Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Standings (through games of 2/6/10)
- Saint Mary’s 8-1 (21-3)
- Gonzaga 7-1 (19-4)
- Portland 5-3 (14-8)
- San Francisco 4-5 (9-15)
- Loyola Marymount 3-5 (12-12)
- Pepperdine 3-5 (7-17)
- Santa Clara 2-7 (10-16)
- San Diego 2-7 (9-16)
Moment of Truth, Part II
Gonzaga triumphed in its trial-by-fire three-game stretch to Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego last month, and now it’s Saint Mary’s turn to run the gauntlet. After holding serve at home last week against Santa Clara (74-62) and San Francisco (73-57), the Gaels face a showdown with the Zags Thursday night (Feb. 11) in Spokane, a tough rematch with Portland two nights later, then a final road game on Feb. 18 against San Diego. This is make or break time for Saint Mary’s, which can sew up a regular-season WCC title and a probable NCAA bid with a sweep, or face the same uncertainty it did last season when it failed to beat Gonzaga in three tries.
Although the Gaels could salvage their season with a win over Gonzaga in the WCC tournament March 5-8 in Las Vegas, it would do wonders for their peace of mind if they did the trick Thursday night before a sold out and rockin’ McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Zags have lost only four times in the last six years. The epic contest, perhaps the most meaningful west coast college basketball game this year, will be televised at 8 p.m. Pacific on ESPN2. Are Randy Bennett’s Gaels up to the task?
The consensus of most observers, including Zag fans, is that an upset is possible but Saint Mary’s must be hitting on all cylinders to pull it off. Gonzaga dispelled any thoughts that they had fallen into a mid-season funk with their stunning loss to San Francisco on Jan. 30 by thrashing Portland at home 76-49 on Feb. 4, then pulling one of their patented cross-country jaunts to knock off a tough Memphis squad 66-58 two days later. The Zag express is rolling toward a certain trip to the NCAA tournament and will not want to be derailed by the Gaels on its home court.
To accomplish the improbable, Saint Mary’s must show it has learned some tough lessons from its 89-82 home loss to Gonzaga on Jan. 14. One of these is not to provide another contribution to a highlight reel that could be entitled “Forwards Go Off,” featuring huge games by the Zags’ Elias Harris (31 pts), Santa Clara’s Marc Trasolini (19 pts), Loyola Marymount’s Kevin Young and Drew Viney (27 pts each) and Portland’s Robin Smuelders (29 pts), among others. Simply put, the Gaels have inside defense issues stemming most directly from the departure of stout forwards Diamon Simpson and Ian O’Leary. Their replacements, Ben Allen and Clint Steindl, have given Bennett strong offensive performances from the 4-and 3-spots, but have not exactly played shutdown D. The Gaels don’t have to worry about their powerful offensive machine, which has proved to be a reliable provider of 80-plus ppg, but must clamp down on the Zags’ trio of Harris, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray.
Eric Reveno must work hard this week to keep his Portland Pilots from licking their lips in anticipation of ambushing the Gaels two nights after they face the Zags. Portland will have a tuneup against unraveling San Diego on Thursday night, then can hope to inflict a disappointing second league loss on the Gaels if they upset Gonzaga or a crippling third one if the Gaels lose in Spokane. “Payback is hell” will be the Pilots’ motto this week, remembering their 77-72 loss to Saint Mary’s last month.
The hotly-contested fourth-place spot in WCC standings stayed with San Francisco this week, as the Dons squeaked out a 72-70 overtime win over San Diego before stumbling at Saint Mary’s. LMU supplanted Pepperdine in the fifth spot by beating the Waves 77-61 at Gersten Pavilion, but both southern California squads travel to San Francisco this week to stage a battle royal for the fourth-place position and first-round WCC tournament bye that goes with it. San Francisco is in the driver’s seat by hosting both of its nearest competitors, but even if it wins both games it faces a killing season-ending schedule of Santa Clara, Portland and Gonzaga on the road. This one isn’t over yet.