Happy Holidays! It’s time for the teams of the WCC to step up their game as conference play begins on Saturday. Many teams have been furiously preparing with a lot of late non-conference games against tough opponents. Pepperdine will even be playing a final non-conference tuneup the same day WCC play begins for six other teams. Only two teams will enter WCC play under .500 making for a very wide open race with a lot of talented teams.
Dec 22, 2014; Honolulu, HI, USA; Loyola Marymount guard Evan Payne (1) blocks a shot from Wichita State guard John Robert Simon (14) during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game at the Stan Sheriff Center. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports
#10 – LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: Just like it was tempting to keep the Lions out of this spot last week, it’s tempting to move them back out of it this week despite their struggles. The Lions have played one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any WCC team, so their below .500 record can be forgiven. If it weren’t for the fact that every other WCC team has such a superior record, the Lions could be higher on this list.
That being said, they still haven’t been very competitive overall. They have lost five straight, and that includes a tough loss to Northern Arizona that, unlike the other losses during this steak, was a game they should have won. They don’t have any marquee wins among their three victories, and they continue to look way too one dimensional with just Evan Payne putting up solid numbers. Unless that changes, the struggles will continue.
It doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon either. The Lions are taking their lumps in the Diamond Head Classic right now against some superior competition, and they could leave Hawaii without a win. They then open WCC play against a very good Pepperdine team, meaning this losing streak could have stretched to 8 games by the time they get a winnable matchup against Pacific on New Year’s Day. Lions fans may just have to chalk this one up to a rebuilding year as Mike Dunlap transitions into power. They’re getting quality experience at least.
Nov 27, 2014; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers forward Jabari McGhee (21) grabs the rebound over Santa Clara Broncos guard Brandon Clark (3)during the first half at HP Field house at Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
#9 – SANTA CLARA: The Broncos might be hitting their stride finally, so the pedestrian record may end up being a little deceiving. They had won three straight before their loss to a good 7-3 Northeastern team, and in that loss they had arguably one of their finest team efforts of the season. A whopping five players reached double-digit points for the Broncos, a huge deal for a team that has had little consistent help outside of Jared Brownridge and Brandon Clark.
They continue to be a strong ball control team that is learning to do everything well even if they can’t do anything great. Against Northeastern they had another game of single-digit turnovers allowed, and they tied in rebounds which is big considering it’s been an Achilles heel without Yannick Atanga. If they can just manage to get more help for Brownridge and Clark, this can be a competitive team that is very sound. The potential is there with guys like Nate Kratch and Matt Hubbard flashing talent, they just need to put everything together which might be starting to happen.
The WCC opener on Saturday against Saint Mary’s will be a huge litmus test. The Gaels are beatable if the Broncos play well, and it could be a springboard to bigger things if they get the upset win. With a winnable game against Pacific after that, it would be nice to head into their New Year’s Day game at home against BYU at 2-0 in WCC play and gunning for a big upset.
#8 – PACIFIC: The Tigers keep creeping up the rankings. They have won five of their last six with the only loss in that span coming to a quality Western Michigan team that reached the NCAA Tournament last season. After spending the first few editions of our WCC Power Rankings in the bottom spot, they have moved up for the second week in a row after going from #10 to #9 last week.
Like the Broncos, the Tigers are finally starting to get more consistent team efforts to help key players. After T.J. Wallace carried the Tigers most of the year, they are getting more and more double-digit scoring performances from other players. They have had 3 and 4 players in double figures in their last two wins highlighted by Dulani Robinson. He might be the key piece for the Tigers this season as he has pushed his scoring average to 11.8 points per game, the only player besides Wallace with a double-digit average. If he can be as consistent as Wallace, they have a solid group behind the duo to back them up.
Pacific opens WCC play on Saturday against a tough San Francisco team. Facing one of the best frontcourts in the conference will be hard so early in conference play, but they have a soft portion of their schedule after that. They could be off to a very strong start by the time they hit Pepperdine, Saint Mary’s, and BYU in consecutive games in January.
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
#7 – SAN FRANCISCO: The Dons still can’t get over their hump against better teams. Their habit of blowing out bad teams but struggling to beat better ones continued last week as they destroyed Portland State before losing a close one to Cleveland State. At 5-5 they don’t look nearly as good as people had hoped after their breakout season last year. Every win has been a blowout against an inferior opponent, so it’s concerning they haven’t won a single close game against tougher competition. And all things considered looking at their schedule, the competition hasn’t been as tough as it could be. The top WCC teams would cruise past most of the teams the Dons have suffered close losses against.
When you dive into the statistics, not a lot jumps out that could be the issue. The Dons are equal or better in every major category against their opponents this season. Stars Kruize Pinkins and Mark Tollefsen are consistently solid, and they have a good core of supporters in Matt Glover and Tim Derksen. Others who were expected to play a big role like Derrell Robertson and Montray Clemons haven’t been as good, but the Dons should be better than their record with the talent they have.
You have to dig deeper and look at the mental state of the team, and their most recent loss is a good example. The Dons led at Cleveland State by as many as 11 points before they faded and fell in overtime. While not every loss has been that dramatic, the consistently narrow losses say a lot about how the Dons are having trouble in close games. Perhaps it’s a product of their schedule as they lose their killer instinct when they are blowing out weak opponents. Having a tougher game-to-game schedule in conference play could help fix that. But it’s not a good sign.
In conference play there will be much fewer blowout opportunities, so this could get ugly if the Dons don’t start shutting down better teams. Their opener against Pacific is a must-win to have momentum heading into a nationally televised game against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels will be out for blood as they look to take back the #3 spot in the WCC pecking order that the Dons took from them last season.
Feb 6, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Toreros forward Thomas Jacobs (15) dunks the ball during the second half against the San Francisco Dons at Jenny Craig Pavillion. The Dons won 74-67. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
#6 – SAN DIEGO: The Toreros are another team that has benefited from hard work and growth during their non-conference schedule, and they look good heading into WCC play. Since taking their lumps in the Wooden Legacy and road games against San Diego State and UCLA, they have rattled off three straight wins by double digits and are 7-5 on the year. They played a strong schedule so far, and they might be even better than their record considering every loss has been to a very strong team. Every one of the five teams to beat them so far might end up in the NCAA Tournament. That says a lot about how good the Toreros might be.
While they don’t have a superstar who does a ton of stuff well, it’s amazing how they have guys who can do different things very well to complement each other. Johnny Dee can shoot and score. Chris Anderson gets assists and can drive to the hoop. Jito Kok defends and gets blocks. Thomas Jacobs holds down the post and get rebounds. Duda Sanadze, Chris Sarbaugh, Brett Bailey, and Brandon Perry form a solid group of supporters. All the puzzle pieces really fit well together. This is a pretty complete team that is now seasoned against some good competition and might be primed to make some noise.
It’s a tough start to WCC play for the Toreros with home games against Portland and Gonzaga before visiting San Francisco. But the Toreros have seen worse this season, and they should go in confident. They beat Gonzaga in the Jenny Craig Pavilion last year, so this stretch could go better than it might look on paper. The Portland and USF games will be big as well as the Toreros try to separate themselves from the large group mid-tier teams trying to break out.
Dec 13, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Pepperdine Waves guard Jeremy Major (3) drives to the basket against Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half at Wells-Fargo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
#5 – PEPPERDINE: So far the Waves are doing well in a busy week of games for the Gotham Classic. They went 2-0 at home and can be forgiven for a close loss to Richmond after having to play those games and then travel across the country to New York to face the Spiders. With some rest they should bounce back when they host IUPUI on Saturday to conclude non-conference play.
Despite their youth, the Waves continue to look extremely talented What’s even more scary for opponents is they keep finding new young stars. In addition to Stacy Davis, Jett Raines, and Jeremy Major, they now have Atif Russell and freshman Shawn Olden putting up solid numbers. That’s a really solid core, and not a single one is a senior. There’s not much left to say about this talented team except that if they can continue to produce consistently, other WCC teams need to be on high alert when they play the Waves. They have too many weapons to stop them all, and they could be the breakout WCC team this year.
The Waves open WCC play with what should be a win against LMU followed by a game at home against Saint Mary’s that could be a barn burner. Win that one and the Waves are officially contenders. They are on track for some kind of postseason berth as long as they keep this up, so jumping on a Gaels team early in WCC play when they have the chance is a win they could really use to build their resume.
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: Portland went 2-1 for the week losing in gut wrenching fashion to UNLV in Las Vegas. The Pilots had the lead and the ball with 17 seconds left but failed to inbound the ball successfully and the Rebels made Portland pay. It was a rough loss and it really frustrated a lot of the Portland faithful.
The Pilots rebounded well enough cruising to easy victories over Montana State and Louis and Clark. Wintering is proving to be the engine on this team and should be a vital piece throughout conference play. Bailey is still day-to-day, so hopefully he can return to his usual role soon. Until then freshmen Jason Todd and D’Marques Tyson will continue to see extended minutes.
Overall the Pilots continue to look very good. They have just three losses, and it took going to OT for very good Oregon State and UNLV teams to beat them. The Pilots still haven’t had a bad game, and they are another quality team that will be hoping to carry the momentum of a good non-conference slate into a fast start to WCC play. They will need that momentum as they get a very tough start with San Diego and BYU on the road followed by Gonzaga at home.
#3 – SAINT MARY’S: Well that was quick! We moved the Gaels to #2 above BYU after their marquee win at Creighton, but they came crashing back down losing two of their last three including a bad upset loss to Northern Arizona coming off the Creighton win. After a 5-0 start they are just 2-3 over their last five games. But they are staying competitive losing a close one to nationally ranked Saint John’s before beating a good Northeastern team in overtime after the letdown against NAU.
This is a better team than people probably realize. They continue to be overshadowed by BYU and Gonzaga since they get the national attention, but the Gaels have looked very strong against a tough schedule. The trio of Brad Waldow, Aaron Bright, and Kerry Carter is extremely talented and is one of the best cores in the conference. If they were a little deeper, we might be talking about them more as being on the level of the Cougars and Bulldogs. But even as they are now, they can be competitive and should easily dominate some of the lower-tier teams while competing with the big dogs. A strong showing in WCC play might allow them to build an NCAA Tournament case and really make this a bounce-back year after they slipped a little last season.
As long they can remain focused, bad losses like the Northern Arizona one should be few and far between. And games like Creighton prove they can be elite. They have the talent to roll through their next stretch of games and be undefeated in WCC play all the way until they host BYU on Janaury 17th. That would be six straight WCC wins plus a rogue non-conference game in the middle against Morgan State. If they really want to challenge for the WCC Championship, that’s a realistic goal for the first part of conference play.
Dec 23, 2014; Provo, UT, USA; Brigham Young Cougars guard Tyler Haws (3) shoots the ball during the second half against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Marriott Center. Brigham Young Cougars won the game in overtime 77-71. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
#2 – BYU: Things were certainly looking grim for the Cougars over the past couple weeks. First they lost Nate Austin to injury damaging an already thin frontcourt. They the sky nearly fell in Provo when Tyler Haws limped off the court with an ankle injury. Nobody knew how they would adjust especially with a couple tough games against Stanford and UMass to end their non-conference schedule.
But so far, the Cougars have endured with flying colors. With Nate Austin still out and Haws still getting back to 100% after just 4 points in the game today, the Cougars are still rolling as they squeaked out close wins over both the Cardinal and Minutemen. They are really showing off some impressive depth as guys continue to step up to help out. Kyle Collinsworth would be a star if the national attention wasn’t on Haws, and Chase Fischer and Anson Winder have been excellent. As a result guys down low like Isaac Neilson and Luke Worthington have only had to be average to support the strong backcourt, and they have done more than enough to assist.
The Cougars have won three straight and still haven’t lost to anyone who was less than an elite, NCAA Tournament quality team. They are every bit the deep and talented team people predicted. As dominant as Gonzaga has been, they have to be nervous heading to Provo to open WCC play this Saturday. That will end up being one of the biggest games of the year, and the Cougars are coming in hot. Not having Austin could be an issue however as the Bulldogs can be dominant inside, but it should still be a good game.
Dec 20, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs center Przemek Karnowski (24) waves to the crowd after a gum again the Cal Poly Mustangs at Key Arena. The Bulldogs won 63-50. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
#1 – GONZAGA: To put in perspective how good the Bulldogs have been, just look at their past couple games. Against Texas Southern and Cal Poly, Mark Few limited the minutes of most key players. The results? A 40 point massacre of Texas Southern and an easy double-digit win over Cal Poly. The players at the end of the Gonzaga bench could probably still keep Gonzaga as one of the top teams in the WCC, and they will be a serious threat to run the table in conference play. Even if they stumble here and there, yet another WCC Championship is just a couple Saint Mary’s and BYU games from being a foregone conclusion.
But speaking of BYU, it’s both good and bad the Bulldogs will get their toughest WCC test this early when they travel to Provo on Saturday. On the one hand they will be well rested and have momentum after a few easy wins as well as the experience they gained against tough opponents like Arizona still fresh in their minds. On the other hand the adjustment to playing at BYU while the starters will need to shake off some rust and adjust to WCC play this early could allow the Cougars to make it tougher than it would be if they were well settled into the heart of their conference schedule.
If the Bulldogs win it, they are in great shape. If they dominate, we might as well hand them a #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and the WCC Championship right now. Because if BYU can’t even come close to stopping them, then nobody else in the WCC has a chance either. Both sides better come ready, because one of the biggest games of the WCC schedule comes nice and early as a late Christmas present on Saturday.