By John Crumpacker
Despite the earliest starting date in conference history, most WCC teams appear to be ready for the start of league play – as in today, Monday. Yikes!
Owing to a variety of factors such as quirks of the schedule, the way the holidays fell on the calendar and even Super Bowl 50, eight of the conference’s 10 teams get going this week with games on Monday and Wednesday. BYU is in Hawaii for the Diamond Head tournament (facing Harvard on Tuesday) while travel partner San Diego has a Wednesday home game against Cal State Northridge as it concludes its final exams schedule.
That doesn’t leave much time for reflection on what WCC teams accomplished in their non-conference games. In fact, that time is now.
With the notable exception of Pacific, dealing with an array of daunting circumstances related to NCAA violations, the rest of the WCC can point to a variety of positive developments over the course of the non-conference schedule.
Starting with the team with the best record, let’s take a gander at what gives WCC teams confidence heading into the serious part of the season.
SAINT MARY’S is 8-1 and had a chance to beat Cal at Haas Pavilion until the final seconds. The Gaels have the best guard tandem in the conference with Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, both of whom are in the top 12 nationally in assists. People must be wondering what’s gotten into Naar, who is shooting so well from three-point range even Steph Curry is jealous. At the moment Naar is the most accurate three-point shooter in the college ranks at 69.4 percent (25 of 36). Coach Randy Bennett is also getting nice contributions from forwards Calvin Hermanson and Dane Pineau.
Nationally prominent GONZAGA had by far the toughest non-conference opponents in the WCC and has an 8-3 record to show for it with losses to Texas A&M, Arizona and UCLA. The biggest development for the Zags has been the offensive improvement of forward Domantas Sabonis. A rebounding force since he arrived in Spokane as a freshman, the 6-foot-11 sophomore has refined his offensive game at a time when his team needs him the most with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski still sidelined by back problems. Even with Karnowski out, the Zags have the best front line in the conference.
BYU may not be as strong as last season’s version but the Cougars, at 7-3, are thankful for the addition of Utah State transfer Kyle Davis, a 6-8 junior. Davis’ transition has been a seamless one as he’s averaging a double-double with 13.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. As well, freshman guard Nick Emery wasted no time in proving his worth, as in 15.6 points per game.
Time will tell if LOYOLA MARYMOUNT’S 7-4 record is indicative of true improvement or the quality of its non-conference opponents. The fact is, with one more victory, coach Mike Dunlap’s team will have equaled last season’s win total of eight. The Lions are getting it done with transfers, too. Adom Jacko leads in scoring at 14.1, followed closely by Brandon Brown (13.5) and Steven Haney (12.9). Holdover Marin Mornar, one of only two seniors on the roster, is a dependable contributor with 7.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
With five wins in a row to close out non-conference play, PEPPERDINE (7-4) begins WCC play on a high, just in time to face Gonzaga in Spokane in the opener. There’s no more experienced or dependable player in the conference than Stacy Davis, who teams with fellow senior Jett Raines and swingman Lamond Murray Jr. to give the Waves a productive front line; together, they average 38 points, 16.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 blocks per game.
If Rahon and Naar give Saint Mary’s the best backcourt in the conference, Devin Watson and Tim Derksen at SAN FRANCISCO (6-4) are not far behind, if they are at all. Watson, averaging nearly 20 points per game, is the flashy one while the stoic Derksen should really be wearing a Dickies work shirt with an embroidered patch that says “Tim,’’ and an oily rag tucked into the waistband of his shorts. Yes, he’s a blue-collar fellow all the way for the Dons, and coach Rex Walters loves him for it.
Another strong backcourt can be found in PORTLAND, where the underrated Alec Wintering and Bryce Pressley are doing all they can to get the Pilots (6-7) to .500 and better. Wintering is averaging 15.5 points and has nearly twice as many assists (79) as turnovers (41) while Pressley has the rare distinction of leading his team in three-point shooting (31 of 68) and rebounding at 5.7 per game.
Beating crosstown foe San Diego State outdoors at Petco Park seems to have jump-started SAN DIEGO’S season. The Toreros (4-6) have won three of their last four games, with another week to fine-tune things before they and BYU begin conference play a week after everyone else in the WCC. With 28 rejections thus far, Jito Kok has more blocked shots by himself than half of the conference’s 10 teams.
SANTA CLARA (4-8) got off to a horrible start at 0-7 but the Broncos have now won four of their last five. Recent results show that Santa Clara is a little more than a one-man team (he being guard Jared Brownridge), too, now that forward Nate Kratch is asserting himself. Kratch is averaging 19.0 points and 10.6 rebounds per game over the last five games and is at 12.4 and 9.3, respectively, for the season.
At least publicly, interim coach Mike Burns is not throwing a pity party in Stockton for all the adversity facing PACIFIC (1-8). With no expectations burdening him or his team the rest of the way, Burns is free to coach as he sees fit and embrace anything positive the Tigers manage to achieve. “We can be victims and let this beat us or we can dig in our heels and fight,’’ Burns told reporters. “These men have decided to dig in their heels.’’
Quote of the week
“I told our guys if we can hold teams to 40 percent (shooting) for the year, I think we’ll like where we’re sitting in March.’’
That’s Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, quoted in the San Jose Mercury-News. Going into WCC play, the Gaels’ field goal defense figure is 39.8 percent.
Stat line of the week
In USF’s 96-93 overtime win vs. Coppin State, Dons guard Watson had 31 points (on 10-of-15 shooting, 3 of 4 on three-point shots), 8 rebounds and 5 assists. It would have been easy to go with Gonzaga’s Sabonis, who had 36 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Tennessee, but what impressed me with Watson was his rebounding total at just 6-foot-1.
Tweet of the week
It’s been a while since I referenced my favorite tweeter, San Diego’s Jito Kok. Here’s one of his most recent. I can relate.
My life is one long struggle trying to decide what to eat next.
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.