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Crumpacker: What We Learned - 1/4/16

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By John Crumpacker
#WCChoops Columnist 


A good friend of mine, a fellow sportswriter for a stretch of time, had a clever response when people would ask him how the football team he was covering looked going into the season:

“It’s hard to tell how they look, they’re all wearing helmets.’’

That’s not a problem in basketball, where fans are proximal to the action and the faces of the players are there for all to see, whether rejoicing or grimacing or walking off the court dejectedly.

The WCC may not get the national respect it seeks and often deserves, but the conference scores high in entertainment value. Night after night, any one of a dozen or more players from Spokane to Provo to Santa Clara and points in between can be counted on to provide an offensive showcase.

Already this season, 11 games featured players scoring 30 points or more, topped by the 44 that SANTA CLARA’S Jared Brownridge poured in against Arizona. Brownridge backed that game up with a 36-point effort vs. PORTLAND ast week.

Now that Przemek Karnowski is out for GONZAGA (see below), Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis are stepping up the pace offensively. Wiltjer is averaging a conference-best 20.8 points per game and Sabonis is a few rungs down at 18.3. Sabonis, literally born to post play, has games of 36 and 35 points this season while Wiltjer, the most skilled offensive player in the conference, has high games of 33 and 30.

Portland point guard Alec Wintering is capable of making like a firecracker and going off, too. In an eight-day span, Wintering had 34 points vs. PEPPERDINE and 31 against SAN FRANCISCO, which included 15-for-15 from the free throw line. Speaking of the Dons, their point guard, Devin Watson, is a big-time scorer as well with games of 33 and 31 points to his credit.

Eight of the eleven 30-point games recorded in the conference thus far were done so by guards, further solidifying the WCC’s reputation as a guard-centric conference. Gonzaga has no problem being forward- or center-centric with Wiltjer and Sabonis, however.

It looks like Wiltjer (20.8), Brownridge (20.4) and Watson (20.3) will be locked in a season-long contest for top scorer in the conference. All three players increased their scoring averages in the second week of the conference season, Watson by 1.2 points, Wiltjer by 0.6 and Brownridge by 0.5. Sabonis, at 18.3 per game, could join the party as well.

In contrast to that other sport, it’s nice to see what these players look like as they go about their business of entertaining fans, up close if not exactly personal.    

With the conference season beginning to percolate like a pot of coffee on a chilly morning, this is What We Learned from the second week of WCC play:

  1. If any team is going to challenge Gonzaga for the conference title, it sure looks like SAINT MARY’S. Although not road tested to this point, the Gaels have a lot going for them. They are 13-1 overall and 12-0 at McKeon Pavilion, having won seven in a row to improve their WCC record to 4-0. Furthermore, coach Randy Bennett’s team leads the conference in these telling per-game categories: scoring defense (57.8), scoring margin (+22.2), field goal percentage (.543), three-point field goal percentage (.460), rebounding margin (+10.4), assists (20.1), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) and three-point field goals made (10.3). That’s all.
  2. Gonzaga has played enough games now, 10 in all, without Karnowski to lessen the impact of his season-ending back injury. It would certainly be nice for coach Mark Few’s team to have its 7-foot stalwart back in the lineup but an 8-2 record, including six wins in a row, prove that there is life without the big fellow.
  3. With a 2-2 conference record despite serious sanctions leveled against the program, PACIFIC is the Little Engine That Could after defeating Santa Clara by a point on opening night and edging SAN DIEGO by two on Dec. 31. Although it’s early, Pacific under interim coach Mike Burns has a better conference record than half the teams in the WCC. Who would have imagined such a scenario two weeks ago?
  4. If I had a vote (and why the heck don’t I?) for WCC Player of the Year, the early favorites would be, in order, Domantas Sabonis, Wiltjer, Kyle Collinsworth of BYU, Watson, Wintering and Brownridge. Sabonis is really stepping up in Karnowski’s absence. 

Quote of the week
“We just stuck with it, even though we looked like we were in the gutter there. Credit to the guys for not giving up.”

That’s Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, per Jim Meehan of the Spokane Spokesman Review, talking about rallying from 10 down with 3:05 to go to defeat USF in overtime 102-94.

Stat line of the week

It’s hard to beat what Sabonis did in his team’s improbable 102-94 overtime victory at USF: 35 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocked shots. Runner-up honors to Watson, who had a career-high 33 points, 1 rebound, 7 assists and 2 steals in losing to the Zags. 

Tweet of the week
Rex Walters ‏@USFBBallCoach Dec 31

Is there a better sound than hearing your children laughing downstairs? Nope.

That’s USF coach Rex Walters, who apparently likes the sound of his happy kids over the squeak of sneakers on the court.

Next best Tweet of the week
Mike Dunlap ‏@CoachMikeDunlap 31 Dec 2015
Hesitation will destroy a shooter's rhythm: knowing that you have the green light, organizing your feet, & finishing your release key.

That’s LMU coach Mike Dunlap, talking technical.

Follow the three dots...
Portland’s Wintering leads the conference in free throw attempts with 119, reflecting his driving-to-the-hoop nature. … The WCC leads the country in points per possession behind such offensively efficient outfits as Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, BYU and USF. … With experienced players such as Stacy Davis, Jett Raines and Lamond Murray Jr. and a couple of promising newcomers, PEPPERDINE has to qualify as the most disappointing team in the conference to this point with a 1-2 record, although coach Marty Wilson’s team is 5-0 at Firestone Fieldhouse. Again, it’s early, and is there anything more imposing than a series of Waves lined up one behind the other ready to roll? … USF’s Tim Derksen had a career-high 27 points against Portland. … Saint Mary’s had 20 assists vs. San Diego, the eighth time this season the Gaels have dished 20 or more assists. … Part of being a big scorer is doing well at the free throw line, as Santa Clara’s Brownridge did vs. Portland when he was a lucky 13-for-13 from the line. 

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.