After being deposed from their familiar role as top dog last year, Gonzaga is firmly back atop the West Coast Conference heap as the teams head to Las Vegas for the 2013 conference tournament. The event, which will take place at the Orleans Arena beginning on Wednesday, is essentially the Bulldogs' to lose — but that doesn't mean there aren't potential spoilers lurking in the brush, just waiting to take advantage of any momentarily exposed weakness. Here is a team-by-team preview of the tournament field:
9. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT LIONS
8-22 (1-15 WCC)
Scored 65.6 PPG, Allowed 70.0 PPG
This was a year chock-full of disappointment for the Lions. After a strong fourth-place finish last season, many observers expected big things from the Lion in 2012-2013. Alas, it was not to be. LMU started the season going 7-6 through a fairly challenging non-conference slate, with several close losses to quality programs like Mississippi and Long Beach State — and then the wheels came off. The Lions were blown out by 41 points by BYU in their first conference game, and followed that up with a 13-point loss to St. Mary's. Coach Max Good briefly righted the ship to steal a tight one from Santa Clara, but the team hasn't won since, and have now lost 14 consecutive games.
It's not that LMU has been particularly bad in the abstract. They have been relatively competitive, losing by double-digits in just six of their 16 WCC games — all of which came at the hands of one of the conference's top four teams. If you remove those five blowouts, the Lions only lost the remaining games by an average of 4.1 points per contest. Those numbers would not indicate that LMU is vastly inferior, but that they just managed to lose a ton of very close games. Like I said, it's been a heartbreaking year.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Look, I like LMU. I think they have some talented guys. Anthony Ireland can flat-out score, and Ashley Hamilton is a nice second option. But it's unrealistic to expect them to win five consecutive games in six days, particularly after this disaster of a season. Could they come out of nowhere and surprise some folks by winning a game, possibly two? Definitely — they finished the season with a strong performance against BYU — but asking for any more than that is just wishful thinking.
8. PORTLAND PILOTS
11-20 (4-12 WCC)
Scored 61.2 PPG, Allowed 68.5 PPG
While they finished far ahead of them in the standings, the numbers appears to show that Portland has actually been considerably less competitive than LMU in WCC play. After suffering through a tough non-conference slate that include blowout losses at the hands of Kentucky, New Mexico, and Colorado State, among others, the Pilots have had a pretty rough go of it in conference.
They managed to steal four close wins, including two from LMU, but were otherwise handled fairly easily by the rest of the conference — nine of their 12 league losses were by double-digits, including five by 20 points or more. Credit goes to coach Eric Reveno and his kids for figuring out how to scrape together a couple wins where a team like LMU only found losses, but this Pilots squad remains a long way away from the school's glory days of yore.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised to see Portland lose to LMU in the opening round. The Lions finished strong and perhaps established a little momentum, whereas the Pilots spent their last two games being blown out by Santa Clara and Gonzaga. They don't have any particularly inspiring individual talents, and you know what they say about how difficult it is to beat a team three consecutive times in the same year. Not a particularly inspiring outlook for Portland.
7. PEPPERDINE WAVES
12-17 (4-12 WCC)
Scored 62.9 PPG, Allowed 67.6 PPG
Pepperdine is one of those teams that I often forget is in the conference — they just kind of float by without making much impact on me. They don't have any signature WCC victories, just two each over the league's bottom-dwellers, and mostly get handled by everybody else. Of the Waves' 12 conference losses, seven were by double digits. They have shown they can compete at times, including when they put a scare into BYU in Malibu back in January — the Cougars needed a heroic clutch performance by Matt Carlino to stage a late comeback and escape with the 2-point win.
But even that feels more like an aberration than anything else. Pepperdine needed uncharacteristically massive nights from Nikolas Skouen and Stacy Davis and an exceptionally poor offensive performance by BYU (only five players scored) on the Waves' home floor to keep it tight — and they still lost. That doesn't bode well for their long-term viability in this tournament.
TITLE CHANCES: Non-existent. Pepperdine opens up against San Diego, who beat them twice this season, most recently on Saturday. It is tough to beat a team three times in a year, but the Toreros seem to have the superior talent at most every position. The Waves would really need somebody to step up offensively — and there are guys who are capable of doing that — to pull out a win, but it's not something I would bank on. If they did manage to get past San Diego, they'd face BYU in the next round and, despite the Cougars' recent struggles, I don't see that ending favorably for the team from Malibu.
6. SAN DIEGO TOREROS
14-17 (7-9 WCC)
Scored 65.0 PPG, Allowed 66.5 PPG
Now here's a team that has shown the ability to sneak up and beat somebody. The Toreros' season peaked with their surprise home win over a BYU team that didn't know what hit them. San Diego bullied the visitors in the first half, with Chris Manresa and Dennis Kramer pushing the undersized Cougars around in the paint, and then super-scorer Johnny Dee and his sidekick Ken Rancifer held BYU off late by hitting big shots when it mattered most.
That's the ceiling for San Diego. That performance shows what they're capable of on any given night. Unfortunately, they've been mostly hanging around the floor lately. Following their win over BYU, the Toreros lost five consecutive games, rebounding only to eek out a win over Pepperdine on Saturday. That's not great juju heading into Las Vegas, but you never do know what Dee and company could have hiding up their sleeve.
TITLE CHANCES: Doubtful. San Diego has a good chance to beat Pepperdine and advance to the next round to face BYU, their more prominent conquest. As we saw in February, the Toreros certainly have the piece to give the Cougars fits, but I would expect Dave Rose's crew to come more prepared (and certainly with the punking they received last time still fresh on their minds) when these teams meet again. While lightning can theoretically strike twice, it's pretty unlikely that it will.
5. SAN FRANCISCO DONS
14-15 (7-9 WCC)
Scored 69.9 PPG, Allowed 69.4 PPG
Do yourself a favor by ducking and covering when San Francisco comes to town. While the Dons aren't the best team in the conference, they are certainly the best shooting team, which can make them dangerous if you catch them on the wrong night. USF shoots 40.2 percent collectively on three-point attempts, good for 8th in the nation — and BYU saw all that firepower and then some in the teams' second meeting.
After a strong first half that left the game feeling very much in the Cougars' control on their home court, the Dons caught fire. They hit one three, then another. Then another. And another. And another. As much as you wanted to believe that USF couldn't keep shooting like this for long, the barrage never stopped. When the dust settled, they had gone 9-for-10 from deep in the second half, erasing a 15-point BYU lead and leaving Provo with a rare 12-point win. To be sure, that doesn't happen every night for the Dons — but it can happen at any time, which makes them that much more dangerous in Las Vegas.
TITLE CHANCES: Not likely, but anything is possible if the shots fall. USF is perhaps most uniquely positioned for a surprise tournament run, due to their ability to get unbelievably hot in an instant. If they manage to lock in from deep for four consecutive nights, who knows what could happen. That's obviously easier said than done, but it's not impossible.
4. SANTA CLARA BRONCOS
21-10 (9-7 WCC)
Scored 74.1 PPG, Allowed 66.9 PPG
Here is where we start talking about the real potential threats to Gonzaga's throne. After struggling through a horrific 0-16 conference campaign last season, the Broncos rebounded nicely in 2012-2013 to establish themselves as one of the WCC's four clear contenders. Santa Clara started the year with a solid nonconference slate, which featured a convincing win over Saint Louis that continues to look better by the day and a strong performance on the road at Duke, but their fortunes dipped slightly in conference.
They failed to register a win against any of the WCC's top three programs — losing five of the six games against Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and BYU by more than 10 points — and even coughed up a hairball against lowly Loyola Marymount, giving the Lions their only league win. But other than those (mostly) understandable blemishes, it has been relatively smooth sailing for the Broncos as they knocked down one foe after another.
TITLE CHANCES: Possible, but not at all likely. There's hope for Kerry Keating's squad. Kevin Foster can score in bunches, and any time you have an explosive talent like that on your team, it's hard to completely count you out. Marc Trasolini also provides a nice counterpunch and good rebounding. If the Broncos get a few (OK, a lot of) breaks, there's no telling what could happen in that likely semifinal against Gonzaga. But then again, Gonzaga is still Gonzaga, so Santa Clara fans probably shouldn't even consider buying tickets to the finals quite yet.
3. BYU COUGARS
21-10 (10-6 WCC)
Scored 76.7 PPG, Allowed 69.1 PPG
The struggles of this BYU team have been discussed ad nauseum on this blog, particularly in recent weeks. What started out looking like a promising season has turned out to be less than what many fans expected, which has led to much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lost in all that disappointment is the fact that, all things considered, this has still been a pretty solid year for the Cougars. Sure, not where BYU fans want or expect the team to be, but not a failure by any stretch of the imagination.
After all, Dave Rose and the boys are still only three good games away from their seventh straight NCAA tournament berth. That's not a herculean task. It is admittedly a difficult one — and one that BYU has not yet proved to be up to — but it's nowhere near impossible. The Cougars have already shown that they can play with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, and they didn't even have to play particularly well to do so. Imagine what could be if Rose somehow manages to finally put it all together in Las Vegas this weekend, finally extracting the full potential from his team? As I've said above, that's easier said than done, but it's within the realm of possibility.
TITLE CHANCES: Possible, if the Cougars come to play. I can't remember the last time BYU simultaneously got good games from Brandon Davies, Tyler Haws, and Matt Carlino. Two of the three is usually good enough to get them a win against most teams and at least give them a chance against the big boys. But what if they got all three? The old college basketball maxim goes that it's tough to beat a good team three times in a season, and St. Mary's (and potentially Gonzaga) would have to do just that to eliminate BYU. Could either one do it? Yes. But don't count the Cougars out just yet, not with their tournament hopes on the line.
2. SAINT MARY'S GAELS
26-5 (14-2 WCC)
Scored 76.5 PPG, Allowed 63.4 PPG
The Gaels come to Las Vegas fresh off the news of some brutal NCAA sanctions against the program and head coach Randy Bennett. Will the news affect the team's focus. I wouldn't bet on it — not as long as senior point guard Matthew Dellavedova has anything to say about it.
And that's really what Saint Mary's boils down to — they have Dellavedova and nobody else does. The Australian Olympian is a singular talent and, in this writer's humble opinion, one of the most underrated players in the country. He controls every facet of the game for the Gaels, making every single one of his teammates exponentially better in the process. Yes, he is surrounded by guys like Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque, talented players in their own right, but Saint Mary's only goes as far as Dellavedova takes them, which is why they're a threat to win every time he steps on the floor.
TITLE CHANCES: Possible, if Dellavedova wills it to be so. Look, this is Gonzaga's ball, and everyone else is just dancing at it. But of all the teams hoping to spoil the Bulldogs' party, the Gaels have the best chance. True, they will have to figure out how to beat a desperate BYU team for the third straight time in order to qualify for the finals, and that's no easy task. But if they do, Dellavedova's all-around wizardry and the pure disdain that those two schools obviously share for one another could end up playing a big role in who gets that coveted automatic bid.
1. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
29-2 (16-0 WCC)
Scored 78.4 PPG, Allowed 60.1 PPG
Let's be really honest here: Gonzaga has nothing left to prove. They are the dominant force in this conference — they have been for the past 15 years and, last year's blip on the radar screen notwithstanding, they will continue as such for a very, very long time. And this year? This Zags team is truly special, even in the context of the great things the program has achieved in the past. As someone who has watched them more than many outside observers this season, I have to say that I'm having trouble finding any flaws. They are one of the best teams in the country — if not the best team.
That leaves the outlook pretty bleak for the rest of the WCC hopefuls. Sure, it's possible that a team like Saint Mary's or BYU could catch the Bulldogs sleeping and grab a surprise victory, but I wouldn't count on it. As much as they have nothing left to prove, the Zags are still playing to secure the first No. 1 tournament seed in school history, something they very much want to achieve. They are going to be sharp, if only because great players like Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Kevin Pangos won't allow themselves to lose focus. They are too close to their goal, and the only thing standing in their way is two more games against some undermanned conference foes just waiting to be crushed.
TITLE CHANCES: Mortal lock. Well, almost. This is college basketball, so you always have to factor in the possibility that these 20-year-old kids could just decide to take a day off. Obviously the Zags have lost before, so they're not literally flawless. Nevertheless, they are pretty dang close and, barring an unlikely upset by Saint Mary's or BYU, they will find themselves cutting down the nets on Monday at the Orleans Arena – and maybe not for the last time this season.