Gators Chomp Spartans.Florida 77, #2 Michigan State 74. We’re still trying to figure out why this was a semifinal game at the Legends Classic instead of the title tilt tomorrow night, but we’re sure there was a method to the madness somewhere in that decision. So given that the game was only available on something called HDNet, we’re trying to figure out how this happened. First thought — had to be hot shooting by the Gators, right? Errr, nope. Florida shot 41% from the field compared to MSU’s 53% for the game. Ok, a bunch of threes then? Nope again. UF hit more than the Spartans, but a margin of five to two from deep isn’t exactly dominant. Second chance points? Wrong again. MSU dominated the boards to the tune of +15 overall and +5 on the offensive end of the court. No, the only two areas of the game where Florida outperformed the second-ranked Spartans were on turnovers (forcing 22 vs. their own 12) and getting to the foul line (25 attempts vs. MSU’s 14). Well, that, and Erving Walker’s three (his only one on a 12/7/3 stls night) from NBA range to put the Gators up 72-71, providing just enough cushion down the stretch with some additional FTs to hold off the Spartans’ last-ditch efforts by Durrell Summers to tie the game and send it into OT. We’re not about to say that the Gators are anywhere near back to where they are nationally relevant again, but this is their biggest win since 2007, and we will give some props to John Stevens for having ranked Florida in the three RTC Top 25 polls so far this season — maybe he knows something that the rest of us don’t? Florida will advance to play Rutgers in the championship game of the Legends Classic tomorrow night, while Michigan State gets UMass in the consolation game.
WCC Continues to Impress. The WCC continues to flex its mid-major deltoids this season. With wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, UCLA, USC, Stanford, Oklahoma and now Houston, the top half of this league is not messing around. And why should it – there’s some good basketball being played in this league, and if the bottom-feeders like LMU and USF can manage just halfway-decent records in the OOC, the league could be looking at three solid NCAA bids again this year (as in 2008).
Portland 61, #16 Minnesota 56. If you haven’t caught the Portland Pilots on tv yet this season, make a point of watching these guys on Sunday night in the 76 Classic title game against West Virginia — they’re really entertaining in a plucky Gonzaga-ten-years-ago sort of way. Their mixed defenses left the Minnesota big players who had such nice games last night — Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson, III — confused and relatively unproductive tonight. TJ Campbell was superb for Portland, carving out 23/5 to supplement the work that Nik Raivio (9/11) and Robin Smeulders (13/6) were putting in. Minnesota shot only 33% from the field and a terrible 16% from deep, and got killed on the boards, but they managed to turn UP over just enough to stay in the game throughout.
San Diego 72, Houston 65. USD moves on to the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout, where they will face Washington State, arguably the weakest opponent they will have faced while in the frozen northern environs of Palin-land this weekend. Clinton Houston (irony?) led San Diego with 21 pts, while Brandon Johnson stepped up to drop 13 of his 15 in the second half to ensure the win.
Other Upsets Tonight. We were all set to destroy the SEC for another terrible night before we saw the Florida-MSU score, which saves considerable face for the league. But we’re definitely watching you, SEC. The Big Ten didn’t have a great night either, but at least they lost at neutral sites to teams that are better than their ranking.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference. He will be reporting from the WCC Tournament this weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. Check for his game liveblogs at RTC Live: WCC Tournament throughout the weekend.
A little unexpected news on the injury front has turned what looked to be a rather drab WCC Conference Tournament into a hotbed of excitement. The news concerned the broken right hand of Saint Mary’s star guard Patty Mills, who had been told by his doctor not to count on being ready for the tournament. That was before a visit with the doc on Monday (3/2), at which time Mills was pronounced fit to resume practicing with the Gaels. Current plans from coach Randy Bennett had Mills participating in non-contact drills on Tuesday and Wednesday and full five-on-five scrimmages on Thursday, Friday and maybe even Saturday since Saint Mary’s doesn’t have to be in Las Vegas for its first game until Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
The condition of Mills’ hand is significant because it permits speculation about a possible rematch between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga with revenge and an NCAA tournament bid in the balance. As the number one and number two seeds in the tournament, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s need only to get by a single semifinal contest to face each other for a third time this season in the WCC championship game Monday night, March 9. Their first game on January 29 on Gonzaga’s home court in Spokane was shaping up to be Mills’ finest effort as a collegian, as he rattled the Zags for 18 points in the first 17 minutes of the game. Then as he eluded the Zags’ Jeremy Pargo on a dash into the key, Mills lost his balance and fell to the floor, with his right hand striking the hardwood first. Given the spills taken regularly by the fearless Mills it didn’t seem to be much to be worried about, but appearances were deceiving. He had broken metacarpal bones, requiring surgery, insertion of pins to stabilize the area and fitting of a cast. Things immediately went downhill for the Gaels, who were 18-1 and possessing the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 heading into the Gonzaga game.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
There is no drama left in the race for the WCC conference title and favorite’s role heading into the conference tournament – it’s Gonzaga by a landslide – but that doesn’t mean the excitement is over in the West Coast Conference. With Portland’s emergence as a threat to Saint Mary’s for number two behind the Zags and a wild scramble underway to fill out the top four league spots, the last two weeks of play will be interesting.
Here’s how it is shaping up:
Saint Mary’s vs Portland
The Gaels may have righted themselves following the loss of Patty Mills on Jan. 29 by losing a winnable rematch against Gonzaga 72-70 (2/12) and pulling away from Portland in the second half to win 77-65 (2/14), both games in Moraga. Not only did the win over the Pilots give the Gaels as a team a much-needed confidence boost, it may have given even more to sophomore point guard Mickey McConnell. McConnell rebounded from a miserable outing as Mills’ stand-in against Gonzaga – six turnovers and five points is not a line to be remembered – to score 20 against Portland and post a gleaming line: four-for-four from three-point land and six-for-six from the foul line. McConnell has been up and down this year for the Gaels, but may be coming into his own at a crucial time. A coaches’ son from Mesa, AZ, McConnell has held coach Randy Bennett’s praise and confidence since arriving in Moraga, and now has a perfect opportunity to show everyone else what Bennett sees.
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference (WCC).
Predicted Order of Finish:
Sleeper. San Francisco
WYN2K. For the last ten years the WCC national storyline has read “Gonzaga and the seven dwarfs.” However, as many have learned, Grumpy and Sleepy are finally growing up. Saint Mary’s and San Diego, both of which made the Big Dance last season, return 88% of their scoring and are primed for return trips to March Madness. Saint Mary’s is lead by lightning quick Aussie Patrick Mills and All Conference Defensive Player of the Year Diamon Simpson. Down south, the Toreros return forward Gyno Pomare and guard Brandon Johnson, both of whom made the All-Conference team a season ago. Don’t be fooled however, Gonzaga still has the bullets to defend their conference crown as they return WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo and potential lottery pick Austin Daye. Aside from the “three wise men,” the remaining teams in the conference are rebuilding. Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and USF all have new coaches, while Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating is only in his second year as the head man of the Broncos. Portland looks to build on a young cast which includes Nik Raivio (brother of former GU All-American Derek) and Luke Sikma (son of Sonic great Jack Sikma).
Predicted Champion.Gonzaga (NCAA #3). The Bulldogs’ strength this year will be in its backcourt where they figure to go with three guard sets quite often. This team will go as far as Conference POY Jeremy Pargo will take them. After flirting with the NBA this summer, the Chicago native decided to return for a final year to hone his outside shooting skills. His backcourt mate Steven Gray is the sharpshooter of the bunch. The third guard for the Bulldogs is Matt Bouldin. After a stellar freshman campaign two seasons ago, Bouldin had an up-and-down year as a sophomore. Demetrius Goodson, a super athletic freshman point guard and Micah Downs, a former Kansas Jayhawk capable of playing the 2, 3, and 4 positions add significant depth to the GU backcourt. The frontline, though stellar on offense, lacks proven depth and a real defensive force. Austin Daye, the silky forward from Irvine, can shoot it from anywhere on the court and provides GU with a real mismatch when he plays at the 3 spot. The only true experienced big man on the GU roster is senior Josh Heytvelt. Injuries and personal problems have nagged at his career, however, but if he can bounce back from a constant foot problem and returns to his sophomore form, GU should have a solid post threat to go alongside their outstanding perimeter shooting. The depth for Gonzaga has potential, but right now it is unproven. The best of the bunch is 7-footer Robert Sacre, but last year Few used him in limited action on tips-offs. Another 7-footer, Will Foster, may provide some defensive minutes, but to date has not shown any offensive prowess. Coaches like Ira Brown’s toughness, but against a Diamon Simpson or Gyno Pomare, he will have a tough time. Freshman Andrew Poling and Iowa POY Grant Gibbs may end up redshirting this season.
Saint Mary’s (NCAA #10). Although the Patty Mills story is the biggest news around in the picturesque campus of Moraga, CA, the Gaels have more to be excited about than Kobe and Chris Paul describing Patty as “lightning quick.” Not only do the Gaels return last year’s freshman of the year (Mills) and Defensive POY (Simpson), but also two other starters and almost all of their scoring. However, what could put the Gaels over the top in the WCC is their depth. Unlike other WCC teams, the Gaels are arguably ten deep. The front line returns all three starters (Simpson, Omar Samhan and Ian O’Leary). Of the three Diamon is the most polished. His game can be described in one word – relentless. Already the senior from Hayward, CA, has broken the career blocks record at SMC and is currently in the top ten all-time in rebounds for the Gaels. Samhan, the only true center on the team, has a nice offensive skill set and has steadily improved his defense over the last two seasons. As mentioned, the bench provides the Gaels with a wealth of experience. Returners Yusef Smith and Lucas Walker, as well as 7-foot Indiana transfer Ben Allen provides the Gaels with true backups for Samhan and Simpson. In particular, Ben Allen’s shooting ability should allow Coach Randy Bennett to use some of the high post offense that got the Gaels to the Dance in 2003-04. In the backcourt, aside from Mills, the Gaels return redshirt junior Wayne Hunter to the lineup. The 6-2 guard would have been Bennett’s best on-ball defender, but because of the logjam last year, Bennett could not find a place for him. Should Hunter’s offense regress, expect the Gaels to go Aussie Carlin Hughes. Even if he doesn’t start, Hughes will see significant minutes as he is the best returning shooter on the Gaels roster. One guy to keep an eye on is freshman Clint Steindl. Another transport from down under, he may take minutes from O’Leary if the senior swingman’s offensive game goes cold. There is talk that Collin Chiverton, fellow teammate of UCLA recruit Drew Gordon, may also see time, but with the depth the Gaels possess, he may end up redshirting.
San Diego (NIT). Seniors Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare took the WCC by surprise last season with a strong finish, winning the conference tournament at home, then knocking off UConn in the first round of the NCAAs. The question now is whether their “one shining moment” will catapult the Toreros to the top of the WCC. The good thing for the Toreros is they return their entire team from a year ago. While Pomare and Johnson are the headliners, guards Dejon Jackson and Tremaine Johnson will have to continue their growth in order for their team to reach the Dance. Forwards Chris Lewis and Rob Jones also saw significant action next year and should also to continue to improve. However, in order to have a real shot at the Gaels or Bulldogs, USD will have to get some major contributions from some young players, most notably Brazilian transfer Roberto Manfra and Nathan Lozeau. The two are USD’s biggest bodies and must be able to hold their own against the likes of Josh Heytvelt, Omar Samhan, and Diamon Simpson. Another factor for the Toreros is that the tournament moves from the friendly confines of Jenny Craig Pavilion to a neutral site this year. The last two times USD made it to March Madness, they hosted the WCC Tournament. Here’s an audience-eye view of the big upset over UConn.
Fighting for Fourth.
Santa Clara. Center John Bryant, perhaps the best center in the conference, is a load. But aside from him the team is thin and unless junior guard Calvin Johnson and some transfers step up, the Broncos will only be a .500 team at best.
San Francisco. With the return of all conference forward Dior Lowthorn and former Rutgers guard Manny Quezada, USF has the offensive weapons to upset anyone in the conference. But if new coach Rex Walters wants to play with the big boys he will need to find some other pieces to go along with these two studs.
Portland. Quietly former Stanford assistant Eric Reveno has built a solid team in Portland. Most of his team returns, including guards Taishi Ito and Nik Raivio and forwards Luke Sikma and Robin Smuelders, but they don’t match up well with the likes of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
Pepperdine. After the Vince Walhberg debacle, Pepperdine went to the archives and dug up former coach Tom Ashbury. With a promising but young team, Ashbury will need to teach these guys how to win so they have a chance in years to come.
Loyola Marymount. Like Pepperdine, Coach Bill Bayno is counting on next year when he brings in Seton Hall transfer Larry Hughes and Oregon Transfer Drew Viney.
All Conference Team.
Patrick Mills, St. Mary’s (POY)
Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
Austin Daye, Gonzaga
Diamon Simpson, St. Mary’s (DPOY)
Gyno Pomare, San Diego
Prediction. Until another team proves otherwise, the Gonzaga Bulldogs remain at the top. However GU is not a unbeatable as some think (Sporting News ranks them #4 nationally). The Bulldogs can shoot the lights out with the best of them, but their frontcourt remains a huge question mark. On the other hand, Saint Mary’s can bang with anybody, but until someone can prove to be their go-to deep shooter, the Gaels will have a difficult time matching up against upper echelon athletic teams, especially those with great shooting guards. San Diego is the darkhorse, but to this analyst they look like a poor man’s Gonzaga. In order for all three to make a return appearance to the NCAAs they will have to perform well in brutal preseason schedules and manage the expectations. This shouldn’t be a problem for Gonzaga, as they are used to the pressure which comes from being the top dog, but as for Saint Mary’s and San Diego, it will be interesting to see what how they will respond as the hunted.
65 Team Era. The WCC is 20-34 (.370), but let’s not kid ourselves, the majority of those wins (12) are from Gonzaga during the last decade (4 others are from the run-n-gun LMU teams in the late 80s/early 90s). Still, in five of the last nine seasons, the WCC has been a multiple-bid league, including the best-ever showing of three bids in 2008. How interesting is it that the lowest seed, #13 San Diego, was the only team to win a game in the Tourney, while higher seeded #7 Gonzaga and #10 St. Mary’s were sent packing in their first game. With the collective strength of the top half of this conference this year and potentially into the future, there should be numerous opportunities for the WCC to have multiple teams advancing very soon.