College Basketball Handicapping: WCC No Longer One-Horse Race
by Trevor Whenham - 12/2/2009
I like and respect Gonzaga and all that they have accomplished in their long run of prominence. There is one problem, though - they have made the West Coast Conference, which used to be a pretty thrilling conference, incredibly boring. The Bulldogs have won nine of the last 11 WCC tournaments, and 11 of the last 12 regular season titles, including the last nine in a row. Books and movies are more interesting when two or more characters are at conflict, and conferences are no different.
There have been some good teams in the conference over the last years - Saint Mary's, Pacific, Pepperdine, and others have been decent in some years. None, though, have been good enough to give Gonzaga a serious scare, and none have been able to maintain that strength like Gonzaga has.
I don't really hope for bad things for Gonzaga. They have one of the best caches in the country in Mark Few, and I enjoy watching them every year. I just wish that there was another team to test them, and occasionally to even get the better of them. North Carolina has Duke, Michigan State has a tough, deep conference, and every team in the Big East has to run an incredible gauntlet to emerge on top. Gonzaga needs some version of the same.
It's early yet, but that legitimate challenge may come this year in the form of Portland. The Pilots don't exactly have an illustrious basketball history. Their only notable alumni is current Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, and he didn't get into coaching because he was a world-class point guard. Despite their meager background, though, Portland is opening some eyes, and could be considered a legitimate challenger to Gonzaga this year. Here's a look at why that is:
Experience - One of the things I like to look for more than anything - especially early in the college basketball season - is a team full of players familiar with each other and one that plays with established chemistry. Portland is a perfect example of that - they returned all five starters from last year. In total they bring back nine upperclassmen, and that's more than any other team in the WCC. These aren't just bodies, either - they had the conference Newcomer of the Year and two All-WCC picks. Nik Raivio and T.J. Campbell are the one-two punch that lead the way. Both played for junior colleges before joining Portland, and both are potent scorers and shooters. Another bright light to look at is Jared Stohl, a guard who can shoot the lights out - especially from beyond the three-point arc. This is a roster that knows what they are doing, and what everyone else is going to do. That's a big edge.
Hot start - Getting out to a strong start is huge for teams - especially those that come from off the radar. It gives them confidence early on, and it gets people noticing them and talking about them. On that front, Portland really couldn't have done any better. They started out with two solid wins over easy opponents, but then they really got rolling. They hosted their in-state rivals, Pac-10 contenders Oregon, and beat them by seven in a 88-81 shootout. Next up was the 76 Classic in Anaheim. Portland and Long Beach State were by far the least known of the teams heading into the eight-team tourney, but they made their mark. They opened up with a crushing 74-47 destruction of UCLA. If that wasn't enough, they beat Minnesota, a team fresh off an upset of Butler, the next day. That got them a spot in the finals where they were solid but mostly outmatched by West Virginia.
Schedule - There is a basic formula for a mid-major team to get some real respect. They need to win their conference, or at least come close in a strong conference - that's a given. Beyond that, it helps if they can enter the conference season with double-digit wins, and some wins against respected teams - especially those from major conferences. On those fronts Portland couldn't be better situated. They are 5-1 already, and have a legitimate look at as many as 12 wins before the WCC season starts. They have already beaten three major conferences teams, included a ranked one and another legendary one. They clearly aren't afraid of big games, because they have also scheduled 10th-ranked Washington. Their schedule will get them lots of respect, and will set them up well in the RPI if they keep winning.
Coaching - Eric Reveno isn't a household name, but he's a very good coach who will go on to bigger programs before too long if he chooses to. He played college ball at Stanford, and then joined the staff as an assistant. He spent seven years under Mike Montgomery and two more under Trent Johnson, so he obviously knows his stuff. He took over Portland in 2006, and won 10 games in his first year, and nine in his second. That's pretty ugly, but he showed his stuff by bouncing back with 19 wins last year - good for third in the conference. He earned conference Coach of the Year for the accomplishment. The Pilots are in very good hands with Reveno.
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