Happy New Year! With 2015 upon us, it’s time to start on our New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s getting in shape, finding a new job, or anything in between, a new year brings optimism that things will soon be even better than they were before. In that spirit, let’s take a look at some resolutions WCC teams are making as conference plays heats up.
PACIFIC – SHARE THE SCORING DUTIES: This a resolution a number of WCC teams could be making as a few rely too heavily on 1-2 key players. But Pacific has been the biggest culprit all year after being decimated due to graduations in the offseason. Because they lost so much of their roster, T.J. Wallace ended up being the only returner with a lot of experience. And it’s been obvious as he has paced the Tigers in scoring all season. But no matter how good one player is, it’s just not enough to win games.
The Tigers need help, and the results have been very different when they get it consistently. Early in the year the Tigers were off to a slow start as Wallace was often the only player in double figures. But as the rest of team hit their stride, they started winning. More players were contributing, and the Tigers won 5 of their final 6 non-conference games. That success has carried over into WCC play with strong efforts in their first two games against San Francisco and Santa Clara despite them both being losses.
If both Wallace and his supporting cast remain committed to spreading the ball around and getting more solid scoring performances from different players, the Tigers have a decent team and could surprise after being written off before the season.
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT – LAY THE FOUNDATION: Nobody can blame the Lions if they start to look to the future already. They are adjusting to a new coach, are without WCC legend Anthony Ireland after his graduation, and they are every bit a team in transition. Evan Payne is becoming a star, but it’s not enough. But Mike Dunlap brings with him a pedigree and potential that is hard to ignore, and the future could be very bright.
Nov 15, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Loyola Marymount Lions guard Evan Payne (1) attempts a shot defended by Boise State Broncos guard Robert Heyer (22) during the second half at Albert Gersten Pavilion. The Boise State Broncos defeated the Loyola Marymount Lions 77-69. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
There are lots of talented young pieces including Payne. So if Dunlap can recruit well and brings in good help quickly, the turnaround could be very fast. The job of the current players is to improve so they can be the pieces Dunlap builds around as he turns the Lions into a winner. We have seen with young teams like Pepperdine that raw talent can flourish in the WCC, so the Lions should make the most of the low pressure this season by getting as seasoned as possible in preparation to breakout on in the next couple years.
Payne is a sophomore, and when he is a senior and about to go down as a WCC legend you can bet Dunlap will have made every effort to have built enough support around him to compete. That process will take time to complete, but it’s underway right now even if people don’t realize it. If they can overlook their struggles and make the most of this time, the Lions can be relevant soon. This is the first year of multiple years of resolving to improve and become a contender.
SANTA CLARA – KEEP BEING DISCIPLINED: The Broncos are another team that has a lot of potential with their youth, highlighted by reigning WCC Newcomer of the Year Jared Brownridge. But they will be losing his high-scoring fellow guard Brandon Clark to graduation after this season. So it might be tempting to push for a big season, and they have more potential to do that than people realize.
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
They have found success with strong shooting combined with ball control and forcing turnovers. Despite constantly getting outrebounded, the Broncos can get turnovers while also limiting their own. It’s a good, sound way to play and can lead to some wins on days when their offense is shooting well. If they can stick to that gameplan even in tough games, they could make their way to a postseason berth. It won’t be the NCAA Tournament, but even lower tier tournaments can mean a lot. Let’s not forget this is the team that won the CBI and CIT Tournaments in consecutive seasons a while back.
If they can impress some recruits, they could build a winner around Brownridge. So there’s some motivation to do well and start to build a good team. In the same way the Lions could be doing big things when Payne is a senior, the Broncos could be on the rise as well led by Brownridge. But unlike the Lions, the Broncos can impress this season to start drawing more recruiting attention. If they can surpass the struggling Dons, that would help as well in the Bay Area recruiting battle.
SAN DIEGO – CLOSE OUT GAMES: The Toreros could have beaten any team they played this season. That includes elite opponents like San Diego State and UCLA. They have been in every game they played, but they have had some really weak finishes that put some close games out of reach. This was on full display when they led by 6 points with under 3 minutes left against Portland but allowed the Pilots to finish on a 9-0 run and steal the game.
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
Resolutions are all about turning negatives into positives, and this is very true for the Toreros. They could be a real threat if they manage to start closing out games, so hopefully they start to turn this around. They have the confidence to hang with good teams, but something seems to happen late in games. Whether it’s nerves, fatigue, or something else, they need to identify it and work like crazy on it as fast as they can.
With stars Johnny Dee and Chris Anderson in their final seasons and a good supporting cast, fixing this issue could really turn them around and make them a threat to finish among the top teams. If they don’t however, they are going to keep dropping winnable games and will be a disappointment. Of all the resolutions on our list, the Toreros might have the most at stake. There’s a big difference between the Toreros closing out games and fading late. So how they handle it from here is worth watching. Hopefully the Portland game shook them awake, but we will have to wait until their next nail biter to see what happens.
SAN FRANCISCO – STAY THE COURSE: The struggles of the Dons have been somewhat of a mystery. All their stars are playing very well. They have one of the most consistent cores in terms of having a full group of starters who contribute every night. They have one of the deeper and more talented benches. But their performances against good teams have been very pedestrian even as they dominate weaker teams.
Jan 18, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Dons forward Kruize Pinkins (15) takes a shot against the San Diego Toreros during the second half at War Memorial Gymnasium. The San Francisco Dons defeated the San Diego Toreros 64-62. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
But things will correct themselves as they face teams they know how to beat. Their comeback win over Pacific was a great example. It will be tempting for Rex Walters to tinker and adjust, and he has hinted that he is doing just that as more and more guys get bigger minutes rotating in and out of games. But the talent is there, and they are every bit the great breakout team they were last season. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it and despite what the records says, last year proves it ain’t broken.
There’s no reason why the Dons can’t win almost every game that isn’t against the big three from here on out. And if they do, that’s another solid season that should lead to a postseason tournament. With two good seasons in a row, recruits will start to believe the Dons are for real and Walters can really go to work. Walters and the entire program needs to trust that the slow start is nothing to be concerned about and just keep performing well. The wins will come.
PEPPERDINE – PLAY LOOSE: The Waves have already proven they are better than people expected. People wanted to write them off in the preseason as too young to be relevant quite yet, but they are proving that youth is just a word. They are stuffed with talent, and it’s really scary for opponents when they realize they have no seniors on the roster.
Dec 13, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Pepperdine Waves forward Stacy Davis (5) 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
Pepperdine can win now, and it has two positive effects. The first is of course the success. Anytime a team outside the big three can have a good season, they need to take it as they try to keep pace in a top-heavy conference. But it also helps with recruiting, especially for a team like Pepperdine that is young and talented. What’s to say a couple really good recruits or transfers don’t look at what the Waves are doing and gets interested in maybe being that final piece that you can add to an already great team?
There’s not much to lose for the Waves. They have the talent to compete, and they will have another shot next year. So take the shot, go for the steal, and see what happens. If you fail, no big deal. But if you succeed, the momentum could really get rolling. If they can steal some upsets and finish near the top of the standings, next year could be huge. So go for it and don’t play scared. It will be tempting to get conservative realizing they have the potential to win and not wanting to make a mistake, but that’s the wrong move. To get the upsets, they need to play fearless and remember they have nothing to lose.
PORTLAND – SEIZE THE MOMENT: Every year people pick breakout teams. They find a team or two that must might be able to disrupt the power structure of the WCC that has existed for so long. But quite often, those predictions don’t turn out. Those teams struggle and for yet another year it’s Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s, and then everyone else. This year, Portland was a popular breakout pick. And unlike past predictions, this one might actually be right.
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
The Pilots are sound across the board. Thomas Van Der Mars is an anchor inside. They have borderline star players everywhere else including Volodymyr Gerun and Alec Wintering. They have clutch players like Bobby Sharp and young talent like freshman Jason Todd and D’Marques Tyson. And they have one of the most fearless and charismatic coaches in Eric Reveno. This is a complete team full of potential.
The breakout teams come and go, so Portland needs to take advantage of their opportunity. Who knows what the future both short and long term will hold, so realize you have a great opportunity this season and use it as motivation. If the Dons showed us anything between this year and last year, those chances to break out can come and go pretty quickly. So know is the time for Portland to really make a statement. They can do it, they just need to realize the time is right now.
SAINT MARY’S – STAY MOTIVATED: It sometimes feels like the Gaels are victims of their own success. Between their struggles last season and letdowns like losing to an average team after upsetting Creighton this season, Saint Mary’s can sometimes be prone to take their foot off the gas. Sometimes when a team is too comfortable thinking they will win, that can happen. And it’s a big reason why they lose more WCC games against hungry lower-tier teams than the Bulldogs and Cougars.
The Gaels will never keep pace with those elite teams if they continue to do that. So they need to start treating every game like it’s Creighton or Gonzaga or BYU. The desire to get back into the top three after last year should be plenty of motivation, as should the fact that this is their last chance with superstar Brad Waldow. They are infinitely better with the best center in the WCC anchoring their frontcourt. With how hard it is to replace a great center, they should be winning just out of sheer panic knowing every game is one step closer to a hole opening up under the hoop without Waldow there.
If they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they just cannot afford to be losing games in conference play to anyone but Gonzaga or BYU. Staying motivated will help avoid letdowns in between those big games. Whatever they need to do to find that motivation, they have to get it. Randy Bennett is the man that will have to provide it and lead this team back to being elite. The talent is there, just have to have the right mentality.
BYU – KEEP SHOOTING: Relying on a lot of long-range shooting is never ideal. It’s the biggest risk-reward in all of basketball. If your shots are falling you can beat anyone. But if they aren’t, you can lose to anyone. This is especially true for the Cougars who are struggling on defense and are very weak inside but are rolling along with the best offense in the nation thanks to their amazing shooting and guard play.
Dec 20, 2014; Provo, UT, USA; Brigham Young Cougars guard Tyler Haws (3) goes to the basket against the Stanford Cardinal during the second half at Marriott Center. Brigham Young Cougars won the game 79-70. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
But the Cougars have been so good and so reliant on their shooting that they really shouldn’t stop. It’s gotten them a long way as they are having a great year with their only losses coming against elite teams that they pushed to the limit thanks primarily to shooting streaks that kept them in the game. We saw this against Gonzaga last week when the Cougars clawed their way back into it for a while thanks to some red hot shooting. If you can shoot well it’s a great weapon, and the Cougars are making shots way more than they are missing them.
Could this burn them at some point? Absolutely, but at the pace they are on it shouldn’t that often. If they keep doing it well enough, they are going to push the Bulldogs and sneak into the NCAA Tournament once again. They have so many good shooters that this is one exception where not only is shooting from range all the time not a bad idea, it might be their best bet for success.
GONZAGA – FULFILL THEIR POTENTIAL: We’ve seen it before. The Bulldogs make national news as they hang with elite teams and dominate the WCC on their way to a high ranking and NCAA Tournament seeding. But we all know how this normally turns out. Even when they look unstoppable, they stumble in the postseason short of any major milestones. This year they are in danger of falling into that trap once again with the high expectations on them after a dominant run through non-conference play.
Dec 27, 2014; Provo, UT, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) passes the ball during the second half against the Brigham Young Cougars at Marriott Center. The Bulldogs won 87-80. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest thing for the Bulldogs is not let WCC play slow them down. Yes it’s a very debatable issue, but the weaker second half the Bulldogs play as they dominate most of their conference foes could certainly be a legitimate reason for their struggles. With the BYU away game coming so early, it won’t be until March until the Bulldogs get another really tough game against an elite opponent. To ask them to win that many games in a row in the clutch after a layoff is always a tough ask.
If I was Mark Few I’m putting pressure on my team all season. Clamp down when they are sluggish against a weak team. Force them look at their faults and improve even in wins. Have them be fired up going into the postseason so that this insanely talented team can like every Gonzaga team has tried but failed to do. Once again their fate is in their hands, hopefully their resolve will fulfill that potential.