Nov. 17, 2008
By Janie McCauley
MORAGA, Calif. (AP) - Nearly everywhere Saint Mary's center Omar Samhan traveled last summer, someone had heard about his Gaels and the recent success of the West Coast Conference.
Jamie Zaninovich, the WCC's new commissioner, knew all about it while working on the East Coast in New Jersey.
It's not just Gonzaga anymore, and Zaninovich is thrilled with the hype surrounding the strides his league has made and wants to build on that momentum.
The eight-time defending conference champion Zags, Saint Mary's and San Diego all reached the NCAA tournament last spring, a remarkable first for the conference.
"It's crazy, just the buzz we have in the community and nationwide," Samhan said. "I ran into some guys when I was working out in other places and they were asking me about the team. Before when I said played at Saint Mary's, people would ask me where that was. And now, they'll say, 'That was a great game against Gonzaga,' or San Diego State, or Seton Hall. People really are starting to know us as a basketball program, which is great.
"That's why this year is so important. If we can follow it up, it will start to become a legitimate program instead of a lucky season here or there."
Gonzaga has spent the last decade dominating the conference.
Now the WCC is trying to maintain its breakthrough of having multiple nationally ranked teams. The three teams that reached the tournament return a combined 13 of 15 starters, including all five for San Diego and four each for Gonzaga and Saint Mary's.
From Zags star Jeremy Pargo leading the way in Spokane, Wash., to Patty Mills at Saint Mary's, imposing Santa Clara center John Bryant, reigning WCC tournament MVP Brandon Johnson of San Diego and even last year's scoring leader, Dior Lowhorn, for rebuilding San Francisco, the WCC is filled with talented returners.
And the WCC will be headed to a neutral court in Las Vegas for its conference tournament come March - another significant step and sign of progress for a league that wants nothing more than to be considered among the best in the country.
"There's some excitement with the WCC this year after three teams were in the tournament," Saint Mary's athletic director Mark Orr said.
Mills, a sophomore for the Gaels, bolstered the WCC's profile with his impressive showing for Australia at the Beijing Olympics in August. He scored 20 points against the gold medal-winning U.S. team featuring NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke praised Mills, and Oregon coach Ernie Kent compared the tiny guard to the Spurs' Tony Parker after Saint Mary's shocked the then-12th-ranked Ducks in Moraga last November.
Zaninovich's goal is to see the other five teams in the WCC take significant steps so there's more parity from top to bottom, much like the Pac-10 has recently established. Several schools would like to join the WCC, but expansion is far from the league's focus right now.
Men's basketball is the face of this non-football league, which has also enjoyed success in women's soccer and volleyball.
"Fundamentally we're a regional conference. We understand that, but we have opportunities to play nationally," Zaninovich said. "Certainly, let's face it, men's basketball is the opportunity. This is why multiple (NCAA) bids from within our conference are so important.
"Of 31 conferences out there, 22 or 23 of them basically have one bid to the men's basketball championship every year," he said. "Those conferences are never spoken about. Their team is spoken about. As soon as you have two teams in the championship, with the exposure, suddenly the West Coast Conference is in the same breath with the six BCS conferences."
It doesn't hurt that the WCC has maintained some stability in its coaching ranks. Gonzaga's Mark Few certainly could have bolted for a bigger job in a larger market, while eighth-year Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett and San Diego's Bill Grier - Few's former assistant - each could have departed for Oregon State this past offseason.
"Top to bottom the league is no treat," second-year Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. "It's a treat to watch, but not to play or coach in right now. They're talking about our conference and they should talk about our conference. There are eight teams in the conference and each team in their own respect has cause for optimism. What that translates to is our entire league being really strong.
"There will be five 20-game winners in our conference either this year or next and probably almost every year - as long as we all can do a good job of nonconference scheduling. Two or three years down the road, 10-4 is going to win this conference and 9-5 could one day win it."
If all goes well playing the conference tournament in Las Vegas this season, Zaninovich said the league would consider playing there three more years. Tickets already are tough to come by.
Few is encouraged but knows sending three teams to the NCAAs every March is a long shot despite the recent progress. San Diego, playing on its home floor, earned an automatic NCAA bid and the school's first berth since 2003 after beating Saint Mary's in double overtime in the WCC tournament semifinals and surprising Gonzaga in the final.
The Zags and Gaels received at-large berths.
"There's a little bit of danger in that," Few said. "The way it felt last year was a little bit of the perfect storm. ... More people are talking about (the WCC), which is a good thing. We've kind of tried to lobby for that in the past. I think this league has always been really competitive. We've always seemed to have a great rivalry at some point. It's not like this is a brand-new thing. We always felt nationally people thought we had to be perfect in the league. That's not realistic."
After a one-year experiment playing a Saturday-Monday schedule, the WCC is returning to Thursday and Saturday games this season. The conference got regular national coverage on ESPN for those Monday games, but Zaninovich expects similar - or perhaps even better - TV exposure despite playing the same days as the Pac-10 and other conferences.
Zaninovich, who recently turned 38, is forward thinking when it comes to athletics to say the least. Having spent the past five years at Princeton after working at his alma mater, Stanford, he's experienced East Coast and West Coast, the Ivy League and Pac-10.
He replaced Michael Gilleran, who retired May 31 after 24 years in the job.
This is a homecoming for Zaninovich, who is from Eugene, Ore., and moved to the Bay Area in eighth grade, then attended Stanford for his undergraduate work and business school. He met his wife, Karen, at Stanford.
"We're in a tough industry in college athletics," he said. "You can't pick your geography but the geography certainly was attractive. My network of folks is here. I'm comfortable in the West. I think I understand the culture out here. I understand these schools. I've admired them from afar. It was a good fit. I'm definitely energized by it all."
So is Rex Walters, who also is back home and has taken over the struggling San Francisco program. He's ready to get the tradition-rich Dons - who won back-to-back NCAA titles in the 1950s with players like K.C. Jones and Bill Russell - back in the mix and is thrilled the conference is experiencing an upswing.
"A lot of that started with what Gonzaga's done. They've forced everyone to raise the bar," Walters said. "It's a really good league. It's a basketball league. It's a coaches' league. They're small schools that really value education. They're tough places to play because with small schools you get small gyms and the fans can really get after it."