By John Crumpacker
A week before the WCC season reaches its halfway point, has the field already been reduced to a two-horse race? Does a dark horse loom, ready to canter up to the line? The subject is a tantalizing one, especially after last week’s mixed bag of results.
It certainly seems as though SAINT MARY’S and GONZAGA are prepared to go the distance as the two frontrunners in the conference, currently tied atop the standings with 6-1 records. At this point, the Gaels (15-2) and the Zags (14-4) should be concerned with winning as many games as possible before the WCC Tournament begins on March 3 in order to enhance their probable NCAA Tournament resumes.
They will meet on Jan. 21 in Moraga and on Feb. 20 in Spokane, no doubt dreaming of a series sweep but realistically hoping for a home-and-home split. That will then make the rest of their conference games vitally important. One slip-up will give the other the edge.
It’s fair to say both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga already had their slip-ups. The Gaels lost to PEPPERDINE on Jan. 9 in Malibu 67-64 while the Zags dropped a 69-68 final to BYU on their home court in Spokane on Jan. 14.
Gonzaga is not the team it was a year ago but it is still plenty potent with Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis on the front line and improving guards Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins; in last week’s games, Wiltjer scored 60 points against BYU (35) and San Diego (25). Saint Mary’s is balanced and efficient and shoots lights-out; its .833 first half effort vs. Pacific (15 of 18) tied the WCC games-only record held by Santa Clara (10 of 12) vs. Loyola Marymount from 1976.
BYU is the outlier to this point. At 13-6 overall and 4-2 in conference, the Cougars have been both inconsistent and disappointing, yet are capable of soaring to great heights with their up-tempo offense. BYU is one of two teams in the conference (Pepperdine is the other) with four players averaging in double figures in Chase Fischer (18.3), Kyle Collinsworth (14.9), Nick Emery (14.5) and Kyle Davis (13.1).
Beneath Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU, there is a group of teams fighting it out in what I like to call the Muddle in the Middle: Pepperdine (4-3), PORTLAND (3-4), PACIFIC (3-4), SAN FRANCISCO (3-5) and SANTA CLARA (3-5). This bunch seems destined to beat up on one another from here until the end of the regular season.
For fans, the fun is in watching how it all plays out – especially on Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.
Around the conference, here’s What We Learned from last week’s games:
Gonzaga goes big time
Of interest to WCC fans and fans of college basketball in general is an upcoming HBO Sports project featuring Gonzaga in a five-episode series titled “Gonzaga: The March to Madness.’’ The series premiers on Feb. 16 and culminates on March 15, the first day of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The behind-the-scenes look at the powerhouse program from Spokane is narrated by actor Liev Schreiber. Coach Mark Few’s teams have made the NCAA tourney 17 years in a row and has every expectation of making it 18 in a row.
If the show is truly a behind-the-scenes look at Gonzaga’s program, it will reveal whether Few actually owns a necktie, and whether he knows how to tie a Windsor knot.
How about that?
While we doted on Saint Mary’s in last Friday’s feature, it’s worth repeating, after Saturday’s games, that the Gaels are leading the conference in field goal percentage, .534 (the only WCC team over .500), three-point field goal percentage, .447, and field goal percentage defense, .388. Now, that’s a triple-double.
Stat line of the week
In his team’s first conference win, 82-71 at Portland, San Diego’s Duda Sanadze had a career-high 29 points and 5 rebounds. He was on his game as he hit on 10 of 14 shots overall, 3 of 5 from three-point range, and 6 of 7 from the free throw line.
Runner-up goes to LMU’s David Humphries, who scored 20 points in 24 minutes by hitting 6 of 10 shots from beyond the arc to go with two free throws in his team’s 87-83 win at USF. He also had 5 rebounds and 1 steal.
Quote of the week
"Jared didn't play well but he played well when we needed him to and made the one that we needed.’’
That’s Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, on Jared Brownridge’s game-winning 3-point shot with 1.3 seconds left vs. Pepperdine in a 62-60 victory by the Broncos.
Tweet of the week
Rex Walters - @USFBBallCoach
Money, Cars, Clothes....kids got it wrong. Find Something You Love To Do...then Work, Study, Learn, Eat Right, Get Your Rest, Repeat!
Other than excessive capitalization, sound advice from the USF coach.
Follow the three dots...
Lots of thievery going on in the Rose City. Portland leads the conference in steals at 7.7 per game. … The top five players in the conference in minutes played are all guards, no surprise there: Jared Brownridge (Santa Clara), Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon (Saint Mary’s), Devin Watson (USF) and Collinsworth (BYU). Speaking of the Swiss Army Knife, his current numbers are 14.9 points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game, 7.2 assists per game and 2.1 steals per game. If only he could cook the pregame meal, sing the National Anthem and tape ankles, coach Dave Rose would really have himself a versatile player. … BYU and Pepperdine are the only teams in the conference with four players averaging at least 10.0 points per game. For Pep, it’s Lamond Murray Jr. (15.4), Stacy Davis (13.7), Jett Raines (11.7) and Jeremy Major (10.0). Way to hit 10 on the nose, Jeremy. … Nice week for Murray Jr., by the way. He averaged 21.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals vs. Santa Clara and USF, including 29 against the Dons. … Wiltjer has scored in double figures in 17 of Gonzaga’s last 18 games.
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.