When you have the facts, pound the facts. When you have the law, pound the law. When you have neither, pound the table. The NCAA would do well to remember this old legal axiom as it enters a dangerous stage of its lawsuit over image and likeness rights collectively known as the Ed O’Bannon case. On Monday of this week, the organization requested a 15-month continuance of the opening date of the trial — currently scheduled for June 9, 2014 — in a shamelessly transparent attempt to solidify its position by distancing itself from one of its most embarrassing gaffes in the past few years. Jay Bilas, anyone? EA sports and Collegiate Licensing Co., co-defendants in the case along with the NCAA, interestingly enough only requested a five-month continuance for the start of the trial. The federal judge overseeing this lawsuit, Claudia Wilken, had requested that the defendants come to a mutual agreement on trial date by Monday, but their inability to come to simple terms on that question may only serve to anger her as she weighs a number of important motions on class certification and other items that will seriously impact the case.
And the hits just keep on coming. Mere days after a social media-fueled firestorm over the NCAA’s initial decision (subsequently reversed) to deny former US Marine Steven Rhodes from walking on to play football this year for Middle Tennessee, another controversy has enveloped the organization over an eligibility question that strains the limits of common sense. As The Star-Ledger‘s Tom Liucciwrites, Iowa State transfer Kerwin Okorowas recently denied a waiver to play for Rutgers in 2013-14 because his medical hardships — Okoro’s father and brother each passed away last winter — are not current. The rule on receiving a medical hardship waiver states that the player must show “medical documentation of a debilitating injury or illness to a student-athlete’s immediate family member that is debilitating and requires ongoing medical care,” technically precluding Okoro from the benefit. But how about some big picture common sense here? While it’s true that Okoro will not be required to care for his now-deceased relatives, there are other compelling reasons involving his family’s overall healing process that should also be considered in such a decision.
We’ve long known that Division I college basketball players are some of the best all-around athletes in the world, what with the core components of elite “athleticism” — speed, agility, strength, flexibility, stamina — all very well-represented in our sport. Several athletes who perhaps weren’t skilled enough for professional basketball found their way into other athletic sports — we’re thinking about NFL tight ends such as Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates here — but, as The Dagger‘s Jeff Eisenberg writes, a lesser-known version of football played in Australia is looking at college basketball as a nice pipeline to find its next generation of ruckmen. A what, you say? Well, a ruckman is someone in Australian Rules Football who is tasked with securing possession for his team after dead balls and scores through a modified jump ball situation. Who better than to fit that need for our friends Down Under than undersized big men with explosive hops and a knack for getting their hands on the ball. As the world becomes flatter in economics and sport, we imagine that we’ll start to hear more stories like these as the rest of the planet discovers just how athletic our basketball players — even those outside the NBA — actually are.
One of the most discouraging stories of last offseason has resurfaced in a big way with the news on Wednesday that former Xavier-turned-Maryland guard Dez Wells, he of the rape allegations so absurd that the local prosecutor publicly stated they were “fundamentally unfair,” has decided to sue his old school for damage to his reputation and a good old-fashioned apology. In an environment where seemingly every semi-public figure claims that he will sue to protect his good name after getting blatantly caught telling bold-faced lies, it’s encouraging to see a situation where the justice system will be used to mete out some actual justice. Xavier expelled Wells from its school last summer, citing a decision made by its Conduct Board (and upheld on appeal) that predated the related criminal grand jury investigation; as a result, Wells has since suffered mightily from the school’s rush to judgment. That he’s bringing this case while he’s still playing NCAA basketball is rich with storyline possibilities — could he somehow face his legal adversary in a postseason match-up for the ages between the Terps and Musketeers? We can only hope…
A lot of schedules have been releasing over the past couple of weeks, and the most notable in the last 24 hours were from a couple of conferences. First, the SECreleased its conference-only schedule, featuring a bunch of mediocre teams that nobody pays attention to until February a solid balance of Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday night games with the standard Saturday smorgasbord but lacking the Kentucky-Tennessee battle in Knoxville that has produced so many great contests over the years. A special thank you goes out to Texas A&M and Missouri for that omission. On the other side of the continent, the WCCalso released its conference schedule, which means that the only two games of true importance in this league — Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s, Acts I and II — should already be inked into your calendar (January 2 and March 1). Many more of these releases to come in the next few weeks.
Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the WCC.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Three Key Storylines
Ex-champs Fight Back. Gonzaga’s streak of 11 consecutive seasons with at least a share of the WCC crown came to an end last year as Saint Mary’s won both the regular season title and the WCC Tournament. How will the Zags react as a challenger rather than defending champion? Is Saint Mary’s for real or just a pretender? This is the key storyline for the WCC heading into the 2012-13 season. Gonzaga answers with a strong returning lineup boasting conference leaders Elias Harris at strong forward and dual freshmen sensations Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. at the guard spots. Rather than miss the graduated Robert Sacre, Zag partisans insist more playing time for Sam Dower will equal more production in the post. Saint Mary’s answers with a possibly even stronger backcourt of Olympics hero Matt Dellavedova and defensive terror Stephen Holt. The Gaels will have a rebuilt front line anchored by redshirt sophomore Brad Waldow and transfer forward Matt Hodgson, and looks forward to proving last year’s title was no fluke.
These WCC Stars Will Determine the Storyline of the 2012-13 Season
Revamp or Disaster? San Francisco coach Rex Walters was consistently cool when asked about the unsettling defection of six players from his roster following last season’s disappointing season (8-8, fifth place in WCC). For the most part he knew they were leaving, Walters said, and he has replaced them with players of equal or better value. Maybe, but any time a team loses its top four scorers (Angelo Caloiaro, Perris Blackwell, Rashad Green and Michael Williams) and returns only two players with significant game experience – Cody Doolin and Cole Dickerson – it puts tremendous pressure on the newcomers. Of the many new faces on the Hilltop, former UCLA recruit De’End Parker, recently cleared to participate in the upcoming season, looks to be the Dons’ best bet for stardom.
Broncos Healthy Again. Things could not possibly have gone worse for Santa Clara last year – really, they lost all 16 conference games – so maybe karmic forces are aligned to bring the Broncos salvation. MarcTrasolini, the hard-nosed 6’9″ forward who was looked upon to provide senior leadership, instead tore his ACL in the preseason. Outstanding shooting guard Kevin Foster was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence following a Bronco home loss to Saint Mary’s, and never returned to action. With Trasolini and Foster back this season, Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating should smile more. Keating will also have improving 7-foot center Robert Garrett and slick point guard Evan Roquemore back in the fold, so the Broncos have a solid foundation for success
Last Night’s Lede – Not a single power conference team played on Monday night and there were only 12 total games played, yet it ended up being one of the best nights of the entire season. Why’s that? Because it was the first full night of Championship Week, in which all games taking place from here on out will come during postseason tournaments. Monday saw four conference tournament finals take place – two at 7:00 PM ET, two at 9:00 PM ET – on ESPN or ESPN2, and each game came down to the final possession. The four championships were decided by 13 total points and included three overtime sessions. There was also important action taking place in other mid-major tournaments, so let’s jump right into it…
Your Watercooler Moment – VCU Returns to the Tournament
Brad Burgess and VCU Shot Their Way Back to the Big Dance (Washington Examiner/L. Alvarez)
Last year’s unbelievable Cinderella story has guaranteed itself a place in the Big Dance once again this year. Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams were squarely on the bubble heading into Monday night’s CAA Tournament final, as was their opponent, Drexel. A hard-fought game in which VCU led by double-digits for much of the game wound up being close at the end and came down to the final possession when Drexel guard Frantz Massenat’s three for the tie hit the back iron. VCU earned itself an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and there’s not a single team in the bracket that wants to face Shaka Smart’s team in the first game next week. The Rams got 16 points, five assists, four rebounds, and five steals from Darius Theus while their star Brad Burgess had just six points. Drexel, which had just eight assists compared to 18 turnovers, now must sweat it out on Selection Sunday with a very strong conference showing but some weak overall profile numbers such as the #226 strength of schedule that won’t be pleasing to the NCAA Tourney committee. Don’t be shocked, though, if Drexel ends up making it so that you’ll see both of these teams playing again next week.
This Weekend’s Lede. It was a wild and wonderful college basketball weekend filled with bubble teams fighting for their lives and others maneuvering for seed position. In many of the smaller conferences, the regular season ended and schools are now preparing to begin conference tournament play this week (egads, the Big South begins Monday night!). For most of the power conference teams, though, each game carries more weight than those that came before it, and perhaps nowhere was that more true than in Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday afternoon. Let’s jump into that game and everything else that went down this weekend…
Your Watercooler Moment. Anthony Davis or Thomas Robinson — Who Ya Got?
T-Rob Won the Weekend, But Will He Win the NPOY? (Topeka CJ/M. Gunnoe)
The National Player of the Year race got even more compelling on Saturday afternoon as the two leading candidates, Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, each made his case through dominant performances in key rivalry games in front of a CBS national television audience. Davis started the day with a near-perfect 10-11 shooting performance against Vanderbilt that included 28 points, 11 rebounds, and six blocks to highlight his candidacy as the most valuable player in America. Robinson finished it with a 28-point, 12-rebound masterpiece of his own that lacked in Davis’ near-perfection (T-Rob shot 10-21 from the field), but more than compensated for it with his timeliness. It was Robinson’s layup (and-one) with 16 seconds left that tied the game with arch-rival Missouri at 75-all, and it was his subsequent rejection of Phil Pressey’s driving shot attempt that sent the game into overtime, where KU outlasted the Tigers, 87-86. Because of Davis and Robinson, both Kentucky and Kansas clinched regular season conference championships, the incredible eighth Big 12 title in a row for the Jayhawks and the 45th SEC title in history for the Wildcats.
We did some crowd-sourcing on Twitter yesterday over this very question and it’s clear that there is no consensus on who the NPOY should be. A common refrain that we heard was that Davis is more valuable defensively than Robinson (probably true) and that should therefore make the difference; conversely, Kansas without Robinson in its lineup may look a lot worse than Kentucky would without Davis on its front line (also probably true). Each player is a certain First Team All-American, but the duo will each have two more games over the next seven days to make their final cases to America — UK vs. Georgia and at Florida, and KU at Oklahoma State and vs. Texas. In a too-close-to-call competition, one particularly good or bad game relative to each other could make all the difference.
Top Storyline. The Border War Showcases College Hoops At Its Best.Given everything that was at stake locally, regionally and nationally in Saturday’s Border War showdown between Missouri and Kansas, the basketball gods cast a fitting tribute to a series that does not deserve to end. The game had just about everything you could ask for except a buzzer-beating game-winner (and let the record reflect that Marcus Denmon’s shot just after the final horn fell into the hole), including All-America performances from players sure to soon be on those lists, a fan environment perhaps unparalleled anywhere else in the sport, and an epic comeback that will no doubt cause glee or consternation for years depending on which side of the Missour/Kansas border you live on. It was just a superb game for any college basketball fan to enjoy, and if Saturday’s masterpiece was indeed the end of the series for a while, it will have to live on through repeated showings of clips such as this one. (note: of course, these games don’t matter…)
Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.
The Final Week
It all comes down to this week, WCC fans: Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, BYU and Loyola Marymount all have legitimate shots at the conference title and the one and two seeds for next week’s WCC Tournament. In an age where parity is the Holy Grail of organized sports, the WCC has it going on. And, although this season’s nine-team schedule caused some distortions in the first half of the season, no one could have planned a more compelling finale.
Saint Mary’s can seize the regular season championship and a number one tournament seed by beating Portland tonight in Portland and San Francisco on Saturday in San Francisco. By beating Portland, the Gaels will guarantee at least their second consecutive share of the title. But there has to be a series of asterisks next to that hypothetical, as the Gaels are bucking several negative trends: they have lost at Portland for the last three years and they appear to stumbling toward the finish line as they did last year when they lost an unexpected league game (San Diego in San Diego), a home BracketBuster game against Utah State, then another home game against Gonzaga, before pulling out a season-ending victory over Portland to earn a share of the conference title.
Despite Recent Struggles, Matthew Dellavedova and Saint Mary's Still Control Its Own Destiny (AP)
Last week the Gaels lost an unexpected home game to Loyola Marymount, 75-60, lost to Murray State on the road, 65-51, in another BracketBuster contest, and now face a young, talented Portland team with nothing to lose on its home court tonight. Combined with injuries to starting two-guard Stephen Holt, out indefinitely with a torn meniscus suffered in the LMU loss, starting post man Brad Waldow, nursing bruised ribs, and team leader Matthew Dellavedova, who turned his ankle in the LMU game, the Gaels are wobbling into Portland.
Gonzaga and BYU square off tonight in a monumental battle (ESPN2, 8:00 PM Pacific) that could vault either of them into a tie with Saint Mary’s for first or, if the Gaels win, eliminate one of them from title contention heading into Saturday’s final games. LMU, which is smoking hot coming off its blistering of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, sits at home for very winnable games against San Diego tonight and Santa Clara on Saturday. With just a minimal effort, the Lions could finish with four losses and cash in on whatever misfortunes befall the three teams ahead of them.
Not to be overlooked, San Francisco hopes to take continuing advantage of a scheduling gift that brought BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s onto its home court in successive weeks. The Dons battled BYU right down to a potential game-winning three-point attempt by Angelo Coloiaro that rimmed out at the buzzer for a heart-breaking 85-84 loss last Thursday. Rather than be deflated, the Dons battled Gonzaga equally hard on Saturday, and triumphed 65-64 on a last-second runner in the lane by Rashad Green. The Dons are off tonight and can devote maximum preparation to ruining Saint Mary’s season on Saturday.
Saint Mary’s (23-5, 12-2) might seem surprised to find itself still in first place considering the confidence-shattering losses to LMU and Murray State, which knocked it out of “lock” status for a favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament and leaves the Gaels needing a win tonight or Saturday to keep its NCAA hopes alive. Randy Bennett’s troops are wounded and have to be wondering why they continue to struggle late in the season. Even with these concerns, the Gaels still control their own fate. Read the rest of this entry »
WCC fans: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. It’s mid-January, and St. Mary’s is surging. Coming off a pair of weekend victories that included a blowout over bitter rival Gonzaga and a tough-but-expected win over pesky Portland, the Gaels currently sit at 17-2 overall and a pristine 6-0 in the WCC. The national media has taken notice, serving up Randy Bennett‘s team as the #24 team this week in the AP poll and #23 in the Coaches Poll. (Incidentally, SMC is #17 in this week’s RTC rankings.) Once again, things are looking up in Moraga as fans of the tiny East Bay school dream of an elusive WCC championship and, harking back to 2010, perhaps another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The question on everyone’s minds around the WCC, though, is whether this year’s SMC team is for real or another mirage in a basketball desert full of them. Consider the table below, showing St. Mary’s fortunes both before and after this point in the season over the last five years.
It’s not difficult to discern from the table that St. Mary’s tends to get off to a hot start each and every year. Somewhat peculiarly, the Gaels’ best team — the 2009-10 Sweet Sixteen bunch led by Omar Samhan — had the most losses of any team during this five-year window at this point in the season (three). But unlike that team, Randy Bennett’s other squads have largely faded down the stretch. The 2007-08 team lost four of its last six games to finish the season, while the 2008-09 squad crashed so badly after Patty Mills broke his hand that the Gaels were left out of what seemed to be a surefire NCAA Tournament bid that year. Last year’s squad was also nationally ranked at this mid-January juncture, having gotten off to yet another sizzling start. Three straight late February losses, though, allowed Gonzaga to keep its stranglehold on a share of the WCC regular season title, while a confounding road defeat to a horrible San Diego team likely relegated the Gaels to the NIT for the second time in three seasons.
That’s Debatable is back for another year of expert opinions, ridiculous assertions and general know-it-all-itude. Remember, kids, there are no stupid answers, just stupid people. We’ll try to do one of these each week during the rest of the season. Feel free to leave your takes below in the comments section.
This Week’s Topic: With conference play heating up, what conference race are you most excited about this year and why?
Danny Spewak, Big 12 Microsite Correspondent
A one-bid conference since 2007, the Missouri Valley may finally regain its status this winter as college basketball’s premiere non-BCS league. And that’s not just because of Doug McDermott and his ranked Creighton Bluejays. This league has more substance than that. Only 0-5 Bradley is more than two games out of first place right now, where Wichita State, Missouri State and Creighton each sit at 4-1. Indiana State, which won at Vanderbilt earlier this season and represented the MVC in the NCAAs a year ago, will also surely recover from a disappointing 2-3 start in conference play. Same goes for Northern Iowa, which rolled through its non-conference schedule before losing four of its last six. That’s five teams right there with a shot to win this whole thing, and Evansville, Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Drake aren’t going away without a fight either. If you’re still not convinced that somebody could knock off CU, consider that reigning POY Kyle Weems already outplayed McDermott in Omaha in a 77-65 victory on December 28. And you wonder why we’re all so fascinated by the Missouri Valley Conference on a yearly basis.
Brian Otskey, Big East Correspondent
When I first thought about this question, the Big 12, Pac-12 and Missouri Valley came to mind. Then I took a closer look at the Big Ten. Preseason favorite Ohio State has two losses already and Michigan State sits atop the league at 4-0. That two game lead over the Buckeyes in the loss column is significant and Ohio State’s loss at Illinois on Tuesday night officially opened the door. The Big Ten has five teams that can contend (six if you include a good Purdue team). With home court advantage being historically more significant in this league than others, anything can happen. There seems to be something missing from this Ohio State team. The easy answer is it doesn’t have Jon Diebler anymore but there may be something deeper. With the Buckeyes losing two of their first five league games, this conference is up for grabs and may be the best race.
I. Renko, Columnist
West Coast Conference – Gonzaga and St. Mary’s now have some company atop the WCC, with BYU having joined the conference and showing very little letdown after the departure of The Jimmer. All three teams are in the Pomeroy top 25, and a true round-robin schedule — something only one power conference can boast — ensures that they play each other twice, home and away. Four of those five remaining games are on ESPN2 on late night Thursdays, where they will have little competition for the eyeballs of college hoops fans. While there isn’t the star power of an Adam Morrison, Patty Mills, or Jimmer Fredette, it’s fun to watch each team work to be more than the sums of their parts. Plus, there’s just enough depth in this league for one of the big three to suffer an upset loss and add more intrigue to the race for the top.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences. He filed this report from Saturday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine.
When you talk about the West Coast Conference, generally the beginning, middle and end of the conversation revolves around Gonzaga – and rightfully so, as the Bulldogs have now won at least a share of 11 straight conference titles. And with the addition of BYU to the WCC this offseason, the Cougars jumped right to the top of the list of the biggest challengers to the Zags’ throne. But there’s that little school in Moraga, you know, Saint Mary’s, the one that most recently made a Sweet Sixteen run itself in 2010, and this week served notice that they’re a force to be reckoned with and every bit as likely to win the conference title as their other two, more famous, competitors.
Jorgen Page Has Taken Advantage Of Some Newfound Playing Time To Make A Case For A Larger Role (photo credit: Tod Fierner)
Thursday night, BYU kicked off its stay in the WCC by traveling to McKeon Pavilion and promptly getting taken apart by the Gaels. While the Cougs’ talented forward Brandon Davies took advantage of the SMC frontline to the tune of 28 points on 18 field goal attempts, Gael senior forward Rob Jones went a long way toward counteracting Davies’ performance, tossing in 24 points of his own while grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out four assists. But it was the Gael backcourt that shone the brightest this weekend, not only in the win Thursday, but in their 29-point takedown of Pepperdine in Malibu on Saturday. Against BYU, the three-man backcourt of junior Matthew Dellavedova and sophomores Stephen Holt and Jorden Page combined for 52 points, 18 assists and 11 rebounds, while hitting 9-of-17 from deep. On Saturday it was 44 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on 7-of-14 from three. Given that the trio of guards are really the only guards on the Gaels’ 11-man roster, head coach Randy Bennett needs to make sure he can get consistent production out of those three. And so far he has.
Page got his first chance to start for the Gaels this week, as senior forward Clint Steindl injured an ankle against Missouri State just before Christmas and remains out, but the Gaels didn’t skip a beat. Page was impressive throughout the weekend, but especially against Pepperdine he provided an early spark for the team, hitting two threes on the Gaels first four possessions and never looking back from there. Not only can he knock down the long balls, but he is terrific off the dribble, either creating for himself or finding his teammates spotting up. “He’s just touching the surface of what he can do,” Bennett said after the game Saturday. “We see him in practice, so we know what he can do, but he’s a guy that needs minutes. He’s at his best when he can get loose a little bit, make shots, and have some freedom. And with Clint out, he’s been able to do that.”
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect St. Mary’s to be very good this year. Last year, they lost five of their last eight games, including a lackluster home loss to Kent State in the NIT first round. Over the offseason, they said goodbye to their unquestioned leader and star, Mickey McConnell. Although they started the season with a win over Northern Iowa at home, they followed that with a 12-point loss at Denver. Then came a string of victories against middling competition at best and a 13-point loss to Baylor. So coming into this past week, St. Mary’s had a lot to prove, as far as I was concerned. And, well, at a minimum they proved me wrong.
Randy Bennett Contemplates Whether to Accept I. Renko's Apology
First was last Friday’s neutral floor matchup against Missouri State, a strong if not outstanding team (more on them down below). The Gaels handed them a decisive 77-61 defeat. So far, so good. But still, how would St. Mary’s fare against their prominent conference foes — BYU and Gonzaga — once the WCC season kicked off? Could they register a win against a top 30 team? Well the Gaels answered that question with authority Thursday night, posting their second straight 16-point win.
Mea culpa. St. Mary’s is, indeed, a very good team that has a chance to make some noise in March, as it did two years ago. But I owe them a bit more introspection than that. How, exactly, have the Gaels built their 12-2 record and top 25 Pomeroy rating?
Stat sheet stuffers – Fifth-year senior forward Rob Jones and junior guard Matthew Dellavedova lead the team in scoring, but they do much more than that. Jones is an excellent rebounder who averages a double-double. Witness his 24 points and 15 boards against BYU. Dellavedova, meanwhile, is averaging 6.7 assists per game. Against Missouri State, he finished with 17 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. And against BYU, he 18 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, and four steals. Complete play from your best players helps stitch the fabric of a well-rounded team that is more than the sum of its parts.
Offensive rebounding — In whipping up on Missouri State, St. Mary’s showed off an underrated asset — the ability to dominate a team on the glass. They hauled down approximately 90% of Missouri State’s missed shots and 30% of their own. The difference in offensive rebounding allowed them to take 12 more shots and cruise to victory. The Gaels didn’t let up against BYU. Although the Cougars are a very strong defensive rebounding team, St. Mary’s pulled down almost 40% of their own missed shots and 67% of BYU’s. On the season, the Gaels’ offensive rebounding percentage is 12 percent higher than their opponents’.
Balanced production – The departure of McConnell may have produced a team that is more offensively balanced, but just as efficient, as last year’s team. In both of their wins this past week, four players finished in double figures. And that was without Clint Steindl, who averages nine points per game, but was out with injuries. Against BYU, Jones paced the team with 24 points, but Stephen Holt added 21 and Dellavedova 18. By contrast, in their loss to Denver, Jones and Dellavedova scored 21 and 20 each, but no one else posted more than six points.
Improved defense — The Gaels’ shot-stopping ability has improved this year, as they have a much better defensive FG%. They didn’t show that as much against Missouri State and BYU, both of whom shot the ball at a reasonable clip. That makes one wonder whether this newfound defensive strength is sustainable against high-quality opponents, but it’s at least a start to build on.
After the updated Top 15, we recap the wild start to the MVC season, preview a New Year’s Eve feast, and delve into much more in the week that was and the week that will be.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Kevin Pangos and the Zags Are Ready to Pursue #12
Gonzaga (9-2) completed its pre-WCC season out of conference schedule (still a December 31 game against Xavier in Cincinnati to go) on a roll, dispatching Oral Roberts (67-61), Arizona (71-60), Butler (71-55) and Air Force (70-60) at home, to get ready for an attempt at a 12th straight WCC title beginning on Wednesday against struggling Portland. The Zags have apparently settled on an all-freshman starting backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr., and why shouldn’t they considering how the newcomers have performed so far? Pangos capped off his initial slate of college games by dropping 23 points on Air Force. With a solid rotation, a consistent front line and new energy in the back court, the Zags are ready.
BYU (10-3) barely lost its chance to post a big upset against 6th/7th-ranked Baylor, losing 86-83 after a spirited game marked by the debut of guard Matt Carlino. Carlino, sitting out an imposed benching following his transfer from UCLA, scored 18 points against Baylor in 22 minutes of action, then followed up with 10 points in a Cougar win over Buffalo (93-78), and 22 points in an 89-75 rout of UC Santa Barbara. A mostly-veteran team like Gonzaga, BYU is ready for its initial WCC season with its rotation solidified and only one injured player, 6’8″ junior forward Stephen Rogers, who hurt his knee in practice before the Baylor game.
Saint Mary’s (11-2) missed a chance to garner a signature win when it, too, fell to Baylor 72-59 on a neutral court in Las Vegas. The Gaels bounced back on the next night, however, dispatching Missouri Valley Conference contender Missouri State 77-61 behind emerging post man Brad Waldow (17 points). Coach Randy Bennett’s goal in the preseason was to settle on the center position, and he seems to have done that with Waldow’s performance in the Las Vegas Classic tournament, for which he was named to the all-tournament team. Waldow will alternate in the post with junior Mitchell Young and senior Kenton Walker II, but all other Gael positions are set with veterans. Senior forward Clint Steindl rolled an ankle in the Missouri State game, and it is not known how long he will be sidelined.
Three games in the conference last night, none all that interesting, although I suppose it is worth noting these days when the Pac-12 gets through a weeknight without sustaining any more losses. Arizona faced the toughest competition when they hosted Oakland and their talented and prolific senior point guard Reggie Hamilton, but the ‘Cats survived as they “held” him to 31 often spectacular points. Solomon Hill played just about as well as he’s ever played, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, handing out three assists and refusing to let the Wildcats lose. Elsewhere, freshman Norman Powell had a career-high 19 points as UCLA won its fourth straight and stuck its head over .500 for the first time this year by knocking off UC Irvine by 29. And Oregon used a 19-3 run in the middle of the second half to break open a tie-game against North Carolina Central and escape despite a sluggish performance.
Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar is trying to right the ship in Seattle and think he has narrowed down the Huskies’ problems to three areas: 1) defense, 2) ball movement, and, the big one, 3) chemistry. Thing one and thing two can be fixed either through effort or game-planning, but with a ton of scorers who like to have the ball in their hands coupled with a play-making point guard like Abdul Gaddy who needs to have the ball in his hands to be effective, there have been some problems figuring out everybody’s roles. And with Tony Wroten now taking a larger part of the offense, and often doing so by creating for himself off the dribble, guys like Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox have seen their shot attempts diminish. Ross and Wilcox both averaged over 13 field goal attempts per game in the first eight games, but since Wroten entered the starting lineup, Ross has averaged just eight while Wilcox has averaged 10. Wroten, meanwhile, has taken 38 shots from the field in those two games, and although he did so very effectively (scoring 50 points on those shots), a bigger concern is his ability to create for his teammates, having dished out just four assists in 68 minutes.
Across the state, Washington State is back to full strength for the first time this season, as senior captain Abe Lodwick played for the first time, while Faisal Aden and Mychal Ladd returned from injuries in the Cougars’ last game against Western Oregon. In their absence, senior Charlie Enquist stepped up with by far the best stretch of his career, while freshmen DaVonte Lacy and Dexter Kernich-Drew saw dramatic increases in their playing time. Given the fact that the Cougs have now won their last five after starting the season 2-4, head coach Ken Bone has a chemistry test of his own coming up in the future. The players who helped WSU win those five straight have earned the right to continue getting minutes, while the returnees are certainly among the most talented Cougs. It will be interesting to see how those precious minutes get divided up in Pullman over the coming weeks. WSU has just one remaining non-conference game before they host the Oregon schools to open conference play, a week from tomorrow.
Lastly, Lost Lettermen asks the question, is the West Coast Conference better than the Pac-12? Jim Weber says yes, if only for one season, pointing to Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU as the standard bearers. Anthony Olivieri takes the negative (rightly), pointing out that Cal and Stanford appear to be as good as the top of the WCC, while a team like Washington (and I would include Arizona) still has plenty of upside. And as bad as the bottom of the Pac-12 is this season, remember that Utah just beat Portland last night, and Portland (who has struggled through an absolutely brutal non-conference schedule) isn’t anywhere near the worst team in the WCC. Certainly the Zags, Gaels and Cougars are all solid programs, but even with the Pac-12 at its nadir, it is still better than the WCC. If you don’t just believe me, ask Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin and the RPI.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
When you’re smaller and lesser-known than the competition you’ve got to do things differently from them – and preferably smarter.
That’s been the operating philosophy of Jamie Zaninovich in his four years as commissioner of the West Coast Conference, a basketball-first league of faith-based institutions with no pretense of BCS connections. It showed in the contract Zaninovich negotiated with ESPN in one of his first acts as commissioner to bring WCC games to a wider audience than the mighty Pac-12. It worked last August when Zaninovich snuck in under the radar and convinced Brigham Young University to leave the Mountain West Conference and play all sports outside of football in the WCC. (Granted, BYU’s inclusion in the WCC might be short-lived as the Cougars’ infatuation with membership in the Big 12 continues even though the Big 12 apparently doesn’t return the affection. For now, though, Zaninovich has seen his conference rise to seventh place among Division I basketball leagues according to CBSSports.com analyst Jeff Goodman.)
Jamie Zaninovich's Progressive Ideas Are Pushing the WCC to New Heights
Zaninovich’s flair for innovation manifested itself again last week when the WCC held a groundbreaking Media Day. Rather than the dreary non-event most conferences schedule once a year to allow coaches to make their pre-season predictions, the WCC’s event was all about new media and new ways to reach the public. For starters, the conference took advantage of its high-tech neighborhood and staged the event at the headquarters of growing media giant YouTube, which counts some 450 million monthly viewers. Chew over that figure a second and then compare it with the few millions that the biggest traditional media outlets brag about.
The MAAC conference tournament gave us another buzzer-beater last night. Saint Peter’s guard Desi Washington rushed down the court and nailed a trey to eliminate Fairfield 65-62 on Washington’s THIRD game-winning buzzer-beater against the Stags this season.
Clown, thy name is UCSB fan. Although players and coaches alike are expected to behave professionally, fans also have a responsibility to contain themselves. Incidents like last night’s approach by a rabid UCSB fan are dangerous for everyone involved.