West Coast Conference more than just Gonzaga

Nov 18, 2008 - 10:27 PM By Brian Stevenson PA SportsTicker Staff Writer

After a 10-year reign as kings of the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga may need to make some room at the head of the table in the very near future.

While they did not exactly welcome the company with open arms, the Bulldogs were joined at the NCAA Tournament last season by a pair of conference foes that appear poised to do so again this year.

The 2007-08 campaign was a historic one for a league, as it had never had more than two teams go to the "Big Dance". San Diego pulled an upset over Gonzaga in the WCC tournament to earn the automatic bid and Saint Mary's, which made appearances in the national polls last season, was rewarded with an at-large bid along with the Bulldogs.

"I think Gonzaga and San Diego and Saint Mary's have been picked pretty high, and so I think it's an indication of how strong our league is," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "When we start talking about scheduling, shoot I'm worried about the league."

The pair of upstart programs return a combined nine starters and figure to push the 'Zags again this season as the WCC may be in the midst of becoming the next "mid-major" conference capable of hanging with the Big Easts and Pac-10s of the country (Missouri Valley ring a bell?).

"This conference I think is going to be the strongest its been, maybe in, this is now my 18th year in this league, it might be the strongest its been from top to bottom." said San Diego coach Bill Grier, who enters his second season after 16 seasons as an assistant with Gonzaga.

For Saint Mary's, it is all about recent Olympian, All-Conference performer and Newcomer of the Year from last season, Australia's Patrick Mills.

The lightning quick point guard averaged 14.8 points and 3.5 assists per game last season and should have accumulated some valuable experience playing against the best players in the world in Beijing.

"I think Patty exceeded my expectations (in the Olympics) and I think very highly of him," Bennett said. "To go in there and play in the Olympics as a 20 year old against pros and to end up being the leading scorer for Australia, which was a team that finished in the final eight, for him to do that was really incredible. I probably won't ever have another player who does that when he's currently playing on our roster."

Defensive Player of the Year Damion Simpson and his 13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 58 blocks are also back for the Gaels, as are fellow starters Ian O'Leary and Oman Samhan.

If the WCC expects to send three teams dancing again, it may be up to San Diego to regain the form it had at the end of last season. It was a tale of two different Torero teams in 2007-08; one that pulled one of the biggest upsets of the NCAAs by downing No. 4 seed Connecticut, and another that struggled to an 8-11 start before closing with 14 wins in their last 17 games.

"For the first time I think, with at least this group of kids, there's expectations on them at least externally," Grier said. "The thing I've tried to preach to them this entire offseason, this preseason ? is having to step up to the challenge of being more of a hunted team. For us to have success that is going to be one of the biggest things that we are going to have to overcome."

But San Diego should be brimming with confidence entering the new campaign. While Gonzaga and Saint Mary's bowed out in the NCAA's opening round, the 13th-seeded Toreros used a last-second shot by De'Jon Jackson to beat on of the Big East's best before falling to Western Kentucky in the second round.

Although Jackson hit the big shot back in March, it's a pair of All-Conference players that hold the key to another bid to the "Big Dance" for San Diego.

Seniors Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare combined to average 31 points a season ago as an inside-outside threat that gave defenses fits. They ranked in the top-five in assists and rebounds, respectively, and will look to lead a veteran squad into position for an at-large bid in case a WCC championship does not happen this times around.

Although Gonzaga failed to capture the league's tournament title for just the second time in the last 10 years despite a 13-1 league mark last season, it did manage to claim its eighth-straight regular season title and go dancing for the 10th straight season.

And don't expect the Bulldogs to relinquish their stranglehold on the conference without a fight as they have the talent to be even better than a year ago.

"In the past people expected us to just roll through the league, and it's been incredibly unfair expectation on our guys," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "It's nice to see now that we are getting some national publicity for some of the other teams. I think there have been great teams in this league for quite some time."

Led by last year's WCC Player of the Year Jeremy Pargo, the Bulldogs will surely be dancing again.

Pargo is what makes the Bulldogs go, averaging a league-leading six assists and possessing the leadership and big-shot ability that Few relies upon.

But the point guard is not the only capable player the 'Zags put on the court by any means. They return a bevy of 3-point threats, including leading-scorer Matt Bouldin, who knocked down a team-high 46 shots from behind the arc.

In the frontcourt, Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye present the ability to score both inside and out and should help Gonzaga stave off the up-and-comers for now.

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