I’m a tad late with this, and primarily this is a Pac-12 nook, but I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a quickie look at the West Coast Conference men’s hoops race with the onset of the New Year. Obviously, there are a good many Gonzaga fans out there, and unless I’m mistaken, they’ve got a lot to look forward to.
To me, even with the addition of BYU, the WCC still looks like a case of: It’s the Zags’ world and everybody else is just leasing space. Randy Bennett has St. Mary’s perking again (no surprise there) and will be a handful, but barring a key injury, I don’t see anybody heading off the Zags as they make a run for a 12th straight conference title, one off the record 13 by UCLA from 1967-79 in the old Pac-8.
Biggest surprise in the league so far to me is the failure of the other two Bay Area schools, San Francisco and Santa Clara, to look like they can provide a darkhorse run toward the title. USF had every starter back from a team that nosed around at the top of the standings down the stretch in 2011 but is only 10-6. Santa Clara lost all-WCC forward Marc Trasolini to a knee injury in a late-summer trip to Canada and apparently is paying for it, going 8-5 to date.
Here’s the league the way I’m picking it:
1. Gonzaga (11-2, 1-0) – Zags have been very good in a six-game winning streak capped by a win at full-strength Xavier on New Year’s Eve. Lead guard Kevin Pangos tops the scoring at 14.0, but balance reflects a deep team that’s likely to get better as it goes. Pangos is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes a game (30.7). Freshman guard mate Gary Bell has also been key, shooting 40 percent on threes and providing athleticism and defense. Forward Elias Harris has bounced back, forward Sam Dower (20 points, 10 rebounds at Xavier) has been coming on, and 6-6 swingman Guy Landry Edi should play a bigger role at both ends with more experience. A year ago, Zags allowed 50 threes more than they hit; this year, they make 14 more than opponents. And among the top six scorers, the three-point percentage is .446.
2. St. Mary’s (13-2, 2-0) – Gaels have lost to an underappreciated Denver team and competitively to unbeaten Baylor, and welcomed BYU to the league with a 98-82 romp last week in Moraga. Off-guard Matt Dellavedova leads a balanced attack with 14.3 ppg and the Gaels have a big 9.2 rebounding margin. A surprise has been 6-9 redshirt-freshman forward Brad Waldow, who has averaged 10 ppg since starting the past seven games, shooting .674 in that span. Gaels have been thinned by injuries, first to transfer guard (SMU) Paul McCoy, who tore up a knee early in practice, and lately to forward Clint Steindel (ankle). Aussie guard Jorden Page (8.5 ppg) has played a key role as Gaels have adjusted to life without 2011 WCC player of the year Mickey McConnell.
3. Brigham Young (12-4, 1-1) – In their first year in the WCC, Cougars have losses to Utah State, Wisconsin, St. Mary’s and a three-point setback to unbeaten Baylor. Even in the post-Jimmer Fredette era, they figure to be a handful, as they’ve beaten Cal-Santa Barbara and Oregon by 14 points each and Nevada by 21. They’re shooting .489 from the field and allowing only .397, and in Dave Rose’s uptempo system, they have four scorers in double figures led by forward Noah Hartsock (17.1 ppg). UCLA transfer guard Matt Carlino has been a force, averaging 15 points in six games and hitting .515 beyond the arc. Forward Brandon Davies, suspended down the stretch last year, is back and leads in rebounds with 8.1, and fellow forward Charles Abouo averages 11.9 ppg. Weird stat: The top four scorers all shoot free throws better than 71 percent; nobody else is as high as 70. Cougars should challenge for the title and constitute one more threat to Gonzaga, which they play Feb. 2 (at Provo) and Feb. 23.
4. Loyola Marymount (8-6, 1-0) – Lions have wins over UCLA and St. Louis and upended USF on the road in a league opener last week. They’ve started well despite 12-game absence of two-time all-WCC forward Drew Viney, back only recently after surgery for a stress fracture in the foot. Also dogged with a foot injury since game three – but cleared to return Monday – is 6-7 forward Ashley Hamilton, who led Lions in scoring their first two games. C.J. Blackwell, a 6-5 freshman forward, led LMU with 19 points in the win at USF. Three-point defense (.314) tops the WCC, but rebounding (seventh in the WCC in margin) is a concern, especially with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU all formidable up front.
5. Santa Clara (8-5, 0-0) – Broncos took a major hit when Trasolini went down with a preseason knee injury. Then they won two encouraging games in the 76 Classic in November over New Mexico and Villanova, but have backslid at times since, blown out by 38 at Washington State and dropping heartbreakers to Houston Baptist and Oklahoma. The backcourt of Kevin Foster and Evan Roquemore will be one of the league’s toughest; the bulky Foster is the WCC’s leading scorer (18.6) while Roquemore is No. 5 at 14.5 ppg and second in assists at 5.9. Despite Trasolini’s absence, Santa Clara gets 12.3 offensive rebounds a game, while its 9.5 average made threes leads the league. It’s a young team – no seniors – that looks capable of bothering the league’s upper half but not sustaining it.
6. San Francisco (10-6, 0-2) – A year ago, Dons had two league losses well into February; they’ve already got two, despite returning their entire starting five. They didn’t get much done in the pre-conference; best games are probably a three-point loss to unbeaten Murray State and a narrow win at Montana. Forward Angelo Coloiaro has been the rock, ranking in the league top 10 in points (14.8 for third), rebounds (ninth) and steals (third). But the Dons haven’t shot consistently, especially guards Cody Doolin and Mikey Williams, who combine for .276 from three. It hasn’t helped that opponents are hitting .788 from the foul line. This team gave Gonzaga fits last year – winning at USF, taking the Zags to the wire in the league tournament – but it hasn’t come together yet in 2011-12.
7. Pepperdine (7-6, 1-1) – Waves simply have trouble scoring; they have two front-court players, 6-10 Corbin Moore and fellow senior Taylor Darby, in scant double figures, but nobody else. Injuries have been a problem, as senior guard Lorne Jackson, who would have been the leading returning scorer, tore up a knee over the summer, and another senior guard, Dane Suttle Jr., had surgery after only two games with ankle problems. Freshman guard Jordan Baker has shown flashes for a team that won at Arizona State. Pepperdine shoots only .397, and on most nights, that won’t be enough.
8. San Diego (5-8, 0-1) – Toreros have lost seven of eight, including a 20-point loss at Stanford and one by 36 at BYU to open conference, so they desperately need something good to happen this weekend against St. Mary’s and LMU. Freshman guard Johnny Dee (13.2) leads the team in scoring; he was a late scholarship recipient after initially agreeing to come as a walk-on. Another freshman guard, 5-7 Christopher Anderson, is also starting now, leading USD in steals and assists. But Toreros are last in the WCC in rebounding margin and free throws (.655) as coach Bill Grier looks for a turnaround.
9. Portland (3-11, 0-1) – With four freshmen in their rotation, Pilots picked the wrong year to overschedule. They’ve played four BCS-conference schools, plus St. Louis and Nevada, and are paying the price, having lost seven straight and 11 of 12. Ryan Nicholas, 6-7 soph from Gonzaga Prep, leads Pilots in scoring (10.8) and rebounding (7.6). But loss of center Riley Barker for a stretch (he’s due back shortly) has hurt. Building year for a good coach, Eric Reveno.