December 26, 2013 in Sports

West Coast Conference deep in quality

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Stephen Holt has replaced the departed Matthew Dellavedova at point guard for Saint Mary’s.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The West Coast Conference weekly release dutifully trumpets its non-conference winning percentage. It was nearly 69 percent just over a week ago but has slipped to 67. All 10 WCC programs sport winning records.

Saint Mary’s was one of the nation’s last 10 unbeatens before falling to South Carolina on Sunday. Four WCC teams were in the RPI top 25 prior to a rough pre-Christmas patch. BYU (16), Pacific (35) and Gonzaga (36) remain in the top 40. Saint Mary’s lost three straight in Hawaii and dropped to 49.

Early results indicate the lower half of the league is more competitive.

“I think there’s a little bit more balance when you don’t have the No. 1 team in the country,” said San Diego coach Bill Grier, referring to GU’s stint atop the polls last season. “It’s a little bit more wide open.”

Still, there’s a healthy dose of skepticism about the WCC, which has earned multiple NCAA bids three of the last four years.

“The WCC continues to take hits. Wonder if it could wind up being a one-bid league. Saint Mary’s loses to South Carolina. Gonzaga to K-State,” ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman tweeted a few days ago.

“Upset losses, soft schedule shrinks Gonzaga’s margin for error in WCC play,” read a recent Yahoo.com headline.

Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule hasn’t been as difficult as recent years. A first-round loss in Maui didn’t help, erasing a matchup with Baylor and potentially Syracuse. There’s still a February road trip to No. 17 Memphis.

BYU (8-5) has played a rugged schedule, going 0-4 against ranked opponents and suffering a blowout loss to in-state rival Utah.

“I think there’s been varying schedules everybody’s played,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “so it’s kind of hard to digest some of the records.”

The conference season, which begins for 24th-ranked Gonzaga when Santa Clara visits Saturday, will sort out the WCC’s power structure and help determine where the conference fits in the national picture. Gonzaga, which has won or shared 12 of the last 13 titles, was the preseason WCC favorite, followed by BYU and Saint Mary’s.

“I still think it’s the three main players as the top teams,” Grier said. “Saint Mary’s looks really physical. BYU has arguably one of the best backcourts and they’re battle-tested. We have three teams in the (RPI) top 40, which is more than the Mountain West.”

Pacific, picked seventh, appears capable of a higher finish. The WCC newcomers rolled through the nonconference before losing big to Princeton last Friday in Las Vegas. Portland, picked ninth, handled Princeton the following day.

“Pacific is a real surprise with how well they’re playing,” Few said. “That makes for a real tough weekend when you play (travel partners) Saint Mary’s and Pacific on the same weekend. Physical teams, can really execute and play two different styles.”

Saint Mary’s played its first seven games at home. The Gaels posted a solid road win over Boise State but lost to South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason in Hawaii. Senior Stephen Holt, replacing Matthew Dellavedova at point guard, is averaging 13.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds. Center Brad Waldow is averaging 17.1 points per game.

BYU has scored 100 points three times. The Cougars have scored 90 points three times, losing twice. They blew a five-point lead in the final 4 minutes to lose at Oregon 100-96 in overtime last Saturday.

WCC player of the year candidate Tyler Haws is averaging 23.2 points.

“BYU has played an unbelievable schedule,” Few said.

The Cougars’ six-year streak with at least 25 wins ended when the 2012-13 team finished 24-12.

San Francisco, picked fourth in the preseason poll, could struggle without standout guard Cody Doolin, who quit the team a month ago following an altercation with a teammate.

San Diego, led by veteran guards Chris Anderson and Johnny Dee, seems to be on the rise. Senior guard Anthony Ireland (19.2 ppg), who joined Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos on the Cousy Award preseason list, has helped Loyola Marymount to an 8-4 start.

Santa Clara is rebuilding after losing three 1,000-point scorers. Portland (8-4) has won five of its last six. Gonzaga Prep product Ryan Nicholas recently surpassed 1,000 career points. Junior guard Kevin Bailey has five 20-point games.

Pepperdine (7-5) is shooting 49 percent from the field. Forwards Stacy Davis and Brendan Lane combine to average 32 points and nearly 16 rebounds per game.

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