WEST COAST CONFERENCE NOTEBOOK
It is becoming increasingly evident that the WCC may get more than one team into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, it could get three teams into the NCAAs for just the second time in conference history. There is even a scenario in which the WCC could get four teams into the NCAAs, and it’s not that far-fetched.
The initial premise is that St. Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU may show enough during the regular season to earn at-large berths. Of course, it depends on what happens elsewhere around the county, but the presumed top conference in the West, the Pac-12, does not have nearly as many tournament-worthy teams as the WCC, so spots will be available.
If selection were made today, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s would certainly get in, and BYU probably would too.
Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule should be enough get it into the NCAA Tournament for a 14th straight year, assuming the Bulldogs don’t collapse during the conference season. As of Jan. 15, Gonzaga had an RPI ranking of No. 8, and that comes after its blowout loss to St. Mary’s on Jan. 12. Unlike past seasons, the Bulldogs’ RPI may not drop as dramatically during the conference season because the RPIs of other top WCC teams is higher than usual.
That includes St. Mary’s, which looks very much like an NCAA Tournament team after beating Gonzaga by 83-62 on Jan. 12. That coupled with a double-digit win over BYU two weeks earlier put the Gaels into the top 25 for the first time this season (No. 24 in the AP poll, No. 23 in the coaches poll in the rankings released Jan. 16). It also gave the Gaels a No. 24 RPI ranking as of Jan. 15.
The Gaels were stunned they didn’t get into the NCAA Tournament last year, and they have yet to play Gonzaga and BYU on the road, so St. Mary’s will not go unscathed and still has some work to do. However, the Gaels have only one bad loss – to Denver, and that loss is not horrible – and playing Baylor, despite the loss, looks good on the resume.
Other than a total collapse, a bad loss in a Bracket Buster game against an undetermined opponent may be the only thing that could prevent St. Mary’s from getting in. Such a loss would hurt the entire conference.
The addition of BYU has helped the WCC’s image. With a No. 43 RPI, the Cougars, who are 16-4 overall as of Jan. 17, are in good position as well. They have yet to play St. Mary’s and Gonzaga in Provo, and winning either or both will help considerably. As of Jan. 17, they have won five in a row since the loss to St. Mary’s and have given every indication they will stay near the top based on their strong frontcourt and the play of point guard Matt Carlino.
The Cougars’ Jan. 25 nonconference road game against Virginia Tech will carry postseason implications for the Cougars and for the conference.
BYU, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga figure to battle for the regular-season crown right down to the wire, so it’s very possible the champion will have a 14-2 or 13-3 record, perhaps even 12-4.
San Francisco and Loyola Marymount are the two other teams that figure into the postseason possibilities.
Santa Clara, Portland, San Diego and Pepperdine seem to have too many flaws or too much youth to challenge any of the top three teams in the conference tournament, but USF and Loyola Marymount might in a one-and-done scenario.
The Lions are healthy now with Ashley Hamilton and Drew Viney back in the lineup, and although they lost at home to Gonzaga by four points on Jan. 14, they should get better as this lineup plays more games together.
The Dons seem to have found their groove after a horrible start. Losing their first four WCC games virtually eliminated USF from the title chase, but the Dons blew out Portland and Pepperdine on Jan. 12 and 14 and are starting to resemble the team that finished 10-4 in the conference last season and gave Gonzaga all it could handle in the WCC semifinals. USF returns all five starters from that team, so it is capable of winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
And if either Loyola Marymount or USF wins the conference tournament to earn an automatic NCAA berth – which is certainly a long shot, but not out of the question – the WCC could get four teams into the NCAA Tournament.
More realistically, the WCC should get at least two teams into the NCAAs, with a good chance to get a third.
—Perhaps the most surprising aspect of St. Mary’s 21-point victory over Gonzaga on Jan. 12 was that Rob Jones, the Gaels’ leading scorer heading into the game, did not score a point until he made a layup with 1:40 left in the game. By that time, the Gaels already had an insurmountable lead. Jones instead became a facilitator, nearly getting a double double in an unexpected way. He had 11 rebounds, which is not unusual, but he also had eight assists, three more than his previous season high. He scored just two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
In a way, it was in keeping with Jones’ habit of inconsistent scoring. This was the sixth time this season he has scored seven points or fewer, but he has scored 18 or more nine times.
—San Diego provided a blueprint of how teams are likely to play BYU this season, which is the exact opposite of how teams defended the Cougars a year ago. In their Jan. 16 game against BYU, the Toreros focused all their defensive effort on the Cougars’ inside players, specifically Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies, after getting manhandled by those two in the earlier meeting. It seemed to disrupt the Cougars, who trailed for the first 10 minutes of the game. BYU had too much talent for the young Toreros, who were overwhelmed in the second half, but other teams will take notice. Hartsock and Davies were averaging nearly 31 points a game as a pair, but Hartsock had a season-low seven points, and Davis had just five points before scoring seven in the final eight minutes after BYU had taken a 20-point lead.
—Portland’s Jan. 14 loss at St. Mary’s kept the Pilots winless on the road. As of Jan. 17, the Pilots are 0-10 in games played on their opponent’s home court. Only two of those 10 losses were closer than 14 points.
—Despite the high expectations for San Francisco this season, the Dons’ home attendance has averaged only 1,447 through Jan. 17. That’s nearly 800 fewer than last year’s average home attendance. The Dons finish the season with home games against BYU, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, and that should improve the Dons’ attendance number significantly. But the 1,311 USF drew for its Jan. 14 home game against Pepperdine was its smallest home crowd since Nov. 13. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the San Francisco 49ers were playing their first playoff game in nine years at Candlestick Park at the same time.
—Gonzaga’s 83-62 loss to St. Mary’s on Jan. 12 was the most lopsided conference defeat in Mark Few’s 13 seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach. St. Mary’s is certainly tough on its 3,500-seat home gym, but the Bulldogs had beaten St. Mary’s three straight times there before getting blown out this time.
—After its 62-58 loss to Gonzaga on Jan. 14, Loyola Marymount was 0-2 in conference home games, but 3-0 in WCC games on the road.
—Dennis Kramer, a 6-11 center-forward, started San Diego’s games against San Francisco and BYU instead of 6-0 G Darian Norris, who had started the first three conference games.
Norris was the team’s leading scorer last season, when he was the only Toreros player to start all 30 games. But Norris struggled in the first five conference games this season, going just 7-for-32 from the field. He went scoreless in the Jan. 7 game against Loyola Marymount and had just three points off the bench against San Francisco and three more as a reserve against BYU on Jan. 16.
It was odd, because Norris had been productive offensively in the nonconference games immediately before the start of conference play, which had prompted coach Bill Grier to go with the three-guard lineup.
Meanwhile, Kramer tied a season high with his 15 points in the loss to BYU on Jan. 16.
—Santa Clara G Kevin Foster, a preseason favorite to win the conference player of the year award after averaging 20.2 points last season, has struggled in conference play. He scored 13 points in the Jan. 12 loss to San Diego, which is the most he scored in any of the first three WCC games. He made just 10 of 39 shots (25.6 percent) in those first three conference games. Foster sat out the first 3 minutes, 20 seconds of the Jan. 12 game against San Diego because of an academic issue.
Foster may have broken out of his scoring slump in the loss to BYU on Jan. 14, scoring 22 points on 6-for-12 shooting. With those 22 points, Foster passed John Bryant for the No. 6 spot in Santa Clara’s career scoring list.
—BYU’s Jan. 16 game at San Diego showed how the Cougars have changed the WCC landscape. Although the game was in San Diego, the crowd of 3,204 was made up mostly of BYU supporters, making it feel like a home game for the Cougars. The fact that the San Diego students were still on holiday break contributed to the BYU partisanship, but BYU now surpasses Gonzaga as the conference team that travels the best.
—Gonzaga had returned to the top 25 in the coaches’ poll on Jan. 9 and were back for the second straight week in the Associated Press poll, coming in at No. 21. But the Bulldogs exited the top 25 on Jan. 16 with the nationally televised blowout loss to St. Mary’s on Jan. 12.
UPCOMING MATCHUP TO WATCH: St. Mary’s at Santa Clara, Jan. 21 – Although the Gaels appear to be the better team and should prevail, even on the road, the matchup of the teams’ backcourts will be intriguing. St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova has developed into a player of the year candidate based on his play against Gonzaga, and Santa Clara G Kevin Foster was the preseason player of the year in many minds. Foster has not been as productive as expected, but he is capable of raining three-pointers on any team and going for 30. Also, Santa Clara point guard Evan Roquemore has shown flashes of brilliance, while St. Mary’s G Stephen Holt may be the most well-rounded and most underrated backcourt player in the WCC. An outstanding defender, Holt presumably will guard Foster.
KEY CONFERENCE GAMES
Loyola Marymount at BYU
The Lions are a threat now that their stars are healthy, but few road teams win in Provo.
San Diego at Portland
Two freshmen-laden teams battle to establish themselves.
San Francisco at Portland
The Dons must refocus to get a needed and expected road win after playing a road game at Gonzaga two days earlier.
Loyola Marymount at Santa Clara
The Lions have been good on the road, but you keep expecting Santa Clara to snap out of its slump.
—A perimeter team last season because of the presence of guards Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery, BYU demonstrated against Santa Clara on Jan. 14 that its strength is on the inside this season. F Noah Hartsock and F-C Brandon Davies combined for 44 points against the Broncos. BYU outscored Santa Clara 50-30 in the paint, and outrebounded Santa Clara 40-26.
—Three BYU players – Matt Carlino, Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies — all scored more than 20 points in the 17-point victory over Santa Clara on Jan. 14. It was the first time since March 2010 that three Cougars had scored more than 20 points in the same game.
—Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of BYU’s victory over Santa Clara on Jan. 14 was the play of G Matt Carlino. He had not been productive in his first four WCC games after being outstanding in the four nonconference games he played after gaining eligibility as a transfer. Against Santa Clara, however, he had 21 points (nine more than his previous high in a conference game), hit 3 of 6 three-pointers and collected eight assists against two turnovers.
“He played terrific,” coach Dave Rose told the Salt Lake Tribune.
—F Noah Hartsock, a candidate for WCC player of the year honors, failed to reach double digits in scoring for the first time this season in the Jan. 16 victory over San Diego. Hartsock had just 7 points on 2-for-12 shooting. He also had just one rebound, which tied a season low and was just the second time this season he had fewer than three boards.
—Swingman Stephen Rogers had been a productive sixth man for BYU until he injured his knee in the Dec. 10 victory over Utah. He had surgery and missed six games and had not scored more than three points in any of the four games since his return. He then re-injured his knee in the Jan. 16 game against San Diego, and it’s unclear how long that will sideline him.
—Gonzaga’s bounce-back victory over Loyola Marymount on Jan. 14 was probably more significant than its blowout loss to St. Mary’s two days earlier. The Lions have shown they are a good team now they are at full strength, and they figured to have a chance against Gonzaga on LMU’s home court in the Bulldogs’ second road game in three days. The Bulldogs held off a Loyola Marymount surge at the end to win a tense game 62-58 and remain just a game out of first place, as of Jan. 14.
—Holding a three-point lead, Gonzaga opted to foul intentionally with 3.5 seconds left to prevent Loyola Marymount from attempting a game-tying three-point shot. Coaches often talk about using that strategy, but they seldom employ it. The Lions’ Anthony Ireland made the first free throw to make it a two-point game, and missed the second, giving the Lions a chance for an offensive rebound. But the smallest player on the court, Kevin Pangos, got the critical rebound for Gonzaga. He was fouled and made both free throws.
—C Robert Sacre did not score against St. Mary’s on Jan. 12 until less than 15 minutes remained in the game, by which point the Gaels were comfortably ahead. Sacre struggled so much that Sam Dower started the second half in place of Sacre, an all-conference play a year ago. Sacre finished just 1-for-7 with four points, the fifth time in seven games he was held to seven points or fewer.
—The 83 points Gonzaga yielded against St. Mary’s on Jan. 12 was a season high for the Bulldogs, who had not allowed more than 61 points in any of the games during their eight-game winning streak that immediately preceded the loss to the Gaels.
—On Jan. 14 against Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount was handed the perfect situation to have break-through game. The Lions were healthy, with Drew Viney and Ashley Hamilton back in the lineup. Gonzaga was coming off a disappointing blowout loss to St. Mary’s two days earlier. The Lions had won four of their last five games and were playing well, and they were playing at home. It set things up for a chance to move past Gonzaga in the standings and into second place with a 4-1 record. But despite rallying from an 11-point second-half deficit to get within a point, the Lions could never get the critical basket and lost 62-58.
—Loyola Marymount’s best player, Drew Viney, had his worst game of the season in an inopportune time. In his eighth game since returning from preseason foot surgery, Viney had just six points on 2-for-10 shooting in the four-point loss to Gonzaga on Jan. 14. It was the first time this season he was limited to single-digit scoring, and he also tied a season low with just two rebounds.
—Loyola Marymount’s 3-1 conference record following its 68-58 victory over Pepperdine on Jan. 12 was better than it sounds. All three wins came on the road, and the Lions had not won three straight road games in conference play since 1991-92. It was the first time since 1998 Loyola Marymount had beaten Pepperdine in Malibu.
—G Jarred DuBois, a starter who was averaging 10.4 points, did not play against Pepperdine or Gonzaga on Jan. 12 and 14 because of a concussion. He is expected back soon, but it’s uncertain whether he will play in the Jan. 19 game at BYU.
—The Jan. 12 victory over Pepperdine made the Lions 2-0 in games in which both Drew Viney and Ashley Hamilton played. Hamilton played his second straight game since returning from a foot injury and he got his first start since injuring his foot in the Nov. 19 game against Harvard. The Lions dropped to 2-1 with both players available when they lost to Gonzaga by four points on Jan. 14.
—The unbalanced nature of the WCC schedule this season with the addition of a ninth team was demonstrated by the fact that Pepperdine played San Francisco for the second time on Jan. 14. Just three weeks into the conference season, Pepperdine and USF were finished with their regular-season meetings, even though, as of Jan. 17, the Waves have yet to play three WCC teams for the first time.
—After scoring in double figures in just one nonconference game, freshman G Jordan Baker scored in double figures in each of Pepperdine’s first five conference games. He had a breakout game against San Francisco with a career-high 26 points. He made his third and fourth career starts in the losses to Loyola Marymount on Jan. 12 and San Francisco on Jan. 14, after coming off the bench the previous six games. Baker, one of the most highly rated recruits ever signed by Pepperdine, certainly looks like a budding star.
—Taylor Darby made his 99th career start in the Jan. 14 game against San Francisco. He led the team in scoring, as of Jan. 17, even though he’s been the team’s top scorer in only four of the Waves’ 17 games.
—As of Jan. 14, the Waves were yielding 62.1 points per game, which would be the team’s best figure since the 1961-62 season – way before the shot clock and the three-point shot. That average shot up to 63.1 after the Jan. 14 loss to San Francisco, which scored 78 points, one point less than the season high against Pepperdine.
—Pepperdine had beaten Loyola Marymount 13 straight times in Malibu before the Lions won at Pepperdine on Jan. 12.
—Although Portland lost to St. Mary’s 69-61 on Jan. 14, it was probably the Pilots’ best game of the season. The Pilots stayed in the game against the first-place Gaels, who had blown out BYU and Gonzaga on the same court. Portland was never in position to win the game, but prevented St. Mary’s from running away with it, which is an accomplishment of sorts for a struggling young team playing on the road.
—St. Mary’s Stephen Holt, who scored a career-high 21 points against the Pilots on Jan. 14, is from Portland and is the son of former Portland player Greg Holt. Stephen used to attend Portland games when he was young.
—Portland’s modest two-game winning streak came to a screeching halt when the Pilots lost to San Francisco 104-70 on Jan. 12. It was the most points Portland had yielded this season, and San Francisco’s 67.2 shooting percentage from the field, 72.2 percent shooting on three-pointers and three-pointers made (13) were also season highs against Portland.
—-Sophomore C Riley Barker missed his 11th straight game on Jan. 14 because of a knee injury. He is expected back sometime this season, although it’s unclear when.
—Ten players have started games for Portland this season, and Ryan Nicholas is the only one to start all 18, as of Jan. 17.
—San Diego’s 75-62 victory over Santa Clara ended the Toreros’ 17-game road losing streak. The last time San Diego won a road game was nearly two years ago when the Toreros won at Pepperdine on Jan. 30, 2010. San Diego had lost each of its three previous road games this season by at least 20 points.
“I have felt like this team is just very close to getting over the hump,” San Diego coach Bill Grier told the San Diego Union-Tribune after the victory over Santa Clara.
—The Toreros’ victory over Santa Clara on Jan. 12 ended a six-game losing against WCC teams that extended back to last season. San Diego’s last win against a conference team had been the Toreros’ monumental upset of St. Mary’s last Feb. 16, when a San Diego team that was 5-21 overall and 1-10 in the WCC beat a nationally-ranked St. Mary’s team that was 22-4 and 10-1 in the conference.
—Freshman Johnny Dee scored 26 points in the Jan. 12 victory over San Francisco, tying his career high. It was the sixth time this season he had scored 22 points or more. As of Jan. 17, Dee had made 15 more three-point shots (51) than two-pointers (36).
—Christopher Anderson, San Diego’s 5-6, 150-pound freshman point guard, had eight assists for the second straight game against Santa Clara on Jan. 12, and he averaged 7.0 assists over a five-game span ending with the Santa Clara game. He had just three assists in the Jan. 16 game against BYU, however.
—San Francisco finally won a conference game on Jan. 12, taking out its frustration of an 0-4 WCC start on Portland in a 104-70 Dons’ victory. It was the most points USF scored against a Division I opponents since scoring 109 against St. Mary’s in 1998. The Dons had season highs in shooting percentage (67 percent) and three-point percentage (72 percent, 13-for-18).
—G Rashad Green, an all-conference selection last season, broke out of his scoring slump in a big way against Portland on Jan. 12, hitting 8 of 9 shots and scoring 19 points, more than doubling his high in the previous four conference games.
—G Dominique O’Connor, who missed virtually all of his first two seasons at USF because of knee injuries at the start of each season, had a career-high 16 points against Portland on Jan. 12, six points more than his previous career high. He had totaled only 18 points in USF’s previous four conference games combined.
— G Michael Williams’ 17-point game against Pepperdine on Jan. 14 provided some optimism that he can return to his form of last season, when he was an all-conference selection. Before the Pepperdine game, he was averaging 10.5 points and hitting 27.1 percent of his three-pointers, significant drops from last year’s 14.7 scoring and 39.2 percent three-point shooting. But he scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half against Pepperdine and hit 2 of his 4 three-point attempts in that game.
—As of Jan. 17, Santa Clara is the only WCC team without a conference win, and the Broncos were expected to be one of the contenders. The loss of F Marc Trasolini before the season began certainly reduced their chances, but they still did not figure to be 0-4 in the WCC, with all four defeats coming by double-digit margins.
—The fading Broncos might have hit the bottom with their 78-65 loss at home to San Diego on Jan. 12. The Broncos had looked so good early in the season when they beat Villanova and New Mexico and gave Oklahoma a scare, but the loss to San Diego dropped Santa Clara to 0-3 in the WCC.
The road loss to Portland was disappointing because the Pilots look like the worst team in the conference. But the loss to San Diego was worse, because it was at home, and the Toreros had lost six straight and were 0-3 in games on their opponent’s home court, with none closer than 20 points. The Broncos dropped to 0-4 in the conference with a road loss to BYU on Jan. 14, but losing to the Cougars in Provo was to be expected, and the Broncos played decently in that game.
—Santa Clara is 0-6 in games played on its opponent’s home court, as of Jan. 17, and those six losses have come by an average margin of 20.2 points.
—It came as no surprise that St. Mary’s beat Gonzaga on the Gaels’ home court on Jan. 12, because St. Mary’s is awfully tough to beat at McKeon Pavilion. But to beat the Bulldogs by 21 points in an 83-62 blowout? That was a surprise. Gonzaga was riding an eight-game winning streak, and was playing its best basketball of the season, helping it move back into the top 25. But the Gaels played nearly errorless basketball, committing just five turnovers for the game despite their uptempo style that had the Gaels averaging 77.2 points, tops in the conference, after the Gonzaga game.
St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett called it the “most complete game” St. Mary’s had played all season.
Coupled with its 16-point victory over BYU earlier this season, the Gaels have beaten the other two presumed contenders for the WCC crown by a combined 37 points. St. Mary’s has not played either on the road, though, and both BYU and Gonzaga are very difficult to beat on their home courts.
—Some players seem to freeze up when their parents are in the stands. Not G Matthew Dellavedova. His parents came over from Australia to watch a few games, and all Dellavedova did with them watching in person was score a career-high 27 points in the Jan. 9 win over San Francisco, then score 26 with six assists and one turnover in the Jan. 12 blowout of Gonzaga. He made 11 of 20 three-point shots in the two games. Dellavedova did most of his scoring against Gonzaga G Gary Bell Jr., who, despite being a freshman, is an outstanding defender and has limited some top guards in recent games. If there were any doubts whether Dellavedova could handle the point guard duties handled by Mickey McConnell last year, those doubts have been erased.
—The most unexpected production against Gonzaga came from C Brad Waldow, who was averaging less than seven points coming in. He tied a career high with his 17 points and established a career high with his 10 rebounds.
“The scouting report didn’t say much about him,” Gonzaga F Elias Harris told the Spokane Spokesman-Review afterward.
— St. Mary’s moved into the top 25 for the first time this season on Jan. 16 after its home victories over Gonzaga and Portland. The Gaels have played their worst games against the worst WCC teams. The Gaels blew out BYU, Gonzaga and San Francisco, but beat San Diego by just six points and Portland by just eight, even though the latter was at home on Jan. 14.
—G Stephen Holt is one of the best all-around players in the conference, and perhaps the most underrated. He had a career-high 21 points in the victory over Portland on Jan. 14. He also had seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. And he’s the Gaels’ best defender.