Conference play is right around the corner, and most of the WCC is cramming to prepare just like a diligent college student studying for final exams. Many teams are playing some really tough opponents before the games gets serious, so we’re getting a good idea of who has the talent to hang with quality teams. And the results are shaking up the rankings a bit as some teams impress while others have not.
Nov 20, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Loyola Marymount Lions guard Chase Flint (23) dribbles against Arizona State Sun Devils forward Eric Jacobsen (21) during the second half at Wells-Fargo Arena. The Sun Devils won 68-44. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
#10 – LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Lions drop from #8 last week to become just the second team to inherit the bottom spot in our rankings this season. They have fallen to 3-5 after three straight losses, and it looks even worse considering every other WCC team is currently at least one game over .500 or better. You can’t fault the Lions for losses to quality UC Irvine and USC teams, but the margins of those losses are a concern. That fear was affirmed in a turnover-plauged loss to a weak Northern Arizona team this past Saturday.
Loyola Marymount just isn’t playing well right now, and much of it it because of the ridiculous pressure being heaped on Evan Payne. He continues to be an elite player, but he has gotten no support at all recently.
Payne has 32, 19, and 23 points in the last three games. Compare that to the rest of the team that provided just two combined double-digit scoring efforts over that span. There still isn’t a consistent source of rebounds or assists, and right now the Lions are completely one dimensional with points from Payne and nothing else.
Combine that with the tough stretch of games they are in and it’s not good right now. Their Christmas trip to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii could make it even uglier, especially with an opening game against mid-major power Wichita State looming in the opening game December 22nd. Plenty of time to turn things around with a few games before conference play, but it might get worse before it gets better.
#9 – PACIFIC: The Tigers are just quietly plugging along, and it was enough to push them up and out of the bottom spot in our rankings for the first time this season. They dropped a game to Western Michigan on Sunday, but that’s a quality team and they looked competitive in the loss. And they had won three in a row before that as they seem to be finding their stride.
The big development has been the welcome news that they are finally getting more support for T.J. Wallace. He continues to be consistently putting up double-digit scoring efforts, but he got a lot more help that past couple games. Dulani Robinson seems to have recaptured some of the talent he was flashing early in the year as he put up double-digits in the past two games including filling up the stat sheet against Western Michigan with a game-high 23 points.
In fact the Tigers got three double-digit scoring efforts in each of their past two games, the most they have gotten since four players hit double figures back on November 26th against Alaska Anchorage. They get a big non-conference test this Thursday at home against Nevada, and it will tell us a lot after we see how this newer, more balanced offensive attack fares against a quality team.
March 8, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Santa Clara Broncos guard Jared Brownridge (23) dribbles against Gonzaga Bulldogs guard David Stockton (11) during the second half in the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
#8 – SANTA CLARA: The Broncos are working hard to turn their season around, and it might just be turning a corner. They have been a streaky team all year, and they’re on the good side of that at the moment. After winning their first three games, they lost four in a row to drop under .500 for the first time. They have now bounced back with three straight wins and are back on the happy side of the .500 mark at 5-4 overall. Their most recent win over Washington State was the most impressive as the Cougars are the biggest opponent the Broncos have knocked off so far.
While they are still getting outrebounded consistently and will continue to feel the loss of Yannick Atanga all year, the Broncos are taking the route of Pacific and are finding success getting more consistent support for their stars. Brandon Clark and Jared Brownridge continue to be the best high-scoring duo in the conference, but others are starting to step up. They got a solid team effort as four players reached double-digit points in the Washington State win, something they could use a lot more of going forward.
Credit is also due to some strong defense and ball control. During this three game winning streak, the Broncos have been won the turnover battle in every game including limiting themselves to single-digit turnovers in two of the three wins. And they are forcing mistakes by their opponents to the tune of averaging 6 steals per game over that span.
A strong inside game and a ton of scorers beyond Clark and Brownridge isn’t likely, so this team defense and quality team effort they have been giving lately is a great alternative and it’s showing in the win column. They have a chance to finish out non-conference play continuing this current streak, and if they continue to play this well they can give Saint Mary’s a tough game on the road in their WCC opener a couple days after Christmas.
November 28, 2014; Fullerton, CA, USA; San Diego Toreros guard Johnny Dee (1) moves the ball up court against Princeton Tigers during the first half at Titan Gym. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
#7 – SAN DIEGO: The Toreros are getting hot at just right time, and you can thank their tough schedule so far. They were tested in battle with road games at San Diego State and UCLA, and it has paid off with a couple good wins to get them back over .500 at 6-5 on the season.
They started by knocking off UC Santa Barbara and star Alan Williams, a quality upset win against one of the best mid-major teams in California and one of the best individual players the Toreros will see all season. They continued to stay hot by avoiding a potential trap game and blowing out New Orleans in their return home after a long stretch of road and neutral site games.
After a few bad games for Chris Anderson and a long quiet stretch for key supporter Thomas Jacobs, both have helped spark the last couple wins. Anderson had a bounceback effort with 17 points against UC Santa Barbara, and Jacobs had 12 points and a game-high 7 rebounds in the win over New Orleans. The efforts were made even more impressive as the injury issues continue to pile up. Jacobs had his quality game inside with both starter Jito Kok and key bench player Brett Bailey on the bench nursing minor injuries, and the Toreros continue to survive without Duda Sanadze who continues to nurse the plantar fasciitis injury that has plagued him all season. He had no points in very limited minutes over the two wins.
The development of the freshman and the veterans has been rapid in recent games. The group of newcomers has gotten more and more playing time, and Vasa Pusica became the first frosh to reach double figures for San Diego this season with 10 points in the UCSB win. Brandon Perry hasn’t matched his big game against UCLA, but he continues to also give solid contributions. Like Santa Clara this may not become a team that has a full lineup of elite performers, but the solid efforts by role players along with a consistently good core of key players is enough to keep the Toreros competitive.
Dec 3, 2014; Boulder, CO, USA; San Francisco Dons forward/center Kruize Pinkins (15) shoots over Colorado Buffaloes forward Wesley Gordon (1) in the second half at the Coors Events Center. The Buffaloes defeated the Dons 72-55. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
#6 – SAN FRANCISCO: The Dons feel like they should be better than they are right now. They’re getting the expected output from their key players, but it’s not showing up in the win/loss column as they are a pedestrian 5-4 right now without that many major opponents on their non-conference schedule. They continue to run frustratingly hot and cold as they destroy weaker teams but turn around and cannot defeat tougher ones.
They were at it again over their last couple games as they lost a close one to a good but but not great Eastern Washington team just days after destroying a weak Houston Baptist team. And that came after they had blown out Montana followed by a blowout loss to Colorado. They’re winning the games they should quite comfortably, but they haven’t looked like a team that can beat most better opponents. You can’t trust them right now to go out and beat a BYU or a Gonzaga based on their current results. In fact, those games might not even be close. It’s disappointing considering the high hopes after last season.
Kruize Pinkins and Mark Tollefsen have done everything they can for a very strong frontcourt. Tim Derksen and Matt Glover have been excellent in support in the backcourt. Key role players Montray Clemons, Derrell Robertson, Uche Ofoegbu, and Devin Watson haven’t done much, but it still doesn’t explains the average record. Having four guys consistently putting up numbers is more than most WCC teams can hope for, and the Dons shouldn’t be getting blown out so much.
If you look at the box scores from the past couple losses, you could blame hot shooting by their opponents. But some of that can be blamed on their defense and weak offensive efforts of their own. It seems like everything is going wrong right now. If the Dons get hot offensively, their opponent gets hotter. If they lock down on defense, they don’t score enough to win. They have a soft portion of their schedule coming up all the way into conference play where they open with Pacific, so they have time to build some momentum.
It’s still too early to write them off, and we will know more as the calendar turns to 2015 when they are playing their chief WCC rivals. Consecutive games against BYU and Gonzaga in early January will be the time to step up if they want to shake off their average run through non-conference play.
Dec 13, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Pepperdine Waves forward Jett Raines (45) drives to the basket against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half at Wells-Fargo Arena. Sun Devils defeated the Waves 81-74 Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
#5 – PEPPERDINE: The Waves still haven’t played a bad game. Even in their recent loss to Arizona State, they looked competitive and had a great chance to win the game before the Sun Devils made a run to come back and win it. They have five solid wins that didn’t give them much trouble, and two single-digit losses on the road to legitimate power conference teams. They are playing very well, and they have the best looking body of work of anyone outside the top teams.
What’s really been impressive about the Waves has been their consistency. All the teams below them in the rankings have talent, and some like USF have just as much if not more. But all of them have either run hot and cold, or haven’t run hot much at all. The Waves meanwhile are bringing a quality effort every night, and they have developed a strong core group that has not had an off game yet as we get deeper and deeper into the season.
Stacy Davis brings elite numbers every night and is one of the best bigs in the WCC. Jeremy Major has also been consistently good after his strong freshman campaign. But it’s really been amazing how breakout stars like Jett Raines and Atif Russell have managed to maintain their pace so far. Raines has been doing it from the first game, and Russell has been doing it since he cracked the starting lineup a few games ago. Combine that with solid role players like Shawn Olden and Amadi Udenyi, and the Waves have a strong core that just seems to know how to play well together despite their youth.
It’s a busy week for the Waves with three games as part of the Gotham Classic including one in New York. They have one non-conference game after that before they open WCC play at Loyola Marymount. They look really good right now, and they could make it through December and that LMU game without another loss. If they do, their New Year’s Day game against Saint Mary’s will be a huge litmus test to see just how good the Waves really are this season.
Feb 5, 2014; Spokane, WA, USA; Portland Pilots center Thomas van der Mars (12) puts up a shot against Gonzaga Bulldogs center Przemek Karnowski (24) during the second half at McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs beat Pilots 71-66. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
#4 – PORTLAND: The Pilots continue to look very good. They bounced back from a tough OT loss to Oregon State with a win over Sacramento State on Sunday. Like Pepperdine, they are putting up some solid wins and beating every team they should while avoiding any bad losses.
They win, but it isn’t always easy. Against Sacramento State Thomas Van Der Mars was really good, when he played. Foul trouble limited him to 22 minutes. Kevin Bailey is still out, but Jason Todd has filled in nicely. He isn’t making up for Bailey’s production, but he is doing a nice job of working within the team. Alec Wintering was solid again with 12 assists and 9 points, and Volodymyr Gerun continues to be a star with another double-double. Also encouraging was Bobby Sharp getting his long range shot going with 4 three pointers in the win. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
Still, this team has yet to put together a complete game. Hopefully we’ll be hearing about Bailey’s status tonight on the coaches show. Next up is a tough matchup at UNLV, one that could be a marquee win and a statement for the Pilots as they look to hit their stride and build some momentum. Portland is still a step below the upper tier in the WCC and they could slip back if they struggle, but they still have a couple weeks to put everything together before conference play.
Dec 13, 2014; Ogden, UT, USA; Brigham Young Cougars guard Kyle Collinsworth (5) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Weber State Wildcats at Dee Events Center. Brigham Young Cougars won the game 76-60. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
#3 – BYU: The Cougars need to be careful, of the wheels could come off based on recent results. Utah completely shut down their offensive in a loss, and the Cougars again struggled on that end despite pulling out the win at Weber State. Even worse, star Tyler Haws went down with an ankle injury late in that game. Most media outlets are reporting it as a sprained ankle that will cause him to miss a couple weeks, and they are shooting for having him back by the WCC opener against Gonzaga on December 27th. If this injury continues to nag him into conference play however, this changes everything.
It’s even worse considering they just loss Nate Austin for a couple weeks with a torn hamstring. With Jamal Aytes out for the year, their dangerously thin frontcourt is even weaker now. Two key players going down right as we near conference play is the last thing BYU needed considering they were looking very strong so far.
The Cougars will likely be without Haws and Austin in some tough games against Stanford and Massachusetts next week. If Haws was indeed carrying the Cougars so far, we will get to see if they can handle playing without him. No player is more key to their team in the WCC and maybe the entire nation like Haws is to the Cougars, so BYU fans will be hoping for good efforts from his teammates in these next couple games. They cannot afford to be struggling heading into that early game against Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are too good to just let them walk out of Provo with an easy win.
BYU has been getting a lot of good production outside of Haws however, so they may still be okay in the short-term without him. Chase Fischer continues to make fans forget about Matt Carlino. Kyle Collinsworth is not only healthy after his torn ACL late last season, but he’s putting up elite numbers filling up the stat sheet every night. And Isaac Nielson looks like he will be an adequate replacement for Austin.
It’s enough to still beat most opponents, but they need their stars for those big games. Unfortunately for them, one of those big games is coming very soon. So soon that Haws and Austin will probably not be 100% yet even if they play. It’s survival mode right now for the Cougars.
#2 – SAINT MARY’S: The major injuries to BYU are factoring in the decision to move SMC up in our rankings, but the Gaels look for real even if the Cougars were still completely healthy. With many WCC teams coming coming close to upset wins in their big non-conference games but coming up just short including BYU and Gonzaga, the Gaels have one of the first real statement wins after beating Creighton on the road Saturday in overtime to snap the Bluejays’ 24 game home winning streak. The Gaels are a very solid 6-1 with their only loss coming to a very legitimate Boise State team. And they bounced back from it in a big way by upsetting Creighton.
Brad Waldow continues to average a double-double on the year. Kerry Carter is putting up elite numbers, and Aaron Bright is finally matching them after putting up solid numbers all season. He had a career-high 22 points in the win over Creighton. Dane Pineau also was big against Creighton with a double-double, and they could certainly use more of that to help Waldow on the inside. Combining him with solid defender and Washington transfer Desmond Simmons in the paint makes for a quality supporting cast for Waldow. If Joe Coleman can overcome his leg injury, this is an extremely talented roster that can compete with BYU and Gonzaga.
The Gaels are riding high right now, and they need to take that momentum into their final non-conference games. The big one will be a visit to nationally ranked Saint John’s this Friday. If they’re competitive again, it’s hard not to buy into this team after what they have done so far. With a backloaded WCC schedule, they could be absolutely rolling by the time they hits games against BYU and Gonzaga in mid-January.
Dec 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) shoots over UCLA Bruins forward Kevon Looney (5) during the game at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
#1 – GONZAGA: The Bulldogs certainly didn’t let the disappointing Arizona loss stop them. They could have easily slipped up with games against Pac-12 opponents Washington State and UCLA, but they handled both easily. Kyle Wiltjer is really hitting his stride as their top scorer, and he’s gone from Kentucky bench player to one of the best forwards in the nation. Bryon Wesley has also been consistently solid, and it’s going a long way towards taking the pressure off returners Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos.
There’s just not much more to say about Gonzaga at this point. They are destroying everyone, and it took a collapse of their own doing to allow a top five Arizona team stop them. All their key players are at an elite level every night, and they are making it look so easy right now. It’s hard to remember that they lost a lot of talent from last year, especially when this is arguably the best Gonzaga team in years.
Texas Southern and Cal Poly are the final two non-conference victims, and the opener at BYU is looking better and better as the Cougars lose key players to injuries. If they can dominate in that game as well, the Bulldogs will have a great shot to run the table the rest of the way and be a top five team gunning for a #1 overall seed come NCAA Tournament time. The only thing that can stop them right now is themselves.