WCC Wrap-up and Postseason Primer

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2011

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 Randy Bennett. 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.

All-Conference Honors:

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
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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 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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