego’s hopes of moving out of last place hinge on success on the road against LMU on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday.

What all the turmoil in the 4-8 spots underlines is the predictability of the top three positions, with nine-time conference champ Gonzaga entrenched at 5-0, wannabe usurper Saint Mary’s one game behind at 4-1 and recovering Portland in third at 3-2 (same conference mark as Pepperdine, which is listed in fourth because of a poorer overall record). The Zags don’t seem to be in trouble with this week’s road games to the Bay Area, while Saint Mary’s will give Pepperdine (Thursday) and LMU (Saturday) a shot at them by travelling south to Malibu and Los Angeles. Portland will hope to continue bouncing back from losses to the Zags and Gaels as it accompanies Gonzaga on the Bay Area trip.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on January 19th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.

Standings (through games of 1/16/10)

  1. Gonzaga                       3-0 (14-3)
  2. Pepperdine                   3-0 (6-12)
  3. Saint Mary’s                 3-1 (16-3)
  4. San Francisco               2-2 (7-12)
  5. Portland                       1-2 (10-7)
  6. San Diego                    1-3 (8-12)
  7. Loyola Marymount       1-2 (10-9)
  8. Santa Clara                  0-4 (8-13)

Conference: Week Two

After two weeks of conference play the WCC can claim at least two major surprises along with a host of expected results. The biggest surprise has to be seeing Pepperdine tied with Gonzaga atop the standings with a perfect 3-0 mark, the first time the Waves have been in that position since 2002. In that year, Pepperdine and Gonzaga tied for the conference championship at 13-1.

Surprise no. 2, although not as big, is Santa Clara’s inability to win any of its first four games, which included two at home. The Broncos were picked to finish as high as third by some media outlets, but now find themselves looking up from the bottom without having played two of the conference’s strongest teams, Gonzaga or Portland. With four games coming against those two, plus Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Kerry Keating’s squad will have to scramble to get out of the basement.

Pepperdine achieved the top spot by extending its hex over Loyola Marymount 79-75 in Malibu to start conference play on Jan. 9, squeaking by Santa Clara 61-60 on sophomore guard Lorne Jackson’s steal of a Robert Smith layup attempt at the buzzer, and pulling away from San Francisco 83-68 on the strength of a 24-9 run in the last seven minutes. All three wins came at home, and the Waves will be sorely tested this week with away games against Gonzaga and Portland. Still, Tom Asbury’s troops cannot be disregarded despite their many struggles in the pre-conference, where they went 3-12 including an embarrassing 67-65 loss to lowly Cal Baptist. Pepperdine is an extremely young team and has shown signs of coming together at just the right time.

How young is Pepperdine? Gonzaga coach Mark Few, the league’s master propagandist, has induced the national media to incessantly note that the Zags started the season with ten new players, while omitting the fact that two of its key contributors, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, are four-and-three-year veterans, respectively, and redshirt sophomore center Robert Sacre has been in the program for three years. Only 20-year-old European veteran Elias Harris, nominally a freshman, is a truly new face among players that Few has counted on most heavily.  Asbury, on the other hand, starts three sophomores (Jackson, Keion Bell and Taylor Darby), and two juniors, (Mychel Thompson and Jonathan Dupre, a junior college transfer). All five scored in double figures against USF, with Darby notching a double-double (15/12) and Bell just missing a triple-double with 18 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. It is a talented five , but they will be strong underdogs in Spokane Thursday night against the battle-tested Zags, who breezed through a daunting three-game road trip in Portland, Moraga (Saint Mary’s) and San Diego to take a lot of the early air out of upset balloons. Nevertheless, any game against undefeated co-leaders counts as a showdown, and Asbury’s pups will be pumped to throw a major scare into the Zags.

Of the predicted Gonzaga challengers, Saint Mary’s fared pretty well in the first two weeks of the conference season, and Portland slightly less well. The Gaels underwent a bad stretch at the end of the first half against Gonzaga on Jan. 14, letting a close 36-33 game deteriorate into a 45-33 halftime deficit by not scoring in the last four minutes. They would spend the entire second half trying to overcome that 12-point margin, outscoring the Zags 49-44 and coming to within 84-80 with just under a minute left and the ball in their hands. A three-point attempt by freshman Aussie Jorden Page rimmed out, however, and Gonzaga ran out the clock at the free throw line for its 89-82 win. The Gaels averted disaster two nights later by struggling to a 77-72 win over Portland.

Portland came even closer against the Zags than the Gaels on Jan. 9, mounting a furious comeback that culminated with sharpshooting guard Jared Stohl trying a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. Stohl took a pass on the sideline going away from the basket, under close guard, somehow turned his body 180° and launched a prayer that seemed laser-guided to the basket. It somehow missed and the Pilots were denied a chance to pull out a win in overtime. As close as those games were, however, Gonzaga prevailed in both in hostile environments, and made it three-in-a-row with a routine dismantling of San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion, 68-50. Portland was counting on the season-opening encounter with Gonzaga on its home court to put a new leader atop the conference, but instead finds itself 1-2 with losses to the league’s two top teams.

The Zags get to go home for the next two games, the Jan. 21 encounter with Pepperdine, and a tussle with Loyola two days later. LMU has stumbled in conference play so far, losing its opener to Pepperdine and the next contest to San Francisco 70-67, before righting itself for a convincing 81-70 win over Santa Clara on the 16th. Like Asbury, LMU’s Max Good has a rather untested, up-and-down team to take into the raucous environs of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Zags are 67-4 since it opened in 2004. The Lions will try to focus on their 87-85 upset of Notre Dame in South Bend on Dec. 12 and summon the magic that downed the Fighting Irish.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on January 7th, 2010

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

Final Pre-Conference Standings (through games of 1/4)

  1. Saint Mary’s         13-2
  2. Gonzaga         11-3
  3. Portland          9-5
  4. Loyola Marymount       9-7
  5. Santa Clara        8-9
  6. San Diego        7-9
  7. San Francisco       5-10
  8. Pepperdine         4-12

Table Set for Early Drama

With several key conference match-ups scheduled in the first two weeks of play, the WCC race could be either very interesting or very boring within a short period. Because of an unusually front-loaded schedule, Gonzaga goes on the road against three conference foes considered most likely to upset them – Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego – within a one-week period (Jan. 9-16). If one or more of those teams stops the Zags, the race could be worth watching; if the Zags run the table, it’ll be all over but the shouting.

In the early conference season, the curtain-opening game between Gonzaga and Portland at Portland this Saturday (Jan. 9) looked like one of the most intriguing WCC contests in recent years. Portland’s stumbles against West Virginia, Portland State, Idaho, Washington and Nevada, however, have taken some of the luster off that game. For their part, the Zags won respect and frequent flyer miles with their final two OOC games, an 83-69 win over Oklahoma at home on New Year’s Eve followed by an 85-83 overtime win over Illinois in Chicago barely 48 hours later. The Zags will have a full week to recharge before making the reasonably sort trip to Portland to stare down the Pilots, who must summon all their early-season moxie (wins over Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota) to have a chance.

After Portland, Gonzaga travels to the snake pit known as McKeon Pavilion for a Thursday-night (Jan. 14) barn-burner against Saint Mary’s in Moraga, then continues south to take on San Diego in the Jenny Craig Pavilion on Saturday. It will be quite a week for the Zags, but they have proven impervious to tough travels to tough venues, and all their opponents must bring their A-games to have a chance for victory. A 3-0 Gonzaga squad with its tough road games behind it (except for a potentially intriguing Feb. 18 game against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles) will not be a pretty sight for WCC teams to behold.

Saint Mary’s stands a good chance of facing Gonzaga with a 2-0 conference mark, as the Gaels open on the road Friday night (Jan. 8) against San Francisco, which has struggled in the pre-conference slate, and then at up-and-down Santa Clara on Sunday afternoon. Saint Mary’s had established McKeon Pavilion as one WCC stop Gonzaga didn’t want to make with consecutive victories there in ’07 and ’08 before stumbling there last year without injured star Patty Mills.  With an NCAA berth hinging on a victory over Gonzaga at some point this year, Saint Mary’s will bring all its Aussie chants, Samhan juju and Randy Bennett strategy to the showdown.

Another Friday night game of interest pits San Diego at Santa Clara, with a possible fourth-place conference finish and first-game WCC tournament bye at stake. San Diego has been difficult to figure out this year, compiling a 7-9 record that includes encouraging wins over Stanford, Oklahoma and Houston, and puzzling losses to Fresno State, Pacific and UC-Riverside. San Diego split its last two OOC games, hanging with a tough Mississippi State team on New Year’s Eve before losing 77-68, then bouncing back to beat Florida A&M 74-64 three days later. The win over Florida A&M was accomplished without 6-2 senior guard De’Jon Jackson and 6-8 freshman forward Chris Manressa in uniform, and their status is uncertain for the Santa Clara game.

Loyola Marymount, one of the hottest teams in the WCC with a six-game winning streak that includes a road win over Notre Dame, will have something to say about that fourth-place spot in the WCC standings as well. The Lions open Friday night against perennial saddle burr Pepperdine in Malibu with a lot at stake: Beach Brat Bragging Rights over the Waves, who have a multi-year home winning streak against them, and a shot at a 3-0 conference record by week two. After Pepperdine, the Lions host San Francisco and Santa Clara, both beatable, in the following weekend’s play. LMU’s moment of truth could come the weekend after that (Jan. 21-23), when they travel to Portland and Gonzaga.

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