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February 29, 2012
Tournament Preview
West Coast Conference

by Kevin Pelton


West Coast: Feb. 29-March 3, March 5, all games in Las Vegas

                Rd2   Qtrs  Semis  Final  Champ
1 St. Mary's    100    100    100   78.3   36.2
2 Gonzaga       100    100    100   57.1   35.0
3 BYU           100    100   91.6   42.3   24.4
4 Loyola Mmt.   100    100   57.8   13.2    2.7
5 San Francisco 100   78.4   37.8    8.2    1.6
6 San Diego     100   63.7    6.3    0.5    0.08
9 Santa Clara  53.6   12.2    2.6    0.2    0.01
7 Pepperdine    100   36.3    2.1    0.1    0.01
8 Portland     46.4    9.4    1.8    0.1    0.01

The headline as the West Coast Conference convenes at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for its annual tournament is that somebody besides Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed. When the Zags stumbled at San Francisco on Feb. 18, it allowed St. Mary's to finish a game better in the standings and snap Gonzaga's 11-season streak of claiming at least a share of the WCC regular-season title. The Bulldogs have won or tied the conference every year but one dating back to 1997-98.

Of course, this is not your older brother's WCC. After years of Gonzaga domination, the Gaels have emerged as a worthy opponent the last three seasons, sharing the conference title a year ago and winning the WCC Tournament in 2010, when they advanced to the Sweet 16. In new addition BYU, the WCC has added another tournament-caliber team. There remains a sizeable gap between the top teams and everyone else, but that first tier is larger now than ever before.

Adding BYU to the conference also had major ramifications on the conference tournament. To keep all nine teams involved, the West Coast Conference added a play-in round with the eighth- and ninth-place finishers squaring off. Because the Cougars do not play on Sundays, the WCC will start two days earlier and have a day off before the traditional championship game on Monday.

Under the WCC's double-bye format (now, depending on your perspective, triple-bye), St. Mary's and Gonzaga advance automatically to the semifinals. Both teams are in the NCAA tournament and are playing for seeding and bragging rights. There is much more at stake for BYU, which currently sits precariously on the bubble. A loss in the quarterfinals could prove lethal to the Cougars' tournament hopes. Everyone else is hoping for a miraculous run.

The Contenders

Even after losing Mickey McConnell, St. Mary's remains the WCC's best offensive team. In fact, nobody else can come close to matching the Gaels' 1.17 points per trip. St. Mary's is not only best in the conference at shooting but offensive rebounding too. The former has a lot to do with junior guard Matthew Dellavedova, who has gone from McConnell's terrific running mate to the man in the backcourt. Dellavedova is third in the conference in assist rate and is dangerous as a scorer, too, having added accurate two-point shooting to his 36.1 percent shooting beyond the arc and frequent trips to the free throw line.

Up front, it's all about Rob Jones. The San Diego transfer is a force on the glass who can score with his back to the basket, but also athletic enough to rank second on the team in steal rate and an occasional threat from downtown. Opponents must defend Dellavedova and Jones without giving help from 6-7 Clint Steindl, the conference's best shooter. Steindl has made 43.4 percent of his threes and is a perfect 28-of-28 from the free throw line. The Gaels aren't as big up front as the WCC's other elite teams, which can be problematic on defense at times. Still, they swept BYU and split with Gonzaga, allowing them to wear white for the duration of this tournament.

Conference title or no, this Gonzaga bunch lives up to the standard set by its predecessors. Should the Bulldogs reach the championship game, KenPom.com's projections have them favored; the reason St. Mary's has the slight overall edge is because their semifinal figures to be much easier than Gonzaga's likely tussle with BYU. Looking strictly at conference play, John Gasaway finds the Zags and Gaels essentially even on a per-possession basis.

Gonzaga boasts the conference's top frontcourt. While Robert Sacre's senior season has been underwhelming, his size in the paint anchors a defense that led the WCC in three of the Four Factors (the Bulldogs were seventh in forcing turnovers). Sacre is the conference's leading shot blocker and Elias Harris is tough on the glass, while Sam Dower gives Mark Few a third solid option up front. On offense, Gonzaga has benefited from the rapid development of freshmen guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. Pangos is a true point guard who makes 41.6 percent of his threes, while Bell is making a cool 47.9 percent of his triples. The trouble spot for the Zags has been small forward, where Few has rotated through multiple options before settling recently on JC transfer Guy Landry Edi.

Though Kenpom.com rates Brigham Young in the same neighborhood as St. Mary's and Gonzaga, the Cougars' tournament resume is limited by a lack of marquee wins. BYU beat the Zags at the Marriott Center, but has just two other wins against top-100 foes: Oregon (No. 72) and at Virginia Tech (No. 76). The Cougars can wonder what might have been had senior Noah Hartsock not sprained his MCL early in last Thursday's loss in Spokane. Hartsock scored 24 points in BYU's home win over Gonzaga and is the team's most efficient offensive player. Hartsock is complemented up front by Brandon Davies, who has returned from his suspension with an excellent season, especially at the defensive end.

There is no replacing Jimmer Fredette, but UCLA transfer Matt Carlino has stepped in for him as the man in charge of creating offense for the Cougars. Carlino is a superior passer, but not yet nearly as accurate a shooter or as big a part of the BYU offense. Wings Charles Abouo and Brock Zylstra are the team's top three-point threats, shooting 37.1 percent and 37.9 percent, respectively.

The Dark Horses

Consider Loyola Marymount the WCC's giant killers. This season, the Lions have beaten St. Louis, St. Mary's, BYU and UCLA, the latter two three on the road. While LMU's overall profile is not quite as strong, the team had not lost to any conference foe outside the top three until an upset at San Diego last Thursday. Loyola Marymount's 19 wins are the most the school has had since Paul Westhead's last squad reached the Elite Eight in 1990, which earned Max Good Coach of the Year honors. Senior Drew Viney might be the best of the WCC's many stretch big man, making 45.2 percent of his threes at 6-8. Mighty mite Anthony Ireland is the WCC's second-leading scorer, though he's actually more effective as a passer than as a scorer when he penetrates the paint. Healthy now after dealing with injuries to Viney (who missed non-conference play with a stress fracture in his left foot) and forward Ashley Hamilton, Loyola Marymount could give St. Mary's a scare.

Of course, first the Lions must get past San Francisco. While they were separated by three wins in the standings, their head-to-head results are more indicative of how closely the two teams matched up. The game in Los Angeles was decided by two points, the one in the Bay Area by one in overtime. Loyola Marymount won both coin flips and finished fourth with a marginally superior efficiency differential. The Dons force more turnovers than anyone else in the conference, but at the cost of the WCC's worst shot defense. Senior forward Angelo Caloiaro, heretofore a three-point specialist, has emerged as the leader of a balanced offensive attack. Caloiaro is making nearly 40 percent of his threes and 60 percent of his twos. Junior Perris Blackwell is a powerful post scorer who is especially dangerous on second chances.

The Rest

Predicting San Diego is fairly simple. The Toreros are 2-15 against teams rated better than them, and 10-2 against weaker opponents. Their win over Loyola Marymount was one of just two all season against top-200 foes. So expect San Diego to dispatch of Pepperdine and lose to BYU. If the Toreros are to pull an upset, they'll do it with their outside shooting. They topped the conference by making 38.1 percent of their threes, with freshman guard Johnny Dee leading the way with 41.5 percent accuracy. Dee is the only double-digit scorer for San Diego, which has six players scoring at least 7.5 points per game and three more getting regular minutes.

After beating San Francisco in new coach Marty Wilson's WCC debut, Pepperdine lost 12 of its next 13 games before wrapping up the season with wins over lowly Portland and Santa Clara. The Waves struggle to put the ball in the basket, scoring 0.92 points per possession, worst in the conference. Just two regulars--versatile senior center Corbin Moore and junior guard Caleb Willis--have True Shooting Percentages better than 50 percent. Neither is the team's leading scorer. That would be senior forward Taylor Darby, who is making just 46.2 percent of his two-point attempts.

The youth movement is on for Portland, which lost four seniors from the rotation, including stars Luke Sikma and Jared Stohl. Now, Eric Reveno has more freshmen (four) than upperclassmen (two) seeing regular action. As a result, the Pilots have predictably struggled. Nobody has missed the departed players more than the lone senior regular, forward Nemanja Mitrovic. As a junior, Mitrovic shot 46.3 percent for deep. With defenses listing him atop the scouting report, that has dropped to 29.6 percent this season. There is some promise here. Sophomore forward Ryan Nicholas is, like Sikma, an impressive rebounder for his size. Freshman guard Kevin Bailey has shown the ability to create his own shot and freshman center Thomas van der Mars has a nice combination of size and skill. But this group needs more seasoning to compete.

How does a team go from 8-6 in conference play to 0-16? Santa Clara's dismal season started over the summer, when senior-to-be Marc Trasolini tore his ACL while playing in his native Vancouver during the Broncos' exhibition tour. After a decent non-conference slate, including a win over New Mexico in the 76 Classic that now stands as perhaps the season's most unlikely outcome, Santa Clara started 0-5 in the WCC. Things got worse when guard Kevin Foster, leading the conference in scoring, was arrested on suspicion of DUI after a loss to St. Mary's on Jan. 21. Foster was ultimately suspended for the remainder of the season and the Broncos haven't won since. Santa Clara has also suffered some hard luck, losing four conference games by six points or fewer. Their efficiency differential in conference play hasn't been noticeably worse than either Pepperdine or Portland. The Broncos still have an effective playmaker in sophomore Evan Roquemore and a couple of efficient scorers in big man Niyi Harrison and sharpshooter Raymond Cowels. However, Santa Clara gives up .08 more points per play than any other team in the conference, which makes it tough to win.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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