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 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 »
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.