Increasingly Balanced WCC Could Have Bright Future Ahead

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say… Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than it has in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15.

That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished eighth in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga managed to narrowly escape the Broncos’ challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the WCC Tournament title this week, but are these more balanced days here to stay and flourish in the WCC?

The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the WCC Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI and KenPom ranking of #9 is the best since the 2004-05 season, and there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post, honestly), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of its core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting improved teams to return in 2014-15.

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Conference Tournament Primer: West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on March 6th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Tournament Preview

There are some new contenders, some elevated expectations and the hint of upset in the air. But, in the end, will it add up to someone other than Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s winning the WCC Tournament title next Tuesday and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? Those two have played in the championship game for the past five years – Gonzaga winning three – and the first change in 2014 is that they will not repeat that engagement. The Gaels and the Zags are in the same half of this year’s bracket; their clash, if it comes, will be in the semifinals on Monday, and only one will emerge to contend for the championship.

1

The replacement of Saint Mary’s by BYU as the tourney’s second seed and the emergence of San Francisco as a legitimate championship contender is the first major change in the tournament makeup. BYU and San Francisco tied for second place behind Gonzaga in the conference standings, with BYU earning the second seed by virtue of a sweep over San Francisco, and Saint Mary’s limped in at fourth. The other major change is a requirement that all teams in the tournament play at least three games. Gone is the WCC’s controversial practice of granting the first and second finishers a bye to the semifinal round. For the last five years, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s had only a semifinal game to contend with before squaring off for the title.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 27th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

Perris Blackwell is pulling down rebounds for Washington, De’End Parker is leading Cal State San Marcos to the top of NAIA ranks, and Cody Doolin is plotting his comeback next year at UNLV. But Rex Walters has commanded a resolute Gang of Six anchored by senior forward Cole Dickerson to propel San Francisco to the brink of second place in the WCC with an outside chance of tying for the title. By holding off hapless Saint Mary’s and still-struggling Pacific at home last week, the Dons moved to 11-5 in conference play and into a virtual tie with BYU for the second spot (the Cougars have a half-game lead by virtue of having played one more game). If the Dons sweep Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount this week in Southern California and BYU and Gonzaga stumble in their final contests, Walters’ embattled troops will have pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in WCC history.

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could record an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could earn itself an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

Gonzaga paved the way for this potential outcome by dropping both its road contests last week, first to an aroused BYU in Provo, and then to a scrappy San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. The Zags’ lack of depth was a factor in both losses, as Mark Few has narrowed his rotation to exclude anyone besides Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, Jr. in the frontcourt. Providence transfer Gerard Coleman, Louisville transfer Angel Nunez and two freshmen are anchored on the bench as the Zags plow unsteadily towards another conference championship and a top seed in the WCC Tournament, opening March 6 in Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 13th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The scramble for second place in the WCC continued unabated last week, as Saint Mary’s and BYU held off defeats that would have made any conference title dreams impossible. As things stand now, they’re only just unrealistic. San Francisco and Pepperdine, two other teams harboring dreams for a lofty finish, stumbled.

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Gonzaga’s three-game lead in the loss column over BYU and Saint Mary’s seems impregnable, but the schedule-makers have done the Zags no favors. After entertaining Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount at home this week, Gonzaga hits the road for four season-ending games that could prove harrowing. BYU, San Diego and Saint Mary’s must be considered at least potential upset opportunities, and even Pacific has showed its Tiger teeth occasionally this season. What better way to salvage a disappointing return to the WCC than by knocking off the Zags? Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 5th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The previous week’s play might have sealed the WCC’s fate as a one-bid league. With the shocking demise of Saint Mary’s as a serious contender for an at-large NCAA berth, only Gonzaga has an overall resume and a potential WCC Tournament championship firmly in its grasp. BYU proved its strength in the Marriott Center with an 84-71 victory over Saint Mary’s, but still has road games against the Gaels and up-and-down San Diego and has posted a so-so 15-9 record so far. San Francisco may be better positioned than BYU to challenge for second place behind Gonzaga, with a Saturday showdown in Provo looming to possibly settle that question, but second place will not win an at-large bid for the Dons either.

Bennet's Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary's to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Bennet’s Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary’s to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

The Gaels’ meltdown against San Diego – a 61-43 humiliation in which they barely registered a pulse – and subsequent loss to BYU marked several milestones for Saint Mary’s, none of them positive. In absorbing four losses with eight games to go, the Gaels have guaranteed their worst WCC performance since going 10-4 in 2008-09. Saint Mary’s record of winning at least 25 games a year for six straight seasons also seems doomed, with possibly 11 games left (assuming three games in the WCC tournament) and only 16 wins so far.

The only apparent path to a second bid for the conference lies in an upset of Gonzaga at the WCC Tournament in March. In that case, the victor would receive the automatic NCAA bid and Gonzaga would presumably receive an at-large bid based on its history of 14 straight NCAA appearances and its overall resume in 2013-14. But which team is likely to pull that off? There is no bye to the semifinal round this year, as each potential champion must play at least three times in Las Vegas. None of the would-be contenders has shown the consistency to pull off three tournament wins, which would include a victory over Gonzaga along the way. A single bid seems all but assured.

Power Rankings

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Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 28th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Crystal Ball Time

With most teams in the WCC having completed half the conference schedule it’s time to do some end-game handicapping. Here’s how the rest of the schedule shapes up for the main players:

  • Gonzaga, although sitting pretty at 8-1 with a game-and-a-half lead on Saint Mary’s, has a tough second half of conference play ahead. Its three home games should give the Zags little trouble, but road pitfalls could come against the Bay Area schools (Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Santa Clara), in Provo against BYU, and in the Jenny Craig Pavilion against San Diego.
  • Saint Mary’s has an unfavorable (4/6) home/road balance ahead, but two of the road games are against nearby rivals San Francisco and Santa Clara. The Gaels’ main peril begins right now with four games in southern California and Provo. If Saint Mary’s comes off that journey intact, it will be well positioned to entertain BYU and Gonzaga at home.
Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

  • San Francisco also has a chance to do some damage against the leaders by entertaining Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s at home, but will be at risk on the road against BYU and San Diego.
  • BYU is up against the wall no matter how you slice it because of its inability to win a single conference game on the road. The Cougars will certainly battle Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga tough at home, but its chances against the Gaels and Toreros on the road don’t look good based on performance to date.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1)
  2. Saint Mary’s (16-5, 6-2)
  3. San Francisco (13-8, 6-3)
  4. BYU (13-9, 5-4)
  5. Pepperdine (12-10, 5-5)
  6. Portland (12-9, 4-5)
  7. San Diego (12-10, 3-6)
  8. Santa Clara (10-12, 3-6)
  9. Loyola Marymount (11-11, 3-7)
  10. Pacific (11-8, 2-6)

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Checking In On… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 23rd, 2014

Looking Back

Things are beginning to have a more familiar look as the WCC season passes the one-third mark: Gonzaga on top, with BYU and Saint Mary’s trailing closely behind. Early-season pretenders such as Pepperdine and San Francisco have been knocked back, if not out, and BYU seems to have overcome its first-week stumble into losses at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount by rattling off five straight wins.

Rumors of Mark Few and Gonzaga leaving the WCC keeps getting louder and louder (AP)

It’s been business as usual for Mark Few and Gonzaga, who have once again performed at a championship level. (AP)

  • Gonzaga has gotten Sam Dower Jr. back and is successfully integrating Louisville transfer Angel Nunez into its offense. Only the return of Gary Bell Jr. from a broken wrist keeps the Zags from fielding the team it envisioned at season’s outset.
  • Saint Mary’s has Randy Bennett back at the helm after a five-game NCAA-imposed suspension, and the result has been two wins at home. The Gaels hope to welcome Garrett Jackson back this week after several weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, which will give Beau Levesque some support at power forward.
  • All the leaders seem set for the next part of the season, therefore, and only one game separates BYU and a game-and-a-half separates Saint Mary’s from the Zags. Let the games continue.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (16-3, 6-1)
  2. BYU (13-7, 5-2)
  3. Saint Mary’s (14-5, 4-2)
  4. San Francisco (12-8, 5-3)
  5. Pepperdine (12-8, 5-3)
  6. Portland (11-8, 3-4)
  7. Santa Clara (10-11, 3-5)
  8. San Diego (11-9, 2-5)
  9. Loyola Marymount (10-10, 2-6)
  10. Pacific (10-7, 1-5)

WCC News & Notes

  • Dower celebrated his return to the Gonzaga starting lineup with two monster games in Southern California, an effort that won him WCC Player of the Week honors. Dower was a perfect 7-of-7 against Pepperdine, which had a chance to take over first place in the WCC with a win, and added eight rebounds to his 18 points in a 70-53 rout. He matched that with a 28/14 effort two nights later against LMU, leading the Zags to an 82-72 win. Perhaps in recognition of Dower’s importance, the USA Today poll raised the Zags three spots from 24th to 21st.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

Did the earth move or was it merely a hiccup?

Somehow, Randy Bennett And Saint Mary's Just Keep On Winning Games (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Randy Bennett is back for Saint Mary’s. (Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

One could see portents in Santa Clara’s upset of Saint Mary’s (57-55) on the Gaels’ court last Thursday, and in Gonzaga’s slip at Portland (82-73) the same night. After all, Gonzaga had won 22 straight conference games and 20 in a row over Portland, and Santa Clara had beaten Saint Mary’s only once before in Kerry Keating’s seven seasons at the helm. So, the upsets indicated anything but business as usual in the WCC. But don’t go rushing out and proclaiming the dawn of a new champion in the WCC, which has been dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the past decade. The Gaels bounced back from the Santa Clara loss with a solid 87-73 pounding of San Francisco, which came to Moraga with a 4-1 conference mark and intentions of staking a claim at the top of the standings. The San Francisco game also marked the return of Randy Bennett to the Gaels’ bench after an NCAA-imposed five-game ban on leading the team. Although top assistant Eran Ganot guided Saint Mary’s to a 3-2 mark, including two conference road wins, everyone in Gael Nation breathed easier with Bennett back in charge.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Saint Louis, Billy Baron, David Carter & Portland

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2014

Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.

O26 Team of the Week

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports)

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit/USA TODAY Sports)

Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.

It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.

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Checking in on… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 1st, 2014

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

Looking Back

Every week in a conference season is its own self-contained drama with winners, losers, and in-betweeners. The opening week is more dramatic than most because portents are seen and chances are calculated. After the opening weekend of the nine-week WCC season, some definite winners and losers emerged. Whether they stay that way will depend on what happens from now until March 1.

Marty Wilson and Pepperdine picked up arguably the best win of the weekend. (US Presswire)

Marty Wilson and Pepperdine picked up arguably the best win of the weekend. (US Presswire)

Winners: Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine, and Gonzaga made the most of opening at home by sweeping both opponents. Most impressive: Pepperdine’s 80-74 win over BYU, which had defeated Stanford and Utah State on the road and Texas at a neutral-site game.

Losers: Portland and Pacific, which blew opportunities to start the season with solid home wins, BYU, which bombed on the road at LMU and Pepperdine, and San Diego, which also lost two road games. It’s a toss-up whether Portland or BYU was most disappointing. Portland had winnable games against San Francisco and Santa Clara, but lost both, and BYU looked like anything but the team that is going to threaten Gonzaga for the conference title. Pacific had a wounded Saint Mary’s that was coming into the Spanos Center after a disastrous Diamond Head Classic performance (0-3) and was without head coach Randy Bennett, who was serving an NCAA-imposed five-game suspension. The Tigers lost anyway, 88-80, blowing a chance to make its debut in the WCC (after a 43-year absence) with a positive statement.

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Checking In On… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on December 24th, 2013

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

Looking Back

College teams use their pre-conference slates in a variety of ways, but debate usually centers on two approaches: build RPI and team character by challenging strong teams, sometimes on the road; or marshal team resources by playing a home-centric schedule with a modicum of challenging opponents. No conference exemplifies this split more than the WCC in 2013-14.

Dave Rose and BYU bullied their way through a tough non-conference slate. (BYU Athletics)

Dave Rose and BYU bullied their way through a tough non-conference slate. (BYU Athletics)

BYU, donning Gonzaga’s suddenly-unused traveling clothes, has compiled the boldest preseason schedule by far, traveling to Stanford (112-103 win), Kansas City for a tournament (86-82 win over Texas, 75-62 loss to Wichita State), Utah State (85-74 win), UMass (105-96 loss), Utah (81-64 loss) and Oregon (100-96 loss). Straddling a home game against ranked Iowa State (90-88 loss), the Cougars have played seven games outside Provo, three of those against ranked teams. Other than a penchant for travel, however, BYU’s boldness hasn’t revealed much about what kind of team it will be in the WCC, much less the postseason, if there is one. For one thing, BYU lost four of those tough games and gave up a bucket-load of points (88.6 PPG), with three opponents topping 100. One could say the Cougars are battle-hardened but still unproven.

The polar opposite of BYU’s approach was taken by Saint Mary’s, which rattled off seven straight home wins, some over quality opponents (North Dakota State, Akron, Louisiana Tech) before venturing to Boise and conquering Boise State 82-74. Those who argue that only the road forges steel were given support by the Gaels’ 78-71 collapse against Frank Martin’s rebuilding South Carolina Gamecocks followed by a loss to Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic. The Gaels will play George Mason on Christmas morning in the ignominious seventh-place game. From an at-large resume perspective, Saint Mary’s will need to leave the islands with at least one victory.

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Dana Altman and the Rise of Oregon Basketball

Posted by Connor Pelton on October 8th, 2013

Four short years ago, the Oregon basketball program was nearly left for dead. Of the Ducks’ 12 losses to Pac-10 opponents, 11 of those came by double figures. There were also losses to teams like Portland and Montana, and while McArthur Court was still a classic, its age was starting to show in a bad way. In January of the 2009-10 season, the Oregon football team went to its first Rose Bowl in 14 years, and it felt like the hoops team was getting left behind in all of the athletic excitement.

Enter Dana Altman the very next season. Altman was hired after a lengthy search, one that reportedly had many many high profile targets turn down the job. The former Creighton head man made a splash immediately, sweeping the Civil War series with Oregon State, upsetting a top 20 Washington team, and making it to the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament. They didn’t stop there, though, and after pulling an invitation to the CBI to close the season, the Ducks beat Altman’s former team in the best of three championship series in thrilling fashion. Also, halfway through the year, Oregon unveiled its state of the art replacement to The Pit, the Matthew Knight Arena. While drawing criticism from most of the nation for its oddly-drawn floor art, Oregon fans, and more importantly recruits, were drawn to it.

Oregon's NBA-Like Arena Has Helped The Resurgence Of The Hoops Program (credit: Brian Feulner)

Oregon’s NBA-Like Arena Has Helped The Resurgence Of The Hoops Program (credit: Brian Feulner)

Over the last two seasons, Oregon has continued to gain momentum. It won 24 games in 2011-12, including road contests at Nebraska, Arizona, and Oregon State. That season concluded with a trip to the NIT, and the Ducks were bounced in an entertaining rivalry game at Washington in the quarterfinals. Behind key hustle players like E.J. Singler, Carlos Emory, and Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon continued its rise up the postseason ladder in the last year’s campaign. Compiling two streaks of five straight wins and one of eight consecutive victories, Altman’s squad put it all together in March, winning the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and pulling back-to-back upsets as a #12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The run ended against top overall seed and eventual national champion Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen.

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