By John Crumpacker
In today’s college basketball, it is possible to win by losing, or to turn a loss into a win. Not on the scoreboard, of course, but in the equally competitive arena of recruiting.
Sometimes schools can lose out on a recruit and still win with residual good will. The West Coast Conference has two examples of that in Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer and Saint Mary’s Joe Rahon. Wiltjer was all set to go to Gonzaga out of high school in Portland … until Kentucky’s John Calipari called and snatched a big one away from Mark Few. But after two years in Lexington, Wiltjer yearned for home and transferred to the school he almost went to in the first place.
The circumstances are a little different in Rahon’s case but the end result is the same. The San Diego native liked Saint Mary's but chose to go to Boston College out of high school. He was happy in the Hub City but when coach Steve Donahue was fired, Rahon returned to California and enrolled at Saint Mary’s in what has been a smooth transition for him.
“He was let go after my sophomore year,’’ Rahon said of Donahue. “It was a tough decision. I really enjoyed going to school there. I almost came to Saint Mary’s out of high school. I have a good relationship with coach (Randy) Bennett. I couldn’t be happier being here.’’
And why not? The Gaels are 4-0 for the fourth straight season and Rahon is a big contributor in the backcourt with Emmett Naar. Rahon, a 6-foot-2 junior point guard, leads the WCC in assists at 7.3 per game and in the key point guard category of assists-to-turnover ratio at 4.8. Rahon is also averaging 11.3 points per game to Naar’s team-leadng 18.3. That’s a productive backcourt the Gaels have.
“I was immediately (accepted) as a teammate and brother from Day One,’’ Rahon said. “It’s an amazing place to go to school and play basketball. We’re so close. We’re so unselfish. No one cares who scores. Everyone enjoys competing. That’s what makes the program so great.’’
It was Rahon who did most of the scoring when the Gaels defeated Stanford 78-61 on Nov. 22 at McKeon Pavilion. He pumped in 24 points as Saint Mary’s notched an important win against a Pac-12 team.
“It was definitely a big win for us, regardless of who we’re playing,’’ Rahon said. “One of our goals every year is to go undefeated at home. Playing a big game like that early in the season can only help us. We didn’t look at it like a David vs. Goliath thing. We knew we belonged on the court.’’
And now that the Gaels are rolling along at 4-0, Rahon sees more good things ahead as his team prepares for the start of conference season on Dec. 21 at Pacific. Backcourt mate Naar is off to an especially good start as he leads the nation in three-point field goal accuracy at .636 percent and is 25th in assists at 6.3.
“He is in a zone right now,’’ Rahon said of Naar in a comment on the Saint Mary’s web site. “I don’t think anyone expected him to shoot as well as he is.’’
With Naar shooting as well as he is, especially from beyond the arc, Saint Mary’s leads the WCC in scoring offense (85.2) and in scoring defense (59.8) as well -- a winning combination, that.
“Oh, man, I think we can be really good,’’ Rahon said. “Obviously, we’re young. Each week at practice it’s important to keep getting better. We’re tough but a little inexperienced. We have respect for everyone and fear no one. We expect to play hard every game. We’re just trying to be the best team we can.’’
As point guard, Rahon said his role is as a leader and a facilitator, noting, “I try to make sure everyone is ready to play … and get guys the ball where they’re comfortable. Whatever it takes for us to win, that’s my role. The most important thing is winning. That’s all we want to do.’’
In that regard, the Gaels will be tested on the 12th when they play a talented Cal team at Haas Pavilion in what will be their first road game of the season, albeit a short trip from Moraga through the Caldecott Tunnel to Berkeley.
“That’s a game where a lot of people will be looking to see how we do,’’ Rahon said. “It’ll be a big one, our first road game of the year. We’re looking forward to that one, for sure. My buddy Nick Kerr is on that team.’’
Kerr, son of Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, is a graduate transfer on the Cal team and a former high school teammate of Rahon’s at Torrey Pines. The younger Kerr graduated from the University of San Diego, where he was an outstanding student, making the WCC Commissioner’s Honor Roll and WCC All-Academic team in 2013-14.
Before facing Cal a week from Saturday, the Gaels have two more home games, against UC Davis on Friday night and UC Irvine and 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye on Sunday afternoon.
Gonzaga gives notice
What does it say about a Gonzaga team playing without its big man, Przemek Karnowski, and with star forward Kyle Wiltjer scoring only two points in the second half, that it can go on the road and comfortably defeat a Pac-12 team in Washington State?
It says the Zags are pretty good, that’s what it says. Gonzaga improved to 5-1 with a 69-60 victory at WSU on Wednesday night with Karnowski sitting out with a sore back. Wiltjer scored 20 of his 22 points in the first half. Guards Josh Perkins (16 points) and Silas Melson (12) responded nicely when their team was challenged by the Cougars in the second half.
Gonzaga is halfway through its “Pac-12” schedule, having defeated Washington and Washington State and with nationally ranked Arizona due up Saturday and UCLA a week hence, both in Spokane.
Pilots win with Wintering
Nice game for Portland’s Alec Wintering in the Pilots’ 78-72 victory over Portland State on Wednesday. The 5-11 guard had 21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals for coach Eric Reveno’s 4-4 team.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.