In the past 11 years, Gonzaga has claimed the West Coast Conference Tournament title in impressive nine times. It started with Dan Monson on the sidelines and Matt Santangelo leading the charge and has given the world names like Dan Dickau, Casey Calvary, Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio and last year's MVP, Micah Downs. So, you can't blame if-it-happened-before-the-internet-
then-it-didn't-happen-at-all America if Gonzaga is the West Coast Conference to them. That's pretty much all they've ever known.
However, this year could change that.
The most obvious challenger to the Gonzaga dynasty is a familiar one. Behind Patrick Mills, St. Mary's made a national name for themselves the past two seasons, flirting with the top-25 and, at one time, owning the nation's longest winning streak. With Mills gone, the nation was ready to turn their eyes to the next mid-major darling. But, believe it or not, it's possible this team is even better - and more balanced with five players averaging double figures.
Big man Omar Samhan is a double-double machine (18this year), averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per game and went off for 31 and 12 against the Zags earlier in the year. It's the balanced perimeter attack, though, that allows Samhan to do work down low. Thanks to junior Mickey McConnell (13 ppg and 5 apg), senior Wayne Hunter (11 ppg) and Autstralian freshman Matthew Dellavedova (13 ppg and 5 apg), St. Mary's boasts what some consider the most potent perimeter attack in the WCC. A run to the finals should land them in the Big Dance, but if they want to win the WCC and make it a guarantee, they are going to need their three guards to play well and open up the paint for Samhan.
But, despite the obvious appeal of St. Mary's as Gonzaga's big threat, it might not be the most serious. The third seed in the WCC tournament, Portland is a team that gave the Zags a run for their money in Portland on January 9th, finally falling 81-78. But, less than a month later, they took a trip to Spokane and went down hard, 76-49, and leaving folks to wonder if they were actually a legitimate threat to the Zags. Of their four conference losses, three were to the Zags and St. Mary's, leaving them as the only team that can claim to be a contender with a straight face - if they show up.
If the Pilots are to end the Zags' WCC title hopes in the finals, it will have to do so without a face that's familiar to the Zags. Portland's leading scorer, senior guard Nik Raivio (14 ppg and 6 rpg), is the brother of 2007 WCC Tournament MVP and former Gonzaga Bulldog Derek Raivio, and will miss the entire tournament with an achilles injury that has sidelined him the second half of the season. In his place, the Pilots will use the balance (that seems to be a theme in the WCC) of guards TJ Campbell (13 ppg) and Jared Stohl (12 ppg) and big men Robin Smeulders (13 ppg and 7 rpg) and Son of Sikma (8 ppg and 8 rpg) inside. With no shot of an at-large bid, Portland needs to hopefully avoid feeling pressure and get back to the nothing to lose attitude they had in a pre-season run of wins over Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota.
Having said all this, make no mistake. Gonzaga is the favorite in this tournament. The Zags again won the regular season crown, but dropped road games to a pair of 7-7 WCC teams, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount, inspiring post-season hope in their conference peers. Much like the Mark Few teams of the past, the Zags count on balance, relying on Matt Bouldin (16 ppg) and Steven Gray (13.5 ppg) on the perimeter and the duo of 7-foot sophomore Robert Sacre (10 and 5) and German freshman Elias Harris (15 and 7). They've been down this road before and the smart money would be on them throwing the "W" up in Vegas after Monday's title game.
Even if the Zags do take the WCC crown this weekend, the "others" in the conference can still claim victory. The whole world might not be watching their games in the middle of the night, but it's probably more than the Pac-10. And there's nothing mid-major about that.
Mark Few's battle rap
I got an interesting email this morning from a reader who said that Mark Few is so hurt by his conference not getting the respect it deserves, has resorted to his West Coast roots and released a battle rap. Few enlisted West Coast rappers NWA and internet star Daniel Solzman to help him write his diss track. What resulted is arguably one of the most horrible raps in the history of the world.....but it's set to NWA's "F--- the Police", so it's not all bad.
F*** tha Pac-10
Comin straight from the Evergreen
Hatin’ on my program cuz it’s clean.
Your sorry conference is more whack than a pager
Still you b****es call the West Coast a mid-major.
Screw that crap, cuz I ain’t tha one
To let a couple washed up retread coaches poke fun.
Tradition and talent? Really? B***h, please.
Even at UCLA, the only guarantee is the herpes.
Battling each other for a number 12 seed,
While Gonzaga and St. Mary’s spots are guaranteed.
Third seed Portland would hand you a killing.
Even the Pac-10 gives the women top billing.
The West Coast’s repping dudes like Matt Bouldin,
Pac-10’s just hoping to avoid NCAA scolding.
Don’t forget about Samhan,
St. Mary’s center is the west’s best big man.
Freakin’ dudes everyway like MJ
Wrong song but you get the point anyway.
It’s about time we got our respect
Step to Mark Few and your face will get wrecked.
The West Coast Conference tourney starts tonight under lights
In Vegas making news like Tyson’s title fights
Up and coming conference on a warpath
And when we finish, there’ll be a blood bath.
Yo NCAA, I got somethin to say
F** tha Pac-10!
Friday, March 5
#5 Loyola Marymount vs. #8 Pepperdine - In the first WCC Tournament game, fans were treated to a high-scoring affair as Loyola Marymount ruined Pepperdine's second round hopes and outlasted the 43 combined points of Keion Bell and Taylor Darby. Four Lions scored in double figures, with Vernon Teel leading the way with 27. They will now take on the Fighting Bill Russells of San Francisco on Saturday as long as Doug Christie's wife gives them permission.
#6 San Diego vs. #7 Santa Clara - Friday's nightcap offered the sexiest Vegas show since Siegfried and Roy performed at Peep Show as a pair of teams that went 3-11 in their conference squared off. San Diego earned the right to lose to Portland on Saturday, 61-59, behind 14 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks from Robert Mafra. After the game, Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating declared that "Steve Nash is not walking through that door," adding that, "Even if he did, it would only be to ask for us to take his jersey out of the rafters. You guys suck."
Saturday, March 6
#5 Loyola Marymount vs. #4 San Francisco
#6 San Diego vs. #3 Portland
Sunday, March 7
LMU/USF vs. Gonzaga
Portland/USD vs St. Mary's
Monday, March 8