76 Classic Superlatives

Posted by AMurawa on November 28th, 2011

It wasn’t the sexiest bracket you’ve ever seen in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament. There were no teams ranked in the top 25 prior to this weekend and no player of the year candidates to be found anywhere. But there were some great coaches, some solid teams expected to contend for their respective conference titles, and some good basketball played at the 76 Classic in Anaheim this weekend. By way of putting a bow on this tournament, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the weekend.

Champion: St. Louis – The Billikens take home the championship without ever being seriously challenged this weekend. They posted a 60.6 effective field goal percentage over the three games, nailing 29 threes, and as a team they posted almost a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But where the Billikens really excelled was defensively. They limited their opponents to less than seven offensive rebounds per game, forced almost 15 turnovers per game, held their opponents to under 45% shooting from the field, and did all of that while only allowing their opponents 15 free throws per game. With Brian Conklin emerging as an efficient offensive threat, Kwamain Mitchell returning to the fold as a great floor general and playmaker for the team, and a deep and talented bench capable of carrying out head coach Rick Majerus’ game plan, this is a disciplined team that can give all sorts of teams trouble this season.

Brian Conklin, Saint Louis

Brian Conklin Turned In A Career Weekend In Earning The Most Outstanding Player Award At The 76 Classic (Credit: Chris Lee, McClatchy Newspapers)

Surprise Team: Santa Clara/Oklahoma – Both the Broncos and the Sooners came away from this weekend with a 2-1 record, and both teams come away with their share of converts. When Santa Clara senior forward Marc Trasolini went down with a torn ACL in September a lot of people counted out the Broncos. That injury left the Broncos with an inexperienced frontline to pair with its prolific backcourt of junior Kevin Foster (who broke Steve Nash’s all-time record for three-pointers at Santa Clara this weekend) and sophomore Evan Roquemore, but this weekend Kerry Keating’s team proved that those guards (along with junior wing Ray Cowels) were good enough to put this team on their back. Meanwhile, not much was expected of an Oklahoma team that went 14-18 last season. With more or less the same roster returning, similar results were expected, but under new head coach Lon Kruger and with new point guard Sam Grooms taking the reins, the Sooners advanced to the championship game before getting outclassed by the Billikens. While the Sooners should not be expected to contend for a Big 12 title, Kruger definitely has this program headed in the right direction, and this team will rise up and knock off some teams this year.

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ESPN’s Toughest Arenas Survey: Analyzing Coaches’ Responses

Posted by rtmsf on September 7th, 2011

ESPN.com had an interesting series of stories that went up today regarding various folks’ favorite college basketball arenas to visit and the toughest ones to play in.  As always when you read blurbs of primary source information, it’s enlightening to see the reasoning behind their choices.  For example, we never knew that NC State’s old home was such an ACC snake pit, but ESPN commentators Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis both independently cited Reynolds Coliseum as the toughest arena they ever played in. Davis even claimed that he never scored “on the opposite basket away from our bench in the first half” due to the flustered situation he found himself in all four years he visited Raleigh.

A number of media types also weighed in with their favorite places to experience a game, and several of the old faithfuls represent well here — Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (3 votes), Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse (2 votes) and the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden (2 votes) — along with a few other tried-and-trues including Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, Penn’s Palestra, and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion (1 vote each).  But it was the list provided by Dana O’Neil (excellent usage of “sepia,” by the way) from her interviews of several head coaches back in July on the recruiting trail that really caught our eye. First, here’s her list:

Fifteen prominent coaches chose nine different arenas between them.  Three of those are already retired to the dustbin of history, and three others are clearly a personal house of horrors to specific coaches.  Not many people in this business will choose a place like Murray State Arena over somewhere like the Kohl Center or Breslin Arena, but Big Ten coach Bruce Weber did.  The remaining joints are again places we’re all familiar with as incredibly difficult to walk out with a win, but we quickly noticed that there was something peculiar about the responses among O’Neil’s interviewees.  Take a closer look — of the 15 coaches, only one of them gave an answer that includes a site where his team must regularly play games.

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RTC Summer Updates: West Coast Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on July 5th, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our first update is from the West Coast Conference and comes courtesy of Will Green, an editor and writer with The Slipper Still Fits.

Readers’ Take One

Summer Storylines

  • Brigham Young University Joins The Conference: When this story was first reported back in September, it was largely forgotten. BYU’s move was a football one with basketball repercussions, not the other way around. If anyone was talking about the Cougars, the dialogue was centered around how much money it would receive from it slew of nationally televised football contests this coming fall, and how many years the vaunted program would remain as an independent before choosing to join another league, securing even more lucrative contracts. The move, however, might make a greater impact on the collegiate basketball landscape than the football one, competitively speaking. For one thing, resident king Gonzaga’s streak of conference championships – which is older than most of your children – or at least its general reputation as the WCC’s top dog, is seriously endangered.  With Jimmer Fredette seizing all available national attention like a Venus flytrap, lost on many fans last year was the fact BYU was not merely a fortuitous program enjoying an unusually good year. The Cougars have been a top 40 RPI team since 2006, with a pair of top 20 finishes. That’s not a second Gonzaga — that’s better than Gonzaga. They also bring by far the largest student body and largest fan base that the league has ever seen. Indeed, the league can leverage BYU’s prominence to grow its influence and scope (more on that later). Despite being a “football move,” BYU’s departure from the Mountain West Conference is not, as so many of the recent realignment moves have been, a casualty of circumstance. The aforementioned “repercussions” became a mutually beneficial improvement for both the Cougars and the league. Credit alert diplomacy and geographical convenience to why commissioner Jamie Zaninovichwas able to lure a team into his league that’s also, statistically speaking, better than any team in his current league.

    Brandon Davies, if Reinstated by BYU, is an X-Factor for the Cougars in 2011-12 (Getty/E. Miller)

  • The League Gets A New TV contract: Over the course of the 2000s, the WCC did a remarkable thing: It became the most widely televised college basketball league of all the leagues in the West, while being only the fourth highest-rated league by RPI of the six in the region. Resident behemoth Pac-12 trusted its games to the insipid hands of Fox Sports’ cluster of regional networks. The Mountain West conference was largely marooned out on “The Mtn,” a network that truncated both its name and its audience by being available in a far more limited number of homes than the heavy-hitting Pac-12. The Western Athletic Conference enjoyed the occasional ESPNU game. The WCC, on the other hand, had its most intriguing matchups beamed into peoples’ living rooms in prime time on Thursday and Saturday nights (and for a time, on Big Monday) via ESPN or ESPN2. Both sides had such a good time putting the whole mess together that when their previous contract expired on June 1, it took exactly one week to renegotiate an eight-year extension. The new deal increases the amount of ESPN games featuring WCC teams by an average of at least five per year, possibly much more, and is spread across Thursday, Saturday and select Monday nights. While some critics contend the new ESPN contract isn’t much of an improvement over the previous one, their voices were provoked loudest during the rather dwarfing aftershock of the Pac-12’s mammoth deal with the same network. While this upcoming season could mark the first time in a long while that the WCC won’t be the most-watched west coast league, the league strengthened its relationship with ESPN and is poised to showcase what should be its most successful year ever in front of its widest audience to date.  In an era of scrambling realignment and a fragile economic landscape, this is a still a huge win.
  • The University of San Diego Suffers A Bribery Scandal: In April, this story looked crippling. San Diego had just finished one of the worst seasons by any WCC team ever when news broke that Toreros’ all-time leading scorer and current Memphis Grizzlies protégé, Brandon Johnson, was allegedly used to solicit current USD player Ken Rancifer on behalf of a delinquent named Steven Goria and several others to fix a game against the University of Portland on February 24. Also revealed was the news that Johnson himself had allegedly fixed a game during his senior season one year earlier. The good news for USD is that the story is quickly losing momentum, due in large part to the recent news that the 2011 team has largely been cleared of wrongdoing (Rancifer turned down the bribe from those attempting to fix the game) Repercussions from the 2010 game will ensue once the FBI is done investigating the entire case, and could involve recruiting sanctions or a postseason ban. Frankly, the Toreros are so deep in the throes of rebuilding that they might not enjoy any such postseason for the NCAA to ban in the first place. All told, this could have been much, much worse for USD. The true damage of the scandal is neither physical nor fiscal, but is still potentially very heavy. While it’s growing steadily, the WCC is not yet a national brand and one dominant negative story can define the WCC and USD for a large group of fans who aren’t very familiar with a non-power six league that’s on TV after they go bed. Show-stealing years from perennial contenders like Gonzaga and BYU, as well as postseason disruptiveness by the likes of St. Mary’s and Santa Clara, would be a good first step toward taking casual fans’ focus off of the scandal. Of course, if USD itself can somehow bounce back from a 6-24 record and win a few games they’re not supposed to, they just might turn themselves into national feel-good story.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 10th, 2011

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.

Power Rankings

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.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

With the pre-conference season all wrapped up, let’s look all the way back to October and the WCC coaches poll for a reset on conference expectations. The coaches overwhelmingly picked Gonzaga to finish first, giving the Zags 48 total votes and six for first place. By a total of 42 to 39 they also picked Loyola Marymount to finish second over Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara (28 votes) to finish fourth and Portland (25 votes) fifth. How would the coaches vote if the polling were held today?

Gonzaga, with quality wins over Baylor, Marquette, Xavier and Oklahoma State, would probably retain its rank as conference favorite because no other team either matched the scope and difficulty of the Zags’ schedule, or conquered as many top-notch teams. Only Saint Mary’s, with wins over St. John’s, which might make some noise in the Big East, and Long Beach State, which could challenge for the Big West title, came close. The Gaels did post wins over two BCS teams, Texas Tech and Mississippi State, but those teams had early-season troubles that dimmed their luster.

It would be hard for WCC coaches or anyone to favor Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s based on results so far, and the same could be said for Santa Clara over Portland. It is safe to say that the performances of Loyola-Marymount and Santa Clara have been disappointing, while the Gaels and Pilots have surprised opposing coaches. The coaches’ early-season predictions notwithstanding, a survey of informal discussions around the league breaks down the race this way: Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s for first place; Portland in third; Loyola Marymount in fourth; Santa Clara and San Francisco in a dog fight for fifth; Pepperdine for seventh and San Diego in the cellar. Those last two match what the coaches saw in October, as neither team has done much to change perceptions.

Player(s) of the Week

Saint Mary’s senior point guard Mickey McConnell was named Player of the Week both by the West Coast Conference and TheHoopsReport.com after sterling efforts in Gael victories over Mississippi State and Hartford. He rocked Mississippi State for 28 points and 13 assists – his first double-double of the season – and followed that up with a 21-point, seven assist game against Hartford. The effort in the Gaels’ final two pre-conference games brought his scoring average to 14.2 ppg and assist total to 5.4 per game. McConnell’s 2.68 assist to turnover ratio is ranked 26th nationally, and he is shooting 46.3% from beyond the arc and 90.5% from the free throw line.

Power Rankings:

1. Saint Mary’s (12-2) has breezed to six wins in a row since being dusted 69-55 by San Diego State on Dec. 1, and has found its groove with a lineup featuring four players averaging double figures: Mickey McConnell at 14.2 PPG, Jones at 13.7 PPG, Matthew Dellavedova at 13 PPG, and Young (nominally a substitute, Young is garnering the majority of minutes at post) at 11.1 PPG. Clint Steindl, the fifth starter, is not far behind at 8.4 PPG, and can rightfully point to his duties as the Gaels’ primary defensive stopper as an excuse. Besides, Steindl, currently averaging nearly 42% on three-point shots, can light it up when the occasion warrants. Team balance, unselfishness and good backcourt play from McConnell and Dellavedova – averaging nearly 12 assists per game between them – have Randy Bennett smiling as league play begins.

2. Portland (12-3), also cruising with five straight wins after a lopsided 94-72 loss at Washington, has answered most of the questions critics might have raised following the loss of several quality players from last year. Yes, Luke Sikma can put up All-Conference numbers consistently at one forward spot; yes, Kramer Knutson is a steady warrior at the post position; yes, Mitrovic is ready to be a starter, possibly a star, in his junior year; yes, Jared Stohl can still scorch it from three-point land, and yes, either junior Eric Waterford, true freshman Tim Douglas or sophomore transfer Derrick Rodgers – or a combination of the three – can provide leadership at the point. Coach Eric Reveno has done his usual excellent job of molding his troops into a smooth-flowing force, ready to challenge Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s as the conference season unfolds.

3. Gonzaga (10-5), also boasting a six-game winning streak – notice a pattern here? – can actually breathe easier as the WCC gets underway. Following a whirlwind 36 hours consisting of 1) pasting formerly 11-2 and cocky Oklahoma State by 21 points (73-52) on Friday night in Spokane, and 2) flying cross-country to Winston-Salem, NC, for a 73-63 win over Wake Forest on Sunday, the Zags returned home to await Portland for an early home showdown on Saturday (1/8). Piece of cake. Mark Few has a core of Steven Gray (14.1 PPG), Robert Sacre (13.1 PPG) and Elias Harris (12.3 PPG) that is functioning smoothly enough to almost allow him to forget his trouble finding a commanding point guard. Meech Goodson, holding down the position for the third year in a row, is providing only 5.4 PPG and 3.3 assists per game, but no one else has been able to sit him down. Another troubling position for Few has been the second forward spot opposite Harris, as promising German freshman Mathis Monninghoff (there is an umlaut over the first vowel to make it sound like “Merhninghoff”), recently went down with an ankle injury after starting five straight games. Few swapped in another Mathis, this one a 6’5 freshman from France whose last name is Keita, and received a good effort in the wins over Okie State and Wake.

4. Santa Clara (9-7) is sitting in fourth place, right where the coaches predicted it to finish, but has hardly cemented its position with inconsistent pre-conference play. Zero quality wins, troubling losses such as 69-59 to Pacific and 54-53 to Delaware in its own holiday tournament, and a shifting lineup have raised questions about Kerry Keating’s squad. Kevin Foster has moved right back into a starring role after a year’s absence with injury, and Keating has uncovered another budding backcourt star in freshman Evan Roquemore. But Keating apparently has been unhappy with Marc Trasolini’s contribution in the frontcourt, bringing him off the bench instead of starting him, and sophomore Niyi Harrison is even farther down in Keating’s doghouse. That leaves the Broncos with a starting lineup of second-year forward Chris Cunningham, rugged Aussie Ben Dowdell and guard-forward Ray Cowels to go with Foster and Roquemore. Even with Trasolini contributing heavily off the bench, as he did with 22 points in the Broncos 85-70 win over Fordham on December 30, that is not a lineup calculated to challenge anyone above them. Is it strong enough to fend off Loyola-Marymount or San Francisco for fourth place in the conference standings? We’ll soon have the answer to that question.

5. Loyola Marymount (7-7) enters the 2011 conference race hobbled with injuries as it did last year. From a lineup that promised to feature 6’10 redshirt freshman Edgar Garibay, 6’8 sophomore strong forward Ashley Hamilton and 6’7 scoring whiz Drew Viney in the frontcourt, the Lions have morphed to Viney and freshman Godwin Okonji. Garibay has still not fully recovered from the ACL injury that sidelined him last year and Hamilton broke his hand a few weeks ago. To supplement the survivors, Max Good uses a three-guard lineup of super senior Vernon Teel, Big East refugee Larry Davis and newcomer Anthony Ireland, subbing for the injured Jarred DuBois. Ireland and Okonji, a 20-year-old from Nigeria who spent two years at Nevada’s Findlay Prep, are true freshmen forced into carrying a heavy load. The Lions’s pre-season-ending 87-80 road win over UC Irvine on Dec. 30 gave hints at what Good’s patched-up crew can accomplish: Viney and Teel combined for 42 points and Ireland chipped in 15 point and six assists. They will need to keep it up for the next eight weeks if the Lions are going to redeem their pre-season promise.

6. San Francisco (6-9) probably can’t take much solace from blasting Division II Dominican University 68-47 on New Year’s Day, but the Dons also topped Hampton 69-57 two days earlier to enter the conference season with a two-game win streak. Rex Walters counts on a threesome of Michael Williams, Rashad Green and Angelo Coloiaro to carry the scoring load, augmented by true freshman Cody Doolin at the point. The problem has been in the frontcourt, where Perris Blackwell and Moustapha Diarra, backed up by freshman Justin Raffington, have been inconsistent. The Dons’ hopes of moving up in the WCC standings will get an early test, as they kick off the conference race on Saturday, Jan. 8 at Santa Clara and travel the following Thursday to Saint Mary’s.

7. Pepperdine (6-11) was buoyed by an 84-64 home win on Jan. 2 over up-and-down Seattle (wins over Virginia, Oregon State and Montana State), but hope that Keion Bell’s absence from the game was only precautionary. The Waves will need a healthy Bell if they are going to emulate his YouTube antics and leap over their opponents when conference play begins.

8. San Diego (3-11) proved its harshest critics wrong with a Christmas Day win over Utah (67-64), but reverted to form on New Year’s Day with a 76-54 hammering by North Carolina State in Raleigh, NC. Those critics posited that the Toreros might not beat a Division I opponent this season (its other wins were over Occidental and LaVerne), but Bill Grier’s crew scuttled that by beating once-powerful Utah. Next order of business is adding some WCC wins to the ledger.

A Look Ahead

You don’t have to look far ahead to get some early answers to questions about possible conference standings: Saint Mary’s opens WCC play with a Thursday (January 6) battle against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles; Portland travels to Gonzaga on Saturday (January 8); San Francisco heads up Highway 101 to Santa Clara on Saturday also; and Pepperdine entertains San Diego on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday. A couple of upset possibilities (Loyola Marymount over Saint Mary’s, Portland over Gonzaga), a key battle for fifth place (Santa Clara vs. San Francisco) and a leg up on avoiding the cellar (Pepperdine vs. San Diego) all in the first week of conference play.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It was an “almost” week for Santa Clara and San Francisco, Gonzaga got its mojo back, Saint Mary’s picked up its first true road win of the year and Portland kept on cruising. Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine and San Diego continued their losing ways.
  • As Santa Clara battled Washington State evenly on Dec. 19 before succumbing 85-79 in overtime, and San Francisco took undefeated San Diego State to the wire two nights later in a 61-56 loss, visions of a stronger, more successful West Coast Conference flickered before fans’ eyes. It was that old conference war horse, Gonzaga, however, that gave the conference two big wins last week – 68-64 over then ninth-ranked Baylor in Dallas on Dec. 18 and 64-54 over Xavier in Spokane on the 22nd.
  • Saint Mary’s continued its cautious way through the pre-conference season, topping Long Beach State 82-74 at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 18, and New Mexico State 73-53 in Las Cruces on the 23rd. The New Mexico State game was only the Gaels’ second true road game of the season.
  • Portland, meanwhile, stayed on course to a successful pre-conference slate by topping old nemesis Portland State 78-67 on the road – across town – and kicking off a three-game home stand on Dec.  22nd with an 88-79 win over Boise State.
  • Loyola Marymount continued to confound observers who picked them to challenge for the WCC title, losing to Florida State at home 74-63 on the 18th and to South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, 82-70 four days later.
  • It was the same ol’ same ol’ for conference bottom-dwellers Pepperdine and San Diego, with the Waves splitting home games against UC Irvine (W 76-69) and Cal Poly SLO (L 70-64), and San Diego falling to Baylor (83-50) and Mississippi State (69-52) in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Player of the Week

As Portland has continued its steady re-adjustment under Eric Reveno, shoring up the point guard position vacated by the graduated T.J. Campbell has been a prime goal. True freshman Tim Douglas, all 5’10 of him, gave Reveno plenty to smile about last week with a strong performance against Portland State that netted him Player of the Week honors. Douglas, a gutsy penetrator who is not afraid to crash the lane, came off the bench to score27 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 from the free throw line. It was his third straight game in double figures, moving his ppg average to 7.2 in less than 16 minutes per outing.

Team-by-Team

  1. Saint Mary’s (10-2) notched a pair of wins away from Moraga and elevated its third candidate to the position of Omar Samhan’s successor. During a hard-fought win over Long Beach State, Randy Bennett inserted 6’8 sophomore Mitchell Young in the post following earlier try-outs by transfer Kenton Walker and redshirt sophomore Tim Williams. Voila! Young exploited Long Beach’s over-emphasis on controlling forward Rob Jones by working himself open for a succession of bunnies and jump hooks, racking up a career-high 28 points in the Gaels’ 82-74 win. Showing the LBSU game wasn’t a fluke, Young went for 20 against New Mexico State.
  2. Portland (10-3) has provided a model of pre-season scheduling, losing to a few toughies – Kentucky, Washington State and Washington – but beating respectable teams like UC Santa Barbara, St. Louis and Montana to keep up morale. The Pilots’ win over Boise State put them in position to glide into the conference schedule with another two winnable home games against rebuilding Nevada and up-and-down Utah.  That would put them at 12-3 and make a 20-win season and post-season tournament consideration within reach. Not bad for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding if not recovering from major graduation losses.
  3. Gonzaga (7-5) shook off an unfamiliar losing record (4-5) with a three-game winning streak that established 7’0 center Robert Sacre as their go-to guy. Sacre and front-court mate Elias Harris were the big stories in the Zags’ wins over Baylor and Xavier, a development made even more important by the loss of senior guard Steven Gray to back spasms against Baylor. Gray sat on the bench as the Zags engaged in hand-to-hand combat with low-scoring but defensively nasty Xavier, leaving Sacre and Harris to account for 35 of their team’s 64 points. No other Zag – and Mark Few used a bunch of ‘em – scored more than six points in the Xavier win. No word on when Gray will return, but it cannot be soon enough for the Zags’ fortunes.
  4. Santa Clara (7-6) made Washington State re-think the wisdom of stopping off at the Leavey Center en route to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, pushing the Cougars to the limit before dropping an overtime heartbreaker. Last year’s outstanding point guard Robert Smith left the team before the Washington State game, putting pressure on the Broncos to solidify a shaky offense, and Smith’s replacement, Evan Roguemore, did his part. Roquemore contributed 16 points to accompany Kevin Foster’s 29 against Washington State and ease the sting of losing Smith, by some counts the 14th player to leave or be dismissed from the Santa Clara program since Kerry Keating became head coach four years ago. Foster and Roquemore continued their excellence in the Broncs’ 99-79 road win over Cal State Northridge on Dec. 22, scoring 38 points between them, but Keating is suffering from a guard shortage with injuries to Julian Clarke and Michael Santos in addition to Smith’s departure. He reached far down the bench to insert walk-on Nate Mensah for a few minutes against Northridge.
  5. Loyola Marymount (6-7) might have erased the memory of a less-than-stellar pre-conference season by easing into a three-game home winning streak over weak sisters Cal Poly and Sacramento State and so-so South Dakota. Reality returned, however, in a visit by the ACC’s Florida State Seminoles, whom the Lions battled evenly before faltering in the stretch. The Lions, who were counting on front-court strength from redshirt freshman post Edgar Garibay and solid strong forward Ashley Hamilton, have seen Garibay struggle to recover from last year’s ACL tear and lost Hamilton to a hand injury. Garibay saw only 10 minutes action against rugged Florida State big man Chris Singleton, leaving freshman Godwin Okonji to bear most of the rebounding and defensive duties. As if losing a close one to Florida State weren’t bad enough, LMU next travelled east to complete a home-and-home engagement with the South Dakota Coyotes. Reversing a 72-67 loss to the Lions 11 days earlier, South Dakota piled on 50 points in the second half to win 82-70.
  6. San Francisco (4-8) had a season-making win seemingly in sight as it battled undefeated San Diego State deep into the second half on Dec. 21. A few breaks went the Aztecs’ way down the stretch, however, and the Dons fell 61-56 in the opening game of the Las Vegas Hoops Classic. The Dons’ bad luck continued against IUPUI in the second game of the Classic on Thursday, as they fell to the Jaguars 69-68 when San Francisco guard Michael Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one with his team up 68-66. The Jaguars Sean Esposito drained a three with five seconds left to give IUPUI the win.
  7. Pepperdine (5-9) found a way to lose to a weakened Cal Poly SLO – falling behind 12-0 was a good way to start – after posting a 76-69 win over UC Irvine. Leaving Malibu for the final two games of the pre-conference season, the Waves flow into the Deep South for games against Alabama and Miami.
  8. San Diego (2-10) did not find a visit to Honolulu for the Diamond Head Classic relaxing, as it ran into the meat-grinder that is Baylor’s zone defense and Mississippi State with embattled forward Renardo Sidney back in action. The results were not pretty.
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 15th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It was a slow, after-finals week for most WCC teams, but the pace picks up considerably this weekend. Early-season top dogs Saint Mary’s and Portland cruised to expected wins – the Gaels by a score of 75-56 over UC Riverside at home and the Pilots in a closer-than-expected 71-64 win at Denver – and Gonzaga continued its slide against Top 25 teams, losing to Notre Dame in South Bend to fall to 4-5 for the first time in many people’s memory.
  • Loyola-Marymount and San Francisco scored home wins, Santa Clara lost on the road to Pacific, Pepperdine fell in Fresno and San Diego snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 82-57 thrashing of Laverne.
  • Player of the Week: Rob Jones, Saint Mary’s - Gaels coach Randy Bennett has said his goal with transfer forward Rob Jones is to turn him into a scoring leader, and Jones may have gotten the message this week with lines of 24 and 11 against UC Riverside following a 17 and 11 outing against Denver. Jones, who was a solid but unspectacular force in his first two years at San Diego, took on more responsibility for the Gaels in its need to replace the frontcourt scoring and rebounding punch of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen. He has shown signs of being able to surpass Allen’s production, lessening the pressure on Kenton Walker, Tim Williams and Mitchell Young to collectively fill Samhan’s shoes. Standing out in the UC Riverside stat sheet: Jones’ 6-9 mark from the three-point line.

Power Rankings

  1. Saint Mary’s (8-2): One of the knocks on Saint Mary’s so far this season is a lack of true road wins, with a 69-55 loss at San Diego State its only foray into an opponent’s gym. That could change before Christmas, as the Gaels travel to Las Cruces to face the New Mexico State Aggies next Thursday, following a December 18 matchup with Long Beach State in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim. New Mexico State (3-7) is a far cry from the NCAA team of last year, but the Aggies are still smarting from the 100-68 loss suffered in Moraga last November. They will do all they can to repay the Gaels’ rude hospitality.
  2. Portland (8-3): While they picked up their third true road win on Saturday, a 71-64 victory over Denver, the Pioneers (2-8) made the Portland Pilots work for it. Denver led by one at halftime before the Pilots’ three-point-shooting duo of Nemanja Mitrovic and Jared Stohl, aided by rebounding machine Luke Sikma, powered the Pilots down the stretch. Mitrovic, the game’s leading scorer with 18 points, made three three-pointers in a row to spark an 11-2 run in the game’s final minutes that sealed the win. Mitrovic and Stohl combined for 9-15 shooting from beyond the arc, while Sikma notched his fifth double-double of the year with 11 and ten.
  3. Loyola Marymount (6-5): The Lions are nursing a three-game home win streak, the latest victory being a 72-67 come-from-behind effort over South Dakota on December 11. The wins have come over lowly competition, including Cal Poly and Sacramento State, but the fun ends this coming Saturday, when the considerably tougher Florida State Seminoles roll into Gersten Pavilion. Some of Florida State’s wins in a 7-2 season have come over suspect teams like Mid-Continent and North Florida, but the ‘Noles recently topped Clemson 75-69 and have lost only to in-state rival Florida (55-51) and Big Ten power Ohio State and its dynamic freshman Jared Sullinger (58-48). You could say the bar will be raised considerably higher for Max Good’s revamped Lions, who have been improvising with the loss of stars Jarred DuBois and Ashley Hamilton and the slow rehabilitation of Edgar Garibay. New names such as freshmen Anthony Ireland, Godwin Akonji and Ayodeji Egbeyimi (call him “Deji”), have been finding their way alongside veterans Vernon Teel, Drew Viney and Larry Davis.
  4. Santa Clara (5-5): SC looked to be steadying itself with a 67-63 road win over cross-town rival San Jose State on Friday, but the wheels fell off when the Broncos went a little farther afield against Pacific in Stockton on Tuesday. Starting the unconventional lineup featuring Chris Cunningham in place of Marc Trasolini for the second straight game, the Broncos fell behind by as many as 21 points (60-39) late in the second half and lost by ten, 69-59. Pacific (6-4) has no signature wins this year and lost to Pepperdine last week, but handled Santa Clara easily. Kerry Keating has a chance to continue experimenting with his lineup on Friday, when the Broncos host Houston Baptist, but had better settle on his best troops before they face Washington State on Sunday.
  5. Gonzaga (4-5): The Zags found some balance in its not-as-close-as-it-looks 83-79 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, but they’re still struggling to find a floor leader (did I hear the name “Bouldin” whispered in the wind?). Elias Harris had 19 points, Steven Gray 18 and Robert Sacre 16 for the Zags against Notre Dame, and those numbers are what the world was expecting this year. But even with strong production from its core players, the Zags found themselves trailing the Irish by 14 in the second half, with another rout seemingly in the works. Only a lethargic effort by Notre Dame down the stretch prevented that, and the Zags are struggling to find a steadying force in the backcourt to supplement their power players. Transfer Marquise Carter doesn’t look like the answer so far, and veteran Meech Goodson has not put a strong stamp on the team. With a breather Thursday against Lewis Clark State in Spokane, the Zags are thrust right back into the fire on Saturday with a game against Baylor in Arlington.
  6. San Francisco (4-5): A light week was good news for a team struggling to find healthy bodies, and the Dons rewarded themselves with a 50-48 overtime win over rugged Montana. Guard Cody Doolin, who went down in the Dons’ loss at Louisville last week, returned to help his teammates hold off the Grizzlies, but it was his backcourt mate Michael Williams who stole the show. Williams accounted for 23 points and 13 rebounds in the low-scoring affair, and was joined by Perris Blackwell with 12 and ten. The Dons will need efforts like those and much more as it travels to Seattle on Saturday to face streaking Washington.
  7. Pepperdine (4-8): The Waves racked up 27 turnovers in its 64-51 road loss to Fresno State. Conference POY candidate Keion Bell had eight of them. Pepperdine will hope to get back on track Saturday when it hosts UC-Irvine.
  8. San Diego (2-8): USD had something to celebrate with Monday’s 82-57 pasting of Laverne, and could overlook the fact that its first victory in nine tries came at the expense of a 3-4 NCAA Division-III squad that doesn’t grant athletic scholarships. Why quibble? Bill Grier may have found some answers with the second straight strong games from burly 6’11 center Chris Gabriel and transfer guard Darian Norris. Adding fuel to a small glow of hope for the Toreros was the play of freshman forward Trevor Fuller, who elicited some excitement as a star for Episcopal School of Dallas, but has mainly sat the bench for San Diego. Gabriel, Norris and sophomore Ken Rancifer scored 14 points each, while Fuller contributed six points in 17 minutes. Things might not be so cheery next week in Honolulu when the Toreros take on the likes of Baylor, Washington State or Mississippi State in the Diamond Head Classic.

A Look Ahead

This Saturday will be the broadest showcase for WCC teams in the current season. Some of the marquee matchups include Saint Mary’s vs. Long Beach State in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim; Gonzaga vs. Baylor in Arlington; Loyola vs. Florida State in Los Angeles; San Francisco vs. Washington in Seattle; and Portland vs. Portland State in – where else? – Portland (Portland State is the home team).

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

  • It began as a whisper earlier in the season, but recent events have given it full throat – the WCC is down this year. Gonzaga, which has waved the conference’s banner brilliantly for over a decade, has stumbled to a 4-4 record, most recently Wednesday’s 81-59 beat-down at Washington State. Saint Mary’s, coming off a Sweet Sixteen year with high expectations, has whiffed in its only two statement games, losses to BYU (close, 74-73) and to San Diego State (not so close, 69-55). A rout of a weak opponent, Wednesday’s 77-47 win over Denver, did little to erase the sting of those defeats.
  • Even the newest pretender to WCC superiority, Loyola Marymount, has under-performed mightily so far in 2010-11. Weakened by injuries to starting two-guard Jarred DuBois (ankle – out for season) and strong forward Ashley Hamilton (hand – out 4-6 weeks), and the slower-than-expected recovery of 6’10 post man Edgar Garibay, the Lions have managed only an 80-77 overtime win at Long Beach State as a quality win. Fans were even rejoicing over Tuesday’s 69-49 win over woeful Sacramento State (2-6 record, including an 84-36 loss to Washington State) that brought them to 5-5 on the season. Talk about lowered expectations.
  • Among this carnage, one team has managed to exceed expectations and set itself up for a successful season – Eric Reveno’s Portland Pilots. Because Portland lost so much talent to graduation, most observers forecast a retreat from two seasons of challenging Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for conference leadership. Instead, Reveno has leaned on veterans Luke Sikma and Jared Stohl, quietly given junior guard Nemanja Mitrovic a stronger role and nursed freshman point guard Tim Douglas into the spot vacated by T.J. Campbell. The result: a 7-2 record, including eye-openers such as a 69-60 win over St. Louis at home and a 58-54 win over Montana in Missoula. True, they were spanked 79-48 by Kentucky, and, most recently (Dec. 6) 94-72 by Washington, but are in position to enter WCC play with 11 or 12 wins.

Player of the Week: Keion Bell, Pepperdine

You loved him in those YouTube videos vaulting over five – then six – teammates en route to a monster dunk, now Pepperdine’s Keion Bell is proving himself in game action. How good has he been? How about 25.3 PPG, good for sixth in the nation. Among his performances are a 25-point outburst in the Waves’ breathtaking 70-60 road win over Pacific on December 1 and 31 in an 86-81 loss to Texas-San Antonio last Saturday. For good measure, he put up 17 as the Waves came oh-so-close to upsetting Utah on Tuesday before losing 67-60.

Power Rankings

  1. Saint Mary’s (7-2) romped over Denver, shooting nearly 60% and out-rebounding the Pioneers by a 39-15 margin. The biggest development, however, was in the Gaels’ starting line-up, where redshirt sophomore Tim Williams replaced Kenton Walker in the post position. Walker, counted on to step into the departed Omar Samhan’s shoes, has been disappointing, creating an opportunity for the explosive Williams and hyper-active Aussie Mitchell Young. Williams was less-than-overwhelming in his maiden start, however, preferring to watch Denver’s Princeton offense (translation: boring) rather than chase his man through the endless dribbles, back-door cuts and switches that constitute its attack. Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett, who likes mid-season adjustments to his starting line-up as much as he does root canal, jerked Williams several times and gave him only 14 minutes on the floor, the same as the deposed Walker. Young, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunity, racking up 14 points in 22 minutes. Will Bennett juggle the line-up once more for the Gaels’ next opponent, UC-Riverside, on the 14th? Stay tuned.
  2. Portland (7-3) had only the loss at Washington on its schedule last week, but the Pilots were not handled as easily as the 94-72 score would indicate. They moved to within 68-62 with a little more than eight minutes remaining – after trailing by 15 at the half – but couldn’t corral Washington’s three-point shooters down the stretch. Sikma notched his fourth double-double of the season with 14 and 16 against the Huskies, Mitrovic added 15 and Stohl and Douglas contributed 12 each. Portland should get its eighth win on Saturday (Dec. 11), when they travel to Denver to meet the Pioneers, who were unimpressive against Saint Mary’s on the 8th.
  3. Loyola Marymount (5-5) got another of its walking wounded, stellar forward Drew Viney, back for the Sacramento State game, and he responded with 15 points off the bench, including 3-5 from long range. Injuries have forced the Lions to lean on newcomers Anthony Ireland at guard and Godwin Okonji at forward, and the results have been positive: Okonji racked up 11 points, five rebounds and six blocked shots in the Sac State win, and Ireland dished out six assists. Holdover guard Larry Davis has also stepped up with DuBois’ injury, firing for 13 points. The Lions’ four-game home stand continues Saturday against South Dakota, and the Lions would do well not to take the team from Vermillion, SD lightly. Although only 3-6 on the season, South Dakota boasts an 80-70 win over Wyoming and a close loss (76-61) to Wisconsin. Besides, the Coyotes will be so glad to be in southern California and out of the frozen steppes of South Dakota that they might put up quite a fight.
  4. Gonzaga (4-4) is in shock. Not only did the Zags lose decisively to Washington State, a team they used to treat almost as a practice squad, but they face five more difficult games before the conference gets underway in January: Notre Dame in South Bend this Saturday, Baylor in Dallas, TX on the 18th, Xavier and Oklahoma State in Spokane and then Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, NC.  Holy Schedule-Maker, Batman! Speaking of which, Zags coach Mark Few commented after the Washington State shellacking, “The schedule is just beating us up and really taking its toll.” Uh, just who signs off on that schedule, Mark? As tough as things are for the Zags, they showed no progress in figuring things out against Washington State. Gonzaga has traditionally acted as if defending the three is a criminal offense, but giving up 11 of21seems to be stretching a point. Elias Harris remains a mystery, proving to be ineffective again against the Cougars: six points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Is he still recovering from the Achilles strain suffered against San Diego State? Does he have shoulder problems as well? No answer from Zagland, but he is a ghost of the slashing, dunking whirlwind who blew into the conference last year.
  5. Santa Clara (4-4) continues to take one step forward and two steps backward. Kerry Keating seems to be leaning toward a three-guard attack featuring returning superstar Kevin Foster, last year’s rookie point guard Robert Smith and newcomer Evan Roquemore (no Frenchified American, he pronounces it “rock-a-more”). Fair enough – they’re all talented and Keating’s front-line recruits, Niyi Harrison, Yannick Atanga and John McArthur haven’t exactly dazzled. So, push the three guards along with the steady Marc Trasolini, plug in workmanlike Ben Dowdell and see what happens. Except, Trasolini scored zero points in the Broncos only game last week, Saturday’s 80-69 loss to UC-Santa Barbara. How can that happen? Trasolini is a load, able to score from outside or inside equally well, but he took only four shots against Santa Barbara, missing all of them. ‘Tis a mystery, one that probably won’t be resolved when the Broncos “travel” (well, they will probably get on a bus) to the San Jose Event Center to take on San Jose State on Saturday.  The improved Spartans are 5-2 this year, including a 74-64 win over San Francisco back in November.
  6. San Francisco’s (3-5) Season of Promise may be turning into a Season of Surgery, as injuries reduced the Dons to eight available players in Wednesday’s 61-35 slaughter at Louisville. Those eight accounted for only 11 points in the second half, putting their production at a little more than 1.4 points-per-person. Promising freshman guard Cody Doolin was the latest Don to go down, following Dominique O’Connor’s second season-ending injury in a row and injuries to Marko Petrovic and Rashad Green. Until Petrovic or Green return, coach Rex Walters is left with only two guards on his roster, sophomore Mikey Williams and freshman Avery Johnson. Walters’ diminished forces will face a rugged Montana on Sunday (12/12) at home, then powerful Washington in Seattle on the 18th.
  7. Pepperdine (3-7) almost pulled off another shocker to go with its 70-60 road win over Pacific, but faded in the second half against Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday and lost 67-60. The Waves led at the half, but Utah shot 53.6% in the second half to pull away. The Waves face Redlands at home on Thursday (12/9), then travel to Fresno to face Fresno State on the 11th.
  8. San Diego (1-7) fought hard but was unable to hold on for a home win over Fresno State on Tuesday, falling 74-70. Continuing his search for a consistent contributor among a host of new bodies, coach Bill Grier turned to JC transfer Darian Norris for leadership on Tuesday, and Norris responded with a team-high 14 points and five assists. Things don’t get any easier for the Toreros this week, as they face #14 San Diego State on Saturday. The cross-town rivals have run roughshod over the WCC this pre-season, vanquishing Gonzaga in Spokane on November 16 (79-76) and Saint Mary’s (69-55) last week. San Diego may not be the team to end SDSU’s pillaging of the conference.

A Look Ahead

The next week is only sprinkled with games on the schedule with finals nearing. Only 19 games are on the docket between Friday and next Sunday. For teams like San Francisco, it’s a good chance to buy time for injured players, while talented schools like St. Mary’s and Gonzaga can gear up for the start of conference play.

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RTC Conference Primers: #12 – West Coast Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 25th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Predicted Order of Finish

  • 1. Gonzaga (11-3)
  • 1. Saint Mary’s (11-3)
  • 3. Loyola Marymount (9-5)
  • 4. Portland (8-6)
  • 5. Santa Clara (7-7)
  • 6. San Francisco (6-8)
  • 7. San Diego (2-12)
  • 7. Pepperdine (2-12)

All-Conference Team

  • G: Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary’s
  • G: Steven Gray, Gonzaga
  • F: Elias Harris, Gonzaga
  • F: Drew Viney, Loyola
  • C: Luke Sikma, Portland

6th Man

Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s

Impact Newcomers

  • G: Steven Holt, Saint Mary’s (12.7 ppg, 6.0 apg in senior year at Jesuit High School, Portland)
  • G: Ben Vozzola, San Diego (21 ppg, 6.0 apg in senior year at Centennial High School, Las Vegas)
  • F: Charles Standifer, San Francisco (24.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg in senior year at Capital Christian High School in Sacramento)
  • F: Yannick Atanga, Santa Clara (15.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg in senior year at Besant Hill, Ojai, CA)
  • C: Kenton Walker, Saint Mary’s (5.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg as sophomore at Creighton University in 08-09)

Just imagine the smile on Mark Few's face if he knocks off some of Gonzaga's top-flight nonconference opponents. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

What You Need to Know

The WCC sent 10-time regular-season champion Gonzaga and conference tournament champion Saint Mary’s to the NCAA Tournament last year, with the Gaels advancing to the Sweet Sixteen after victories over Richmond and Villanova and the Zags winning their first-round game against Florida State. Loyola Marymount and Portland also played in the CollegeInsider.com Post-Season Tournament (CIT), with the Lions losing to Pacific in the first round and Portland losing to Northern Colorado, also in the first round. The conference is hopeful to return to its high-water mark of 2007 when Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego made the NCAA Tourney. LMU is bidding for the third NCAA invite in 2010-11, counting on a strong performance from its veteran core (four of five starters return) that produced an 18-16 record last year. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will be favored to fight for the automatic NCAA bid or an at-large berth.

Predicted Champion

  • Saint Mary’s (NCAA: #10) and Gonzaga (NCAA: #6) will tie atop the WCC regular-season standings at 11-3 each, with Saint Mary’s receiving the automatic bid with a victory over Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament Championship. The Gaels will match their #10-seed of last year, while the Zags, on the strength of a monster out-of-conference schedule, (San Diego State, Kansas State, Duke/Marquette, Illinois, Xavier, Wake Forest and Memphis) receive a #6-seed.
  • The situation regarding Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga was best exemplified by SI.com’s preseason pick of the Gaels as the 15th-best college backcourt and the Zags as the 13th-best frontcourt. Will the Gaels’ wily veteran Mickey McConnell, he of the gaudy 51% three-point average, and Energizer Bunny Matthew Dellavedova, with his ill-fitting jersey and oversized mouthpiece, edge out the Zags’ fearsome frontcourt of 7’0 center Robert Sacre, 6’7 forward Elias Harris and either 7’0 Kelly Olynyk or 6’6 swingman Manny Arop? This face-off will headline the WCC race and might not be decided until the Feb. 24 showdown between the two in Moraga.
  • In the postseason, Saint Mary’s will be hopeful of crossing the Sweet Sixteen divide in 2011, erasing the memory of its collapse against Baylor (72-49) in the 2010 tournament. Gonzaga, which lost in the first round in ’07 and ’08, the Sweet Sixteen in ’09 and the second round in ’10, looks to revive the glory days of deep tournament runs.

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Morning Five: 06.18.10 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on June 18th, 2010

  1. Santa Clara head coach Kerry Keating is requesting that his fellow coaches go “hands-free” this summer (not texting and driving) in light of a recent accident where a young girl was killed on her bicycle by such a driver.  This is something we can get on board with, and we hope that other coaches (and readers) will take it to note.  If you must text, do it while the light is red.
  2. Is the Big 12 sticking at ten for the time being, or will they look at adding someone like, say, Houston?  Texas legislators are pushing for this addition, and with the unbelievable power that the state’s flagship university now holds over the conference, we’d never say never.  But honestly, we’re not really seeing this as a realistic possibility.  UT wants all that Big 12 money for themselves.
  3. As for the Mountain West, they’re sticking at nine for now after adding Boise State but losing Utah in the past two weeks.  Even with the loss of Utah, this league has really started to separate itself as the top mid-major league (if you can even call it that) in both football and basketball.
  4. Bill Russell and KC Jones aren’t walking through that door.  No, this isn’t a reference to the Boston Celtics but rather the San Francisco Dons, who found themselves with a two-year probation that will not include a postseason ban.  The issue was that several athletes spent their scholarship money on non-required textbooks and school supplies.  And… we’re not sure what the problem is.
  5. This article is an interesting look-back at the decision Billy Donovan made three years ago to stay at Florida instead of leaving for the Orlando Magic, but it hasn’t all been peaches and cream in Gainesville, while the Magic have become one of the better teams in the NBA (predictable three years ago given the Dwight Howard factor).  Many folks have Florida with all five starters returning as a top 10-15 squad next season, but this particular college-to-pro situation might have actually worked out.
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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on February 1st, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Standings (through games of 1/30/10)

  1. Saint Mary’s                 6-1 (19-3)
  2. Gonzaga                       6-1 (17-4)
  3. Portland                       5-2 (14-7)
  4. San Francisco               3-4 (8-14)
  5. Pepperdine                   3-4 (7-16)
  6. Loyola Marymount       2-5 (11-12)
  7. San Diego                    2-5 (9-14)
  8. Santa Clara                  1-6 (9-15)

Now it Gets Interesting

San Francisco’s 81-77 overtime win over Gonzaga at home on Jan. 30 did several things, among which were stopping the Zags’ current nine-game winning streak, its 22-game WCC winning streak and its 27-game streak in regular season play (its last loss was in the 2007 conference tournament final against San Diego). More important than all that, however, it gave new life to the second half of the WCC season.

By proving itself vulnerable against a fired-up San Francisco team that had suffered mostly disappointment this season, Gonzaga may have opened the door for Saint Mary’s or Portland to entertain serious hopes of stopping its most impressive streak – that of nine straight conference championships. A tenth straight seemed likely after the Zags swept its most difficult stretch of road games against Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego Jan. 14-21, but signs of Zag distress turned up before the San Francisco stunner: they allowed Pepperdine to score 55 second-half points in an unexpectedly close 91-84 home win on Jan. 21, struggled to a halftime tie against Loyola Marymount two nights later before winning 85-69, then trailed Santa Clara almost the entire game on Jan. 28 before pulling out a 71-64 squeaker. The San Francisco loss two nights later before a packed and vocal War Memorial Gymnasium crowd seemed like the next stop on a trip to Problem City.

But is that trip over now? Or do the Pilots and Gaels have a better chance during the second phase of the conference season than they did in the first? It won’t take long to find the answer, as Portland rolls into Zagland Thursday night (Feb. 4) fresh off a weekend trip to the Bay Area in which it played more like Gonzaga than Gonzaga. The Pilots first handled San Francisco 74-58 behind Jared Stohl’s 22 points on 6-12 three-point shooting that put Stohl just three behind Portland’s all-time long-range record of 211. Stohl quickly broke that record two nights later as the Pilots dismantled the same Santa Clara team that had stymied Gonzaga, 74-52. The junior from Marysville, WA, canned four three-pointers against Santa Clara on the way to a team-high 16 points. Since moving into the starting lineup for injured guard Nik Raivio four games ago, Stohl has averaged 18.5 ppg and Portland has won all four contests.

So, does Portland have the momentum that will allow it to accomplish this week at Gonzaga what it couldn’t pull off at home on Jan. 9? In that game, the Pilots played the Zags tough and rallied late to close within three points in the final seconds. Stohl’s seemingly-impossible buzzer-beater from the sideline looked good until it rimmed out to give the Zags an 81-78 win. Portland certainly looked confident against Santa Clara, holding off the same furious defensive pressure that Kerry Keating’s troops showed against Gonzaga. The Pilots relentlessly pounded the ball into the paint to Luke Sikma, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half. Robin Smuelders, the more prolific of the Pilots’ frontline stalwarts, scored only six against Santa Clara, but was almost unstoppable in the first Gonzaga game. The rugged 6’10 senior from Braunschweig, Germany, made 9 of 10 shots against Gonzaga on the way to a game-high 24 points. The matchup of Smuelders and Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, another German, will be one of the most intriguing of Thursday night’s game. It will be televised by ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Pacific.

Saint Mary’s begins the second half with games at home against Santa Clara on Thursday and San Francisco on Saturday. The Gaels handled both easily on the road to open the season, and are coming off an impressive road swing to southern California last week in which they throttled Pepperdine 88-71 and Loyola Marymount 85-67. The games against two long-time Bay Area rivals, both energized by their performance against Gonzaga, will set the stage for the Gaels’ own Zag showdown next week. Saint Mary’s also played Gonzaga tough in their initial meeting in Moraga on Jan. 14, losing 89-82 after cutting a 15-point second-half lead to 84-80 with less than a minute left. But they haven’t won in Spokane since 1995, and Gonzaga has won 32 of 38 games since then.

The Feb. 11 showdown will give the Gaels a chance to overcome that history and record a signature win for the season that will improve their chances for an at-large NCAA bid if they fail to capture the WCC’s automatic invitation. Saint Mary’s has the memory of last year’s NCAA snub, when they were 26-5 but lost all three games to Gonzaga and, thus, didn’t get an at-large bid, etched deeply in its memory. Regardless of how Portland fares this Thursday, the Gaels will head north on a mission, and their road success this season (8-0) gives them added hope. They are only one of two teams in the country to be undefeated in true road games, the other being Syracuse with a 5-0 road mark.

By beating Gonzaga, San Francisco not only enlivened the WCC race, but also gave hope to its fans for a worthwhile season under second-year coach Rex Walters. The Dons are tied with Pepperdine for fourth place in the league, and maintaining that position would make this year worthwhile. The schedule is not promising, however, as the Dons have a difficult road trip this week to San Diego on Thursday and across the Bay Bridge on Saturday to face Saint Mary’s. The San Diego game counts as a must-win, as the Toreros are one of the teams currently below San Francisco in the standings and must be beaten to stay that way. The Saturday contest against Saint Mary’s in Moraga will be a difficult rematch as the Gaels romped 83-62 in their first game. The Dons have the best chance to cement their position with a Feb. 11 rematch with Pepperdine at home, although the Waves creamed them 83-68 earlier in Malibu. After that game and a contest against LMU two nights later, San Francisco finishes with a brutal road swing to Santa Clara, Portland and Gonzaga. If Walters’ crew holds on to its fourth-place position, it will have earned it.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by rtmsf on January 19th, 2010

Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.

Standings (through games of 1/16/10)

  1. Gonzaga                       3-0 (14-3)
  2. Pepperdine                   3-0 (6-12)
  3. Saint Mary’s                 3-1 (16-3)
  4. San Francisco               2-2 (7-12)
  5. Portland                       1-2 (10-7)
  6. San Diego                    1-3 (8-12)
  7. Loyola Marymount       1-2 (10-9)
  8. Santa Clara                  0-4 (8-13)

Conference: Week Two

After two weeks of conference play the WCC can claim at least two major surprises along with a host of expected results. The biggest surprise has to be seeing Pepperdine tied with Gonzaga atop the standings with a perfect 3-0 mark, the first time the Waves have been in that position since 2002. In that year, Pepperdine and Gonzaga tied for the conference championship at 13-1.

Surprise no. 2, although not as big, is Santa Clara’s inability to win any of its first four games, which included two at home. The Broncos were picked to finish as high as third by some media outlets, but now find themselves looking up from the bottom without having played two of the conference’s strongest teams, Gonzaga or Portland. With four games coming against those two, plus Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Kerry Keating’s squad will have to scramble to get out of the basement.

Pepperdine achieved the top spot by extending its hex over Loyola Marymount 79-75 in Malibu to start conference play on Jan. 9, squeaking by Santa Clara 61-60 on sophomore guard Lorne Jackson’s steal of a Robert Smith layup attempt at the buzzer, and pulling away from San Francisco 83-68 on the strength of a 24-9 run in the last seven minutes. All three wins came at home, and the Waves will be sorely tested this week with away games against Gonzaga and Portland. Still, Tom Asbury’s troops cannot be disregarded despite their many struggles in the pre-conference, where they went 3-12 including an embarrassing 67-65 loss to lowly Cal Baptist. Pepperdine is an extremely young team and has shown signs of coming together at just the right time.

How young is Pepperdine? Gonzaga coach Mark Few, the league’s master propagandist, has induced the national media to incessantly note that the Zags started the season with ten new players, while omitting the fact that two of its key contributors, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, are four-and-three-year veterans, respectively, and redshirt sophomore center Robert Sacre has been in the program for three years. Only 20-year-old European veteran Elias Harris, nominally a freshman, is a truly new face among players that Few has counted on most heavily.  Asbury, on the other hand, starts three sophomores (Jackson, Keion Bell and Taylor Darby), and two juniors, (Mychel Thompson and Jonathan Dupre, a junior college transfer). All five scored in double figures against USF, with Darby notching a double-double (15/12) and Bell just missing a triple-double with 18 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. It is a talented five , but they will be strong underdogs in Spokane Thursday night against the battle-tested Zags, who breezed through a daunting three-game road trip in Portland, Moraga (Saint Mary’s) and San Diego to take a lot of the early air out of upset balloons. Nevertheless, any game against undefeated co-leaders counts as a showdown, and Asbury’s pups will be pumped to throw a major scare into the Zags.

Of the predicted Gonzaga challengers, Saint Mary’s fared pretty well in the first two weeks of the conference season, and Portland slightly less well. The Gaels underwent a bad stretch at the end of the first half against Gonzaga on Jan. 14, letting a close 36-33 game deteriorate into a 45-33 halftime deficit by not scoring in the last four minutes. They would spend the entire second half trying to overcome that 12-point margin, outscoring the Zags 49-44 and coming to within 84-80 with just under a minute left and the ball in their hands. A three-point attempt by freshman Aussie Jorden Page rimmed out, however, and Gonzaga ran out the clock at the free throw line for its 89-82 win. The Gaels averted disaster two nights later by struggling to a 77-72 win over Portland.

Portland came even closer against the Zags than the Gaels on Jan. 9, mounting a furious comeback that culminated with sharpshooting guard Jared Stohl trying a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. Stohl took a pass on the sideline going away from the basket, under close guard, somehow turned his body 180° and launched a prayer that seemed laser-guided to the basket. It somehow missed and the Pilots were denied a chance to pull out a win in overtime. As close as those games were, however, Gonzaga prevailed in both in hostile environments, and made it three-in-a-row with a routine dismantling of San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion, 68-50. Portland was counting on the season-opening encounter with Gonzaga on its home court to put a new leader atop the conference, but instead finds itself 1-2 with losses to the league’s two top teams.

The Zags get to go home for the next two games, the Jan. 21 encounter with Pepperdine, and a tussle with Loyola two days later. LMU has stumbled in conference play so far, losing its opener to Pepperdine and the next contest to San Francisco 70-67, before righting itself for a convincing 81-70 win over Santa Clara on the 16th. Like Asbury, LMU’s Max Good has a rather untested, up-and-down team to take into the raucous environs of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Zags are 67-4 since it opened in 2004. The Lions will try to focus on their 87-85 upset of Notre Dame in South Bend on Dec. 12 and summon the magic that downed the Fighting Irish.

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