Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Conference sorting itself out? — It’s halfway for some and near halfway for others, so how is the WCC conference race sorting out?
Here’s one viewpoint:
Gonzaga (6-0 WCC) and Saint Mary’s (6-1) seem locked into a two-team struggle for the regular season title and a showdown in the conference tournament in Las Vegas in March. Gonzaga has been cruising behind Kelly Olynyk’s resurgence in the post, and may not be challenged until it meets Saint Mary’s in Moraga on Valentine’s Day. The Gaels have used a stunning last-second victory over BYU in Provo to propel themselves to a five-game winning streak and a renewed sense of purpose. Architect of the streak has been – who else? – senior point guard Matthew Dellavedova. Not only did Delly personally secure the BYU win with his ESPN #1 highlight buzzer-beater, he has been orchestrating the Gaels’ offense even more brilliantly. His record last week of 21 assists and zero turnovers in two Gael wins has record-keepers looking for comparable stats.
Kelly Olynyk’s season keeps on getting better and better (Getty)
BYU will protest strenuously that it is not out of title consideration, but a home loss to Saint Mary’s and a road loss to Gonzaga weaken its argument considerably. The Cougars have a chance to play a major role when they face Gonzaga at home on February 28, but that may come too late depending on how they fare in a rematch with Saint Mary’s in Moraga the week before. Picking up a third loss against the Gaels will almost certainly eliminate the Cougs from the title race.
Santa Clara seems poised to move into the slot right behind BYU if it can retain its consistency. The Broncos faltered with three conference losses in a row but have bounced back with four straight wins. In their favor or posing a huge obstacle is a scheduling anomaly that postpones their first game against Saint Mary’s until February 7 at home. A win there would seriously erode the Gaels’ chances and give the Broncos momentum heading into the last weeks of the campaign.
The rest of the conference is a bit of a puzzle, with San Francisco and Pepperdine showing intermittent promise and San Diego fading fast. The only thing that seems certain is that Loyola Marymount and Portland will be battling to keep out of last place.
Gonzaga (6-0, 19-2): The Zags took care of business at home with an 83-63 thrashing of BYU and a 66-52 win over San Francisco that wasn’t as close as the score indicates – the Dons trailed by 23 with less than two minutes left before scoring the last nine points with the outcome never in doubt. The Zags can claim to have stopped both their opponent’s top players, holding Tyler Haws of BYU and Cole Dickerson of San Francisco without a bucket in the two games. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.
Showdown in Las Vegas
So, it’s decided but it’s really not. Saint Mary’s closed out the WCC regular season with a tough 67-60 victory over San Francisco on the road, earning an undisputed conference championship for the first time since the 1989 squad coached by Lynn Nance. The Gaels tied Gonzaga for the regular-season title last year – the Zags’ 11th straight WCC championship – and needed a win over San Francisco to avoid another tie this year. They got it, but not without a dogged fight from the Dons, who closed out the season with home games against the conference’s top three teams – BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. They made them all pay, losing narrowly to BYU (85-84), edging Gonzaga, 66-65, and giving Saint Mary’s all they could handle before a frantic home crowd.
The WCC Tournament beginning Wednesday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will have a lot to say about how many conference members advance to the NCAA Tournament, and, almost as important, where they will play and how high they are seeded. The tournament champion receives the automatic NCAA bid, but almost all commentators agree that both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will receive bids no matter what happens in Las Vegas. The same cannot be said for BYU, however, so the Cougars’ need to make a strong showing in Las Vegas – perhaps even win the championship – in one of the compelling stories that will play out over the weekend.
Can Saint Mary's Earn The Automatic Bid Into The Big Dance? Conference POY Matthew Dellavedova Will Have A Huge Say In That (AP)
Others revolve around the conference’s mystery team, Loyola Marymount, and whether San Francisco can maintain the fierce defensive intensity it displayed down the stretch at home with days off between games. The Dons’ road to a high tournament finish requires victories on Thursday against the winner of a play-in game between Portland and Santa Clara, a Friday win against a Loyola team that beat them twice in the regular season, then a semifinal contest on Saturday against the Gaels, who also beat them twice in conference. Not an easy path.
Loyola is in a better position to wreak havoc than San Francisco. Earning a first-round tournament bye with its fourth-place conference finish, the Lions play first on Friday against the winner of the San Francisco/play-in winner game. If it’s a rematch with the Dons, tournament fans will see San Francisco take a third shot at a win that eluded them in two excruciatingly close conference games – a 77-76 overtime loss at home that saw LMU erase a 17-point second-half deficit, and a 90-88 loss in Los Angeles in which LMU had to come from 16 points down. The Dons desperately want another shot at the Lions, and feel they finished stronger than LMU because of their tough battles with the league leaders and LMU’s less-than-overwhelming finish: an inexplicable 60-57 loss to San Diego and a 68-65 nail-biter win against Santa Clara, which was winless in conference play.
Figuring out the psyche of Max Good’s squad would challenge a team of Freuds, however, as the Lions bounced back and forth between helpless – a 76-63 home loss to North Texas – and sublime – a 75-60 upset of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, the Gaels’ only home loss all season. One of the Lions’ quirks is they play better on the road than at home, so maybe a trip to Las Vegas is just what Dr. Freud would order. If they do, indeed, meet and beat San Francisco in the quarterfinals, they will move on to another encounter with Saint Mary’s in Saturday’s first semifinal game (6:00 PM PT, ESPN2). That the Gaels would like another shot at LMU goes without saying, as that loss cost them both a lofty national ranking and injuries to guard StephenHolt, whose return from a torn meniscus is still undecided, center Brad Waldow, who re-injured a bruised rib and had to sit out much of the action, and even indestructible guard MatthewDellavedova, who turned an ankle and left the game for several minutes in the second half.
Who Us? Rex Walters and USF Are Playing Great Basketball (Comcast Sports Net)
BYU’s path to a possible tournament championship takes them through a quarterfinal match with the winner of a San Diego-Pepperdine contest and a semifinal rematch with Gonzaga, with whom they split regular-season games. BYU was without outstanding forward Noah Hartsock (knee injury) for all but the first seven minutes of the second Gonzaga game on Feb. 23, a 74-63 loss. Hartsock also sat out BYU’s final conference game, a 76-66 win over Portland, and his status for Las Vegas has not been announced. With Hartsock in the lineup, a BYU-Gonzaga rematch in Saturday’s second semifinal match (ESPN2, 8:oo PM PT) could be a classic, but we’ll have to wait to see whether Hartsock can go.
As for the championship game on Monday night (6:00 PM PT, ESPN), it has featured Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the last three years (Gonzaga won two of the three), and a similar match-up would surprise no one. It would be a rubber game, as the teams split in conference play, and could determine whether either team receives a favorable or dicey NCAA seeding.
Here’s how the 2011-12 WCC season ended up:
Saint Mary’s (25-5, 14-2).
Gonzaga (23-5, 13-3).
BYU (24-7, 12-4)
Loyola Marymount (19-11, 11-5)
San Francisco (18-12, 8-8)
San Diego (12-1, 7-9)
Pepperdine (10-18, 4-12)
Portland (6-23, 3-13)
Santa Clara (8-21, 0-16)
For the second year in a row a Saint Mary’s guard is the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. This time it is Matthew Dellavedova, the 6’4″ junior from Maryborough, Victoria, Australia, who led the conference in assists (6.6 per game) and was third in scoring (16.4 PPG). The Gaels’ Mickey McConnell rated the POY nod last year, and not many observers of the conference would bet against Dellavedova repeating in 2013. In addition to his conference honors, Dellavedova is a finalist in the Bob Cousy Award competition for the nation’s best point guard. Last week, he was named a Capital One Academic All-American, the first Saint Mary’s player to be so honored.
While the choice of Dellavedova raised no eyebrows, selecting Max Good of Loyola Marymount as coach of the year might – even among Loyola fans and alumni. Good has been on the hot seat at LMU ever since last year’s team – picked to compete for conference honors – finished in last place at 2-12. While not ducking his share of blame for the team’s collapse, Good insisted that without crippling injuries his team would have been much better. The Lions weathered some early-season injuries – most notably to All-Conference Forward Drew Viney and his front court mate Ashley Hamilton – and, indeed, did do better this year, finishing fourth in the conference with an 11-5 mark. Along the way, LMU posted wins over UCLA, St. Louis and Valparaiso in non-conference play and over BYU and Saint Mary’s in conference. Good’s fellow coaches – who make the conference honors selections – evidently believe in redemption.
Other individual honors announced by the WCC on Tuesday were Defensive Player of the Year to Gonzaga’s 7’0” senior center Robert Sacre, whose 25 blocks led the league; and WCC Newcomer of the Year to Gonzaga freshman guard Kevin Pangos, whose deadly three-point shooting accounted for 12.8 PPG and 36 three-point field goals. The WCC All-conference team is composed of:
Angelo Caloiaro, San Francisco
Brandon Davies, BYU
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
Elias Harris, Gonzaga
Noah Hartsock, BYU
Anthony Ireland, Loyola
Rob Jones, Saint Mary’s
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga
Drew Viney, Loyola
The conference all-freshman team:
Gary Bell, Jr, Gonzaga
Matt Carlino, BYU
Johnny Dee, San Diego
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s
Honorable mention was accorded to Perris Blackwell, center, San Francisco; Carlino and Dee; Rashad Green, guard, San Francisco; Stephen Holt, guard, Saint Mary’s; and Corbin Moore, center, Pepperdine.
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
The Final Week
It all comes down to this week, WCC fans: Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, BYU and Loyola Marymount all have legitimate shots at the conference title and the one and two seeds for next week’s WCC Tournament. In an age where parity is the Holy Grail of organized sports, the WCC has it going on. And, although this season’s nine-team schedule caused some distortions in the first half of the season, no one could have planned a more compelling finale.
Saint Mary’s can seize the regular season championship and a number one tournament seed by beating Portland tonight in Portland and San Francisco on Saturday in San Francisco. By beating Portland, the Gaels will guarantee at least their second consecutive share of the title. But there has to be a series of asterisks next to that hypothetical, as the Gaels are bucking several negative trends: they have lost at Portland for the last three years and they appear to stumbling toward the finish line as they did last year when they lost an unexpected league game (San Diego in San Diego), a home BracketBuster game against Utah State, then another home game against Gonzaga, before pulling out a season-ending victory over Portland to earn a share of the conference title.
Despite Recent Struggles, Matthew Dellavedova and Saint Mary's Still Control Its Own Destiny (AP)
Last week the Gaels lost an unexpected home game to Loyola Marymount, 75-60, lost to Murray State on the road, 65-51, in another BracketBuster contest, and now face a young, talented Portland team with nothing to lose on its home court tonight. Combined with injuries to starting two-guard Stephen Holt, out indefinitely with a torn meniscus suffered in the LMU loss, starting post man Brad Waldow, nursing bruised ribs, and team leader Matthew Dellavedova, who turned his ankle in the LMU game, the Gaels are wobbling into Portland.
Gonzaga and BYU square off tonight in a monumental battle (ESPN2, 8:00 PM Pacific) that could vault either of them into a tie with Saint Mary’s for first or, if the Gaels win, eliminate one of them from title contention heading into Saturday’s final games. LMU, which is smoking hot coming off its blistering of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, sits at home for very winnable games against San Diego tonight and Santa Clara on Saturday. With just a minimal effort, the Lions could finish with four losses and cash in on whatever misfortunes befall the three teams ahead of them.
Not to be overlooked, San Francisco hopes to take continuing advantage of a scheduling gift that brought BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s onto its home court in successive weeks. The Dons battled BYU right down to a potential game-winning three-point attempt by Angelo Coloiaro that rimmed out at the buzzer for a heart-breaking 85-84 loss last Thursday. Rather than be deflated, the Dons battled Gonzaga equally hard on Saturday, and triumphed 65-64 on a last-second runner in the lane by Rashad Green. The Dons are off tonight and can devote maximum preparation to ruining Saint Mary’s season on Saturday.
Saint Mary’s (23-5, 12-2) might seem surprised to find itself still in first place considering the confidence-shattering losses to LMU and Murray State, which knocked it out of “lock” status for a favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament and leaves the Gaels needing a win tonight or Saturday to keep its NCAA hopes alive. Randy Bennett’s troops are wounded and have to be wondering why they continue to struggle late in the season. Even with these concerns, the Gaels still control their own fate. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the West Coast Conference correspondent for RTC.
Gonzaga roars back into contention, Saint Mary’s faces the specter of repeated collapse and BYU tells anyone who listening, “Don’t count us out.” It was quite a week in the WCC.
The Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game last Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center on the Gonzaga campus was almost a reverse of their earlier encounter in Moraga in January, an 83-62 Saint Mary’s win. The Zags were the aggressors and the Gaels seemed unable to counter with their usual efficiency and defensive poise. The Zags triumphed, 73-59, behind their all-freshman backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who hit a combined 7-9 from behind the three-point arc and finished with 39 points. The Gaels’ stellar back court of Matthew Dellavedova and Stephen Holt countered with just 20 points, all of them from Dellavedova as Holt threw up an 0-fer on the big stage.
The stat that probably registered most vividly in Randy Bennett’s mind, however, was the Zags’ 40-26 rebounding edge, a stunner that countered a Gaels’ strength and contrasted with a 36-33 edge of their own in the previous contest.
While all this was taking place in Spokane, BYU had the night off and worked up a head of steam for a Saturday encounter with lowly Pepperdinein the Marriott Center. The result, an 86-48 rout, seemed to position BYU for a stretch run to move them back into contention for a double-bye in the WCC tournament beginning March 1.
Randy Bennett's Crew Did Not Have Much To Smile About This Past Week (AP)
Saint Mary’s bounced back from the Gonzaga loss – its first in WCC play – to handle Santa Clara, 82-67, while the Zags continued on a high note with a 78-59 smackdown of Loyola Marymount, which failed in its effort to move into position for a top-three finish. The Gaels, however, stumbled again last night against a hot-shooting Loyola Marymount team, losing 75-60, and falling into a virtual tie for first place with two losses (the Zags have played two fewer games than Saint Mary’s).
Saint Mary’s (23-4, 12-2) is hearing footsteps for the first time in a season that was going swimmingly until Max Good’s LMU Lions dropped by McKeon Pavilion last night. Not only did the Gaels lose the game, but starting guard Stephen Holt left the game with a knee injury of uncertain severity and emerging post man Brad Waldow re-injured a bruised rib and had to sit for large segments of the game. Bennett’s boys could not have had a worse send-off for their Saturday BracketBusters game with Murray State in Murray, KY.
Gonzaga (20-4, 10-2) got its mojo back with last week’s convincing home wins over Saint Mary’s and LMU, but has some work to do before getting ready for another NCAA tournament run. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
Gonzaga failed in its second big test of the season last Thursday, succumbing to the fast hands of BYU’s defenders and losing 83-73 in Provo. Coming after the Zags’ 21-point pasting by Saint Mary’s in Moraga back in January, the BYU loss cast serious doubts about Gonzaga’s chances to notch its 12th consecutive claim to at least a share of the WCC regular season title. Both Gonzaga and BYU play “fast,” meaning they bring the ball up quickly and go into high-speed motion offenses to catch defenders on their heels and score easy buckets. The problem last Thursday was BYU was better at that game than Gonzaga, forcing 19 turnovers consisting mostly of steals (14). The Zag back court tandem of Kevin Pangos and Marquise Carter were responsible for eight turnovers against five assists, and erratic forward Elias Harris committed four turnovers and scored just seven points. The Zags do not have a player as complete as BYU’s Noah Hartsock, who put on a clinic for Harris and various other defenders, scoring 24 points, pulling down 14 rebounds and committing just one turnover.
For a brief period last Saturday it seemed as if the WCC universe was about to tip off its axle: San Francisco was up big against Loyola Marymount in the second half; BYU was struggling against Portland; and Gonzaga, desperately needing a win following the loss to BYU, was having problems with the lowly Pepperdine Waves, who pulled within two points of the Zags (42-44) with 12:24 left in the second half. Order was restored, however, as Loyola made a furious comeback to erase a 17-point San Francisco lead with a little more than seven minutes left and handed the Dons a crushing 90-88 loss. BYU, making its first trip to Portland, figured out a way to overcome a four-point Portland lead with 16 minutes left – get to the free-throw line and turn ‘em over. BYU shot a mind-boggling 53 free throws, making 38, and turned over Portland 24 times en route to a 79-60 win. And Gonzaga righted itself long enough against Pepperdine to manage a 72-60 win.
Noah Hartsock (34) Was Outstanding In BYU's Key Victory Over Gonzaga (Getty)
Saint Mary’s (22-2, 11-0) avoided the Saturday night drama, but had enough trouble with improving San Diego last Thursday before overcoming a 60-58 deficit at the 12:03 mark in the second half to post an 84-73 win. By continuing to win the Gaels continued to rise in the national rankings, notching a program-best #13 ranking in the ESPN/Coaches’ Poll and a #16 in the AP writers’ poll.
Gonzaga (18-4, 8-2) finds itself two-and-a-half games behind Saint Mary’s heading into tonight’s crucial rematch with the Gaels in the frenzied atmosphere of their home court. A win and the Zags can hope for a repeat of last year’s swoon by Saint Mary’s that allowed the Zags to tie for the conference title. Another loss and the Zags fall three games behind in the loss column with only four games to go. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
Saint Mary’s was in the spotlight last week and the Gaels did not shirk from the attention. First came a businesslike, 71-64, win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, then an epochal, 80-66, romp over BYU in Provo that seemed to unhinge everyone connected with BYU basketball. It wasn’t only the 22,000-plus rabid fans in the Marriott Center, it wasn’t only normally low-key BYU coach Dave Rose losing his cool, it wasn’t just Noah Hartsock earning a flagrant foul with a blatant forearm shiver to the neck of Gaels’ forward Rob Jones. It was almost a fan riot, an atmosphere so riddled with boos, objects thrown on the floor and technical fouls that ESPNU announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham repeatedly warned about the need for officials to gain control.
The Battle On The Court Between Saint Mary's and BYU Wasn't The Only Storyline Of That Contest (AP)
Fat chance, as the officiating crew of Frank Harvey, James Giron and Glen Mayberry seemed incapable of providing the right answer to a surly crowd – calling the game tight on both sides and leaving it up to BYU officials to calm the masses. Instead, the crew seemed to come to a collective decision that ignoring repeated fouls by BYU players and cracking down on Saint Mary’s would do the job. This theory came to a head about halfway through the second half with a technical foul called on the Saint Mary’s bench for allegedly standing up and/or crowding the floor – it was never made clear. The spuriousness of that call was caught by a BYU fan who happened to be shooting video of the BYU and Saint Mary’s benches at the time the technical was called.
Check it out:
Everyone on the Saint Mary’s bench is seated at the moment the technical is called. Even if they were all jumping up and down, one wonders how the ref would know since he made the call with his back to the bench and from the opposite end of the court. It seems bizarre and indicative of the desperate measures the refs applied to deal with a bad situation. No one from BYU stepped forward to calm things down, no one addressed the crowd, no one made any placating gestures (except for a routine announcement from the public address announcer after the fans were warned for their first barrage of object-throwing). All in all a big black eye for BYU’s first year in the WCC and a testament to the cool of Randy Bennett’s Gaels, who didn’t panic under relentless pressure from BYU and the crowd.
1. Saint Mary’s (21-2, 10-0) spent another week at the top of the league standings and another week moving up in both major rankings – to #16 in the ESPN/Coaches Poll and to #18 in the AP poll. To top it all off, ESPN announced that Saint Mary’s would travel to Murray, Kentucky, on February 18 to play currently undefeated Murray State in the premiere contest of ESPN’s Bracket Buster event. Never mind that neither Saint Mary’s nor Murray State – ranked in the top 10 by both polls – needs the game to break into the NCAA Tournament brackets, it still will be a closely-watched contest with obvious benefits for whichever team wins.
2. Gonzaga (17-3, 7-1) bided its time last week, topping Portland,74-62, in Portland in its only contest. The Zags saved their energy for their showdown with BYU tonight in Provo, a game with huge importance for both teams. The Zags are two games behind Saint Mary’s at present, although only one behind in the loss column. A loss to equally-desperate BYU would put them two back in the loss column with Saint Mary’s coming to Spokane on February 9.
Mark Few and Gonzaga Is Still Very Much Alive For The WCC Title (AP)
3. BYU (18-6, 6-3)andLoyola Marymount (13-9, 6-3) (tie): Tonight’s contest with Gonzaga might be BYU’s last chance to salvage its season, as a defeat would drop the Cougars four games back from Saint Mary’s and three behind Gonzaga. Not only how it plays but how its team, coaches, and fans, behave will be under scrutiny for BYU, as a repeat of last week’s meltdown against Saint Mary’s could have dire repercussions for the school’s reputation and self-respect. Loyola split last week, following up the Saint Mary’s loss with a throat-tightening, 62-59, win over Portland that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. The win was important to keep LMU close to the conference leaders and to prove they could win a league game at home. Before dispatching the young Pilots, LMU was 5-0 on the road and 0-3 at home.
5. San Francisco (15-9, 5-5) began to look more and more like last year’s team (well, it IS last year’s team), as it appears to be peaking at the same time. By beating Santa Clara on the road and San Diego at home, the Dons evened their conference record and began looking ahead to see how far they can advance in the standings. It’s crowded at the top, and it won’t be easy to move into fourth place and earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Dons, with a tough challenge in Los Angeles against LMU on Saturday, seem ready to take it on.
6. San Diego (8-13, 3-6) showed some signs of life in its, 65-56, home win over Pepperdine – its third win in five games – but then regressed in an, 84-70, road loss to San Francisco. It was enough to keep the Toreros out of the depths of the conference’s lower half.
7. Portland(5-17, 2-7) is in seventh place only because it has fewer losses than Pepperdine, but the Pilots were more than competitive against LMU and their 74-62 loss to Gonzaga wasn’t as lopsided as the score indicates. Eric Reveno’s achingly young troops scare everybody they play but Portland hasn’t figured out how to beat most teams. Yet.
8. Pepperdine (8-13, 2-8) recovered from the loss at San Diego to topple hapless Santa Clara, 74-62, at home. The Waves continue the PCH Cup series with LMU tonight, then hitch up their shorts for the invading Gonzaga Bulldogs on Saturday – it may get ugly.
9. Santa Clara (8-13, 0-8) continued its nosedive with losses to San Francisco and Pepperdine, and face Portland at home tonight before going on the road to face San Diego. Most observers feel the Broncos will pull out of this swoon some time, but the clock is ticking on the 2012 season.
The Post Intrigue Between Robert Sacre (left) and Brandon Davies Is Just One Of Many Key Matchups In Tonight's Big Contest Between Gonzaga and BYU
You don’t have to look far for this week’s drama, as Gonzaga vs. BYU in Provo (ESPN2, 8:00 PM Pacific) tonight should have all you want. BYU is barely hanging on in the WCC race and Gonzaga can’t afford to fall further behind Saint Mary’s, which has only tonight’s home game against San Diego.
A week from tonight comes the battle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in Spokane, which should be as riveting as the Gaels’ assault on BYU. The Gaels throttled Gonzaga, 83-62, on January 12, and the Zags have not forgotten.
Michael Vernetti is the West Coast Conference correspondent for RTC.
Holding serve was the key note last week, as Saint Mary’s slapped down the second of its main competitors for the WCC title, Gonzaga, by a convincing 83-62 margin in Moraga. That followed the Gaels’ first-week trouncing of BYU by 98-82, also at home. Playing the cards dealt to them by an unbalanced conference schedule, the Gaels now have a one-game edge on both rivals before facing them on the road.
For Saint Mary’s, the nine-team schedule – reflecting the addition of BYU to the ranks – was front-loaded with rivals (and home court-loaded as well). Gonzaga and BYU, on the other hand, have yet to face each other and both had to travel to Moraga for their initial showdown with the Gaels. The WCC held on to its true round-robin form, however, so each team plays each other twice, meaning Gonzaga and BYU will have their shot at revenge. The Gaels travel to Provo on January 28 and to Gonzaga on February 9; BYU and Gonzaga tangle in Provo on February 2 and in Spokane on February 23.
Everything that has transpired in the first three weeks of conference play indicates that the league championship and seeding for the March 1-5 conference tournament in Las Vegas will be determined by those three teams.
Dellavedova and the Gaels Held Serve, Now What?
Saint Mary’s (17-2, 6-0): The key matchup in Thursday’s game with Gonzaga was supposed to be in the frontcourt, where the Zags’ trio of Robert Sacre, Sam Dower and Elias Harris was reputedly superior to the Gaels’ mixed bag of post players along with stalwart power forward Rob Jones. Sly ol’ Randy Bennett, however, had been tinkering with his post players throughout the pre-conference schedule and by league time had it figured out. The three-headed contingent of redshirt freshman Brad Waldow (6’9”), senior Kenton Walker II (6’9”) and junior Mitchell Young (6’8”) outscored and outrebounded Sacre and Dower by an overwhelming 31 points and 17 rebounds to 12 points and eight rebounds. Read the rest of this entry »
In the history of college basketball, Gonzaga’s string of 11 straight conference titles is second only to UCLA’s streak of 13 straight Pac-8 titles during the heyday and immediate aftermath of the Wooden era. Gonzaga, a small Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000 students and no real history of basketball success prior to its first NCAA Tournament in 1995, has put itself into the same paragraph as one of the most dominant teams in sports history, even if the Bulldogs are playing on a different level than the Bruins were.
However, there is no doubt that recently Gonzaga’s dominance in the West Coast Conference has been challenged. Saint Mary’s has emerged as the conference’s most serious contender to the Zags’ throne, twice in three years finishing just a game back in the conference. And last year, with just three conference games remaining and SMC holding a two-game lead, the Zags saw the Gaels somehow lose to San Diego (a 6-24, last-place WCC team) and then knocked off Saint Mary’s in their head-to-head matchup to salvage a tie for the regular season title. It’s been creeping closer and closer, but could this finally be the year where Gonzaga fails to win the WCC? After losing by 21 points at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night, it is certainly a possibility.
Gonzaga Has Been Dominant In The WCC, But They'll Need Robert Sacre's Best To Win The Title This Season (photo credit: Associated Press)
Saturday, the Zags got back on track by heading to Los Angeles and squeaking out a road victory over Loyola Marymount, using a second-half opening 17-4 run predicated on eight forced turnovers to erase a two-point halftime deficit. But they had to hold on as the Lions fought back and turned it into a one-possession game for much of the final five minutes. Toughness has been a question mark for the Zags with junior forward Elias Harris even calling out his team for being outhustled and outcompeted by the Gaels, but on Saturday the Zags won down the stretch with toughness, hustling to loose balls and playing smart and hard-nosed defense. “In a game like this, it is about toughness,” said head coach Mark Few. “I thought we strung together some nice stops and got a little more confidence in our defense.”
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
[Ed. Note -- a previous version of this CIO misrepresented several of the author's thoughts. We have reverted it back to its original format, and for the oversight the editing team apologizes.]
Who Fears the Pac-12? Not Us: Sunday’s 93-55 beatdown of Santa Clara by Washington State notwithstanding, the WCC has compiled a 5-4 record against Pac-12 teams so far in 2011. Most notable were Loyola Marymount’s season-opening 69-58 upset of then-#17 UCLA at the LA Sports Arena (Pauley Pavilion is being remodeled) before UCLA’s troubles were well-known (heck Reeves Nelson actually played in the game), and Brigham Young’s 79-65 victory over Oregon on December 3 at a “neutral” site in Salt Lake City. BYU doubled up on the Pac-12 by dumping Utah, 61-42, on December 10, again in Salt Lake City, where Pac-12 teams come to die. There are three more games in this conference rivalry, and before it is all over, the Pac-12 might regain its supremacy if not its swagger: San Diego at Stanford on December 17 (big edge to the Pac-12), Gonzaga hosting Arizona in Seattle, also on December 17 (a toss-up), and Pepperdine at Washington State on December 22. Pepperdine will not be allowed to watch the tape of the Santa Clara-Washington State game.
Those BYU Boys Can Really Play: This was not the perception initially, as the Cougars limped out of Logan, Utah, on the wrong side of a 69-62 tussle with Not-As-Good-As-Usual Utah State on November 11, and followed that with a 73-56 faceplant against #11 Wisconsin in a Chicago-area tournament. Then, presto-chango, wily Dave Rose ended the Brock Zylstra point guard experiment, anointed freshman Anson Winder to run the offense and allowed the sharp-shooting Zylstra to go back to bombing from the wing. The wins started coming, perhaps none more impressive than the 94-66 thrashing of Weber State on December 7 at the Marriott Center. Weber State thought it was a good team, what with having the nation’s leading scorer, Damian Lillard, in its backcourt, but, BYU put the brakes on Lillard by holding the senior to 15 points (he averages 28.2 points per game), got a double-double out of veteran forward Noah Hartsock (19 points/12 rebounds) and were off to the races. Winder can enjoy his day in the sun until vaunted transfer Matt Carlino becomes eligible on December 17.
BYU's Dave Rose Once Again Has His Squad Playing At A High Level. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Where Trouble Lives: Who has a more turbulent program, San Diego or Loyola Marymount? San Diego, home of the perpetually-disciplined Toreros, hit mid-season stride on November 10 by announcing that massive junior center Chris Gabriel and seldom-used sophomore guard Jordan Mackie had been dismissed. Just to keep the pot boiling, word soon leaked out that last year’s prized recruit, guard Ben Vozzolafrom Las Vegas, was thinking about leaving the team as well. What does last year’s co-cellar-dweller need the least? Defections from its less-than-overwhelming ranks, it would seem. Max Good doesn’t have as much of a disciplinary problem at LMU — some would say there’s no discipline there at all — as a consistency one: making sure the same team shows up night after night. For instance, the same team that beat UCLA in its season-opener without injured star Drew Viney in the lineup, seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, the one that showed up two nights later for a 58-51 loss to Middle Tennessee State didn’t seem so good, not to mention the team that lost to Harvard and Columbia at home. It must be said that the actual lineup of an LMU team is subject to change as much as its performance: after Viney cycled back into the lineup to participate in two puzzling losses, the Lions lost stellar forward Ashley Hamilton and starting guard Jarred Dubois to injuries, then Viney again. The more things change…
Tie Between BYU (10-2) and Saint Mary’s (5-1) – Okay, it seems unfair because BYU has played twice as many games as the Gaels and has wandered into the deep woods with games at Utah State and against a ranked Wisconsin team in a preseason tournament. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, under the ultra-cautious guidance of Randy Bennett, have wandered barely at all (Denver, CO, and San Luis Obispo, CA), and have played an early-season slate replete with patsies (Fresno Pacific and San Francisco State). BYU’s emergence as a WCC title contender was mentioned above, so that leaves Saint Mary’s. This was supposed to be the year of the Re-Emerging Center in Gael-land, with an imposing 7-foot transfer (Kyle Rowley) and a promising 6’9″ redshirt freshman (Brad Waldow) contending to fill the year-old empty shoes of Omar Samhan. Hasn’t happened, and Bennett has instead fielded the same lineup as last year’s with Matthew Dellavedova moving over to take the point guard spot previously handled by the sublime Mickey McConnell, and, in a real surprise, former walk-on Beau Levesque starting at one forward spot in place of veteran Clint Steindl. Seems neither Rowley nor Waldow has staked out the post as his own, although Waldow showed signs of life with a 13-point effort in 22 minutes of action in the Gaels’ closer-than-it-looks 59-54 win over Cal Poly on December 3. One constant for the Gaels has been senior forward Rob Jones, who was named the WCC’s Player of the Month for November on the strength of an 18 PPG, 11.4 RPG output – tops in the conference. The Gaels hope Jones’ teammates begin to click before they face Baylor on December 22 in Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »
Jim Calhoun‘s non-announcement announcement that he plans to return to the Connecticut sidelines for the 2011-12 season was no shocker to anybody. If it wasn’t the interminable wait for a ‘final’ decision that tipped you off, it was the well-placed leaks from key recruits and their families; if you still weren’t convinced, surely the announcement that superstar center Andre Drummond had chosen to reclassify to the Class of 2011 and play for the Huskies this coming season clinched it. Regardless of when you believed he’d be back, Calhoun will coach his team this season at the rather ripe age of 69 years old (he turns 70 next May) and, despite some health issues in the past, he shows few signs of slowing down. And, in fact, his team will be on the short list of contenders after North Carolina and Kentucky most likely to cut the nets down next April in New Orleans.
Why Would Calhoun Give This Up?
We know that with his third national title last season, the curmudgeonly coach passed Kansas’ Phog Allen (66) as the oldest coach to win a college basketball national title, but with a stacked team returning and a few more gray hairs on top of his head, it got us wondering who his senior citizen peers are within the other sports. Here’s the list of oldest coaches to have won a title in each of the major team sports:
MLB - Jack McKeon (2003), 72 years old
NCAA Football – Bobby Bowden (1999), 69 years old
NCAA Basketball – Jim Calhoun (2011), 68 years old
NFL – George Halas (1963), 68 years old
NHL – Scotty Bowman (2002), 68 years old
NBA - Phil Jackson (2010), 64 years old
Calhoun’s championship last season falls right into the middle of that list, but if he were to win another one next spring a mere five weeks shy of his 70th birthday, he’d trail only the inimitable Jack McKeon as the oldest head coach to win a major title in American team sports. All due respect to McKeon and our friends in Major League Baseball, but Calhoun’s hands-on approach in teaching 18-21 year-old players is a completely different job than delegating those duties to a coaching staff to train older professionals — from our viewpoint, the daily demands on Calhoun’s energy are considerably more.
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
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.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Power Rankings and Postseason Outlook
1) Saint Mary’s (24-8, 11-3). The record puts them slightly ahead of Gonzaga, but the Gaels would gladly trade places with the Zags as the NCAA Tournament looms. Without an automatic bid, the Gaels and their mediocre out-of-conference record are at the mercy of the NCAA Selection Committee. Hope for the Big Dance, but consider the NIT a strong possibility.
2) Gonzaga (24-9, 11-3), WCC Tournament Champions, recipient of automatic NCAA bid. How well a rugged out-of-conference schedule will hold up to the Selection Committee’s scrutiny will determine where the Zags are seeded. They are definitely on an upsurge at regular season’s end, something the committee considers favorably.
3) San Francisco (17-13, 10-4), not an NCAA Tournament contender but an intriguing late-season story, the Dons gave Gonzaga a tougher game in the WCC Tournament semis (lost 71-67) than Saint Mary’s did in the championship game. The NIT is definitely a possibility for Rex Walters’ team.
4) Santa Clara (19-13, 8-6) seems to fit the profile for a bid to the College Basketball Invitational or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
5) Portland (20-11, 7-7) posted another 20-win season and played in the CollegeInsider.com tourney last year, but would seem to rank behind Santa Clara for a bid this year.
6) Pepperdine (12-21, 5-9) finished with a small push to stay out of the bottom of the conference, but will have to settle for that. Team anomaly: the Waves played better with the dismissal of star guard Keion Bell than they did with him in the lineup.
7) San Diego (6-24, 2-12). The Toreros ruined Randy Bennett’s season with their improbable upset of the Gaels on February 16, but did little else to give Bill Grier a reason for an upbeat off-season.
8) The hands-down Disappointment of the Year in the WCC, Loyola Marymount ended in last place after being picked second ahead of Saint Mary’s in a pre-season coaches’ poll. Does embattled Max Good have a future with the Lions after his team’s utter collapse? Only time will tell.
A Look Back
When the nets were cut by the victorious Gonzaga Bulldogs Monday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, there was a sense of déjà vu for the West Coast Conference. The same foes, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, battled it out for the WCC tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid that went with it. Gonzaga won this year’s title, 75-63, avenging an 81-62 pasting administered by the Gaels in 2010, and could claim WCC supremacy for the 11th straight year even though the Zags and Saint Mary’s tied for the regular-season championship with 11-3 records. Gonzaga now stands at 24-9, and Saint Mary’s at 24-8 with a rare Friday contest in between against Weber State – added as a warm-up for possible post-season play – still to come in Moraga.
For all the apparent similarities, however, the story of the Gaels and Bulldogs was marked by differences. The turning point in both teams’ season came in a January 27 game between the two on the Zags’ court in Spokane. Saint Mary’s gutted out a 73-71 win on the strength of Mickey McConnell’s last-second one-handed leaner from the free throw stripe with the Zag’s seven-footer Robert Sacre draped all over him.
The game should have been a difference-maker for Saint Mary’s, marking the first victory in Spokane during the immensely successful 10-year reign of 2011 WCC Coach of the Year RandyBennett. Instead of using the victory to spark a late-season run to the outright WCC championship and a secure NCAA seeding, however, the Gaels stumbled badly from that point on. They were routed 85-70 by a pesky Portland Pilots team two nights later in Portland, followed that up with an inexplicable 74-66 loss to cellar-dwelling San Diego on February 16, lost an ESPN Bracketbuster contest against Utah State 75-65 in Moraga on the 19th, and then dropped the rematch against Gonzaga, 89-85 in overtime on the 24th to give the Zags a shot at a conference season tie. Only a regular season-ending victory over Portland in Moraga on February 26 enabled the Gaels to avoid total collapse heading into the WCC Tournament.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, used the Saint Mary’s loss to spur itself to a 9-0 WCC run marred only by a 62-58 non-conference setback against Memphis on February 5. Gonzaga’s spurt was fueled in part by the ascension of JC transfer Marquise Carter to the starting point guard spot that had eluded him previously. On the strength of his late-season play, Carter garnered Newcomer of the Year honors in the WCC and was named Most Valuable Player in the WCC Tournament, indicating the realization by other conference coaches of his impact on what had been a wavering Gonzaga offense.
As Selection Sunday looms, Gonzaga considers NCAA life with possibly a lower seeding than they are accustomed to – perhaps a 9 or 10 seed instead of a 5 or 6 – but they know they’re in. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, will be Nervous Nellies on judgment day, hearkening back to two years ago when they were stiffed by the NCAA Selection Committee and won two games in the NIT instead. Most bracketologists had the Gaels in the NCAA field despite the WCC tournament result, but Bennett has been burned before and will probably not relax until he knows the Gaels’ fate for sure. The game against Weber State was not intended, nor will serve, to sway the Selection Committee.
McConnell, the Gaels’ crafty senior point guard, was voted Player of the Year and his stats – 16.8 points and 6.0 assists per game – reflected that. McConnell was joined on the All-Conference Team by his sophomore backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova, who contributed 13.5 points and 5.3 assists-per-game, and junior transfer forward Rob Jones, who totaled 13.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Others were:
Kevin Foster, Santa Clara, the WCC’s leading scorer at 19.4 ppg
Steven Gray, Gonzaga 13.8 ppg and 3.9 apg
Rashad Green, San Francisco guard, 11.8 ppg, 2.8 apg
Nemanja Mitrovic, Portland guard, 13.7 ppg
Mikey Williams, San Francisco guard, 15.0 ppg
Robert Sacre,Gonzaga center, 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg
Luke Sikma, Portland forward, 13.1 ppg and a league-leading 10.5 rpg
We're seeking knowledgeable and reliable writers for our Big East and Pac-12 microsites in 2013-14, as well as on the national site.
Please contact us at email@example.com with a writing sample and your specific areas of interest outlined.
George Mason’s band director, Dr. Michael W. Nickens, has his swagger on. Pic via @davestipe on Twitter.