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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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on January 1st, 2010

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

Standings (through games of 12/30/09)

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

Observations

Although several WCC teams have games remaining before conference play begins next Friday (Jan. 8), a few general observations appear to be safe. First, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s (or Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga if you prefer) have erased any doubts about their continued stranglehold on the top two positions. Gonzaga could finish its pre-conference schedule at 11-3 or 10-4 depending on its game on the road against Illinois on Jan. 2, but the Zags have made it perfectly clear they are up to the challenge of competing for a 10th straight WCC Championship. Winning the prestigious Maui Invitational with a scintillating 61-59 overtime win over Cincinnati in November, taking Michigan State to the wire before falling 75-71 in East Lansing and adding wins against Wisconsin and Washington State answered any questions about how Gonzaga would respond to a large-scale roster turnover. The Zags are back.

Saint Mary’s used the pre-conference period to make quite a statement as well: these are not your old, Patty Mills-led Gaels, but a whole ‘nother animal – one with very sharp teeth. The Gaels are putting up eye-popping offensive numbers (82.7 ppg) and playing much more efficiently with Mickey McConnell running the offense in place of Mills. Mills was a spectacular offensive force, but the dynamism of his game would sometimes leave the other four Gael players standing around watching along with everyone else. Everyone is involved this year, as witnessed by the three Gaels averaging double figures – Omar Samhan (20.8), Matthew Dellavedova (13.4) and McConnell (12.8) – and the other two starters close behind: Ben Allen (9.3) and Clint Steindl (7.9). Wayne Hunter was averaging 11 ppg before he went down with a season-ending ACL tear.  Heading into conference play next weekend with away games against San Francisco on Jan. 8 and Santa Clara on the 10th, the Gaels are shooting just under 50% from the floor and just over 40% from three-point range. Their efficiency is emphasized by a team assist/turnover ratio of 1.5, headlined by McConnell’s almost three-to-one pace of 96 assists to 37 turnovers.

Observation no. 2 Portland has not stepped up its game following last year’s 19-13 record and third place conference finish. This columnist picked Portland to wrest the WCC crown from Gonzaga based on its senior-laden roster and steady leadership from Coach Eric Reveno, but that prediction was predicated on the Pilots’ seizing the moment. For the moment, they have been seized by an inability to win on the road and a penchant for being blown out by strong opposition: 84-66 by West Virginia and 89-54 by Washington. Last week’s 78-69 loss to Nevada in Reno didn’t lessen fears that the Pilots will be undone on the road in the WCC, although they get an early opportunity to regain their swagger with a conference-opening home battle against Gonzaga on Saturday (Jan. 9).

Observation no. 3. Loyola Marymount is for real, with peril to San Diego and Santa Clara in the battle for fourth place in the conference and an opening-game bye in the conference tournament in Las Vegas in March. The Lions won their fifth in a row on Dec. 30, a 104-89 victory over the troublesome Seattle Redhawks in Gersten Pavilion, and topped 100 points for the first time since 1998. Coach Max Good has succeeded in grafting high-caliber transfers (Drew Viney, Larry Davis), holdover stars (Vernon Teel, Kevin Young and Jarred DuBois) and newcomers (Alex Osborne, Given Kalipinde) into a compelling force. LMU has only a rematch against Cal State-Bakersfield, which it beat 84-71 on Dec. 19, before entering conference play Jan. 9 at Pepperdine. It then hosts USF on the 14th and Santa Clara on the 16th, giving it a chance to open conference play at 3-0.

Santa Clara and San Diego seem vulnerable to Loyola’s resurgence because of erratic play. Santa Clara fell under .500 on the season with a pair of unimpressive performances in its own Cable Car Classic Dec. 29-30. The Broncos lost to Northeastern 62-50 in the opener and to the Wofford Terriers 80-72 in the consolation game, and have two more non-conference contests before opening WCC play at home Jan. 8 against San Diego. The games, against 5-5 New Hampshire and 9-3 Harvard, don’t figure to be ones to get the Broncos well, as New Hampshire is coming off a 63-55 win over Colgate and Harvard boasts wins over George Washington (66-53)  and Rice (85-64), a team that handled Santa Clara 70-57. Harvard is led by sensational senior guard Jeremy Lin of Palo Alto High School, who will be hoping for a strong performance before a Bay Area crowd.  San Diego won its only game last week, 63-56 over lightly-regarded Savannah State before losing to Mississippi State on New Year’s Eve, and has a final pre-conference game on Jan. 3 against Florida A&M, also at home. The Jan. 8 game with Santa Clara on the Broncos’ court will tell a lot about how those two teams will compete for fourth-place against LMU.

Pepperdine did little to show that its Dec. 23 upset of Utah presaged a turnaround, as the Waves were sliced up by Georgia 64-47 a week later in Athens, GA. Pepperdine’s final pre-conference game is against Miami in Malibu on Jan. 3, leaving the Waves to anticipate the beginning of WCC play at home on Jan. 9 against LMU.  USF can take some solace from its 86-71 loss to Washington in Seattle on Dec. 27, especially in a 14-4 run that brought them within four points halfway through the second half. A three-pointer by freshman guard Michael Williams topped off the rally, and the Dons got another strong performance from junior transfer Moustapha Diarra, who totaled 14 points and 12 rebounds. Another transfer who has been mostly silent for USF in the pre-season, guard Rashad Green, also scored 14 points, giving the Dons hope for a better fate in conference play than their 4-10 pre-conference record. USF has one more tuneup, against Holy Names on Jan. 2, before taking on Saint Mary’s at home in its WCC opener on Jan. 8.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2009

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

Standings (through games of 12/23/09)

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

Dark Horse Rising

All the top dogs took their lumps last week, while dark horse Loyola Marymount continued its rise in both confidence and the conference standings. The Lions leap-frogged sagging San Diego to take over fifth place and served warning on Santa Clara that its fourth-place berth may not be safe. And, in case you missed it or thought it was a media hoax, Pepperdine upset Utah 76-64 on Wednesday night (Dec. 23).

Gonzaga had only one game in the week, and it was a slap in the face. Travelling to Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19 to take on Duke and possibly move up in the national rankings from its #15 spot, the Zags instead got a strong dose of help defense and Jon Scheyer. The final score of 76-41 may have been “an aberration” as Zags’ coach Mark Few described it, but the game itself was a lesson in preparation. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had scouted Gonzaga perfectly, and his team cut off the passing lanes and double-teamed the Zags big men Robert Sacre and Elias Harris. With leading scorer Matt Bouldin possibly feeling the effects of a head injury suffered against Augustana on Dec. 9, the Zags barely topped 40 points and suffered their worst defeat in 25 years. They have a long time to recover before returning to action on Dec. 28 with a home game against Eastern Washington.

Saint Mary’s, cruising along at 10-1 and rising to a #21 RPI ranking, also fell rudely to earth. Like the Zags, the Gaels were undone by a stout defensive effort, in this case administered by resurgent University of Southern California. The Trojans, showing that their 22-point upset of ninth-ranked Tennessee (77-55) on Dec. 19 was no fluke, shut down both the Gaels’ powerful inside game of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen, and its cadre of outside bombers, Matthew Dellavedova, Clint Steindl and Mickey McConnell, in a 60-49 victory in the semifinals of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. After completing the Diamond Head schedule, the Gaels return to action in Moraga in the Shamrock Office Solutions Classic beginning Dec. 29.

Completing a trifecta of peril for WCC leaders, Portland continued its descent from national prominence with an 89-54 thumping by Washington in Seattle on Dec. 19. The Pilots bounced back with an 82-52 revenge win over Idaho at home three nights later, featuring Jared Stohl’s record-shattering 10 three-point baskets to account for all 30 of his points. Stohl broke his previous record of nine threes set against USF last January. The win over Idaho avenged an earlier 68-48 loss in Moscow, ID, and set the stage for Portland to continue its resurgence against Nevada in Reno on Dec. 28

There was no fall to earth for LMU following its 87-85 upset of Notre Dame on Dec. 12, as the Lions dispatched WCC punching bag Cal State-Bakersfield 84-71 on the 19th and then toppled tough Long Beach State 85-80 in overtime on the 21st. That three-game win streak is the Lions’ first since 2007 and doubled the teams’ win total from last year. Loyola also moved up in the WCC standings and appears to be in good shape to challenge for a spot in the upper half of the conference and a first-round bye in the WCC tournament.

If Loyola does so it will be at the expense of San Diego and Santa Clara, both of whom appear to be losing their grip on a top-four finish. San Diego lost both times in the Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas, first a 70-68 heart-breaker to Southern Illinois and then 69-60 to the Big East’s South Florida. The Toreros have three home games, beginning with a Dec. 29 contest against Savannah State, to right themselves before conference play begins.  Santa Clara appeared to have taken a large step forward by beating tough Pacific 54-53 at home on Dec. 21, but then stumbled against so-so San Jose State 74-68 two nights later. The Broncos host the venerable Cable Car Classic on Dec. 28, opening against Northeastern.

Pepperdine enlivened the bottom rung of the standings with its shocker over Utah, a perennial NCAA team and considered a top contender in the Mountain West Conference. Utah has been struggling and dropped to 5-7 with the Pepperdine loss, but the Waves had shown precious little to suggest they were capable of stepping up against the Utes. They came into the game at 3-10 following losses to Cal Baptist, Portland State and New Mexico State.

San Francisco suffered the same fate in the Holiday Hoops Classic as San Diego, falling to both South Florida and Southern Illinois, before bouncing back at the expense of hapless Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 23. Dior Lowhorn with 27 and Kwame Vaughn with 22 points paced the Dons in their 82-73 win over the Roadrunners, but USF will not rest easily on its laurels: they face Pac-10 power Washington in Seattle on Dec. 27, and coach Rex Walters probably won’t show his guys the tape of Washington’s evisceration of Portland.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 17th, 2009

checkinginon

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.

Standings (through games of 12/16/09)

  1. Saint Mary’s       8-1
  2. Gonzaga        8-2
  3. Portland         6-3
  4. Santa Clara      6-5
  5. San Diego      5-6
  6. Loyola-Marymount    4-7
  7. USF      3-7
  8. Pepperdine    3-8

Mysterious Doings

Although the overall conference landscape didn’t change much within the week, a mystery team has emerged in the form of Loyola Marymount. After stumbling through some early-season highs and lows, including a 67-59 win over cross-town rival USC on Nov. 21 that followed a deflating 84-78 home loss to UC Irvine, the Lions pulled off a stunning 87-85 upset over Notre Dame on Dec. 12 behind a Jared DuBois 3-pointer with eight seconds remaining. To say the Fighting Irish don’t often lose at home to non-Big East teams is a bit of an understatement – the last time it happened was four years and 41 victories ago.

Loyola had been hinting at a major turnaround from last year’s injury-plagued three-win disaster, but had been the epitome of close-but-no-cigar until the Notre Dame game. First of all the Lions restocked with high-profile transfers Drew Viney, a 6-7 sophomore forward from Oregon, and Larry Davis, a 6-4 guard from Seton Hall, and recruits Edgar Garibay, a 6-10 forward from Compton, CA, Alex Osborne, a 6-7 forward from Los Angeles, Given Kalipinde, a 6-3 guard from Zambia, Africa, and Ashley Hamilton, a 6-7 redshirt freshman forward from London. Combined with returning standouts Kevin Young, a 6-8 sophomore forward, Vernon Teel, a 6-4 junior guard, and DuBois, a 6-3 sophomore guard, coach Max Good had a strong nucleus to improve the Lions’ fortunes.

Besides the soul-satisfying win over USC, however, Loyola’s other games were mostly heart-breakers: a 90-87 squeaker to Boise State to open the University of Montana Tournament, topped by an even-closer 64-63 loss to the host Grizzlies; an 89-84 home loss to UC-Santa Barbara, then another crushing 76-70 defeat by Wyoming. Garibay then went down with a torn ACL, Davis missed four games with a heel injury and Kalipinde missed the Notre Dame game with a leg problem, but there is a lot of talent to make WCC foes wary of Loyola as the season moves ahead. With five winnable games (including two with Cal State Bakersfield) before conference play begins, the Lions could be well over .500 by then and ready to cause some serious trouble.

Steady as She Goes

Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga continued to coast atop the league standings, each winning two games in the week. The Gaels got additional bragging rights for the WCC by stopping Oregon 81-76 in Eugene for their third win in three years over the Ducks, and then revenged the league against Portland State of the Big Sky Conference with a 101-80 pasting in Moraga on Dec. 15. Portland State had upended the University of Portland and Pepperdine, both on their home courts, in earlier games, and posted perhaps the biggest upset of last year with a victory over Gonzaga on the Zags’ court.

The constant for the Gaels was center Omar Samhan, who scored 22 against Oregon and 31 against Portland State to go with 25 rebounds in a good week’s work against the state of Oregon. Samhan is averaging over 20 points and 12 rebounds per game in an All-American-caliber season for the Gaels. He became the first player in Saint Mary’s history to have a 30-pt, 15-rebound game, and only the second in all of college hoops this season to record 15 field goals and 15 rebounds in a game. Samhan and his mates have a shot at another WCC-slayer Friday night (Dec. 18) with a home game against Pacific, then head to Honolulu for the Diamond Head Tournament over Christmas.

Gonzaga breezed to wins over a struggling Davidson in the Battle in Seattle and over the NAIA’s Augustana College in Spokane. The only event of note was a knock on the noggin suffered by the Zags’ nonpareil guard Matt Bouldin in the Augustana romp, which kept him out of the Davidson game. Gonzaga made no official announcement about Bouldin’s status but most observers expect him back as the Zags take on #7 Duke Dec. 19 in New York, a chance to improve on their #15 ranking. The Gonzaga-Duke game will be televised nationally at 1 p.m. Pacific time on CBS.

Portland had a quiet week, posting a 72-62 win over Denver University and gearing up for a showdown with 24th-ranked Washington in Seattle on Saturday (Dec. 19). After attaining its first top-25 ranking in 50 years with early-season wins over UCLA, Oregon and Minnesota, Portland dropped out of the rankings with losses to Portland State and Idaho. A win over the Huskies would re-start its once red-hot hopes and set up the Pilots for its final four non-conference games before a conference-opening barn-burner against Gonzaga at home on Jan. 9.

Has Santa Clara turned the corner and readied itself for a run at the conference leaders? With two wins over lightly-regarded foes (Dominican, Houston Baptist), the Broncos headed for Rice in Houston Wednesday with high hopes. The streak stopped there, however, as the Owls hung a 70-57 loss on them. Another question mark team, San Diego, had an up-and-down week that didn’t settle anything as far as the Toreros’ ultimate success. They suffered a tough 82-78 loss to undefeated and #19 New Mexico on Dec. 9 at the Jenny Craig Pavilion, then bounced back with a 59-56 road win over Boise State. It must have seemed like old times for Bill Grier’s troops, as Brandon Johnson drained a jumper with 29 seconds left to seal the win. San Diego heads to Las Vegas for the weekend, with games against Southern Illinois and South Florida in the Holiday Hoops Classic.

For Pepperdine and San Francisco it was more of the same last week. Pepperdine surprised even its harshest critics by managing to lose to an NAIA team, Cal Baptist, by a score of 67-65, to go with an 80-72 loss earlier in the week to Fresno State. USF came close but went down 66-63 to Loyola of Chicago on the road.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by nvr1983 on December 10th, 2009

checkinginon

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

Standings (through games of 12/8/09)

  1. Saint Mary’s 6-1
  2. Gonzaga 6-2
  3. Portland 5-3
  4. Santa Clara 4-4
  5. San Diego 4-5
  6. Pepperdine 3-5
  7. Loyola-Marymount 3-6
  8. USF 2-6

The Best

With approximately one-quarter of the 2009-10 season completed, does it make any sense to designate the league’s best team so far? If so, what criteria should be used? Saint Mary’s has the best winning percentage and leads the conference in several key statistical categories (scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin, rebounding margin, and blocked shots), but has compiled that record against a mixture of strong (Vanderbilt, San Diego State, and Utah State) and weak teams (Cal Poly, New Mexico State, and San Jose State).

Gonzaga has two losses, but they came against powerhouse Michigan State on the road and up-and-coming Wake Forest at home. The Zags’ three wins at the Maui Invitational were over a resurgent Colorado, Big Ten stalwart Wisconsin and potential Big East contender Cincinnati. That performance, plus a come-from-behind 74-69 victory over Washington State at home on Dec. 2 was enough to vault the Zags to a high of No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today poll before they fell to No. 22 following the loss to Wake. Zag fans would argue strongly that their more difficult schedule in the early going gives them the nod over the Gaels, and the national media agrees by awarding Gonzaga a Top 25 ranking while casting only a few votes for Saint Mary’s.

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Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 1st, 2009

checkinginon

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

Standings

  1. Gonzaga     5-1
  2. Portland      5-1
  3. San Diego      5-2
  4. Saint Mary’s     3-1
  5. Santa Clara     3-3
  6. Pepperdine    3-4
  7. USF    2-4
  8. Loyola-Marymount    2-5

Looking Back

Zags, Pilots, Toreros Notch Tournament Wins to Lead WCC Teams

It has been a tournament-heavy pre-season for the WCC, and it was in venues ranging from Maui to Anchorage to Anaheim that the early-season leaders made their marks. Gonzaga led the charge by winning the venerable Maui Invitational with victories over Colorado (76-72), Wisconsin (74-61) and Cincinnati (61-59) in a hard-fought tournament championship in overtime on Thanksgiving eve. The Zags had padded their resume with early home wins over Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Mississippi Valley State, and put the college hoops world on notice that 2009-10 is not a rebuilding year by taking second-ranked Michigan State to the wire in a 75-71 loss in East Lansing, MI on Nov. 17.

In battling Michigan State evenly and winning in Maui, Gonzaga answered the question of how it would replace departed front-line stars Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt. Seven-foot redshirt sophomore Robert Sacre moved commandingly into the post position for the Zags with an eye-opening performance against Michigan State – 17 points in 19 minutes of play limited by foul trouble. In case no one noticed that, they certainly took note of Sacre’s front-line counterpart Elias Harris, who notched 17 points of his own against Michigan State in the first big-game college appearance for the 20-year-old freshman forward who has logged considerable time internationally with the German national team. Harris has emerged as the early star of Mark Few’s collection of international players, which includes Sacre, freshmen Kelly Olynk and Manny Arop from Canada and Bol Kong, also from Canada by way of Sudan.

As much as Sacre and Harris elicited oohs and aahs, it was the Zags’ veteran trio of guards Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson that led them. Bouldin has emerged in his senior year as the indispensible hub through which all things offensive pass for Gonzaga. An intimidating 6-5 guard, Bouldin stage manages the entire offensive show, plus contributes double-figure scoring from both outside and inside. He can spot up for a three-point jumper or take his man off the dribble. Gray, who has struck many observers as a marvelously talented but under-performing member of the Zags offensive show, evidently decided that his junior year was the time to answer the nay-sayers. He has been virtually unstoppable, moving constantly without the ball and receiving Bouldin’s pinpoint passes anywhere from beyond the arc to under the basket. His jump shot is as sweet as ever, but he is infinitely more aggressive and confident this year.  If opponents somehow limit Bouldin and Gray, Goodson might steal the show as he did in the Zags’ impressive win over the fearsome Cincinnati Bearcats in Maui. On a night when Bouldin was struggling on 1-7 shooting and totaled only 6 points, Goodson made key baskets in clutch time to rack up 12 points. Bouldin and Gray shared the MVP trophy in Maui, but Goodson was an unsung hero.

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Checking in on the… WCC

Posted by nvr1983 on February 24th, 2009

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

Bye-Bye Blues
My, my, what an intriguing set of scenarios is emerging in the WCC’s final week to determine the number two seed in the conference tournament. Oh yeah, Gonzaga wrapped up the conference title – its ninth consecutive – with a pair of routine wins over Loyola-Marymount on Thursday (2/19) and Pepperdine on Saturday (2/21).

The two seed is important because the holder gets a bye straight to the conference semifinals. That means no game on Friday, March 6 or the following Saturday – a chance to watch the lower-echelon teams scramble for position from the comfort of the stands. The top two teams play for the first time on Sunday, with the winners advancing to the championship game and chance for the automatic NCAA bid on Monday night in Las Vegas. At this time of year no team wants to play an extra game, and the thought of playing three games in a row over a weekend is daunting. That’s the kind of thing teams do early in the season, in such balmy climes as Honolulu, when they’re fresh.

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