Parity is all the rage in college basketball this season. Kentucky is ordinary, Duke is out of the Top 25 and the number one team changes weekly, with Villanova being the current flavor of the week.
The WCC joined the fun in a big way last week, with the following highlights:
BYU held serve at home against Saint Mary’s, then lost to former league doormat Pacific by 77-72.
Pacific prepared for its take-down of BYU by losing to current doormat, San Diego, 54-43.
San Diego demonstrated its consistency following the Pacific win by scoring only 43 points in a 60-43 loss to Saint Mary’s.
Pepperdine, bracing for its biggest week of the season with Portland and Gonzaga at home where it was 9-0 this season, laid an egg against Portland to lose 73-70. This was an epic fail by the Waves, and they had to shoot a nightmarish 17-37 from the free throw line to accomplish it.
Undaunted, Pepperdine then gave Gonzaga everything the Zags feared before losing 69-66.
This topsy-turvy activity produced some changes to WCC standings, with Gonzaga pulling even with Saint Mary’s for the top spot after the Gaels stumbled against BYU (Gonzaga is at 11-2 and Saint Mary’s is 10-2, but the Gaels will eventually make up the one-game difference. It’s the losses that count.)
For its performance against Pacific, BYU dropped two games behind the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga tandem at 8-4, while Pepperdine all but eliminated itself from championship contention and teeters on dropping out of the top four by falling to 7-6. San Francisco is creeping closer to the Waves at 6-6.
Heading into the stretch
As the season enters the hand-to-hand combat phase, holding oneself together becomes all-important. “We came ready to play. We were excited to play,” said Randy Bennett after the Gaels’ grind-it-out win over San Diego. He noted how difficult it is to get wins on the road when the season draws to a close and every team knows the others’ secrets. “It’s not easy to do what we did [against San Diego],” he added.
Whether the Gaels righted themselves by holding the Toreros to 43 points is an open question: it undoubtedly showed character to win the third game of a road trip following a disheartening loss against BYU, but Saint Mary’s is anything but a highly-functioning offensive machine right now. Defense held the day against San Diego, and, indeed, the Gaels’ defense was excellent against BYU. It held the Cougars, who average 80+ points per game, to 70 on their home court. That should have been enough to produce a win.
Instead, that solid work was undone by a 22-point second half in Provo, marginally improved to 25 points in the second half against San Diego. The Gaels have been utilizing only two-fifths of their offense, with Joe Rahon and Calvin Hermanson going for 17 and 14 against BYU and 13 and 12 against San Diego. Although Dane Pineau showed a pulse with a double-double (10 points, 10 boards) against San Diego, Emmett Naar, Evan Fitzner and Jock Landale were missing in action for the second game in a row.
It is particularly painful to watch Naar struggle, as he was the poster boy for the Gaels’ offense for much of the year. Shooting in the 60% range on three-point attempts, handing out assists by the bushel, he was poised and effective when the Gaels had the ball. Back to back 1-4 efforts from three-point range against BYU and San Diego, however, have left him tentative and ineffective.
The Gaels return to the laboratory, otherwise known as McKeon Pavilion, this week for home contests against Pepperdine and the woeful Loyola Marymount Lions. Bennett can afford to relax his emphasis on defense and rebounding and work on restoring the firepower to his offense. Prime goals will be to re-energize the Naar, Fitzner and Landale combination that elevates the Gaels from so-so to outstanding on offense.
Avenging the earlier loss to Pepperdine in Malibu should provide sufficient motivation, while looking ahead to the final crucial road trip to Portland and Gonzaga should keep the Gaels grounded. They have stumbled, but sharing first place with preseason prohibitive favorites Gonzaga is not a bad position to be in. As long as they don’t make it worse.
Headband and goggles in place, the Gaels’ Calvin Hermanson has come up big in back-to-back games against BYU and San Diego. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.