Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 22nd, 2015
According to Ken Pomeroy’s latest prognostications, Gonzaga is better than a 90 percent favorite in 10 of its 12 remaining games. The two games in which that is not the case come in late February when the Bulldogs travel to Saint Mary’s (February 21) and when they host BYU in the final game of the regular season (February 28). Tonight, Saint Mary’s gets its first crack at the Zags and, despite being a 15-point Vegas underdog and the Gaels having just an eight percent chance of winning this game, this is a match-up between teams that are a combined 14-0 in West Coast Conference play. Furthermore, the Gaels have been the only team in recent history to seriously and regularly challenge the Bulldogs’ spot atop the conference. Still, the Bulldogs have won all six games in this series in the past two seasons, and in several cases, decisively. So, the question becomes: What can Saint Mary’s do to beat Gonzaga?
Brad Waldow Will Need To Shine Against The Big Gonzaga Front Line (Getty Images)
As those Pomeroy odds indicate, the Gaels’ actual chances in tonight’s game are not strong. We could point out several minor data points – like the fact that the Zags won at Pepperdine by only two points while the Gaels won by nine there; or those unblemished conference records – to convince ourselves that this game of WCC titans is bound to be a battle. But the fact is that there isn’t a lot on St. Mary’s resume this season to suggest that it’s got the horses to win in Spokane tonight. The Gaels beat BYU on Saturday night in what easily represents their best win of the season, with wins over Pepperdine, UC Irvine and a fading Creighton team really the only other things of substance (note: “substance” used with great looseness here). But more than anything else, the Gaels have winning experience going for them. Of their seven players who factor most significantly into their rotation, they’ve got five seniors – four of those who have spent time at other schools before landing in Moraga. All of these guys have played plenty of road games against elite teams and rivals many times before, so when they roll into The Kennel tonight, they won’t be scared.
With conference play having begun in most leagues across the country, it‘s time now to pass out some midseason superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next couple months.
O26 Midseason Coach of the Year
Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)
Jeff Jones– Old Dominion. The Old Dominion basketball program took a sharp turn in 2013 when – after more than a decade of sustained success – the school fired its longtime coach, Blaine Taylor, during a 5-25 campaign in which the coach’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. In came Jones after spending 13 seasons at American, and immediately things turned around as the Monarchs went 18-18 last season and reached the CBI semifinals. But perhaps even the most optimistic Old Dominion fan couldn’t have envisioned how quickly the team would go from the dregs of the CAA to the cream of Conference USA; at 12-1 with wins over LSU, VCU, Georgia State and Richmond, the Monarchs have cracked the Top 25 and should be in the at-large discussion by season’s end. How has Jones orchestrated such a sharp turnaround? Campbell transfer Trey Freeman has helped. The 6’2’’ point guard paces the team with 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per contest, with Jones calling him “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached” after the team’s victory over LSU in November. The success has been the result of more than just Freeman, though, as the Monarchs have thoroughly bought into Jones’ system, predicated on patient offense and tough man-to-man defense – the latter of which has held opponents to 0.91 points per possession so far, the best mark in C-USA. Likewise, Jones deserves credit for his ability to seamlessly integrate both Freeman and George Mason transfer Jonathan Arledge into a deep cohort of returnees. The head man said in an interview recently (regarding his first year at the program), “We just needed to make people understand it would take some hard work [and] it would take some time, but we were going to just try to be as patient as we could moving forward.” “Time” and “patience,” sure, but it’s taken not even two full seasons for Jones to completely revamp and re-energize things in Norfolk; and for that, he earns our Midseason Coach of the Year honors.
Honorable Mentions: Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa; Bob McKillop – Davidson; Porter Moser – Loyola (IL); Keno Davis – Central Michigan; Mark Few – Gonzaga; Eddie Payne – USC Upstate
O26 Midseason Player of the Year
BYU’s versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
Kyle Collinsworth– BYU. It feels a little weird deeming Collinsworth O26 Midseason Player of the Year when his teammate, Tyler Haws, is college basketball’s third-leading scorer. But remember how BYU looked last March without Collinsworth after he went down with a torn ACL? The Cougars were crushed by Oregon in what should have been a competitive #7/#10 NCAA Tournament match-up. The point guard’s versatility, defense and toughness – not to mention eye-popping numbers, which we’ll get to in a moment – make Collinsworth the glue that holds BYU together and the player worthy of our midseason honor. “He is a really effective player in so many different areas of the game,” head coach Dave Rose said recently. At 6’6’’, there are few players (perhaps no player) who do what Collinsworth does: Not only is he the facilitator for the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense, but he also serves as BYU’s best rebounder and defender, leading the team in assists, rebounds and steals. At this point, the junior’s impressive across-the-board averages (13.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG) are overshadowed only by his record-setting triple-double pace. With three already under his belt, Collinsworth needs just one to tie and two more to break the single-season NCAA mark. That all-around ability has allowed Rose to utilize a four-guard lineup in recent weeks, a move that’s enabled BYU to hit its stride just as WCC play heats up – evidenced by the team’s 99-68 drubbing of San Francisco on Saturday. “Kyle’s a big reason because he can rebound as well as any guard in the country. To have him on the floor, you have a guard that’s a great rebounder,” Rose noted. With Collinsworth healthy and playing at an incredibly high level, the Cougars should return to the Big Dance this March.
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.
Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)
Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.
Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday
This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.
VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.
So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.
Things are beginning to have a more familiar look as the WCC season passes the one-third mark: Gonzaga on top, with BYU and Saint Mary’s trailing closely behind. Early-season pretenders such as Pepperdine and San Francisco have been knocked back, if not out, and BYU seems to have overcome its first-week stumble into losses at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount by rattling off five straight wins.
It’s been business as usual for Mark Few and Gonzaga, who have once again performed at a championship level. (AP)
Gonzaga has gotten Sam Dower Jr. back and is successfully integrating Louisville transfer Angel Nunez into its offense. Only the return of Gary Bell Jr. from a broken wrist keeps the Zags from fielding the team it envisioned at season’s outset.
Saint Mary’s has Randy Bennett back at the helm after a five-game NCAA-imposed suspension, and the result has been two wins at home. The Gaels hope to welcome Garrett Jackson back this week after several weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, which will give Beau Levesque some support at power forward.
All the leaders seem set for the next part of the season, therefore, and only one game separates BYU and a game-and-a-half separates Saint Mary’s from the Zags. Let the games continue.
Gonzaga (16-3, 6-1)
BYU (13-7, 5-2)
Saint Mary’s (14-5, 4-2)
San Francisco (12-8, 5-3)
Pepperdine (12-8, 5-3)
Portland (11-8, 3-4)
Santa Clara (10-11, 3-5)
San Diego (11-9, 2-5)
Loyola Marymount (10-10, 2-6)
Pacific (10-7, 1-5)
WCC News & Notes
Dower celebrated his return to the Gonzaga starting lineup with two monster games in Southern California, an effort that won him WCC Player of the Week honors. Dower was a perfect 7-of-7 against Pepperdine, which had a chance to take over first place in the WCC with a win, and added eight rebounds to his 18 points in a 70-53 rout. He matched that with a 28/14 effort two nights later against LMU, leading the Zags to an 82-72 win. Perhaps in recognition of Dower’s importance, the USA Today poll raised the Zags three spots from 24th to 21st.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Not only has the WCC posted an impressive .811 winning percentage (30-7) through games of November 20, but also some of its members have shown the capacity to turn the conference race into an interesting exercise. Before losing a gritty 90-88 home game to #21 Iowa State on Wednesday, BYU looked particularly strong. The Cougars have been revitalized by the return of Kyle Collinsworth after a two-year mission and the emergence of 6’9″ freshman Erik Mica as a force in the paint that will make it easier to forget Brandon Davies. Those two, combined with sizzling early-season play by Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino, have helped BYU score at a 90-plus PPG clip and sweep of Weber State, Stanford (on the road) and a couple of cupcakes. The loss to rugged Iowa State from the top-ranked (in the early going) Big 12 Conference served as a reality check for the Cougars, and they will get another test against Texas on Monday in Kansas City, but Dave Rose appears to have the fast-moving, high-scoring team he is known for.
As usual, Dave Rose and BYU are off to a fast start. (AP)
Saint Mary’s has done a lot to dispel those “What will we do without Matthew Dellavedova?” worries by posting a 4-0 record against strong competition. By cruising past Louisiana Tech, Akron and North Dakota State – all projected to be conference winners and go to the NCAA Tournament – the Gaels have done more than any other WCC team to boost the conference’s standing. Saint Mary’s slowed a little against Drake, not considered a force in the Missouri Valley Conference, but that 67-63 win might have been the residue of playing four games in the season’s first eight days. The Gaels’ early-season efforts put them at number three nationally in the Ratings Percentage Index (admittedly a small sample of games played), but, more importantly at 19th nationally in strength of schedule. The next closest WCC competitor is Pacific’s SOS at 65th nationally and Gonzaga’s one spot behind. Brad Waldow has been a beast in the paint for Saint Mary’s, posting two double-doubles and averaging 19.3 PPG and 8.3 RPG. Veteran guard Stephen Holt has proved Delly-like in his ability to find Waldow in good position to score, has posted a nearly three-to-one assist to turnover ratio (22 assists, eight turnovers) and is scoring at 12.3 PPG.
Saturday’s BracketBusters match-up between St. Mary’s and Creighton was billed as a statement game between excellent mid-majors looking to bolster their at-large resumes, but by halftime, it had quickly become a story of two teams headed in seemingly opposite directions. The Gaels got off to a quick start and led by as many as 17 as they coasted to a 74-66 win that was never as close as the score indicated. The win was the 13th in 15 games for St. Mary’s, who has only lost to Gonzaga (twice) since the start of the new year meanwhile it was the fourth loss in six games for the Bluejays, who have squandered a hot start and now find themselves squarely on the bubble for an at-large bid.
The nation’s ninth-most efficient offense was operating on all cylinders in the first half as St. Mary’s used a litany of ball screens to find easy looks underneath and got a huge game from sophomore center Brad Waldow who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. But the real reason they were able to win so easily was because of their effort on the other side of the ball. It’s no secret that Creighton’s offense runs through their star forward Doug McDermott and the Gaels made sure to pay close attention to where he was on the floor at all times, rotating a host of physical defenders on him and forcing him to play mostly with his back to the basket.
Brad Waldow tallied his first double-double of the season in an important victory for St. Mary’s (Gaels Athletics)
The National Player of the Year candidate still finished with 22 points, but just nine of those points came in the second half and McDermott became visibly frustrated at times as he jostled with Waldow and fellow forward Mitchell Young for position. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Killer App: The preseason buzz about Gonzaga’s prospects in 2012-13 centered around the expected emergence of Sam Dower. With the graduation of sturdy post presence Robert Sacre, currently playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dower would step out of Sacre’s shadow and become the centerpiece of the Zags’ offense. Hasn’t happened.
Kelly Olynyk (13) just keeps on getting better and better for the Zags (Gonzaga athletics)
Kelly Olynyk, who took off last season to refine his game and body, has blown into the WCC season as the conference’s most dominating player since Omar Samhan of Saint Mary’s in 2010 and Adam Morrison of Gonzaga in 2006. With back-to-back 30-point performances in the Zags’ wins over Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s last week, Olynyk underscored the conference’s somewhat belated announcement that he was Player of the Month for December. His stats are impressive enough – 18.1 PPG on 66.2% field goal shooting – but it is his combination of skills that has made him seemingly unstoppable. He combines a guard’s ball-handling ability in a toned seven-footer’s body with a deadly outside shot and an evolving array of post moves and drives down the lane. It’s a combination that no one in the WCC has figured out how to combat.
Gonzaga (3-0, 16-1): With only one game last week, the Zags were locked and loaded when Saint Mary’s flew into Spokane for an ESPN-featured game on Thursday (January 10). They looked it in an overpowering first half, running up an 18-point lead (46-28) and sending the home crowd into a heightened state of delirium. It was delirium tremens in the second half, however, as the Gaels put up 50 points and moved to within a point at 79-78 with 14 seconds left. With no other option but to foul, however, the Gaels fell short and the Zags prevailed, 83-78.
BYU (4-0, 14-4): Don’t look now but Dave Rose has his team operating with its usual ruthless efficiency, cruising to a 25-point win over visiting Pepperdine (76-51) and then downing Santa Clara in Bronco-land, 82-64. Tyler Haws continued his blistering scoring pace with 24 points in each win, and three other Cougs joined him in double figures against Santa Clara. Matt Carlino’s bald head is not the only evidence that Rose may have resulted to off-season brain surgery to rein in his free-wheeling ways. Playing with eerie patience, Carlino is forcing nothing this year, evidenced by his 3-of-4 shooting from the three-point stripe against Pepperdine. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
The Week That Was: It began on New Year’s Eve in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the packed Gallagher-Iba Arena that is home to the #22 Oklahoma State Cowboys. A tidy 69-68 win behind a clutch three-point shot by Gary Bell with 35.7 seconds left, followed by a pair of free throws by Bell’s backcourt mate, Kevin Pangos, sent the Gonzaga Bulldogs 1,400 miles west on New Year’s Day in advance of a January 3 conference-opener against Pepperdine. After hanging around Malibu for three days, the Zags dispatched the Waves 78-62 before 2,000 somewhat interested spectators, then headed up the California coast where an aroused Santa Clara Bronco squad was waiting on Saturday. The Broncos were fresh off a hard-fought 74-69 win over Bay Area rival San Francisco and still stoked over hanging with Duke in their last non-conference game (Duke eventually won 90-77). Santa Clara at least had the courtesy to provide a record-breaking Leavey Center crowd of nearly 5,000 screaming fans, and battled the Zags harder than the spunky Waves before succumbing 81-74 despite Kevin Foster’s 29 points. “It was a great road trip,” commented Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “Probably the best I’ve ever been on in 25 years.” While some might question Few’s choices for New Year’s week recreation, it left no doubt that the Zags are poised to reclaim the WCC title they held for 11 straight years before surrendering it last year.
Rumors of Mark Few and Gonzaga leaving the WCC keeps getting louder and louder (AP)
Conference Shopping: Few had stirred up his WCC colleagues in the non-conference period by musing out loud whether the Zags might have to take some protective action in case the turmoil among BCS football institutions should infect basketball. His comments came in the wake of the decision by seven Big East Catholic colleges to withdraw from that conference and establish an all-basketball league composed of themselves and a group of as-yet-unnamed like-minded schools. A Gonzaga official let it be known that the Zags were willing to join the Catholic Seven, but so far they haven’t been invited. The Zags’ outstanding non-conference record, however, sheds some light on why the Zags might feel the WCC is beneath them. The victory over Oklahoma State gave them a five-game sweep of Big 12 competition, following other wins this year over West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Baylor. The Big 12 is a power conference while the WCC is an up-an-coming mid-major league, and maybe Gonzaga thinks it has outgrown the small arenas in places like Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s.
Gonzaga (2-0, 15-1): It was business as usual for the Zags, even though both Pepperdine and Santa Clara provided some anxious moments. The Waves held Gonzaga to 43.4% shooting and even led 36-35 with 14 minutes left, but just didn’t have the troops to stave off a 78-62 loss. The Waves took some comfort from the 22 minutes played by Jan Maehlen, at seven-feet plus and 300 pounds plus the largest body in the WCC since Brad “Big Continent” Mallard at Saint Mary’s in the 90s. Although Meahlen was credited with only four points and a single rebound, he clogged up the middle enough to help contain the Zags’ rampaging center Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk, who has been overpowering in recent games, totaled a career-best 33 points in the Zags’ win over Santa Clara, highlighting the Broncos’ woeful lack of a post presence. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
College basketball has just four undefeated teams left. You can likely recite the identity of the first three: Duke, Michigan, and Arizona, who occupy the top three spots in the AP rankings. But you may be surprised to learn that the fourth team is the Wyoming Cowboys. Larry Shyatt’s squad sits at 13-0 after a successful non-conference season that featured solid wins over Colorado, Illinois State, and Denver.
Leonard Washington Has Led Wyoming to a Surprising Undefeated Start (Troy Babbitt / US PRESSWIRE)
Last year, the Cowboys finished sixth in the MW. Then in the offseason, they graduated three of their five starters. So how have they managed to reel off 13 straight victories to start the year? Wyoming is very strong defensively, but they were just as good, if not better, last year. The biggest difference is a major improvement on offense, as their adjusted efficiency has gone from 0.99 points to 1.08 points per possession. That may not sound like a big difference, but when you realize that a single game is composed of dozens of possessions, it adds up to a substantially better offensive performance. This increased efficiency has been driven by the Cowboys’ ability to get to the free throw line and to convert on two-point opportunities. Senior forward Leonard Washington deserves the credit for leading the team in both respects. The 6’7″ tweener is shooting 63.7 percent on two-point field goals and draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes — one of the higher rates in the country.
The second significant factor in the Cowboys’ improvement is the offseason development of senior Derrious Gilmore and sophomore Larry Nance, Jr. (yes, the former NBA player’s son). Gilmore has rewarded Larry Shyatt’s decision to hand him the starting point guard spot by improving his per game averages from 3.1 points and 1.1 assists per contest to 11.8 points and 3.2 assists per game. He averages more than 32 minutes per game, second most to Washington. Nance, meanwhile, has gone from averaging 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per contest to 11.2 and 6.8, respectively. He shoots over 60 percent on two-point attempts and 84.2 percent from the free throw line. Add in the contributions of returning starter and senior guard Luke Martinez (14.5 points, 42.2% 3FG) , and the Cowboys have a feature a surprising amount firepower.
Despite their undefeated mark, it remains an open question as to how good the Cowboys really are. Last year, they got off to 14-2 start during non-conference play but crumpled to a 6-8 record in the Mountain West. This year’s record is even more impressive to be sure and, as noted above, features some solid if unspectacular wins. But the strength of schedule is about to kick into a higher gear, as they enter conference play against a very deep and talented Mountain West. If they can maintain their offensive improvement through the rest of the year and continue to get contributions from a range of players, they may be Dancing for the first time since 2002 and just the second time in 25 years.
Let’s move on to this week’s Top 10, the performances that caught our eye this past week, and the games to watch in the week ahead.
RTC Region correspondents Brian Otskey (East), Kevin Doyle (South), Evan Jacoby (Midwest) and Andrew Murawa (West) contributed to this preview.
#8 Memphis vs. #9 Saint Louis – West Region Second Round (at Columbus, OH) – 6:50 PM ET on TBS
Nice to See Rick Majerus Back in the Dance (AP)
It may be an 8/9 game, but according to advanced metrics, this is anything but your typical 8/9 game. Both teams are among the top 15 teams in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, outscoring opponents by about 0.2 points per possession over the course of the season. Still, looking back over the schedules, the Billikens’ only have four wins over NCAA Tournament teams (Vermont, St. Bonaventure and two over Xavier), while the Tigers have just three (Belmont, Southern Miss and Xavier) – not exactly stunning resumes. However, SLU head coach Rick Majerus is no stranger to NCAA Tournament success, and his ability to scout and gameplan for an opponent is legendary. And while Memphis is used to playing at a fast tempo, you can bet Majerus will effectively slow this game down, using 25 seconds or more on every offensive possession, mostly forgoing any attempts at offensive rebounds in an effort to get back on defense, and making Memphis score over a stingy SLU defense. While Memphis has been killing teams over the past month or so, the two games they’ve lost have been down-tempo affairs (UTEP and Southern Miss), and if they get frustrated against the deliberate Billiken pace, it could spell an early end to the Memphis season. Still, the Tigers will have a significant athletic advantage and while Majerus has a decent matchup for lightning quick guard Joe Jackson in the form of Kwamain Mitchell (and Jordair Jett), it remains to be seen how effective they will be against sophomore win Will Barton. If Barton can find space inside the SLU perimeter defense, he could create serious problems. Of course, that’s a big if.
The RTC Certified Pick:Saint Louis
#2 Duke vs. #15 Lehigh – South Region Second Round (at Greensboro, NC) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS
Located less than an hour’s drive from Cameron Indoor, Duke will do battle with Patriot League champion Lehigh in what is practically a home game for the Blue Devils. Duke is limping into the NCAA Tournament have lost two of their last three games, one of these losses coming in blowout fashion against arch rival North Carolina. Despite having many holes on the defensive end and Ryan Kelly uncertain for the game against Lehigh, Duke does have one of the more potent offensives in the tournament. Austin Rivers and Seth Curry can score from virtually anywhere on the floor, and the Plumlee brothers make for a formidable frontcourt. It is not often that a Patriot League team can put a player on the floor that has the ability to go shot-for- with one of the best teams in the nation, but C.J. McCollum will prove he belongs running side by side with Austin Rivers. The junior guard from Canton, OH ranks top ten nationally in scoring and has the ability to take over a game for long stretches. Although Duke will no doubt focus much of their effort on the defensive end on McCollum, it is no secret that the Blue Devils struggle guarding around the perimeter. McCollum will get his points, but it is just a question if his teammates will be able to follow suit. If Lehigh gets production from Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner, don’t be surprised if the Mountain Hawks hang with Duke for much of the game.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.
Showdown in Las Vegas
So, it’s decided but it’s really not. Saint Mary’s closed out the WCC regular season with a tough 67-60 victory over San Francisco on the road, earning an undisputed conference championship for the first time since the 1989 squad coached by Lynn Nance. The Gaels tied Gonzaga for the regular-season title last year – the Zags’ 11th straight WCC championship – and needed a win over San Francisco to avoid another tie this year. They got it, but not without a dogged fight from the Dons, who closed out the season with home games against the conference’s top three teams – BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. They made them all pay, losing narrowly to BYU (85-84), edging Gonzaga, 66-65, and giving Saint Mary’s all they could handle before a frantic home crowd.
The WCC Tournament beginning Wednesday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will have a lot to say about how many conference members advance to the NCAA Tournament, and, almost as important, where they will play and how high they are seeded. The tournament champion receives the automatic NCAA bid, but almost all commentators agree that both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will receive bids no matter what happens in Las Vegas. The same cannot be said for BYU, however, so the Cougars’ need to make a strong showing in Las Vegas – perhaps even win the championship – in one of the compelling stories that will play out over the weekend.
Can Saint Mary's Earn The Automatic Bid Into The Big Dance? Conference POY Matthew Dellavedova Will Have A Huge Say In That (AP)
Others revolve around the conference’s mystery team, Loyola Marymount, and whether San Francisco can maintain the fierce defensive intensity it displayed down the stretch at home with days off between games. The Dons’ road to a high tournament finish requires victories on Thursday against the winner of a play-in game between Portland and Santa Clara, a Friday win against a Loyola team that beat them twice in the regular season, then a semifinal contest on Saturday against the Gaels, who also beat them twice in conference. Not an easy path.
Loyola is in a better position to wreak havoc than San Francisco. Earning a first-round tournament bye with its fourth-place conference finish, the Lions play first on Friday against the winner of the San Francisco/play-in winner game. If it’s a rematch with the Dons, tournament fans will see San Francisco take a third shot at a win that eluded them in two excruciatingly close conference games – a 77-76 overtime loss at home that saw LMU erase a 17-point second-half deficit, and a 90-88 loss in Los Angeles in which LMU had to come from 16 points down. The Dons desperately want another shot at the Lions, and feel they finished stronger than LMU because of their tough battles with the league leaders and LMU’s less-than-overwhelming finish: an inexplicable 60-57 loss to San Diego and a 68-65 nail-biter win against Santa Clara, which was winless in conference play.
Figuring out the psyche of Max Good’s squad would challenge a team of Freuds, however, as the Lions bounced back and forth between helpless – a 76-63 home loss to North Texas – and sublime – a 75-60 upset of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, the Gaels’ only home loss all season. One of the Lions’ quirks is they play better on the road than at home, so maybe a trip to Las Vegas is just what Dr. Freud would order. If they do, indeed, meet and beat San Francisco in the quarterfinals, they will move on to another encounter with Saint Mary’s in Saturday’s first semifinal game (6:00 PM PT, ESPN2). That the Gaels would like another shot at LMU goes without saying, as that loss cost them both a lofty national ranking and injuries to guard StephenHolt, whose return from a torn meniscus is still undecided, center Brad Waldow, who re-injured a bruised rib and had to sit out much of the action, and even indestructible guard MatthewDellavedova, who turned an ankle and left the game for several minutes in the second half.
Who Us? Rex Walters and USF Are Playing Great Basketball (Comcast Sports Net)
BYU’s path to a possible tournament championship takes them through a quarterfinal match with the winner of a San Diego-Pepperdine contest and a semifinal rematch with Gonzaga, with whom they split regular-season games. BYU was without outstanding forward Noah Hartsock (knee injury) for all but the first seven minutes of the second Gonzaga game on Feb. 23, a 74-63 loss. Hartsock also sat out BYU’s final conference game, a 76-66 win over Portland, and his status for Las Vegas has not been announced. With Hartsock in the lineup, a BYU-Gonzaga rematch in Saturday’s second semifinal match (ESPN2, 8:oo PM PT) could be a classic, but we’ll have to wait to see whether Hartsock can go.
As for the championship game on Monday night (6:00 PM PT, ESPN), it has featured Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the last three years (Gonzaga won two of the three), and a similar match-up would surprise no one. It would be a rubber game, as the teams split in conference play, and could determine whether either team receives a favorable or dicey NCAA seeding.
Here’s how the 2011-12 WCC season ended up:
Saint Mary’s (25-5, 14-2).
Gonzaga (23-5, 13-3).
BYU (24-7, 12-4)
Loyola Marymount (19-11, 11-5)
San Francisco (18-12, 8-8)
San Diego (12-1, 7-9)
Pepperdine (10-18, 4-12)
Portland (6-23, 3-13)
Santa Clara (8-21, 0-16)
For the second year in a row a Saint Mary’s guard is the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. This time it is Matthew Dellavedova, the 6’4″ junior from Maryborough, Victoria, Australia, who led the conference in assists (6.6 per game) and was third in scoring (16.4 PPG). The Gaels’ Mickey McConnell rated the POY nod last year, and not many observers of the conference would bet against Dellavedova repeating in 2013. In addition to his conference honors, Dellavedova is a finalist in the Bob Cousy Award competition for the nation’s best point guard. Last week, he was named a Capital One Academic All-American, the first Saint Mary’s player to be so honored.
While the choice of Dellavedova raised no eyebrows, selecting Max Good of Loyola Marymount as coach of the year might – even among Loyola fans and alumni. Good has been on the hot seat at LMU ever since last year’s team – picked to compete for conference honors – finished in last place at 2-12. While not ducking his share of blame for the team’s collapse, Good insisted that without crippling injuries his team would have been much better. The Lions weathered some early-season injuries – most notably to All-Conference Forward Drew Viney and his front court mate Ashley Hamilton – and, indeed, did do better this year, finishing fourth in the conference with an 11-5 mark. Along the way, LMU posted wins over UCLA, St. Louis and Valparaiso in non-conference play and over BYU and Saint Mary’s in conference. Good’s fellow coaches – who make the conference honors selections – evidently believe in redemption.
Other individual honors announced by the WCC on Tuesday were Defensive Player of the Year to Gonzaga’s 7’0” senior center Robert Sacre, whose 25 blocks led the league; and WCC Newcomer of the Year to Gonzaga freshman guard Kevin Pangos, whose deadly three-point shooting accounted for 12.8 PPG and 36 three-point field goals. The WCC All-conference team is composed of:
Angelo Caloiaro, San Francisco
Brandon Davies, BYU
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
Elias Harris, Gonzaga
Noah Hartsock, BYU
Anthony Ireland, Loyola
Rob Jones, Saint Mary’s
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga
Drew Viney, Loyola
The conference all-freshman team:
Gary Bell, Jr, Gonzaga
Matt Carlino, BYU
Johnny Dee, San Diego
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s
Honorable mention was accorded to Perris Blackwell, center, San Francisco; Carlino and Dee; Rashad Green, guard, San Francisco; Stephen Holt, guard, Saint Mary’s; and Corbin Moore, center, Pepperdine.