Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Reader’s Take I
No. 1. The West Coast Conference has a ready-made top storyline for 2011-12: the addition (and possible subtraction) of Brigham Young University to the league. Initially seen as a coup for highly-regarded WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, BYU’s status as a WCC member got caught up in the latest craziness involving BCS football conferences. With some sources insisting the Cougars were just waiting for an opportune moment (or invitation) to bolt to the Big 12, much criticism has come down upon the institution for flirting with WCC membership while seeking greater opportunities elsewhere. Sadly, as in all the BCS conference upheavals, the uncertainty is driven by football and possible revenues therefrom. BYU officials have done little to reassure WCC members that they’re in it for the long run, so fans will just have to watch and wait to see what happens. Regardless of long-term prospects, however, the Cougars are competing in the WCC for the 2011-12 season and that is the top storyline.
BYU’s inclusion brings a perennial top 25 team into a league that was already on the upswing with the continued success of Gonzaga, the emergence of Saint Mary’s as a postseason regular and the upsurge in other programs such as Portland, San Francisco and Santa Clara. Expectations that the WCC might become a consistent three-bid NCAA conference have fueled excitement for the coming season, and sparked hot stove league discussions over which of the conference’s consensus top three programs will emerge as the champion and recipient of an automatic NCAA Tournament invitation. Strong arguments can be made for BYU, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s capturing that prize, and strong arguments are what fuels fan interest.
No. 2. Will Elias Harris have a break-out season in 2011-12 and carry Gonzaga past the early-round NCAA departures (GU’s last Sweet Sixteen appearance was in 2009) that have haunted the Zags the last two years? It is hard to pinpoint where this surge in Harris excitement comes from – certainly not the tight-lipped Gonzaga basketball program under non-boaster Mark Few – but it has been repeated enough to take on a life of its own. It seems to be based on the fact that he burst on the scene as an explosive scorer and rebounder as a 20-year-old freshman from Germany, posting 15/7 scoring and rebounding averages. He fizzled somewhat last season, at least partially stemming from shoulder and Achilles injuries, and so the stage is set for a comeback. What Harris boosters don’t take into account is that the league may have found ways to defend him based on his weaknesses in putting the ball on the floor, a sameness in his offensive moves (you can only make that power spin move so often) and his penchant for giving up the ball when pressured. Whether it’s a break-out or something less, Harris’ junior season will establish whether he is a superstar or just a good small forward.