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.
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 Stephen Holt, 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 Matthew Dellavedova, who turned an ankle and left the game for several minutes in the second half.
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.