Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wild Wild West Coast Conference

I gave serious thought this past college basketball season to heading out to Vegas to watch the West Coast Conference Tournament. I thought that there would be at least two teams making the NCAA Tournament from the WCC since three - Gonzaga, St Mary's and San Diego made the NCAA tournament the year before. And there would again be some great basketball to watch with the possibility of seeing multiple WCC teams make the big dance.

Unfortunately, due to my younger son Jonathan's condition, it was not possible (nor was the CAA tournament, the first time in many years I did not go). It also wrongly turned out that only one WCC team made the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga, since the Zags blew out St Mary's in the WCC final (which might have been the dagger to the Gaels' at large hopes).

However, after following the WCC closely this past week, I am again seriously thinking about heading out to Vegas to see the WCC tourney. That's because I think there is not only the strong possibility of multiple teams from the WCC in the NCAA tournament but it is possible that four teams could vie for the WCC title.

It started of course with perennial WCC stalwart, Gonzaga. The Zags, who made the sweet sixteen last season, were supposed to be in rebuilding mode. With Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt and Micah Downs all graduated, and Austin Daye stupidly leaving early for the NBA draft, the "experts" had Gonzaga unranked. But after barely losing to #2 Michigan State at East Lansing in a game where the Zags led most of the way, Gonzaga rebounded by winning the Maui Invitational. There Gonzaga came from 16 down to defeat Colorado, then downed Wisconsin by 13, then defeated Cincinnati in a rugged knockdown overtime game to win the tournament title.

Simply put, the Zags have not rebuilded, but have retooled. They returned their best player, guard Matt Bouldin, along with junior sharpshooter Stephen Gray. They have got significant contributions from sophomore center Robert Sacre Bleu, freshman forward Elias Harris ( who I think can be better than Daye by the time he graduates) and sophomore guard Demetri Goodson. Of the five starters, only Bouldin is a senior.

The question with Gonzaga may be their depth off the bench which is mostly freshmen and sophomores and the giant 7 foot 5 senior Will Foster (who has never really reached his potential). They will be battle tested before WCC play with non conference home games against undefeated Washington State, Wake Forest, and Oklahoma along with road games at #7 Duke and Illinois. Then comes a killer road trip on January 9 at Portland then January 14 at St Mary's. If the Zags win several of those key non conference games and split the start of that road trip, Gonzaga will again be in the Dance.

Speaking of Portland, the Pilots have been a mid major team with lots of preseason hype. And why not, when you're returning all five starters from a 19 win team that finished third in the WCC last season behind Gonzaga and St Mary's. Especially when one of the starters is all First Team WCC guard Nik Raivio who averages 16 points and 8 rebounds per game. Then combine that with point guard TJ Campbell elevating his game (18 points and 5 assists per game) and you have the makings of very solid team.

Well the Pilots have been flying high with wins over Oregon and Seattle (don't laugh, Seattle won at Utah). Then Portland came into the first round of the 76 Classic having to face a UCLA team, though that may be in a down year, is still dangerous as long as Ben Howland is coaching the team. Portland went out and spanked the Bruins 74-47 as the Pilots shot 54 percent from the field including 11 of 19 from beyond the arc. Then if that wasn't enough, Portland knocked off #16 Minnesota in the second round; a Gophers team that had soundly defeated #10 Butler in the first round.

If Portland can somehow defeat #8 West Virginia in the final and finish in the top two of the WCC with 23-25 wins (and the Pilots still have a road game at #14 Washington), you can basically punch a ticket to the Dance for the Pilots.

Meanwhile, many "experts" had St Mary's being down this year after the graduation of star forward Diamon Simpson and the equally stupid early entrance of star guard Patty Mills into the NBA draft. Someone forgot to tell the Gaels' team as they won four of their first five games, with the only loss a two point heartbreaker to nationally ranked Vanderbilt. Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan has continued his dominating ways averaging a double double with 20.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 65 percent.

However it's other Gaels players who have helped lessen the loss of Simpson and Mills. Part of the Mills Australian pipeline, freshman guard Matthew Dellavedova has averaged 15 points and nearly 5 assists per game while shooting 45.5 percent from three. Wayne Hunter and Mickey McDonnell have also averaged double figures in scoring. Another Australian, Ben Allen is nearly averaging double figures in scoring with 9.6 points per game and 7 rebounds per game.

The Gaels test of how far they have come along will be a road game vs Utah State along with their annual road game vs Oregon, and then finally, the Gaels will be playing in the Diamond Head Classic around Christmas time first against Northeastern (then potentially USC and UNLV among others).

Then there is San Diego, with the returning Brandon Johnson. Out the past season with a torn ACL, Johnson has averaged 16 points per game leading the Toreros to the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout before losing to Washington State in the final. The Toreros are off to a 4-2 start with also a win over Stanford. Johnson is joined in double figures by senior guards Chris Lewis and De'Jon Jackson, two fellow members of the 2007-08 team that made the NCAA tournament and defeated UConn in the first round.

The WCC tournament is again being held in Las Vegas, March 5-8 2010. Four teams with a legitimate chance of winning the tourney. Possible multiple NCAA Tournament bids on the line. Definitely a tempting thought for a quality basketball road trip.

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