Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
San Diego 5-2
Saint Mary’s 3-1
Santa Clara 3-3
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.
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.
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Michigan’s Nik Stauskas apparently needed that shoe. He went 0-for-2 for four points in a 69-79 loss to Duke last night.