On to the WCC

The Gaels, having finished their pre-conference schedule at 8-1 following a 92-36 rout of Southern Utah, can now look forward to the competition that will determine their NCAA tournament participation (if any) — the West Coast Conference race. Many WCC teams have an additional game this weekend, so records cited may be slightly off as they reflect action only through Thursday, Dec. 18.

The buzz around the WCC this fall has been the stumbles of prohibitive pre-season favorite Gonzaga. At 7-3, with two home losses and a near-catastrophic home squeaker against Montana (W61-58), the Zags seem vulnerable. Their situation is not helped by back ailments suffered by four-year post stalwart Przemek Karnowski, whose future is unclear.

Contrasted with the Zags’ troubles has been the surprising success of Randy Bennett’s Gaels, whom WCC coaches selected to finish fourth this season. There was good  reason, on paper, to downgrade the Gaels, principally the graduation of their entire starting five and a dearth of upper- classmen on the roster: no seniors, two juniors and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

When his fellow coaches compounded the hurt of picking his team to finish fourth by including no Gaels on the pre-season all-conference team, Bennett was philosophical. “They (the current team) haven’t done anything to distinguish themselves, so it’s not surprising,” he said.

Then he added, “But I do think we have a number of players who could prove themselves worthy of all-conference consideration.” Indeed.

Unknowns shining through

Those previously-unknown Gaels have vaulted Saint Mary’s to the top of the WCC in team scoring — 82 ppg vs. 81 ppg for BYU — and near the top of several national statistical categories. Notably, the Gaels rank 2nd nationally in three-point percentage at 47% and 19th in assist-to-turnover ratio at 10.1.

Individually, Gael shooting guard Emmett Naar leads all NCAA Division I players with a 69.4% three-point average (25 of 36). Substitute guard Stefan Gonzalez — one of those freshmen whom the WCC coaches didn’t know — ranks 28th in three-point shooting at 51.3%.

Gonzalez, for whom the phrase “comes off the bench shooting” was invented, actually has more three-point attempts than Naar — 39 to 36 — but has made five fewer. He has done this while averaging only a few minutes per game, as Bennett has proved consistently reluctant to bench his starting guard duo for any long period.

A good reason for that is the work of Naar’s back court mate, Joe Rahon, who is no. 7 in the country in assists per game, 7.1. If your point guard is among the nation’s leaders in assists and your two-guard is leading the nation in three-point shooting, a guy like Gonzalez has to take advantage of what opportunities he gets.

Balancing the offensive statistics nicely has been the Gaels’ stingy defense, which ranks 10th nationally by limiting opponents to 58.7 points per game. That big bulge between points scored — 82 — and points allowed — 59 — provides a whopping scoring differential of 23 points per game.

Forecasting the conference race

The Zags are down and the Gaels are up, so it’s clear sailing for Saint Mary’s into the NCAA tournament, right? If only it were that easy. Actually, the struggle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga for WCC supremacy is only one of several intriguing currents flowing through the WCC narrative.

Foremost is a huge asterisk next to the Zags’ purported downturn. With all its struggles, Gonzaga still boasts one of the conference’s signature wins, 72-70 over Connecticut, and its two home losses were to nationally-ranked Arizona and surging Pac-12 challenger UCLA.

And the Zags still field the nation’s toughest two-man front court in Domantas Sabonis (15.4 PPG) and Kyle Wiltjer (20.3 PPG). Indeed, Karnowski’s injury has cleared the field for Sabonis, who previously backed up Karnowski, to get more playing time. Since the Zags have a more-than-capable backup to Sabonis in 7-1 redshirt sophomore Ryan Edwards, they have not felt the loss of Karnowski, and I don’t think they will. He comes back or he doesn’t, they still dominate the front court.

The Zags’ problem is in the back court, where Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan and Silas Melson have fallen far short of their predecessors Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr. and Byron Wesley. Gonzaga coach Mark Few signaled impatience with his starters by giving redshirt freshman Bryan Alberts his first start in a laugher (86-50) over DII St. Martin’s earlier this week. Alberts responded with a 14-point effort, so Melson’s minutes might be in doubt.

This back court hiccup makes a potential Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s showdown even more interesting. The Gaels’ one-two punch of Rahon probing defenses and Naar bombing from three-point land is the best in the WCC. The San Francisco tandem of Devin Watson and Tim Derksen is scoring more, but Rahon-Naar is more deadly.

The rest of the story

Another perennial WCC power, BYU, has suffered somewhat the same problem as Gonzaga — replacing a back-court legend. Whereas Gonzaga’s was a three-headed legend, BYU’s consisted of one person, Tyler Haws. The prolific-scoring Haws not only consistently dropped in 20 or more points every time out, but also greased Dave Rose’s smooth-running offense. Rose has not replaced that efficiency this year, and BYU has stumbled somewhat to a 6-3 record with no road wins.

As with Gonzaga, there is caution needed before dismissing BYU. The losses were to Long Beach State (66-65), Utah (83-75) and Colorado 92-83), all strong teams playing at home. BYU’s strength is still in its back court, as freshman Nick (Sucker Punch) Emery has stepped into Haws’ shoes, and is joined by triple-double machine Kyle Collinsworth and reliable three-point ace Chase Fischer. Moving into the front court for BYU is Utah State transfer Kyle Davis, joined by ex-footballer Corbin Kaufusi, who is developing into a 6-10 menace in the paint.

BYU’s current freshman phenom is Zac Seljaas, a 6-7 guard who was Utah’s Player of the Year at Bountiful High last year, averaging 25.4 PPG. Seljaas dropped 18 on Colorado, and will undoubtedly cause heartburn for many WCC coaches this year.

Marty Wilson’s Pepperdine Waves, given the burden of topping Saint Mary’s by WCC coaches, have recently shown signs of accepting the challenge. The Waves have moved to 6-4 by winning four games in a row, over Montana (69-63), CSU Northridge, Long Beach State (77-75) and Ball State (72-63). Note the Waves handled Montana more easily than did Gonzaga and beat the Long Beach State squad that topped BYU (although at home).

Most of the Waves, principally forwards Stacy Davis and Lamond Murray, Jr., are well-known to WCC rivals, but Pepperdine may have the conference’s best bet for Newcomer of the Year in Kameron Edwards.

The wild card in this year’s conference race is Loyola Marymount. Tough-minded coach Mike Dunlap blew up the Lions’ roster for the second year in a row, and may have settled on a crew he has confidence in. The problem for WCC opponents is getting a fix on Dunlap’s charges, all of whom are brand new to the league.

A few JC transfers and a few true freshmen have carried the Lions to a 6-4 record, which includes narrow losses to Oregon State (79-70) and Boise State (67-66) on the road. Among the more colorfully-named Lions are 6-7 forward Adom Jacko, pronounced “Autumn” (no kidding), and Munis Tutu. Guards Steven Haney, who scored 26 points in a win over Cal State Fullerton, and Brandon Brown, player of the year in JC ranks last year at Phoenix College, will soon be making themselves known.

That leaves five teams at the bottom of the heap to prove themselves worthy of conference race consideration. Neither San Francisco, Santa Clara, Portland, San Diego nor Pacific have shown signs of that possibility, however.

And the winner is

Sorting through the pre-season competition  leads to the following prediction for the top half of the league:

  1. (tie Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s (16-2)
  2. Pepperdine (14-4)
  3. BYU (13-5)
  4. LMU (12-6)

I have Saint Mary’s splitting with Gonzaga, winning at home on Jan. 21 and losing in Spokane on Feb. 20. The Zags and Gaels will be the top seeds in the WCC tourney and will advance to the title game on March 8 in Las Vegas. The Gaels win it 85-79 and receive the automatic NCAA bid, while the Zags receive an at-large bid and get a higher tournament seeding (5) than the Gaels (7).

Pepperdine and BYU go to the NIT, while LMU gets its feet wet in post-season competition by playing in the CBI or comparable tournament.

(Note: I know if two teams tie for first place the next team actually finishes 3rd, but tell that to the WordPress software.)

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