For the fourth year, schools in the West Coast Conference head to The Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada for the conference tournament. For the first time in 12 years, a new school holds claim to an outright regular-season title. Joining the conference's existing power structure is a competitive newcomer seeking wins for its at-large case, while two more schools threaten to play the role of bid thief. With the tournament beginning on Wednesday, here's a team-by-team preview of who you will see in Las Vegas.
9. SANTA CLARA BRONCOS
8-21 (0-16 WCC)
Score 69.5 ppg, Allow 74.9 ppg
Things were looking up for Santa Clara. A year after going 24-14, which included a WCC tournament-game win and the CIT tournament championship, the Broncos started decently well. Wins over New Mexico and Villanova were exclamations in a solid 8-5 non-conference campaign. But (if you can do math, this won't be a secret), SCU's last win came on December 29, a 20-point win over Eastern Michigan. The 0-16 conference effort means that Santa Clara hasn't won in the 2012 calendar year. Of the 16 league losses, only four were by less than 10 points.
Not only did Santa Clara lose every conference game, but leading scorer Kevin Foster -- who was also leading the entire conference in scoring -- was officially suspended for the rest of the year two weeks ago after a drunk-driving arrest. The suspension came after Foster had already been held out for the previous seven games.
Without Foster, a lot falls on the shoulders of Evan Roquemore, both leading scorer and assists leader. The Broncos have shown some fight, most recently a three-point loss at Loyola Marymount, but have had lots of problems competing, especially on defense. SCU allows 75 points per game and lets opponents shoot an average of 46% from the field, which approaches dead-last in the nation. Niyi Harrison and Yannick Atanga are decent rebounders, but they and Raymond Cowels will need to up the defensive game if Santa Clara is to have a shot at anything in Vegas.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Santa Clara must win 5 games in 6 nights to win the tournament. 5-0 in 6 nights after 0-16 just isn't happening. But, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Broncos grab a win in the 8/9 game. Without research, I remember Air Force seemed to win as the 9-seed all the time in the MWC tourney.
8. PORTLAND PILOTS
6-23 (3-13 WCC)
Score 64.8 ppg, Allow 75.9 ppg
When you watch them play, Portland doesn't look like a terrible team, but the results keep bearing it out. A rough non-conference slate produced wins over Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, and a non-DI school, and included a loss to Utah at a time when every mid-major was beating the Utes. The few conference wins came twice against Santa Clara and once against Pepperdine, who were a combined 4-28 in league play.
The Pilots struggle in similar ways to Santa Clara; namely, on defense. Portland surrenders a similar field goal percentage as the Broncos, but allows even more points per game. The 75.9 points per game surrendered is ranked 331st nationally -- and there are 344 D-I basketball schools.
Ryan Nicholas has been the most consistent Pilot this year, averaging 11.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Offensively, the problem is that nobody else averages double digits -- it sometimes seems like the Pilots cash in "somebody points." When you play a 40-minute game, somebody has to score. At times, certain players will get hot. Sometimes it's Kevin Bailey, who shoots 44% and can knock down some threes. Maybe a Tanner Riley will rise up, like he did knocking down 4-9 from deep in Provo on Saturday. To Eric Reveno's credit, he's pushed this group to a few wins and a few battles, like seriously testing Gonzaga at home. If they can get the players behind Nicholas to show up together, they might have a couple wins in them.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Though the Pilots have shown more fight than Santa Clara, they share the same path with them -- 5-0 over six nights is the requirement.
7. PEPPERDINE WAVES
10-18 (4-12 WCC)
Score 59.5 ppg, Allow 65.5 ppg
To Marty Wilson's credit, Pepperdine plays some defense. The Waves allow a respectable 42.3 FG% from opposing teams, and hold them to an equally-respectable 65.5 ppg. The problem? Pepperdine can't score!
Like Santa Clara, Pepperdine's season looked promising. Road wins over Arizona State and UTSA, coupled with a good win over a then-burgeoning Hawai'i team, got the Waves going. Pepperdine then began WCC play with a blowout win over San Francisco, the dark-horse team considered most likely to challenge the WCC power structure. Great stuff for a team that wasn't atrocious the year before.
Then it fell apart. A 14-game losing streak was stopped only by a game with Santa Clara sandwiched in the middle. The Waves started getting blown out as injuries piled up. The Waves couldn't keep up without senior forward Dane Suttle, Jr. or seven-footer Jan Maehlen. The 13 losses in 14 games (which included a non-league loss to Seattle) came by an average of 16 points. But now, the Waves hope to enter the tournament with some confidence after beating both Portland and Santa Clara to finish the season and climb out of the 8/9 game. The Waves take on San Diego in the first round for the right to play BYU. Despite Pepperdine's usually solid defense, San Diego shot 47% and 51% in their two meetings. It hasn't been a good matchup for Pepperdine and will likely still be that way -- San Diego should have a lot of confidence after the end of its season.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Let's say the Waves get one against USD. Then its BYU, who the Waves once lost to by 38, and Gonzaga, who the Waves once lost to by 28. Pepperdine doesn't have that one player who could get hot and carry the team in a tournament.
6. SAN DIEGO TOREROS
12-17 (7-9 WCC)
Score 66.7 ppg, Allow 70.8 ppg
Conference play wasn't too unkind to San Diego after an unfavorable start to the season. The Toreros were a model mediocre team -- they beat all the bad teams, lost to all the good ones, and added a win over Loyola Marymount to get to 7-9 in conference.
As I've alluded to, every team needs at least one player who can be transcendent for a week to win a conference tournament. Johnny Dee is that guy for San Diego. He only averages 13.3 ppg, but he shoots 42% from three and 86% at the free-throw line. If Dee can get hot and get himself to the line, he could carry the Toreros to a win (wins?). Not only that, but USD is coming into the tournament after beating LMU on the road and giving a legitimate 39-minute scare to Gonzaga. Confidence can do a lot for a team.
The Toreros draw Pepperdine in the first round for the right to play BYU, and are on the Gonzaga-side of the bracket.
TITLE CHANCES: Doubtful. It's not likely for the Toreros to beat BYU and Gonzaga in consecutive nights, but they aren't so bad that I'd say it's impossible.
5. SAN FRANCISCO DONS
18-12 (8-8 WCC)
Score 75.2 ppg, Allow 70.5 ppg
Hopes were high for the Rex-Walters-coached Dons this season. After going 10-4 in conference play last year, USF returned all five of its biggest minute-earners headed into this season. The Dons started 9-3 with one of the losses a three-point defeat at the hands of Murray State (you know, 28-1 Murray State) at the Great Alaska Shootout. It seems like USF was primed to make itself heard in the West Coast Conference.
Then the wheels came off a bit, as USF lost 5 of its next six, including its first four conference games. But the next game, Rashad Green led the Dons in hanging 104 points on Portland, signaling that San Francisco wasn't ready to lie down. The 8-4 finish was rather impressive, especially since with a few breaks the Dons could have finished 11-1 down the stretch. USF beat Gonzaga, lost to LMU by 2, to BYU by 1, and to Saint Mary's by 7 -- the margin that large only due to final-minute fouling.
The resurgence has been led by Angelo Caloiaro. The 6-8 senior forward scores 14.7 points per game while pulling down a team-leading 6.1 rebounds. His efficiency fuels his leadership as he shoots 50% from the field and 40% from three. But the Dons are as balanced as a team can come, getting double-digit averages from Perris Blackwell (12.7 ppg), Rashad Green (11.7), and Michael Williams (10.8) as well.
While USF isn't a lock-down defensive team, Walters does coach an opportune bunch. Three Dons average close to 2 steals per game, and in the recent home win against Gonzaga nabbed 14 steals on the way to forcing 21 turnovers. If Caloiaro and Blackwell can maintain their high field goal percentages and hands occupy passing lanes, the Dons are certainly no team on which to sleep.
USF will play the winner of the 8/9 game for the right to play Loyola Marymount, and is on the Saint Mary's side of the bracket.
TITLE CHANCES: Not likely, but still possible. While USF may not quite be there, going 1-3 against the top four teams down the final stretch, those three losses were hotly contested. It wouldn't take a ton for it to swing the other way for the Dons.
4. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT LIONS
19-11 (11-5 WCC)
Score 70.0 ppg, Allow 66.7 ppg
Picked to finish sixth (just two total points ahead of Portland) in the preseason coaches poll, Loyola Marymount is easily the surprise of the year. After last year's 2-12 conference campaign, the non-conference start should have given us some hints (though there was no way to know how good the teams were that LMU was playing, either). Wins over UCLA and Saint Louis (one of just two non-conference losses for the 22-6 Fighting Majeruses) came around well-played losses to Middle Tennesee State and Harvard, who are a combined 49-9.
Though it seemed the Lions could compete, hard-fought losses to BYU and Gonzaga at home made it seem like maybe they just wouldn't quite have it this year. If they couldn't finish off those teams at home, maybe it wasn't meant to be. But just after the Gonzaga loss, LMU went into Provo and handled BYU from start to finish. Drew Viney and Anthony Ireland combined to shoot 14-20 from the field and scored 48 points, and it has been that combo that has driven the Lions all year. It was expected from the senior Viney, who averages 15.3 points per game and was named to the preseason all-conference team. But the sophomore Ireland has caused some headaches this year and averages 15.5 points per game of his own. When either Ashley Hamilton or Jarred DuBois pitch in with around 15 of their own on a given night, the trio can be hard to manage.
Then in mid-February, LMU went from the team that, "yeah, I could maybe see them winning the conference tournament," to "uhhh, no thanks, can we get on the other side of the bracket please?" when the Lions gave Saint Mary's the BYU treatment. LMU went into McKeon Pavilion and put a hurt on the Gaels. If Ireland and Viney are both on, Loyola Marymount is a tough, tough out. The Lions play the winner of San Francisco and the 8/9 game for the right to play Saint Mary's.
TITLE CHANCES: Possible. LMU went 7-1 on the road in conference play. Max Good has this team not caring one bit where they play -- perfect for a neutral-site conference tournament.
3. BYU COUGARS
24-7 (12-4 WCC)
Score 79.0 ppg, Allow 66.2 ppg
Perhaps no team needs a good tournament showing more than BYU. A relatively weak non-conference schedule was made worse by the good teams being really, really good and others being from bad conferences. Sure, Nevada and Weber State are good teams, but their conferences are so weak that those wins don't mean much to the committee (and Virginia Tech didn't cooperate much). The Cougars were routed by Wisconsin and lost a close one to Baylor. A 1-3 record against Gonzaga and Saint Mary's means BYU is 1-5 against the RPI top 50. Anything short of beating Gonzaga in the semifinals could have the Cougars excluded from the big dance.
First, though, is a game against the winner between San Diego and Pepperdine. The biggest question is: will Noah Hartsock play? And if he does, when? Hartsock is still trying to recover from a gruesome-looking left-leg injury that tweaked his knee, calf, and ankle. If I were a betting man, I'd venture that the senior will not play in that first round matchup, giving him all the time possible to heal. His impact cannot be understated. The conference's leading scorer shoots 57% from the field and is a fail-safe option in the post on offense. Perhaps Brandon Davies can step up in his absence, but only if his teammates allow him to.
The other big question for the Cougars is can they hit outside shots? BYU shot well from deep for most of the season. But immediately after a three-game stretch (San Francisco, Santa Clara, at San Diego) in which the Cougars shot 30-60 from deep, they went cold. Ice-cold. In the three games immediately after, BYU shot just 9-60, and in the past 11 games are a total of 50-207 (24.2%). The Cougars think they can shoot from outside despite the slump, evidenced by the 19 three-point shot attempts per game. Can they shoot out of it? Or have Carlino, Zylstra, and Abouo gone cold for good? Is Baylor/USF Matt Carlino the flash in the pan? Or glimpses of what is yet to come -- and can it happen more often now in the postseason? The Cougars do a lot of things well -- rebounding, creating turnovers, and blocking shots -- but will it come together enough for BYU to win?
TITLE CHANCES: Possible, not quite probable. The matchups are favorable, as BYU avoids USF, LMU, and Saint Mary's on its side of the bracket. Having shown no bad signs against San Diego or Pepperdine, the rematch with Gonzaga should be on, which has proven more favorable to the Cougars than the Saint Mary's matchup.
2. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
24-5 (13-3 WCC)
Score 73.9 ppg, Allow 62.9 ppg
Gonzaga's streak of 11-straight regular-season conference titles has come to an end, and maybe that will work in its favor. The Zags have impressively kept up their winning ways with two freshman guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, both in and out of conference. There's a reason Gonzaga's RPI is 17: the Bulldogs had a great schedule. Only two of its non-conference opponents finished the regular season under .500. The rest were wins over Butler, an Arizona team that has put its season back together nicely, a surging Notre Dame, and 26-5 Oral Roberts. The Zags competed well in losses to Illinois and Michigan State.
In conference, all three losses were on the road to Saint Mary's, BYU, and San Francisco. Gonzaga and Mark Few just know how to win. In addition to the freshman sensation Pangos, Elias Harris has been great. Adding 8.6 rebounds to 13.2 points per game, Harris does a lot of damage when he's amped -- something that was apparent in home games against SMC and BYU. (He averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds in those two games.) If hyped-up Harris is who shows up in Las Vegas, Gonzaga will be solid as expected.
It wouldn't surprise me if Gary Bell had sort of a breakout performance in the conference tournament. (He's fresh off a 6-9 3PT performance last night in just 15 minutes of work in an exhibition of sorts against Longwood.) He's 46% from deep this year and has knocked down some absolute daggers. Maybe it's completely anecdotal in my head, but it seems Bell is always good to drain a three either to stop an opponent's run or to cap a Gonzaga run.
Which Robert Sacre shows up could make the ultimate difference for the Bulldogs. He averages 12 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game, but sometimes it all comes very quietly and feels like it has little impact. In the three conference losses, Sacre averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds. Gonzaga doesn't need Sacre to dominate, but he does need to show up and post at his average. If he does, Gonzaga becomes very hard to beat.
The Bulldogs play the winner of BYU and San Diego/Pepperdine in the semifinals.
TITLE CHANCES: Likely. Anytime you bye into the semifinals, it helps, but Gonzaga earned that through elite play. The defending tournament champ will likely want to make a statement with the 11-straight regular season title streak coming to an end being discussed so much.
1. SAINT MARY'S GAELS
25-5 (14-2 WCC)
Score 74.6 ppg, Allow 61.5 ppg
What is likely the best season in school history comes to this point for Saint Mary's. The Gaels will get into the NCAA tournament, no doubt, but will have some seeding for which to play -- especially after recent losses have their stock falling.
The losses to Murray State and Loyola Marymount didn't come in a vacuum, either (as if losses to these teams need explaining away). Stephen Holt, who to me is the Gaels' biggest spark, was out injured against Murray State and was working his way back against LMU. Matthew Dellavedova, who is likely to be the WCC player of the year, was also working through an ankle injury during that period.
Aside from those losses, SMC has looked good in mowing down the competition. But the Gaels should know a lot can be gained seeding-wise by winning this tournament. A lackluster non-conference schedule was headlined by Weber State and Baylor. While Weber State is a solid mid-major, it's nothing that moves the committee's needle, and Baylor was a blowout loss on a neutral floor (the Orleans in Vegas) that looked smaller due to a couple late threes from SMC.
When ticking, SMC is a power. Dellavedova seems to make all the right decisions, while the 15 point, 11 rebound per-game average from Rob Jones makes Saint Mary's tough in the post. And while he takes just five shots per game, freshman big-man Brad Waldow has rounded into a solid complimentary player who could become a force if his development is a focus. In an average of 18 minutes per game, Waldow shoots 66%, scores 8 points, grabs 4.5 rebounds, and blocks one shot per game.
Jorden Page can also be a spark at times, while Clint Steindl is the sharpshooter every good team needs to become great. Steindl can absolutely bury you if he gets the looks, and averages 7.7 ppg on 44% three-point shooting. On top of all the great individual pieces, the Gaels seem to have fostered a synergy on the court that allows them to play at an elite level.
TITLE CHANCES: Likely, if everyone is healthy. Holt and Dellavedova seem to be better, byeing deep into the tournament gives a decided advantage, and SMC has proven to be the best team in the conference. That doesn't change unless another team rises up and makes it change.
* * * * *
For more previewy goodness, check out Bill Connelly's WCC tournament preview