Tuesday, October 23, 2007

West Coast Conference Preview


The West Coast Conference standings looked a lot different last season than they had in previous years. Yes, Gonzaga won the conference title, but Santa Clara was only one back of them in the standings. Moreover, the Bulldogs actually lost three WCC games and looked destined for second-place before Santa Clara lost their final two games to blow the league title. The league was balanced overall, with four teams finishing above .500 and four teams finishing below .500. In the conference tournament, the Zags showed why they are the dominant power in the WCC by winning the title but subsquently falling to Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are likely to return to dominance this season.

Favorites: Gonzaga should not have the same type of difficulty that it had last year in winning the WCC. The Bulldogs return three starters from a year ago, and bring in a terrific recruiting class with several potential impact players. It starts with the inside-outside duo of point guard Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt. Pargo is a very quick player who can penetrate past most defenders, but tends to get careless with the ball at times and makes poor decisions. Heytvelt missed the last nine games of last year due to suspension. He should be back this year, and is one of the best big men in the country. Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs return on the wings. Bouldin is a great passer and a fundamentally-sound player who can shoot the ball, while the athletic Downs is another excellent shooter who can pose match-up problems. Abdullahi Kuso rounds out the starting lineup. He replaced Heytvelt when he was suspended, and provided good rebounding and defense. David Pendergraft is the consummate role player off the bench. Freshman Austin Daye and JC transfer Ira Brown will make immediate impacts, while freshman Steven Gray can knock down shots. Theo Davis, Will Foster, and Robert Sacre all provide size.

Contenders: Saint Mary’s is likely to pose the biggest challenge to Gonzaga. It finished 8-6 last year, tied for third in the conference. The Gaels are led by one of the best defensive duos in the country in forward Diamon Simpson and center Omar Samhan. Simpson is one of the best players in the conference, and is a terrific all-around player, while Samhan is a great shot-blocker and rebounder who can also finish inside. Ian O’Leary rounds out the frontcourt. Todd Golden and Tron Smith will split the time at one guard spot, while Wayne Hunter starts at the other one. San Diego finished fifth in the league last year, but is led by a very solid duo in guard Brandon Johnson and forward Gyno Pomare, both all-conference candidates. Johnson is a quick point guard who can score, as well as a little of everything else, while Pomare is one of the best big men in the conference. Wings Chris Lewis and De’Jon Jackson both made the all-freshman team last year, and should improve this season. Forward Daniel Fleming and Ray Murdock were both hobbled by injuries last year, but will return to form.

Sleepers: Santa Clara nearly won the conference last season, but three starters are gone from that group, meaning the Broncos will take a step back. Brody Angley and John Bryant are a solid inside-outside duo. Angley is a good passer and a decent scorer, while Bryant is a potentially dominant big man down low. Mitch Henke started for the first-half of last season, providing a solid inside-outside presence up front. 7-footer Josh Higgins and freshman Ben Dowdell could also start, but several other newcomers will fight for time. San Francisco loses one of the best duos in the conference in Antonio Kellogg and Alan Wiggins, but might have another excellent tandem in guard Manny Quezada and Texas Tech transfer Dior Lowhorn. Quezada can score the ball well, while Lowhorn is a physical forward down low. Danny Cavic will start next to Quezada, while Jay Watkins will also be in the starting lineup, at forward. Someone else needs to step up inside, though.

Rounding Out the Pack: Portland made a nice run in the WCC Tournament, falling in the semifinals after finishing seventh in the conference, but three starters are gone. Sherrard Watson is the leading returning scorer, a good shooter and solid all-around player. Taishi Ito is a good point guard, and Walter Thompson also returns in the backcourt. Robin Smeulders and Luke Sikma are impact newcomers. Loyola Marymount was expected to be a sleeper last season, but the Lions lost Brandon Worthy early in the season to a torn ACL, igniting a disappointing year. Four starters are gone from that team. The backcourt will be made up of senior Jon Ziri, sophomore Shawn Deadwiler, and possibly JC transfer Quentin Turner. Ziri is a solid scorer and rebounder, while the other two need to make an impact. Up front, Marko Deric and Mason Maynard return after paying bit roles last season. Pepperdine also loses four starters, but the Waves were the worst team in the league last year. Leading the way is 5-7 guard Kingsley Contain, a very good three-point shooter and a solid all-around player. His partner in the backcourt will be the coach’s son, Jason Walberg, a very good scorer. Tyler Carr returns on the perimeter, and JC transfer Ryan Holmes could start. Jarrad Henry is the primary option down low.

Prediction: Gonzaga is the obvious choice to win the conference this year, and it likely won’t be as close as last season. The Bulldogs return two of the best players in the conference, and have one of the top quartets in the West. They also bring in a loaded recruiting class filled with talent, both inside and outside. Saint Mary’s has a group that will cause Gonzaga problems, but it does not have the depth Gonzaga has. Expect the Zags to win the conference by at least three games, and to garner a top-six seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Player of the Year: Josh Heytvelt, F, Gonzaga

All-Conference Team:
G- Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
G- Brandon Johnson, San Diego
F- Diamon Simpson, Saint Mary’s
F- Gyno Pomare, San Diego
F- Josh Heytvelt, Gonzaga

Second Team:
G- Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga
G- Manny Quezada, San Francisco
F- Dior Lowhorn, San Fransisco
C- Omar Samhan, Saint Mary’s
C- John Bryant, Santa Clara

Photo Credit: AP

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