Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
A Look Back
- It began as a whisper earlier in the season, but recent events have given it full throat – the WCC is down this year. Gonzaga, which has waved the conference’s banner brilliantly for over a decade, has stumbled to a 4-4 record, most recently Wednesday’s 81-59 beat-down at Washington State. Saint Mary’s, coming off a Sweet Sixteen year with high expectations, has whiffed in its only two statement games, losses to BYU (close, 74-73) and to San Diego State (not so close, 69-55). A rout of a weak opponent, Wednesday’s 77-47 win over Denver, did little to erase the sting of those defeats.
- Even the newest pretender to WCC superiority, Loyola Marymount, has under-performed mightily so far in 2010-11. Weakened by injuries to starting two-guard Jarred DuBois (ankle – out for season) and strong forward Ashley Hamilton (hand – out 4-6 weeks), and the slower-than-expected recovery of 6’10 post man Edgar Garibay, the Lions have managed only an 80-77 overtime win at Long Beach State as a quality win. Fans were even rejoicing over Tuesday’s 69-49 win over woeful Sacramento State (2-6 record, including an 84-36 loss to Washington State) that brought them to 5-5 on the season. Talk about lowered expectations.
- Among this carnage, one team has managed to exceed expectations and set itself up for a successful season – Eric Reveno’s Portland Pilots. Because Portland lost so much talent to graduation, most observers forecast a retreat from two seasons of challenging Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for conference leadership. Instead, Reveno has leaned on veterans Luke Sikma and Jared Stohl, quietly given junior guard Nemanja Mitrovic a stronger role and nursed freshman point guard Tim Douglas into the spot vacated by T.J. Campbell. The result: a 7-2 record, including eye-openers such as a 69-60 win over St. Louis at home and a 58-54 win over Montana in Missoula. True, they were spanked 79-48 by Kentucky, and, most recently (Dec. 6) 94-72 by Washington, but are in position to enter WCC play with 11 or 12 wins.
Player of the Week: Keion Bell, Pepperdine
You loved him in those YouTube videos vaulting over five – then six – teammates en route to a monster dunk, now Pepperdine’s Keion Bell is proving himself in game action. How good has he been? How about 25.3 PPG, good for sixth in the nation. Among his performances are a 25-point outburst in the Waves’ breathtaking 70-60 road win over Pacific on December 1 and 31 in an 86-81 loss to Texas-San Antonio last Saturday. For good measure, he put up 17 as the Waves came oh-so-close to upsetting Utah on Tuesday before losing 67-60.
- Saint Mary’s (7-2) romped over Denver, shooting nearly 60% and out-rebounding the Pioneers by a 39-15 margin. The biggest development, however, was in the Gaels’ starting line-up, where redshirt sophomore Tim Williams replaced Kenton Walker in the post position. Walker, counted on to step into the departed Omar Samhan’s shoes, has been disappointing, creating an opportunity for the explosive Williams and hyper-active Aussie Mitchell Young. Williams was less-than-overwhelming in his maiden start, however, preferring to watch Denver’s Princeton offense (translation: boring) rather than chase his man through the endless dribbles, back-door cuts and switches that constitute its attack. Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett, who likes mid-season adjustments to his starting line-up as much as he does root canal, jerked Williams several times and gave him only 14 minutes on the floor, the same as the deposed Walker. Young, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunity, racking up 14 points in 22 minutes. Will Bennett juggle the line-up once more for the Gaels’ next opponent, UC-Riverside, on the 14th? Stay tuned.
- Portland (7-3) had only the loss at Washington on its schedule last week, but the Pilots were not handled as easily as the 94-72 score would indicate. They moved to within 68-62 with a little more than eight minutes remaining – after trailing by 15 at the half – but couldn’t corral Washington’s three-point shooters down the stretch. Sikma notched his fourth double-double of the season with 14 and 16 against the Huskies, Mitrovic added 15 and Stohl and Douglas contributed 12 each. Portland should get its eighth win on Saturday (Dec. 11), when they travel to Denver to meet the Pioneers, who were unimpressive against Saint Mary’s on the 8th.
- Loyola Marymount (5-5) got another of its walking wounded, stellar forward Drew Viney, back for the Sacramento State game, and he responded with 15 points off the bench, including 3-5 from long range. Injuries have forced the Lions to lean on newcomers Anthony Ireland at guard and Godwin Okonji at forward, and the results have been positive: Okonji racked up 11 points, five rebounds and six blocked shots in the Sac State win, and Ireland dished out six assists. Holdover guard Larry Davis has also stepped up with DuBois’ injury, firing for 13 points. The Lions’ four-game home stand continues Saturday against South Dakota, and the Lions would do well not to take the team from Vermillion, SD lightly. Although only 3-6 on the season, South Dakota boasts an 80-70 win over Wyoming and a close loss (76-61) to Wisconsin. Besides, the Coyotes will be so glad to be in southern California and out of the frozen steppes of South Dakota that they might put up quite a fight.
- Gonzaga (4-4) is in shock. Not only did the Zags lose decisively to Washington State, a team they used to treat almost as a practice squad, but they face five more difficult games before the conference gets underway in January: Notre Dame in South Bend this Saturday, Baylor in Dallas, TX on the 18th, Xavier and Oklahoma State in Spokane and then Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, NC. Holy Schedule-Maker, Batman! Speaking of which, Zags coach Mark Few commented after the Washington State shellacking, “The schedule is just beating us up and really taking its toll.” Uh, just who signs off on that schedule, Mark? As tough as things are for the Zags, they showed no progress in figuring things out against Washington State. Gonzaga has traditionally acted as if defending the three is a criminal offense, but giving up 11 of21seems to be stretching a point. Elias Harris remains a mystery, proving to be ineffective again against the Cougars: six points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Is he still recovering from the Achilles strain suffered against San Diego State? Does he have shoulder problems as well? No answer from Zagland, but he is a ghost of the slashing, dunking whirlwind who blew into the conference last year.
- Santa Clara (4-4) continues to take one step forward and two steps backward. Kerry Keating seems to be leaning toward a three-guard attack featuring returning superstar Kevin Foster, last year’s rookie point guard Robert Smith and newcomer Evan Roquemore (no Frenchified American, he pronounces it “rock-a-more”). Fair enough – they’re all talented and Keating’s front-line recruits, Niyi Harrison, Yannick Atanga and John McArthur haven’t exactly dazzled. So, push the three guards along with the steady Marc Trasolini, plug in workmanlike Ben Dowdell and see what happens. Except, Trasolini scored zero points in the Broncos only game last week, Saturday’s 80-69 loss to UC-Santa Barbara. How can that happen? Trasolini is a load, able to score from outside or inside equally well, but he took only four shots against Santa Barbara, missing all of them. ‘Tis a mystery, one that probably won’t be resolved when the Broncos “travel” (well, they will probably get on a bus) to the San Jose Event Center to take on San Jose State on Saturday. The improved Spartans are 5-2 this year, including a 74-64 win over San Francisco back in November.
- San Francisco’s (3-5) Season of Promise may be turning into a Season of Surgery, as injuries reduced the Dons to eight available players in Wednesday’s 61-35 slaughter at Louisville. Those eight accounted for only 11 points in the second half, putting their production at a little more than 1.4 points-per-person. Promising freshman guard Cody Doolin was the latest Don to go down, following Dominique O’Connor’s second season-ending injury in a row and injuries to Marko Petrovic and Rashad Green. Until Petrovic or Green return, coach Rex Walters is left with only two guards on his roster, sophomore Mikey Williams and freshman Avery Johnson. Walters’ diminished forces will face a rugged Montana on Sunday (12/12) at home, then powerful Washington in Seattle on the 18th.
- Pepperdine (3-7) almost pulled off another shocker to go with its 70-60 road win over Pacific, but faded in the second half against Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday and lost 67-60. The Waves led at the half, but Utah shot 53.6% in the second half to pull away. The Waves face Redlands at home on Thursday (12/9), then travel to Fresno to face Fresno State on the 11th.
- San Diego (1-7) fought hard but was unable to hold on for a home win over Fresno State on Tuesday, falling 74-70. Continuing his search for a consistent contributor among a host of new bodies, coach Bill Grier turned to JC transfer Darian Norris for leadership on Tuesday, and Norris responded with a team-high 14 points and five assists. Things don’t get any easier for the Toreros this week, as they face #14 San Diego State on Saturday. The cross-town rivals have run roughshod over the WCC this pre-season, vanquishing Gonzaga in Spokane on November 16 (79-76) and Saint Mary’s (69-55) last week. San Diego may not be the team to end SDSU’s pillaging of the conference.
A Look Ahead
The next week is only sprinkled with games on the schedule with finals nearing. Only 19 games are on the docket between Friday and next Sunday. For teams like San Francisco, it’s a good chance to buy time for injured players, while talented schools like St. Mary’s and Gonzaga can gear up for the start of conference play.