Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
A Look Back
It’s been mostly preliminary skirmishing in conference play so far, but the race heats up next week with some key showdown games. Saint Mary’s (4-0) and Gonzaga (3-0) remained undefeated in conference play, with Portland and San Francisco tied for third with 2-1 marks. Santa Clara (1-2) kept a half-game lead over Loyola Marymount, which continued to struggle at 1-3, the same record as Pepperdine, while San Diego (0-4) is still searching for its first win.
Saint Mary’s boasts the conference’s longest winning streak at ten in a row, and the Gaels eased into the national rankings for the first time after strong home victories last week over San Francisco (71-57) and Santa Clara (84-59). The Gaels were ranked 22nd in the AP Top 25 poll and 21st in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, while Gonzaga placed 29th in the AP poll and 30th in the Coaches poll.
Portland may be looking over its shoulder at three teams who look as if they could challenge for third or fourth place behind the Gaels and Zags: San Francisco, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount. San Francisco may have gained the most confidence – and the most respect – in last week’s play, as the Dons fought Saint Mary’s hard in the first half in Moraga and ended up losing by “only” 14 points. The face-saver in that is the Gaels’ average margin of victory this year has been 22-plus points. The Dons also chalked up road wins over Santa Clara (74-67) on January 8 and over San Diego (65-55) on Saturday.
While the Dons surged, Portland treaded water frantically. The Pilots blew a seven-point lead with less than three minutes remaining against Loyola Marymount last Thursday, then needed two overtimes to beat the Lions 79-78. Two nights later, they shot only 30% from the field in the second half in a 57-42 win over Pepperdine. One factor remained constant for the Pilots, however – Luke Sikma continued his outstanding season with 24 and ten against Loyola Marymount and 15 and nine against Pepperdine. For the season, Sikma is averaging 13.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Although Loyola Marymount went 0-2 in its Pacific Northwest swing, falling to Gonzaga 79-59 two nights after the heartbreaking Portland loss, Max Good finally has his full team available. Slow-recovering post man Edgar Garibay played 34 minutes in the Portland loss, contributing 10 points and four rebounds, then came back for 14 minutes against Gonzaga. Perhaps more cheering for Lions fans, Garibay was joined in the frontcourt by Ashley Hamilton, coming back from a hand injury, who logged 33 minutes against Portland and 19 against Gonzaga in putting up six points and five rebounds. Baby steps, but Good will gladly accept them.
Santa Clara squeezed in a 61-52 road win over San Diego last Thursday between the disappointing loss to San Francisco and the scorching by Saint Mary’s to keep alive its hopes of a top-four finish.
Player of the Week: Gonzaga’s 7’ post man Robert Sacre has been solid all season, anchoring a sometimes-sporadic offense with consistent production. He outdid himself in a pair of games last week, however, earning WCC Player of the Week honors for his performances against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. The LMU game was a somewhat typical Sacre outing with 18 points and seven boards, but he was literally perfect against Pepperdine, notching 24 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field and the same mark from the free throw line. Perfect is good.
A Look Ahead
Now it gets interesting, as someone once said. Saint Mary’s undergoes the biggest trial-by-fire of its season with a three-game sojourn to Nashville to take on previously-ranked Vanderbilt on Saturday (1/22), then to Spokane for a barnburner against Gonzaga on Thursday (1/27). If the Gaels have anything left in the tank they’ll take it to Portland two nights later (1/29) to finish off the trifecta against the Pilots. The Vanderbilt game is the closing act of a home-and-home set that began with a 72-70 Vandy win last season in Moraga. Ironically, the Gaels moved into the national rankings the same week the Commodores fell out following their 67-64 loss to Tennessee in a game they once led by 17 points. The ‘Dores (12-4, 1-2 SEC) would love nothing more than to move back in to the Top 25 courtesy of a win over the Gaels.
The Thursday night matchup between the Gaels and Zags is the most compelling West Coast game of the season so far. All that is at stake is the Gaels’ national ranking, their desire to post their first win at Gonzaga since 1995, first place in the WCC and Gonzaga’s unwillingness to cede leadership in the conference it has dominated with ten straight regular-season titles. Some games need no excess hype, and this is certainly one of them.
Portland is hoping to play the role of coup de grace administrator as it has the past two years. Saint Mary’s limped into Portland following a deflating loss to Gonzaga in 2009 which saw a near-season-ending injury to Patty Mills, and last year after failing to engage the Zags in an 80-61 embarrassment heightened by McConnell’s 0-for-5 shooting night. McConnell rebounded with a 25 and 4 effort against Portland, but it wasn’t enough to stave off an 80-75 overtime loss. Ouch! and double ouch! has been the tale for Saint Mary’s the last two years in the Great Northwest, and it will be a true test of their mettle to avoid that fate in 2011.
At the other end of the conference geographically, Loyola Marymount will visit Pepperdine in Mailbu on Saturday for the annual slugfest between the two LA-area schools. Loyola Marymount has not won on the Waves’ court in many years, and Pepperdine will be geared up to continue that trend. After bombing out at Portland and Gonzaga last week, Loyola Marymount cannot afford to drop another conference contest. Game on.
Gonzaga will repeat the annual Bay Area trip to Santa Clara and San Francisco that proved difficult last year with a narrow (71-64) win over the Broncos and an 81-77 OT loss to the Dons. Portland will also be along for the ride.