Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference
A Look Back
The budding Battle Royale for second place in the conference standings – and the valuable bye to the WCC tournament semifinals that goes with it – was joined last week with San Francisco’s 68-62 win over Santa Clara on the Dons’ court. The win moved San Francisco (6-2) into sole possession of second and dropped the Broncos into a tie for third with Gonzaga at 5-3. It also gave San Francisco a series sweep over Santa Clara, which will help if tie-breaking rules are invoked at season’s end. In a signal that conference games are tightening up, all six last week were decided by nine points or fewer.
Gonzaga, which appeared to right itself with two straight conference wins after dropping a rare home court game to Saint Mary’s on January 27, stumbled at home against Memphis 62-58 last Saturday. The loss dropped the Zags to 15-9 for the season and dimmed their hopes for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they don’t secure the WCC’s automatic invite that comes with winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas in March.
Saint Mary’s (8-1) held its place atop the league with home wins over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, but neither win came easily. In a rematch with up-and-down Loyola Marymount, whom the Gaels routed 98-75 in Los Angeles in early January, the Gaels eked out a 79-70 win even though Loyola Marymount was without leading scorer and rebounder Drew Viney, who was sidelined with problems stemming from migraine.
Player of the Week: Rashad Green, the 6’4 Long Island native who transferred to San Francisco last year, won the honors with his performance in the Dons’ win over Santa Clara: 18 points on 7-12 shooting and a stellar defensive effort against Santa Clara’s high-scoring guard Kevin Foster. Green, brother of former North Carolina star Danny Green, helped the Dons to their best start since 1981.
1. Saint Mary’s (20-4, 8-1) has not scared anyone with its last three conference outings – an 85-70 pasting by Portland following the inspirational upset of Gonzaga in Spokane and lackluster wins over Pepperdine (79-71) and Loyola Marymount last week. Maybe it’s just February blahs, but the Gaels will have to shake them off to get through this week’s games against traditional foes Santa Clara and San Francisco. It is not a long journey from Moraga to Santa Clara and San Francisco, but it is one fraught with peril for Randy Bennett’s crew. A stumble or two while its foes sweep their games would knock the Gaels out of first place for the first time this season.
2. The excitement is building in San Francisco (12-11, 6-2), as the Dons remind their fans of the glory days of the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s. Rex Walters has worked out a solid rotation featuring the improving Cody Doolin at point, high-scoring Mikey Williams at shooting guard, Anthony Caloiaro at one forward spot, Green at the other and the formidable Perris Blackwell in the post. He is getting solid minutes off the bench from 6-3 freshman guard Avery Johnson from Huntington Beach, California, and 6’10 senior Moustapha Diarra. The rotation is tight and is working well together as the Dons prepare for the home stretch and their first shot at a significant role in the conference race in a long time.
3. Santa Clara (15-10, 5-3) faces a moment of truth this week, as the promise created by its 85-71 upset of Gonzaga on January 20 fades into the memory of last week’s loss to San Francisco. A loss to Saint Mary’s on Thursday would give the Broncos four league losses and make its attempt at a second-place finish extremely difficult.
4. The same can be said for Gonzaga (15-9, 5-3), which goes on the road against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine in its attempt to hold its league loss total to three. The Zags looked anything but road-ready in their contest with Memphis in the Spokane Arena, and must put that disappointment behind them as they head to Los Angeles.
5. Portland (17-7, 4-4) lost a chance to end Gonzaga’s league hopes and vault itself back into contention with a 67-64 loss to the Zags at home on Feb. 3. The Pilots now must win out and hope the leaders stumble down the stretch to get back in the hunt.
6. Pepperdine (10-16, 4-5) racked up its fourth league win by topping San Diego 70-63 in overtime on the road, then gave Saint Mary’s all it could handle before succumbing 79-71. The Waves suspended high-scoring but high-maintenance guard Keion Bell after the Saint Mary’s game and will finish out the season without him.
7. Loyola Marymount (9-15, 1-8) continued to be the team no one can figure out, losing to San Diego and Saint Mary’s and causing observers to wonder if they will win another game this season.
8. San Diego (5-19, 1-8) picked up its first conference win with the 66-63 home victory over Loyola Marymount and hopes to leap over the Lions and get out of the WCC cellar.
A Look Ahead
Push comes to shove Thursday at the Leavey Center on the Santa Clara campus, when Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara square off at 8 p.m. Pacific in an ESPNU featured game. The Gaels smacked down the Broncos 84-59 in Moraga on Jan. 15, but no one expects the rematch to be so one-sided. Santa Clara can fall back on its upset of Gonzaga five days after the Saint Mary’s loss and its rise to third place in the standings for inspiration. Backed by a big and vocal student body, Kerry Keating’s team will go all out to remain in contention by upsetting the Gaels.
If Saint Mary’s survives the Leavey Center snake pit it will find itself in another one, the venerable War Memorial Gymnasium on the San Francisco campus, two nights later. The resurgent Dons will have more on the line in this game than for any other contest in recent memory, as beating the Gaels following a victory over San Diego on Thursday night could propel them into a tie or sole possession of first place.
Another potentially dramatic showdown will take place in Los Angeles on Thursday night when Gonzaga takes on Loyola Marymount at 8 p.m. Pacific on ESPN2. Despite their disappointing season, Loyola Marymount still possesses the horsepower to stun somebody this year and the Lions faithful hope it’s the Zags. In their 79-70 loss to Saint Mary’s last week, the Lions without Viney closed to within four points of the Gaels with a few minutes left. They got solid performances from their Big Three of Ashley Hamilton, Edgar Garibay and Godwin Okonji and their Little One of Anthony Ireland to hammer the Gaels inside and out. If Viney is healthy enough to play against the Zags, Loyola Marymount has more than enough firepower to pull off the upset.