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.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West CoastConference. Click here for all of our 2009-10 Season Preview materials.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Saint Mary’s (8-6)
San Diego (7-7)
Santa Clara (6-8)
Loyola Marymount (6-8)
Matt Bouldin (G), Gonzaga
Kevin Foster (G), Santa Clara
Dior Lowhorn (F), USF
Kevin Young (F), Loyola
Omar Samhan (C), Saint Mary’s
6th man. Nik Raivio, Portland
Impact newcomer.Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s
What You Need to Know.
Going International. The 2010 season marks the WCC’s most pronounced bow to international athletes, with every team having at least two foreign-born players and two of the predicted top three finishers – Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s – pinning their season hopes on the performance of foreigners. Saint Mary’s gave the trend its biggest boost by establishing an Australian pipeline that produced Daniel Kickert, the Gaels’ all-time leading scorer, and Patty Mills, who opted for the NBA after two sensational seasons. The Gaels continue as the Koala’s best friend this year, with five Aussies expected to make contributions and one, freshman guard Matthew Dellavedova, looming as a potential star. Gonzaga’s Pacific Northwest pipeline that supplied stars Adam Morrison, Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp, among others, may be temporarily clogged, but the Zags have turned to Canada (Manny Arop, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk), Germany (Elias Harris), and Sudan by way of Canada (Bol Kong), to maintain their position atop the conference. USF joined the crowd in a big way this off-season, luring a Czech (Tomas Bruha), two Frenchmen (Moustapha Diarra, Nikola Stojiljkovic) and a Canadian (Perris Blackwell).
Room at the Top: Gonzaga, with nine WCC titles in a row, and Saint Mary’s, a perennial runner-up under Randy Bennett, have dominated the conference in recent years. But Gonzaga lost four of its main contributors from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team (Austin Daye, Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs) and Saint Mary’s said goodbye to Mills, all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker Diamon Simpson, starting forward Ian O’Leary and a trio of valuable back-ups in Yusef Smith, Lucas Walker and Carlin Hughes. That’s why Portland, with all five starters back from last year’s 19-13 team that finished third in the conference, can’t wait to shove its way into the top spot. Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating and USF’s confident newcomer Rex Walters, entering his second year, have recruited aggressively and well, indicating that they, too, are up to challenging Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the next few years.
Multiple NCAA Bids: The conference was shocked last year when Saint Mary’s, 25-6 overall and second place in the conference behind Gonzaga, did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, leaving the Zags as the sole WCC entrant. Just the year before, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego received bids, the first time in anyone’s memory that three teams had gone to The Dance. Whether the conference elevates itself in the NCAA Selection Committee’s eyes in 2009-10 is one of the biggest question marks looming over the season.
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
So now here it comes, the premiere game we have been waiting for all season in the WCC: Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga (1/29 at 11pm EST on ESPN2). Both are ranked, both are undefeated in conference play, and both are really talented. So with that said lets break this sucker down:
Point Guard – Jeremy Pargo v. Patty Mills:
Advantage: Saint Mary’s
Analysis: A few months ago, most analysts had Pargo winning this matchup. At the time Jeremy was the more physical of the two guards and was believed to be farther along from a maturity standpoint. Fast forward and I think Patty, by many expert’s accounts, wins this matchup. From a draft potential standpoint, one has to say that Mills has the bigger upside, but just looking at the stats, the two are about even. Patty is far and away the more prolific scorer this season, averaging nearly 20 points a game. However Jeremy has over 100 assists and has a 2.76 assists to turnover ratio whereas Patty’s is 1:1. In two matchups last year Pargo beat Patty up with his more physical style of play. I don’t think he will be able to do that this year. Mills’ most improved asset this year has been on the defensive end of the floor. If Pargo holds Patty to under 15, he wins this matchup, as I believe the trio of Bouldin, Downs, and Gray could more than make up those points. However it Patty goes off for 25+, the Gaels have a good shot of scoring the upset
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the WCC.
WCC Conference Action opens this week. After what can only be characterized as a mediocre non conference season, the eight west coast teams will begin play on Friday. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are heads and heels above the rest of the competition, the Gaels sporting an impressive 13-1 record and GU coming out 9-4 after playing the most brutal non conference schedule in the country. Other than the two headliners only Portland has exceeded expectations this season, posting a winning record going into action this weekend.
Looking towards March, I would say that if Saint Mary’s or Gonzaga do not win the conference tournament, don’t expect both to get a bid to the Dance. Although both teams may be deserving, the bottom half of the conference is simply terrible. Loyola Marymount hasn’t even won a game yet. With that said, here are some things to watch for over the conference season:
(1) Which Gonzaga team comes out to play?
When the Bulldogs are playing confident, as they did against Tennessee last night, they can play with anyone in the country. Between Stephen Gray, Austin Daye, Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt, and Micah Downs, they have as many scorers and perimeter threats as anyone in the country. Additionally, this team has shown they have some heart, playing team defense without a force in the middle. However, as Mark Few has said himself, the Zags are thin down low. If their confidence takes a shot, they could be in for a few upsets and a surefire loss to the Gaels. However, if they hit their stride, and continue to stroke it, as they are capable of doing, watch out.
Michael Chin is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference (WCC).
Predicted Order of Finish:
Sleeper. San Francisco
WYN2K. For the last ten years the WCC national storyline has read “Gonzaga and the seven dwarfs.” However, as many have learned, Grumpy and Sleepy are finally growing up. Saint Mary’s and San Diego, both of which made the Big Dance last season, return 88% of their scoring and are primed for return trips to March Madness. Saint Mary’s is lead by lightning quick Aussie Patrick Mills and All Conference Defensive Player of the Year Diamon Simpson. Down south, the Toreros return forward Gyno Pomare and guard Brandon Johnson, both of whom made the All-Conference team a season ago. Don’t be fooled however, Gonzaga still has the bullets to defend their conference crown as they return WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo and potential lottery pick Austin Daye. Aside from the “three wise men,” the remaining teams in the conference are rebuilding. Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and USF all have new coaches, while Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating is only in his second year as the head man of the Broncos. Portland looks to build on a young cast which includes Nik Raivio (brother of former GU All-American Derek) and Luke Sikma (son of Sonic great Jack Sikma).
Predicted Champion.Gonzaga (NCAA #3). The Bulldogs’ strength this year will be in its backcourt where they figure to go with three guard sets quite often. This team will go as far as Conference POY Jeremy Pargo will take them. After flirting with the NBA this summer, the Chicago native decided to return for a final year to hone his outside shooting skills. His backcourt mate Steven Gray is the sharpshooter of the bunch. The third guard for the Bulldogs is Matt Bouldin. After a stellar freshman campaign two seasons ago, Bouldin had an up-and-down year as a sophomore. Demetrius Goodson, a super athletic freshman point guard and Micah Downs, a former Kansas Jayhawk capable of playing the 2, 3, and 4 positions add significant depth to the GU backcourt. The frontline, though stellar on offense, lacks proven depth and a real defensive force. Austin Daye, the silky forward from Irvine, can shoot it from anywhere on the court and provides GU with a real mismatch when he plays at the 3 spot. The only true experienced big man on the GU roster is senior Josh Heytvelt. Injuries and personal problems have nagged at his career, however, but if he can bounce back from a constant foot problem and returns to his sophomore form, GU should have a solid post threat to go alongside their outstanding perimeter shooting. The depth for Gonzaga has potential, but right now it is unproven. The best of the bunch is 7-footer Robert Sacre, but last year Few used him in limited action on tips-offs. Another 7-footer, Will Foster, may provide some defensive minutes, but to date has not shown any offensive prowess. Coaches like Ira Brown’s toughness, but against a Diamon Simpson or Gyno Pomare, he will have a tough time. Freshman Andrew Poling and Iowa POY Grant Gibbs may end up redshirting this season.
Saint Mary’s (NCAA #10). Although the Patty Mills story is the biggest news around in the picturesque campus of Moraga, CA, the Gaels have more to be excited about than Kobe and Chris Paul describing Patty as “lightning quick.” Not only do the Gaels return last year’s freshman of the year (Mills) and Defensive POY (Simpson), but also two other starters and almost all of their scoring. However, what could put the Gaels over the top in the WCC is their depth. Unlike other WCC teams, the Gaels are arguably ten deep. The front line returns all three starters (Simpson, Omar Samhan and Ian O’Leary). Of the three Diamon is the most polished. His game can be described in one word – relentless. Already the senior from Hayward, CA, has broken the career blocks record at SMC and is currently in the top ten all-time in rebounds for the Gaels. Samhan, the only true center on the team, has a nice offensive skill set and has steadily improved his defense over the last two seasons. As mentioned, the bench provides the Gaels with a wealth of experience. Returners Yusef Smith and Lucas Walker, as well as 7-foot Indiana transfer Ben Allen provides the Gaels with true backups for Samhan and Simpson. In particular, Ben Allen’s shooting ability should allow Coach Randy Bennett to use some of the high post offense that got the Gaels to the Dance in 2003-04. In the backcourt, aside from Mills, the Gaels return redshirt junior Wayne Hunter to the lineup. The 6-2 guard would have been Bennett’s best on-ball defender, but because of the logjam last year, Bennett could not find a place for him. Should Hunter’s offense regress, expect the Gaels to go Aussie Carlin Hughes. Even if he doesn’t start, Hughes will see significant minutes as he is the best returning shooter on the Gaels roster. One guy to keep an eye on is freshman Clint Steindl. Another transport from down under, he may take minutes from O’Leary if the senior swingman’s offensive game goes cold. There is talk that Collin Chiverton, fellow teammate of UCLA recruit Drew Gordon, may also see time, but with the depth the Gaels possess, he may end up redshirting.
San Diego (NIT). Seniors Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare took the WCC by surprise last season with a strong finish, winning the conference tournament at home, then knocking off UConn in the first round of the NCAAs. The question now is whether their “one shining moment” will catapult the Toreros to the top of the WCC. The good thing for the Toreros is they return their entire team from a year ago. While Pomare and Johnson are the headliners, guards Dejon Jackson and Tremaine Johnson will have to continue their growth in order for their team to reach the Dance. Forwards Chris Lewis and Rob Jones also saw significant action next year and should also to continue to improve. However, in order to have a real shot at the Gaels or Bulldogs, USD will have to get some major contributions from some young players, most notably Brazilian transfer Roberto Manfra and Nathan Lozeau. The two are USD’s biggest bodies and must be able to hold their own against the likes of Josh Heytvelt, Omar Samhan, and Diamon Simpson. Another factor for the Toreros is that the tournament moves from the friendly confines of Jenny Craig Pavilion to a neutral site this year. The last two times USD made it to March Madness, they hosted the WCC Tournament. Here’s an audience-eye view of the big upset over UConn.
Fighting for Fourth.
Santa Clara. Center John Bryant, perhaps the best center in the conference, is a load. But aside from him the team is thin and unless junior guard Calvin Johnson and some transfers step up, the Broncos will only be a .500 team at best.
San Francisco. With the return of all conference forward Dior Lowthorn and former Rutgers guard Manny Quezada, USF has the offensive weapons to upset anyone in the conference. But if new coach Rex Walters wants to play with the big boys he will need to find some other pieces to go along with these two studs.
Portland. Quietly former Stanford assistant Eric Reveno has built a solid team in Portland. Most of his team returns, including guards Taishi Ito and Nik Raivio and forwards Luke Sikma and Robin Smuelders, but they don’t match up well with the likes of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
Pepperdine. After the Vince Walhberg debacle, Pepperdine went to the archives and dug up former coach Tom Ashbury. With a promising but young team, Ashbury will need to teach these guys how to win so they have a chance in years to come.
Loyola Marymount. Like Pepperdine, Coach Bill Bayno is counting on next year when he brings in Seton Hall transfer Larry Hughes and Oregon Transfer Drew Viney.
All Conference Team.
Patrick Mills, St. Mary’s (POY)
Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
Austin Daye, Gonzaga
Diamon Simpson, St. Mary’s (DPOY)
Gyno Pomare, San Diego
Prediction. Until another team proves otherwise, the Gonzaga Bulldogs remain at the top. However GU is not a unbeatable as some think (Sporting News ranks them #4 nationally). The Bulldogs can shoot the lights out with the best of them, but their frontcourt remains a huge question mark. On the other hand, Saint Mary’s can bang with anybody, but until someone can prove to be their go-to deep shooter, the Gaels will have a difficult time matching up against upper echelon athletic teams, especially those with great shooting guards. San Diego is the darkhorse, but to this analyst they look like a poor man’s Gonzaga. In order for all three to make a return appearance to the NCAAs they will have to perform well in brutal preseason schedules and manage the expectations. This shouldn’t be a problem for Gonzaga, as they are used to the pressure which comes from being the top dog, but as for Saint Mary’s and San Diego, it will be interesting to see what how they will respond as the hunted.
65 Team Era. The WCC is 20-34 (.370), but let’s not kid ourselves, the majority of those wins (12) are from Gonzaga during the last decade (4 others are from the run-n-gun LMU teams in the late 80s/early 90s). Still, in five of the last nine seasons, the WCC has been a multiple-bid league, including the best-ever showing of three bids in 2008. How interesting is it that the lowest seed, #13 San Diego, was the only team to win a game in the Tourney, while higher seeded #7 Gonzaga and #10 St. Mary’s were sent packing in their first game. With the collective strength of the top half of this conference this year and potentially into the future, there should be numerous opportunities for the WCC to have multiple teams advancing very soon.