I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
College basketball has just four undefeated teams left. You can likely recite the identity of the first three: Duke, Michigan, and Arizona, who occupy the top three spots in the AP rankings. But you may be surprised to learn that the fourth team is the Wyoming Cowboys. Larry Shyatt’s squad sits at 13-0 after a successful non-conference season that featured solid wins over Colorado, Illinois State, and Denver.
Leonard Washington Has Led Wyoming to a Surprising Undefeated Start (Troy Babbitt / US PRESSWIRE)
Last year, the Cowboys finished sixth in the MW. Then in the offseason, they graduated three of their five starters. So how have they managed to reel off 13 straight victories to start the year? Wyoming is very strong defensively, but they were just as good, if not better, last year. The biggest difference is a major improvement on offense, as their adjusted efficiency has gone from 0.99 points to 1.08 points per possession. That may not sound like a big difference, but when you realize that a single game is composed of dozens of possessions, it adds up to a substantially better offensive performance. This increased efficiency has been driven by the Cowboys’ ability to get to the free throw line and to convert on two-point opportunities. Senior forward Leonard Washington deserves the credit for leading the team in both respects. The 6’7″ tweener is shooting 63.7 percent on two-point field goals and draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes — one of the higher rates in the country.
The second significant factor in the Cowboys’ improvement is the offseason development of senior Derrious Gilmore and sophomore Larry Nance, Jr. (yes, the former NBA player’s son). Gilmore has rewarded Larry Shyatt’s decision to hand him the starting point guard spot by improving his per game averages from 3.1 points and 1.1 assists per contest to 11.8 points and 3.2 assists per game. He averages more than 32 minutes per game, second most to Washington. Nance, meanwhile, has gone from averaging 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per contest to 11.2 and 6.8, respectively. He shoots over 60 percent on two-point attempts and 84.2 percent from the free throw line. Add in the contributions of returning starter and senior guard Luke Martinez (14.5 points, 42.2% 3FG) , and the Cowboys have a feature a surprising amount firepower.
Despite their undefeated mark, it remains an open question as to how good the Cowboys really are. Last year, they got off to 14-2 start during non-conference play but crumpled to a 6-8 record in the Mountain West. This year’s record is even more impressive to be sure and, as noted above, features some solid if unspectacular wins. But the strength of schedule is about to kick into a higher gear, as they enter conference play against a very deep and talented Mountain West. If they can maintain their offensive improvement through the rest of the year and continue to get contributions from a range of players, they may be Dancing for the first time since 2002 and just the second time in 25 years.
Let’s move on to this week’s Top 10, the performances that caught our eye this past week, and the games to watch in the week ahead.
RTC Region correspondents Brian Otskey (East), Kevin Doyle (South), Evan Jacoby (Midwest) and Andrew Murawa (West) contributed to this preview.
#8 Memphis vs. #9 Saint Louis – West Region Second Round (at Columbus, OH) – 6:50 PM ET on TBS
Nice to See Rick Majerus Back in the Dance (AP)
It may be an 8/9 game, but according to advanced metrics, this is anything but your typical 8/9 game. Both teams are among the top 15 teams in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, outscoring opponents by about 0.2 points per possession over the course of the season. Still, looking back over the schedules, the Billikens’ only have four wins over NCAA Tournament teams (Vermont, St. Bonaventure and two over Xavier), while the Tigers have just three (Belmont, Southern Miss and Xavier) – not exactly stunning resumes. However, SLU head coach Rick Majerus is no stranger to NCAA Tournament success, and his ability to scout and gameplan for an opponent is legendary. And while Memphis is used to playing at a fast tempo, you can bet Majerus will effectively slow this game down, using 25 seconds or more on every offensive possession, mostly forgoing any attempts at offensive rebounds in an effort to get back on defense, and making Memphis score over a stingy SLU defense. While Memphis has been killing teams over the past month or so, the two games they’ve lost have been down-tempo affairs (UTEP and Southern Miss), and if they get frustrated against the deliberate Billiken pace, it could spell an early end to the Memphis season. Still, the Tigers will have a significant athletic advantage and while Majerus has a decent matchup for lightning quick guard Joe Jackson in the form of Kwamain Mitchell (and Jordair Jett), it remains to be seen how effective they will be against sophomore win Will Barton. If Barton can find space inside the SLU perimeter defense, he could create serious problems. Of course, that’s a big if.
The RTC Certified Pick:Saint Louis
#2 Duke vs. #15 Lehigh – South Region Second Round (at Greensboro, NC) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS
Located less than an hour’s drive from Cameron Indoor, Duke will do battle with Patriot League champion Lehigh in what is practically a home game for the Blue Devils. Duke is limping into the NCAA Tournament have lost two of their last three games, one of these losses coming in blowout fashion against arch rival North Carolina. Despite having many holes on the defensive end and Ryan Kelly uncertain for the game against Lehigh, Duke does have one of the more potent offensives in the tournament. Austin Rivers and Seth Curry can score from virtually anywhere on the floor, and the Plumlee brothers make for a formidable frontcourt. It is not often that a Patriot League team can put a player on the floor that has the ability to go shot-for- with one of the best teams in the nation, but C.J. McCollum will prove he belongs running side by side with Austin Rivers. The junior guard from Canton, OH ranks top ten nationally in scoring and has the ability to take over a game for long stretches. Although Duke will no doubt focus much of their effort on the defensive end on McCollum, it is no secret that the Blue Devils struggle guarding around the perimeter. McCollum will get his points, but it is just a question if his teammates will be able to follow suit. If Lehigh gets production from Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner, don’t be surprised if the Mountain Hawks hang with Duke for much of the game.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.
Showdown in Las Vegas
So, it’s decided but it’s really not. Saint Mary’s closed out the WCC regular season with a tough 67-60 victory over San Francisco on the road, earning an undisputed conference championship for the first time since the 1989 squad coached by Lynn Nance. The Gaels tied Gonzaga for the regular-season title last year – the Zags’ 11th straight WCC championship – and needed a win over San Francisco to avoid another tie this year. They got it, but not without a dogged fight from the Dons, who closed out the season with home games against the conference’s top three teams – BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. They made them all pay, losing narrowly to BYU (85-84), edging Gonzaga, 66-65, and giving Saint Mary’s all they could handle before a frantic home crowd.
The WCC Tournament beginning Wednesday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will have a lot to say about how many conference members advance to the NCAA Tournament, and, almost as important, where they will play and how high they are seeded. The tournament champion receives the automatic NCAA bid, but almost all commentators agree that both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will receive bids no matter what happens in Las Vegas. The same cannot be said for BYU, however, so the Cougars’ need to make a strong showing in Las Vegas – perhaps even win the championship – in one of the compelling stories that will play out over the weekend.
Can Saint Mary's Earn The Automatic Bid Into The Big Dance? Conference POY Matthew Dellavedova Will Have A Huge Say In That (AP)
Others revolve around the conference’s mystery team, Loyola Marymount, and whether San Francisco can maintain the fierce defensive intensity it displayed down the stretch at home with days off between games. The Dons’ road to a high tournament finish requires victories on Thursday against the winner of a play-in game between Portland and Santa Clara, a Friday win against a Loyola team that beat them twice in the regular season, then a semifinal contest on Saturday against the Gaels, who also beat them twice in conference. Not an easy path.
Loyola is in a better position to wreak havoc than San Francisco. Earning a first-round tournament bye with its fourth-place conference finish, the Lions play first on Friday against the winner of the San Francisco/play-in winner game. If it’s a rematch with the Dons, tournament fans will see San Francisco take a third shot at a win that eluded them in two excruciatingly close conference games – a 77-76 overtime loss at home that saw LMU erase a 17-point second-half deficit, and a 90-88 loss in Los Angeles in which LMU had to come from 16 points down. The Dons desperately want another shot at the Lions, and feel they finished stronger than LMU because of their tough battles with the league leaders and LMU’s less-than-overwhelming finish: an inexplicable 60-57 loss to San Diego and a 68-65 nail-biter win against Santa Clara, which was winless in conference play.
Figuring out the psyche of Max Good’s squad would challenge a team of Freuds, however, as the Lions bounced back and forth between helpless – a 76-63 home loss to North Texas – and sublime – a 75-60 upset of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, the Gaels’ only home loss all season. One of the Lions’ quirks is they play better on the road than at home, so maybe a trip to Las Vegas is just what Dr. Freud would order. If they do, indeed, meet and beat San Francisco in the quarterfinals, they will move on to another encounter with Saint Mary’s in Saturday’s first semifinal game (6:00 PM PT, ESPN2). That the Gaels would like another shot at LMU goes without saying, as that loss cost them both a lofty national ranking and injuries to guard StephenHolt, whose return from a torn meniscus is still undecided, center Brad Waldow, who re-injured a bruised rib and had to sit out much of the action, and even indestructible guard MatthewDellavedova, who turned an ankle and left the game for several minutes in the second half.
Who Us? Rex Walters and USF Are Playing Great Basketball (Comcast Sports Net)
BYU’s path to a possible tournament championship takes them through a quarterfinal match with the winner of a San Diego-Pepperdine contest and a semifinal rematch with Gonzaga, with whom they split regular-season games. BYU was without outstanding forward Noah Hartsock (knee injury) for all but the first seven minutes of the second Gonzaga game on Feb. 23, a 74-63 loss. Hartsock also sat out BYU’s final conference game, a 76-66 win over Portland, and his status for Las Vegas has not been announced. With Hartsock in the lineup, a BYU-Gonzaga rematch in Saturday’s second semifinal match (ESPN2, 8:oo PM PT) could be a classic, but we’ll have to wait to see whether Hartsock can go.
As for the championship game on Monday night (6:00 PM PT, ESPN), it has featured Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the last three years (Gonzaga won two of the three), and a similar match-up would surprise no one. It would be a rubber game, as the teams split in conference play, and could determine whether either team receives a favorable or dicey NCAA seeding.
Here’s how the 2011-12 WCC season ended up:
Saint Mary’s (25-5, 14-2).
Gonzaga (23-5, 13-3).
BYU (24-7, 12-4)
Loyola Marymount (19-11, 11-5)
San Francisco (18-12, 8-8)
San Diego (12-1, 7-9)
Pepperdine (10-18, 4-12)
Portland (6-23, 3-13)
Santa Clara (8-21, 0-16)
For the second year in a row a Saint Mary’s guard is the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. This time it is Matthew Dellavedova, the 6’4″ junior from Maryborough, Victoria, Australia, who led the conference in assists (6.6 per game) and was third in scoring (16.4 PPG). The Gaels’ Mickey McConnell rated the POY nod last year, and not many observers of the conference would bet against Dellavedova repeating in 2013. In addition to his conference honors, Dellavedova is a finalist in the Bob Cousy Award competition for the nation’s best point guard. Last week, he was named a Capital One Academic All-American, the first Saint Mary’s player to be so honored.
While the choice of Dellavedova raised no eyebrows, selecting Max Good of Loyola Marymount as coach of the year might – even among Loyola fans and alumni. Good has been on the hot seat at LMU ever since last year’s team – picked to compete for conference honors – finished in last place at 2-12. While not ducking his share of blame for the team’s collapse, Good insisted that without crippling injuries his team would have been much better. The Lions weathered some early-season injuries – most notably to All-Conference Forward Drew Viney and his front court mate Ashley Hamilton – and, indeed, did do better this year, finishing fourth in the conference with an 11-5 mark. Along the way, LMU posted wins over UCLA, St. Louis and Valparaiso in non-conference play and over BYU and Saint Mary’s in conference. Good’s fellow coaches – who make the conference honors selections – evidently believe in redemption.
Other individual honors announced by the WCC on Tuesday were Defensive Player of the Year to Gonzaga’s 7’0” senior center Robert Sacre, whose 25 blocks led the league; and WCC Newcomer of the Year to Gonzaga freshman guard Kevin Pangos, whose deadly three-point shooting accounted for 12.8 PPG and 36 three-point field goals. The WCC All-conference team is composed of:
Angelo Caloiaro, San Francisco
Brandon Davies, BYU
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
Elias Harris, Gonzaga
Noah Hartsock, BYU
Anthony Ireland, Loyola
Rob Jones, Saint Mary’s
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga
Drew Viney, Loyola
The conference all-freshman team:
Gary Bell, Jr, Gonzaga
Matt Carlino, BYU
Johnny Dee, San Diego
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s
Honorable mention was accorded to Perris Blackwell, center, San Francisco; Carlino and Dee; Rashad Green, guard, San Francisco; Stephen Holt, guard, Saint Mary’s; and Corbin Moore, center, Pepperdine.
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
The Final Week
It all comes down to this week, WCC fans: Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, BYU and Loyola Marymount all have legitimate shots at the conference title and the one and two seeds for next week’s WCC Tournament. In an age where parity is the Holy Grail of organized sports, the WCC has it going on. And, although this season’s nine-team schedule caused some distortions in the first half of the season, no one could have planned a more compelling finale.
Saint Mary’s can seize the regular season championship and a number one tournament seed by beating Portland tonight in Portland and San Francisco on Saturday in San Francisco. By beating Portland, the Gaels will guarantee at least their second consecutive share of the title. But there has to be a series of asterisks next to that hypothetical, as the Gaels are bucking several negative trends: they have lost at Portland for the last three years and they appear to stumbling toward the finish line as they did last year when they lost an unexpected league game (San Diego in San Diego), a home BracketBuster game against Utah State, then another home game against Gonzaga, before pulling out a season-ending victory over Portland to earn a share of the conference title.
Despite Recent Struggles, Matthew Dellavedova and Saint Mary's Still Control Its Own Destiny (AP)
Last week the Gaels lost an unexpected home game to Loyola Marymount, 75-60, lost to Murray State on the road, 65-51, in another BracketBuster contest, and now face a young, talented Portland team with nothing to lose on its home court tonight. Combined with injuries to starting two-guard Stephen Holt, out indefinitely with a torn meniscus suffered in the LMU loss, starting post man Brad Waldow, nursing bruised ribs, and team leader Matthew Dellavedova, who turned his ankle in the LMU game, the Gaels are wobbling into Portland.
Gonzaga and BYU square off tonight in a monumental battle (ESPN2, 8:00 PM Pacific) that could vault either of them into a tie with Saint Mary’s for first or, if the Gaels win, eliminate one of them from title contention heading into Saturday’s final games. LMU, which is smoking hot coming off its blistering of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, sits at home for very winnable games against San Diego tonight and Santa Clara on Saturday. With just a minimal effort, the Lions could finish with four losses and cash in on whatever misfortunes befall the three teams ahead of them.
Not to be overlooked, San Francisco hopes to take continuing advantage of a scheduling gift that brought BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s onto its home court in successive weeks. The Dons battled BYU right down to a potential game-winning three-point attempt by Angelo Coloiaro that rimmed out at the buzzer for a heart-breaking 85-84 loss last Thursday. Rather than be deflated, the Dons battled Gonzaga equally hard on Saturday, and triumphed 65-64 on a last-second runner in the lane by Rashad Green. The Dons are off tonight and can devote maximum preparation to ruining Saint Mary’s season on Saturday.
Saint Mary’s (23-5, 12-2) might seem surprised to find itself still in first place considering the confidence-shattering losses to LMU and Murray State, which knocked it out of “lock” status for a favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament and leaves the Gaels needing a win tonight or Saturday to keep its NCAA hopes alive. Randy Bennett’s troops are wounded and have to be wondering why they continue to struggle late in the season. Even with these concerns, the Gaels still control their own fate. Read the rest of this entry »
Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him @botskey on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
While BracketBusters is always solid, the overall slate over the next few days is full of good, but not great, games. Still, tune in to these games as conference races head down the stretch and the NCAA Tournament field begins to take shape.
#13 St. Mary’s at #24 Murray State – 6:00 PM EST Saturday on ESPN (****)
Since losing to Tennessee State, Murray State has rebounded with two wins over Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri State. On Saturday night the Racers will get their chance to show the nation they are for real. Playing at home in front of a juiced up crowd on national television, there is no excuse for Murray State to come out anything less than fired up. The three point line is this team’s best friend on both ends of the floor and it will be important against St. Mary’s. Murray State shoots 41% from deep (#8 nationally) and defends the arc very well. Against a St. Mary’s team that ranks a putrid #305 against the triple, that’s a huge advantage for the Racers at home. Steve Prohm should do everything in his power to ensure Isaiah Canaan (47.3%) and Donte Poole(39.3%) get quality shots from the arc against the porous Gaels’ defense. Defensively, the Racers must lock down the arc as they usually do. St. Mary’s shoots a lot of threes and while they don’t make a great percentage they do get just a shade under 30% of their total points from the arc.
Isaiah Canaan And Company Could Have A Big Day From Behind The Arc Against St. Mary's Average 3-Point Defense (Getty)
St. Mary’s has lost two of its last three games after starting the season 22-2. The Gaels are still a likely NCAA Tournament team, but a win here would ensure their place in the field of 68 for sure. In order to win on the road in a tough environment against a good team, St. Mary’s must use its edge on the offensive glass, make threes and get to the foul line. With strong rebounders like Rob Jones and Brad Waldow, St. Mary’s has a clear size edge over Murray State. Only Ivan Aska and Ed Daniel see significant minutes for the Racers inside, two of only three players on the roster who are at least 6’7” tall. While the Gaels have a huge edge inside, they’re going to have to overcome Murray State’s strong perimeter defense. Matthew Dellavedova and Clint Steindl are going to have to hit threes for Randy Bennett’s team to come out on top. Thirdly, St. Mary’s should look to take advantage of a Murray State defense that ranks in the bottom half of Division I in defensive free throw rate. The Gaels get to the line fairly well and make 71.9% of their free throws. It’s so important to control tempo and keep the crowd out of the game and getting to the charity stripe while controlling the boards definitely helps in achieving that goal.
This should be a very close game but the edge has to go to the home team. St. Mary’s is struggling a bit right now and Murray State seems to have righted the ship since suffering its first loss. One concern for the Racers is their turnovers (14 per game). If Murray State controls the ball, plays well on the perimeter and gets to the free throw line at its usual clip, this will be the Racers’ game to lose.
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
Saint Mary’s was in the spotlight last week and the Gaels did not shirk from the attention. First came a businesslike, 71-64, win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, then an epochal, 80-66, romp over BYU in Provo that seemed to unhinge everyone connected with BYU basketball. It wasn’t only the 22,000-plus rabid fans in the Marriott Center, it wasn’t only normally low-key BYU coach Dave Rose losing his cool, it wasn’t just Noah Hartsock earning a flagrant foul with a blatant forearm shiver to the neck of Gaels’ forward Rob Jones. It was almost a fan riot, an atmosphere so riddled with boos, objects thrown on the floor and technical fouls that ESPNU announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham repeatedly warned about the need for officials to gain control.
The Battle On The Court Between Saint Mary's and BYU Wasn't The Only Storyline Of That Contest (AP)
Fat chance, as the officiating crew of Frank Harvey, James Giron and Glen Mayberry seemed incapable of providing the right answer to a surly crowd – calling the game tight on both sides and leaving it up to BYU officials to calm the masses. Instead, the crew seemed to come to a collective decision that ignoring repeated fouls by BYU players and cracking down on Saint Mary’s would do the job. This theory came to a head about halfway through the second half with a technical foul called on the Saint Mary’s bench for allegedly standing up and/or crowding the floor – it was never made clear. The spuriousness of that call was caught by a BYU fan who happened to be shooting video of the BYU and Saint Mary’s benches at the time the technical was called.
Check it out:
Everyone on the Saint Mary’s bench is seated at the moment the technical is called. Even if they were all jumping up and down, one wonders how the ref would know since he made the call with his back to the bench and from the opposite end of the court. It seems bizarre and indicative of the desperate measures the refs applied to deal with a bad situation. No one from BYU stepped forward to calm things down, no one addressed the crowd, no one made any placating gestures (except for a routine announcement from the public address announcer after the fans were warned for their first barrage of object-throwing). All in all a big black eye for BYU’s first year in the WCC and a testament to the cool of Randy Bennett’s Gaels, who didn’t panic under relentless pressure from BYU and the crowd.
1. Saint Mary’s (21-2, 10-0) spent another week at the top of the league standings and another week moving up in both major rankings – to #16 in the ESPN/Coaches Poll and to #18 in the AP poll. To top it all off, ESPN announced that Saint Mary’s would travel to Murray, Kentucky, on February 18 to play currently undefeated Murray State in the premiere contest of ESPN’s Bracket Buster event. Never mind that neither Saint Mary’s nor Murray State – ranked in the top 10 by both polls – needs the game to break into the NCAA Tournament brackets, it still will be a closely-watched contest with obvious benefits for whichever team wins.
2. Gonzaga (17-3, 7-1) bided its time last week, topping Portland,74-62, in Portland in its only contest. The Zags saved their energy for their showdown with BYU tonight in Provo, a game with huge importance for both teams. The Zags are two games behind Saint Mary’s at present, although only one behind in the loss column. A loss to equally-desperate BYU would put them two back in the loss column with Saint Mary’s coming to Spokane on February 9.
Mark Few and Gonzaga Is Still Very Much Alive For The WCC Title (AP)
3. BYU (18-6, 6-3)andLoyola Marymount (13-9, 6-3) (tie): Tonight’s contest with Gonzaga might be BYU’s last chance to salvage its season, as a defeat would drop the Cougars four games back from Saint Mary’s and three behind Gonzaga. Not only how it plays but how its team, coaches, and fans, behave will be under scrutiny for BYU, as a repeat of last week’s meltdown against Saint Mary’s could have dire repercussions for the school’s reputation and self-respect. Loyola split last week, following up the Saint Mary’s loss with a throat-tightening, 62-59, win over Portland that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. The win was important to keep LMU close to the conference leaders and to prove they could win a league game at home. Before dispatching the young Pilots, LMU was 5-0 on the road and 0-3 at home.
5. San Francisco (15-9, 5-5) began to look more and more like last year’s team (well, it IS last year’s team), as it appears to be peaking at the same time. By beating Santa Clara on the road and San Diego at home, the Dons evened their conference record and began looking ahead to see how far they can advance in the standings. It’s crowded at the top, and it won’t be easy to move into fourth place and earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Dons, with a tough challenge in Los Angeles against LMU on Saturday, seem ready to take it on.
6. San Diego (8-13, 3-6) showed some signs of life in its, 65-56, home win over Pepperdine – its third win in five games – but then regressed in an, 84-70, road loss to San Francisco. It was enough to keep the Toreros out of the depths of the conference’s lower half.
7. Portland(5-17, 2-7) is in seventh place only because it has fewer losses than Pepperdine, but the Pilots were more than competitive against LMU and their 74-62 loss to Gonzaga wasn’t as lopsided as the score indicates. Eric Reveno’s achingly young troops scare everybody they play but Portland hasn’t figured out how to beat most teams. Yet.
8. Pepperdine (8-13, 2-8) recovered from the loss at San Diego to topple hapless Santa Clara, 74-62, at home. The Waves continue the PCH Cup series with LMU tonight, then hitch up their shorts for the invading Gonzaga Bulldogs on Saturday – it may get ugly.
9. Santa Clara (8-13, 0-8) continued its nosedive with losses to San Francisco and Pepperdine, and face Portland at home tonight before going on the road to face San Diego. Most observers feel the Broncos will pull out of this swoon some time, but the clock is ticking on the 2012 season.
The Post Intrigue Between Robert Sacre (left) and Brandon Davies Is Just One Of Many Key Matchups In Tonight's Big Contest Between Gonzaga and BYU
You don’t have to look far for this week’s drama, as Gonzaga vs. BYU in Provo (ESPN2, 8:00 PM Pacific) tonight should have all you want. BYU is barely hanging on in the WCC race and Gonzaga can’t afford to fall further behind Saint Mary’s, which has only tonight’s home game against San Diego.
A week from tonight comes the battle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in Spokane, which should be as riveting as the Gaels’ assault on BYU. The Gaels throttled Gonzaga, 83-62, on January 12, and the Zags have not forgotten.
Michael Vernetti is the West Coast Conference correspondent for RTC.
Holding serve was the key note last week, as Saint Mary’s slapped down the second of its main competitors for the WCC title, Gonzaga, by a convincing 83-62 margin in Moraga. That followed the Gaels’ first-week trouncing of BYU by 98-82, also at home. Playing the cards dealt to them by an unbalanced conference schedule, the Gaels now have a one-game edge on both rivals before facing them on the road.
For Saint Mary’s, the nine-team schedule – reflecting the addition of BYU to the ranks – was front-loaded with rivals (and home court-loaded as well). Gonzaga and BYU, on the other hand, have yet to face each other and both had to travel to Moraga for their initial showdown with the Gaels. The WCC held on to its true round-robin form, however, so each team plays each other twice, meaning Gonzaga and BYU will have their shot at revenge. The Gaels travel to Provo on January 28 and to Gonzaga on February 9; BYU and Gonzaga tangle in Provo on February 2 and in Spokane on February 23.
Everything that has transpired in the first three weeks of conference play indicates that the league championship and seeding for the March 1-5 conference tournament in Las Vegas will be determined by those three teams.
Dellavedova and the Gaels Held Serve, Now What?
Saint Mary’s (17-2, 6-0): The key matchup in Thursday’s game with Gonzaga was supposed to be in the frontcourt, where the Zags’ trio of Robert Sacre, Sam Dower and Elias Harris was reputedly superior to the Gaels’ mixed bag of post players along with stalwart power forward Rob Jones. Sly ol’ Randy Bennett, however, had been tinkering with his post players throughout the pre-conference schedule and by league time had it figured out. The three-headed contingent of redshirt freshman Brad Waldow (6’9”), senior Kenton Walker II (6’9”) and junior Mitchell Young (6’8”) outscored and outrebounded Sacre and Dower by an overwhelming 31 points and 17 rebounds to 12 points and eight rebounds. Read the rest of this entry »
WCC fans: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. It’s mid-January, and St. Mary’s is surging. Coming off a pair of weekend victories that included a blowout over bitter rival Gonzaga and a tough-but-expected win over pesky Portland, the Gaels currently sit at 17-2 overall and a pristine 6-0 in the WCC. The national media has taken notice, serving up Randy Bennett‘s team as the #24 team this week in the AP poll and #23 in the Coaches Poll. (Incidentally, SMC is #17 in this week’s RTC rankings.) Once again, things are looking up in Moraga as fans of the tiny East Bay school dream of an elusive WCC championship and, harking back to 2010, perhaps another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The question on everyone’s minds around the WCC, though, is whether this year’s SMC team is for real or another mirage in a basketball desert full of them. Consider the table below, showing St. Mary’s fortunes both before and after this point in the season over the last five years.
It’s not difficult to discern from the table that St. Mary’s tends to get off to a hot start each and every year. Somewhat peculiarly, the Gaels’ best team — the 2009-10 Sweet Sixteen bunch led by Omar Samhan — had the most losses of any team during this five-year window at this point in the season (three). But unlike that team, Randy Bennett’s other squads have largely faded down the stretch. The 2007-08 team lost four of its last six games to finish the season, while the 2008-09 squad crashed so badly after Patty Mills broke his hand that the Gaels were left out of what seemed to be a surefire NCAA Tournament bid that year. Last year’s squad was also nationally ranked at this mid-January juncture, having gotten off to yet another sizzling start. Three straight late February losses, though, allowed Gonzaga to keep its stranglehold on a share of the WCC regular season title, while a confounding road defeat to a horrible San Diego team likely relegated the Gaels to the NIT for the second time in three seasons.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences. He filed this report from Saturday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine.
When you talk about the West Coast Conference, generally the beginning, middle and end of the conversation revolves around Gonzaga – and rightfully so, as the Bulldogs have now won at least a share of 11 straight conference titles. And with the addition of BYU to the WCC this offseason, the Cougars jumped right to the top of the list of the biggest challengers to the Zags’ throne. But there’s that little school in Moraga, you know, Saint Mary’s, the one that most recently made a Sweet Sixteen run itself in 2010, and this week served notice that they’re a force to be reckoned with and every bit as likely to win the conference title as their other two, more famous, competitors.
Jorgen Page Has Taken Advantage Of Some Newfound Playing Time To Make A Case For A Larger Role (photo credit: Tod Fierner)
Thursday night, BYU kicked off its stay in the WCC by traveling to McKeon Pavilion and promptly getting taken apart by the Gaels. While the Cougs’ talented forward Brandon Davies took advantage of the SMC frontline to the tune of 28 points on 18 field goal attempts, Gael senior forward Rob Jones went a long way toward counteracting Davies’ performance, tossing in 24 points of his own while grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out four assists. But it was the Gael backcourt that shone the brightest this weekend, not only in the win Thursday, but in their 29-point takedown of Pepperdine in Malibu on Saturday. Against BYU, the three-man backcourt of junior Matthew Dellavedova and sophomores Stephen Holt and Jorden Page combined for 52 points, 18 assists and 11 rebounds, while hitting 9-of-17 from deep. On Saturday it was 44 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on 7-of-14 from three. Given that the trio of guards are really the only guards on the Gaels’ 11-man roster, head coach Randy Bennett needs to make sure he can get consistent production out of those three. And so far he has.
Page got his first chance to start for the Gaels this week, as senior forward Clint Steindl injured an ankle against Missouri State just before Christmas and remains out, but the Gaels didn’t skip a beat. Page was impressive throughout the weekend, but especially against Pepperdine he provided an early spark for the team, hitting two threes on the Gaels first four possessions and never looking back from there. Not only can he knock down the long balls, but he is terrific off the dribble, either creating for himself or finding his teammates spotting up. “He’s just touching the surface of what he can do,” Bennett said after the game Saturday. “We see him in practice, so we know what he can do, but he’s a guy that needs minutes. He’s at his best when he can get loose a little bit, make shots, and have some freedom. And with Clint out, he’s been able to do that.”
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
[Ed. Note — a previous version of this CIO misrepresented several of the author’s thoughts. We have reverted it back to its original format, and for the oversight the editing team apologizes.]
Who Fears the Pac-12? Not Us: Sunday’s 93-55 beatdown of Santa Clara by Washington State notwithstanding, the WCC has compiled a 5-4 record against Pac-12 teams so far in 2011. Most notable were Loyola Marymount’s season-opening 69-58 upset of then-#17 UCLA at the LA Sports Arena (Pauley Pavilion is being remodeled) before UCLA’s troubles were well-known (heck Reeves Nelson actually played in the game), and Brigham Young’s 79-65 victory over Oregon on December 3 at a “neutral” site in Salt Lake City. BYU doubled up on the Pac-12 by dumping Utah, 61-42, on December 10, again in Salt Lake City, where Pac-12 teams come to die. There are three more games in this conference rivalry, and before it is all over, the Pac-12 might regain its supremacy if not its swagger: San Diego at Stanford on December 17 (big edge to the Pac-12), Gonzaga hosting Arizona in Seattle, also on December 17 (a toss-up), and Pepperdine at Washington State on December 22. Pepperdine will not be allowed to watch the tape of the Santa Clara-Washington State game.
Those BYU Boys Can Really Play: This was not the perception initially, as the Cougars limped out of Logan, Utah, on the wrong side of a 69-62 tussle with Not-As-Good-As-Usual Utah State on November 11, and followed that with a 73-56 faceplant against #11 Wisconsin in a Chicago-area tournament. Then, presto-chango, wily Dave Rose ended the Brock Zylstra point guard experiment, anointed freshman Anson Winder to run the offense and allowed the sharp-shooting Zylstra to go back to bombing from the wing. The wins started coming, perhaps none more impressive than the 94-66 thrashing of Weber State on December 7 at the Marriott Center. Weber State thought it was a good team, what with having the nation’s leading scorer, Damian Lillard, in its backcourt, but, BYU put the brakes on Lillard by holding the senior to 15 points (he averages 28.2 points per game), got a double-double out of veteran forward Noah Hartsock (19 points/12 rebounds) and were off to the races. Winder can enjoy his day in the sun until vaunted transfer Matt Carlino becomes eligible on December 17.
BYU's Dave Rose Once Again Has His Squad Playing At A High Level. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Where Trouble Lives: Who has a more turbulent program, San Diego or Loyola Marymount? San Diego, home of the perpetually-disciplined Toreros, hit mid-season stride on November 10 by announcing that massive junior center Chris Gabriel and seldom-used sophomore guard Jordan Mackie had been dismissed. Just to keep the pot boiling, word soon leaked out that last year’s prized recruit, guard Ben Vozzolafrom Las Vegas, was thinking about leaving the team as well. What does last year’s co-cellar-dweller need the least? Defections from its less-than-overwhelming ranks, it would seem. Max Good doesn’t have as much of a disciplinary problem at LMU — some would say there’s no discipline there at all — as a consistency one: making sure the same team shows up night after night. For instance, the same team that beat UCLA in its season-opener without injured star Drew Viney in the lineup, seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, the one that showed up two nights later for a 58-51 loss to Middle Tennessee State didn’t seem so good, not to mention the team that lost to Harvard and Columbia at home. It must be said that the actual lineup of an LMU team is subject to change as much as its performance: after Viney cycled back into the lineup to participate in two puzzling losses, the Lions lost stellar forward Ashley Hamilton and starting guard Jarred Dubois to injuries, then Viney again. The more things change…
Tie Between BYU (10-2) and Saint Mary’s (5-1) – Okay, it seems unfair because BYU has played twice as many games as the Gaels and has wandered into the deep woods with games at Utah State and against a ranked Wisconsin team in a preseason tournament. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, under the ultra-cautious guidance of Randy Bennett, have wandered barely at all (Denver, CO, and San Luis Obispo, CA), and have played an early-season slate replete with patsies (Fresno Pacific and San Francisco State). BYU’s emergence as a WCC title contender was mentioned above, so that leaves Saint Mary’s. This was supposed to be the year of the Re-Emerging Center in Gael-land, with an imposing 7-foot transfer (Kyle Rowley) and a promising 6’9″ redshirt freshman (Brad Waldow) contending to fill the year-old empty shoes of Omar Samhan. Hasn’t happened, and Bennett has instead fielded the same lineup as last year’s with Matthew Dellavedova moving over to take the point guard spot previously handled by the sublime Mickey McConnell, and, in a real surprise, former walk-on Beau Levesque starting at one forward spot in place of veteran Clint Steindl. Seems neither Rowley nor Waldow has staked out the post as his own, although Waldow showed signs of life with a 13-point effort in 22 minutes of action in the Gaels’ closer-than-it-looks 59-54 win over Cal Poly on December 3. One constant for the Gaels has been senior forward Rob Jones, who was named the WCC’s Player of the Month for November on the strength of an 18 PPG, 11.4 RPG output – tops in the conference. The Gaels hope Jones’ teammates begin to click before they face Baylor on December 22 in Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »