Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Gonzaga (11-3)
1. Saint Mary’s (11-3)
3. Loyola Marymount (9-5)
4. Portland (8-6)
5. Santa Clara (7-7)
6. San Francisco (6-8)
7. San Diego (2-12)
7. Pepperdine (2-12)
G: Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary’s
G: Steven Gray, Gonzaga
F: Elias Harris, Gonzaga
F: Drew Viney, Loyola
C: Luke Sikma, Portland
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
G: Steven Holt, Saint Mary’s (12.7 ppg, 6.0 apg in senior year at Jesuit High School, Portland)
G: Ben Vozzola, San Diego (21 ppg, 6.0 apg in senior year at Centennial High School, Las Vegas)
F: Charles Standifer, San Francisco (24.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg in senior year at Capital Christian High School in Sacramento)
F: Yannick Atanga, Santa Clara (15.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg in senior year at Besant Hill, Ojai, CA)
C: Kenton Walker, Saint Mary’s (5.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg as sophomore at Creighton University in 08-09)
Just imagine the smile on Mark Few's face if he knocks off some of Gonzaga's top-flight nonconference opponents. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
What You Need to Know
The WCC sent 10-time regular-season champion Gonzaga and conference tournament champion Saint Mary’s to the NCAA Tournament last year, with the Gaels advancing to the Sweet Sixteen after victories over Richmond and Villanova and the Zags winning their first-round game against FloridaState. Loyola Marymount and Portland also played in the CollegeInsider.com Post-Season Tournament (CIT), with the Lions losing to Pacific in the first round and Portland losing to NorthernColorado, also in the first round. The conference is hopeful to return to its high-water mark of 2007 when Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego made the NCAA Tourney. LMU is bidding for the third NCAA invite in 2010-11, counting on a strong performance from its veteran core (four of five starters return) that produced an 18-16 record last year. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will be favored to fight for the automatic NCAA bid or an at-large berth.
SaintMary’s (NCAA: #10) and Gonzaga (NCAA: #6) will tie atop the WCC regular-season standings at 11-3 each, with Saint Mary’s receiving the automatic bid with a victory over Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament Championship. The Gaels will match their #10-seed of last year, while the Zags, on the strength of a monster out-of-conference schedule, (San Diego State, Kansas State, Duke/Marquette, Illinois, Xavier, Wake Forest and Memphis) receive a #6-seed.
The situation regarding Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga was best exemplified by SI.com’s preseason pick of the Gaels as the 15th-best college backcourt and the Zags as the 13th-best frontcourt. Will the Gaels’ wily veteran Mickey McConnell, he of the gaudy 51% three-point average, and Energizer Bunny MatthewDellavedova, with his ill-fitting jersey and oversized mouthpiece, edge out the Zags’ fearsome frontcourt of 7’0 center Robert Sacre, 6’7 forward Elias Harris and either 7’0 Kelly Olynyk or 6’6 swingman Manny Arop? This face-off will headline the WCC race and might not be decided until the Feb. 24 showdown between the two in Moraga.
In the postseason, Saint Mary’s will be hopeful of crossing the Sweet Sixteen divide in 2011, erasing the memory of its collapse against Baylor (72-49) in the 2010 tournament. Gonzaga, which lost in the first round in ’07 and ’08, the Sweet Sixteen in ’09 and the second round in ’10, looks to revive the glory days of deep tournament runs.
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference (WCC).
Predicted Order of Finish:
Sleeper. San Francisco
WYN2K. For the last ten years the WCC national storyline has read “Gonzaga and the seven dwarfs.” However, as many have learned, Grumpy and Sleepy are finally growing up. Saint Mary’s and San Diego, both of which made the Big Dance last season, return 88% of their scoring and are primed for return trips to March Madness. Saint Mary’s is lead by lightning quick Aussie Patrick Mills and All Conference Defensive Player of the Year Diamon Simpson. Down south, the Toreros return forward Gyno Pomare and guard Brandon Johnson, both of whom made the All-Conference team a season ago. Don’t be fooled however, Gonzaga still has the bullets to defend their conference crown as they return WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo and potential lottery pick Austin Daye. Aside from the “three wise men,” the remaining teams in the conference are rebuilding. Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and USF all have new coaches, while Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating is only in his second year as the head man of the Broncos. Portland looks to build on a young cast which includes Nik Raivio (brother of former GU All-American Derek) and Luke Sikma (son of Sonic great Jack Sikma).
Predicted Champion.Gonzaga (NCAA #3). The Bulldogs’ strength this year will be in its backcourt where they figure to go with three guard sets quite often. This team will go as far as Conference POY Jeremy Pargo will take them. After flirting with the NBA this summer, the Chicago native decided to return for a final year to hone his outside shooting skills. His backcourt mate Steven Gray is the sharpshooter of the bunch. The third guard for the Bulldogs is Matt Bouldin. After a stellar freshman campaign two seasons ago, Bouldin had an up-and-down year as a sophomore. Demetrius Goodson, a super athletic freshman point guard and Micah Downs, a former Kansas Jayhawk capable of playing the 2, 3, and 4 positions add significant depth to the GU backcourt. The frontline, though stellar on offense, lacks proven depth and a real defensive force. Austin Daye, the silky forward from Irvine, can shoot it from anywhere on the court and provides GU with a real mismatch when he plays at the 3 spot. The only true experienced big man on the GU roster is senior Josh Heytvelt. Injuries and personal problems have nagged at his career, however, but if he can bounce back from a constant foot problem and returns to his sophomore form, GU should have a solid post threat to go alongside their outstanding perimeter shooting. The depth for Gonzaga has potential, but right now it is unproven. The best of the bunch is 7-footer Robert Sacre, but last year Few used him in limited action on tips-offs. Another 7-footer, Will Foster, may provide some defensive minutes, but to date has not shown any offensive prowess. Coaches like Ira Brown’s toughness, but against a Diamon Simpson or Gyno Pomare, he will have a tough time. Freshman Andrew Poling and Iowa POY Grant Gibbs may end up redshirting this season.
Saint Mary’s (NCAA #10). Although the Patty Mills story is the biggest news around in the picturesque campus of Moraga, CA, the Gaels have more to be excited about than Kobe and Chris Paul describing Patty as “lightning quick.” Not only do the Gaels return last year’s freshman of the year (Mills) and Defensive POY (Simpson), but also two other starters and almost all of their scoring. However, what could put the Gaels over the top in the WCC is their depth. Unlike other WCC teams, the Gaels are arguably ten deep. The front line returns all three starters (Simpson, Omar Samhan and Ian O’Leary). Of the three Diamon is the most polished. His game can be described in one word – relentless. Already the senior from Hayward, CA, has broken the career blocks record at SMC and is currently in the top ten all-time in rebounds for the Gaels. Samhan, the only true center on the team, has a nice offensive skill set and has steadily improved his defense over the last two seasons. As mentioned, the bench provides the Gaels with a wealth of experience. Returners Yusef Smith and Lucas Walker, as well as 7-foot Indiana transfer Ben Allen provides the Gaels with true backups for Samhan and Simpson. In particular, Ben Allen’s shooting ability should allow Coach Randy Bennett to use some of the high post offense that got the Gaels to the Dance in 2003-04. In the backcourt, aside from Mills, the Gaels return redshirt junior Wayne Hunter to the lineup. The 6-2 guard would have been Bennett’s best on-ball defender, but because of the logjam last year, Bennett could not find a place for him. Should Hunter’s offense regress, expect the Gaels to go Aussie Carlin Hughes. Even if he doesn’t start, Hughes will see significant minutes as he is the best returning shooter on the Gaels roster. One guy to keep an eye on is freshman Clint Steindl. Another transport from down under, he may take minutes from O’Leary if the senior swingman’s offensive game goes cold. There is talk that Collin Chiverton, fellow teammate of UCLA recruit Drew Gordon, may also see time, but with the depth the Gaels possess, he may end up redshirting.
San Diego (NIT). Seniors Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare took the WCC by surprise last season with a strong finish, winning the conference tournament at home, then knocking off UConn in the first round of the NCAAs. The question now is whether their “one shining moment” will catapult the Toreros to the top of the WCC. The good thing for the Toreros is they return their entire team from a year ago. While Pomare and Johnson are the headliners, guards Dejon Jackson and Tremaine Johnson will have to continue their growth in order for their team to reach the Dance. Forwards Chris Lewis and Rob Jones also saw significant action next year and should also to continue to improve. However, in order to have a real shot at the Gaels or Bulldogs, USD will have to get some major contributions from some young players, most notably Brazilian transfer Roberto Manfra and Nathan Lozeau. The two are USD’s biggest bodies and must be able to hold their own against the likes of Josh Heytvelt, Omar Samhan, and Diamon Simpson. Another factor for the Toreros is that the tournament moves from the friendly confines of Jenny Craig Pavilion to a neutral site this year. The last two times USD made it to March Madness, they hosted the WCC Tournament. Here’s an audience-eye view of the big upset over UConn.
Fighting for Fourth.
Santa Clara. Center John Bryant, perhaps the best center in the conference, is a load. But aside from him the team is thin and unless junior guard Calvin Johnson and some transfers step up, the Broncos will only be a .500 team at best.
San Francisco. With the return of all conference forward Dior Lowthorn and former Rutgers guard Manny Quezada, USF has the offensive weapons to upset anyone in the conference. But if new coach Rex Walters wants to play with the big boys he will need to find some other pieces to go along with these two studs.
Portland. Quietly former Stanford assistant Eric Reveno has built a solid team in Portland. Most of his team returns, including guards Taishi Ito and Nik Raivio and forwards Luke Sikma and Robin Smuelders, but they don’t match up well with the likes of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
Pepperdine. After the Vince Walhberg debacle, Pepperdine went to the archives and dug up former coach Tom Ashbury. With a promising but young team, Ashbury will need to teach these guys how to win so they have a chance in years to come.
Loyola Marymount. Like Pepperdine, Coach Bill Bayno is counting on next year when he brings in Seton Hall transfer Larry Hughes and Oregon Transfer Drew Viney.
All Conference Team.
Patrick Mills, St. Mary’s (POY)
Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
Austin Daye, Gonzaga
Diamon Simpson, St. Mary’s (DPOY)
Gyno Pomare, San Diego
Prediction. Until another team proves otherwise, the Gonzaga Bulldogs remain at the top. However GU is not a unbeatable as some think (Sporting News ranks them #4 nationally). The Bulldogs can shoot the lights out with the best of them, but their frontcourt remains a huge question mark. On the other hand, Saint Mary’s can bang with anybody, but until someone can prove to be their go-to deep shooter, the Gaels will have a difficult time matching up against upper echelon athletic teams, especially those with great shooting guards. San Diego is the darkhorse, but to this analyst they look like a poor man’s Gonzaga. In order for all three to make a return appearance to the NCAAs they will have to perform well in brutal preseason schedules and manage the expectations. This shouldn’t be a problem for Gonzaga, as they are used to the pressure which comes from being the top dog, but as for Saint Mary’s and San Diego, it will be interesting to see what how they will respond as the hunted.
65 Team Era. The WCC is 20-34 (.370), but let’s not kid ourselves, the majority of those wins (12) are from Gonzaga during the last decade (4 others are from the run-n-gun LMU teams in the late 80s/early 90s). Still, in five of the last nine seasons, the WCC has been a multiple-bid league, including the best-ever showing of three bids in 2008. How interesting is it that the lowest seed, #13 San Diego, was the only team to win a game in the Tourney, while higher seeded #7 Gonzaga and #10 St. Mary’s were sent packing in their first game. With the collective strength of the top half of this conference this year and potentially into the future, there should be numerous opportunities for the WCC to have multiple teams advancing very soon.