(#14? USA Today, bite me.)
Ahem. For your easy reference, this year’s West Coast Conference preview will be brief, except where it concerns the one team that matters: Gonzaga. We won’t even be concentrating on the league schedule all that much, because quite frankly, no one else in the West Coast has enough to make a Cheez-Doodle on Gonzaga’s win-loss record. Instead, the Gonzaga section will focus on all of the “Somebody has to Play Us Midseason Classic” games, and the swath they will cut through this year’s Regional. Follow me after the jump for an in depth look at eastern Washington psillocybin fields, and at the West Coast Conference…
Last year, Santa Clara made an amazing run at the conference title – only to get reeled in like a trout by the Zags in the last three games. It’s possible that USD could have contended, had they not ejected Brad Holland, who for all the smack I used to throw at him from behind his bench, was the best coach the Toreros will probably ever have. I guess St. Mary’s is now the Great Hope for the rest of the conference, and I will forever thank them for supplying Ernie Kent to my beloved Ducks. But this conference, truth be told, is not even as deep as the Big West, or the burning embers of the WAC once the Mountain West split off, and so it’s not even arrogant to expect that Gonzaga will run unblemished through the West Coast regular season and tournament. If they had a football team, they’d be in the WAC already to play patty-cake with Boise State.
So, on to the team you’ve all been waiting for:
It’s just going to be weird, not seeing Derek Raivio run the offense. You know it’s all played out, but you still make the joke every time the Zags are on your screen – dude looks like he’s twelve.
On the serious tip, graduation hit Gonzaga hard this year, claiming Raivio, Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, and the Eternal Big – Sean Mallon. (I think Mallon’s kid just signed with the Zags.)
But there’s plenty left in the cupboard, starting with everybody’s favorite ‘shroom hippie and odds-on favorite for Conference Player of the Year, providing he, well… plays, and takes his shunning like a man: Josh Heytvelt.
Gonzaga will begin and end with Heytvelt, but in addition to Abdullahi Kuso, the incumbent other big, Mark Few loaded up like never before, and now the bigs at Gonzaga are large and plentiful. In short, Heytvelt will have a metric buttload of help inside. In fact, Heytvelt can (and probably will) slide to the 4 by conference play, to bring the two 7-footers along. That makes Kuso available off the bench, and that means Gonzaga’s doubled up at each of the frontcourt positions.
Small forward at Gonzaga has never really been what you’d call frontcourt, even when Adam Morrison was bombing it from the wing. This year’s small forward candidates are of the same mold, from perennial warrior David Pendergraft coming back for his last hurrah, to former Jayhawk Micah Downs (making four I’ve mentioned in posts to STC – WTH?), to a 6-4 Charles Barkley clone in Ira Brown. Everyone who slots in at the 3 for Gonzaga has G/F in their profile, even if they’re 6-10 like new blue-chip, Austin Daye.
In the backcourt, Few also likes combo guards. Raivio and A-C could handle it and score it, so too do Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin, who figure to take over. Pargo is nice, and even though I’ll believe it when I see it, it says Bouldin can handle. Few loaded up here, too – expect to see 6-4 freshman Steven Gray spell either of the guard spots, and with as much talent as the Zags now have in the blocks, the 6-8 Downs can play the perimeter, where he’ll look awfully scary. Most teams won’t have an answer for this, either.
I haven’t mentioned the other bad boy, 6-9 F Theo Davis, who got suspended along with Heytvelt (although it’s unclear whether it was also for the same offense that Heytvelt committed), but he is also on his way back, and if successful, would immediately press for a spot alongside Heytvelt in the front line.
Few considers this the best recruiting loadup he’s ever had, and that in and of itself is cause for head explosion among Zag fans. Gonzaga’s gotten it done with eight, and even seven in the rotation, but this year’s Gonzaga team could possibly have as many as eleven legitimate players, as in, could start right away for most other teams. Once you reach ten, even, it means you can change the total complexion of a game with a five-for-five substitution. They’ll never truly be out of a game, even if they’re getting ground down in foul trouble – the Zags just have way too many options in a 40-minute basketball game. That also means, however, that Few probably couldn’t take his foot off the gas even if he wanted to, in the midst of a 60-point massacre at San Francisco, for example.
That much depth adds a new dimension in Gonzaga’s mid-major power, and is normally only possible at majors. With a team that hungry, and that disciplined on the court, I would hope and expect that the presence of Heytvelt and Davis would serve as an object lesson to help Gonzaga avoid contending for the Fullmer Cup at the same time they were cutting down the nets at a Regional.
But make no mistake: with or without Heytvelt and Davis, this team should be the best Gonzaga’s ever put on a floor. And with that much talent, and that much depth, and that much discipline, and that level of coaching, this team should also do what no Gonzaga team has ever done. As a result, the regular season, EVEN with the grueling out of conference schedule they’ll play, should just about be a cakewalk. I don’t pretend to think my beloved Oregon team could hang with them for 40 minutes, and Gonzaga’s traditional bugaboo, Memphis, is even solvable with this team. I’d have to check, but Gonzaga should only see the Tigers at the Tournament this year, but even if they don’t, that game will be the most instructive they play all year. What doesn’t knock us out of the Dance only makes us stronger, and even a loss would put a chip on Gonzaga’s shoulder the size of a shiitake.
It’s. All. Good.
And so it hurts a little to put this expectation on a team that has made college basketball so enjoyable for so many, but here it goes: Gonzaga needs to crack the Final Four. Finally. It’s time for a real mid-major.
Everybody else is competing for an NIT bid. No one schedules like Gonzaga. No one loads up like Gonzaga. And no one gets it done like Gonzaga. This conference would be the Atlantic Sun without them. But that said, there’s a lot of room for tremendous improvement under the radar in the West Coast, and were a St. Mary’s or a USD (this year’s most likelies) to make it, they could sneak up on a LOT of people in a tournament like the NIT, because as they take their pounding to the Zags, and then (quietly) go 15 and 1 in conference, all it would take for a Dance bid from there is to have some wins over majors. Presuming they don’t win too many of the games against majors, the NIT beckons, and that’s loaded with beatable teams. Of course, a deep NIT run from notGonzaga would only strengthen the reputation of the conference.
At this point, I’m just going to mention that even though I hate Paul Westphal with the intensity of a thousand Suns, Pepperdine is always tricky, and somebody in Malibu knows his recruiting EXTREMELY well. They get kids that maybe only a couple of other schools want, but all of a sudden everybody discovers they can play, and you have maybe a week to prepare for besides Gonzaga, your toughest conference game. I barely understand it, but it appears Pepperdine follows the Danny Partridge theory of basketball excellence: when you least expect it, expect it.
Gonzaga should probably leave this conference, probably for the Big West, but maybe even for the Mountain West or the WAC. After that, it’s up to the West Coast both to secure an up and coming new member, and to resurrect programs who can sustain the glory like USF, Loyola Marymount, and Pepperdine.