Crumpacker: The Night Before the #WCChoops Opener
A look at the West Coast Conference entering league action
By John Crumpacker #WCChoops Columnist
A check of the standings as West Coast Conference men’s basketball teams prepare for the start of league play shows three usual suspects and one new one. Hello, San Diego.
BYU and Saint Mary’s steamed through their non-conference games with 11-2 marks, with Gonzaga a game back at 10-3. No surprise there. San Diego, coming off a 13-18 season in 2017-18, has already won nine games (9-3) as it readies for its first conference game at home against San Francisco on Thursday.
Clearly, coach (and alum) Lamont Smith is onto something in his third year with the Toreros. After beating Colorado in Boulder on Dec. 12 by 69-59, Smith was hoping to win his final two non-conference games to go 10-2, but the Toreros tripped up at the Slim Gym against North Texas 86-83 before routing Life Pacific 94-51.
“We set the schedule up in hopes it would prepare us for a grueling WCC,’’ Smith said. “You have to get yourself prepared. Being able to go into Colorado and get a win gives us momentum going into WCC play. I think our guys were not naïve. On any given night if we don’t prepare the right way we can be beat. Our margin for error is small. We’re excited about what the season has brought so far.’’
As detailed in an earlier posting on WCC Sports, the Toreros are getting it done with two guys named Isaiah (forward Pineiro and guard Wright) and a steamer trunk full of defense. Pineiro leads the team in scoring (15.2) and rebounding (6.3) while Wright contributes 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds.
But it’s defense that really stands out in America’s Finest City. Smith’s team is first in the WCC in points allowed per game (61.1), field goal percentage defense (.370), 3-point field goal defense (.233) and is tied for fourth in blocked shots per game at 4.0. At the annual WCC Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, cheerleaders for most teams in the conference chant “D-up! D-up! D-up!’’ as a matter of course, exhorting their teams to play stout defense.
The Toreros really do d-up, d-up, d-up.
“What the non-conference has done is give us confidence knowing we can play well,’’ Smith said. “That will help us as we get to WCC play. You’ve got to have some toughness and grit.’’
While San Diego is getting it done with defense, Gonzaga is all about offense, averaging a conference-leading 90.2 points per game with a deep and versatile team featuring WCC Player of the Year candidate Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Zach Norvell Jr., Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert and Killian Tillie.
With all that talent, it’s perhaps surprising that the Zags lost three non-conference games, but those losses were to No. 7 Florida in double overtime (111-105), No. 4 Villanova (88-72) and San Diego State (72-70). Coach Mark Few’s team shies away from no one.
Even with its 11-2 start, Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was not entirely satisfied with the play of his Gaels in non-conference. That’s what happens when the standards are as high as they are in Moraga. Saint Mary’s has a Player of the Year candidate of its own in center Jock Landale, leading the WCC in scoring (21.2) and rebounding (9.6). He’s joined by the most efficient player in the conference in point guard Emmett Naar and perimeter sharpshooter Calvin (Headband) Hermanson. Naar is a big reason the Gaels have a 2-to-1 ratio of assists to turnovers.
Although Saturday’s Pepperdine and San Diego game at 1 p.m. is the WCC Game of the Week, perhaps the most revealing game of the first week of conference play will take place at the same time when Saint Mary’s plays at BYU. The Cougars have the most productive pair of teammates in the league in forward Yoeli Childs (16.6 points per game) and Elijah Bryant (16.4) along with other major contributors like T.J. Haws, Zac Seljaas, Luke Worthington and, lately, 6-foot-10 Payton Dastrup.
Asked what he likes most about his team, BYU coach Dave Rose said, “I’m impressed with their ability to execute in tough situations.’’
That should be the case on Saturday at the Marriott Center.
Another good first-week conference game takes place on Thursday when USF (8-5) plays at San Diego. The Dons made a good coaching hire a year ago in Kyle Smith, who went 20-13 in 2016-17 and finished tied for fourth in the conference at 10-8. He’s off to a good start in year two with a versatile group of players (he’s called them interchangeable, and that’s a compliment) including guards Souley Boum, Frankie Ferrari and Jordan Ratinho and forwards Matt McCarthy and Chase Foster.
At 6-7, Portland is showing signs of improvement in coach Terry Porter’s second season. The Pilots, who open conference play with a tough assignment at BYU on Thursday night, are leading the WCC in 3-point field goal percentage at .413. Guard-forward Franklin Porter, son of the head coach, is No. 2 in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage, .467. As well, the Pilots have the best shot-blocker in the league in 7-2 Philipp Hartwich.
Loyola Marymount (5-6) will find out what it’s made of when it opens conference play at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night. Coach Mike Dunlap’s team finished sixth in the conference last season at 8-10 (15-15 overall) and is striving to finish in the upper half of the standings come March. Dunlap found a gem in guard James Batemon, a junior transfer from North Dakota State who is second in the conference in scoring at 19.2 per game. For support, Batemon has fellow guard Steven Haney (11.3 ppg) and forward Eli Scott (12.9).
LMU’s second conference opponent on Saturday is another team with aspirations for upward mobility. Pacific, led by second-year coach Damon Stoudamire, is 5-8 and exemplifies what it means to be a team that is greater than the sum of its parts but would not be where it is without those parts. The Tigers have six players averaging between 8.7 and 13.7 points per game. Small forward Jahlil Tripp is one of the few players in the WCC averaging more rebounds per game (9.5) than points (8.7).
Santa Clara and Pepperdine are both 3-9 at the bottom of the standings, so it’s only fitting that they should open against each other on Thursday at the Leavey Center. Both teams are looking for traction and neither one will want to start out with a loss to the other.
Santa Clara’s K.J. Feagin is third in the conference in scoring (19.0) while 6-4 Henry Caruso, a graduate transfer, is leading in rebounding (7.0) while contributing 13.4 points. For Pep, forward Kameron Edwards leads the way with 15.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, supported by Colbey Ross (13.7 ppg) and Eric Cooper Jr. (11.7).
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. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.