It has been oft observed at this page that the WCC has always been a sort of sideshow to the larger conference schools. A mid-major with a major major’s history the WCC has spawned some of the most indelible moments and figures in all of basketball, from Pete Newell to Bill Russell to the most famous Elite Eight team of all time (the 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions) to Steve Nash to the school that defined the upset for a generation of basketball fans in the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The beauty of College Basketball, in many ways, is the tournament’s necessitation of inclusiveness, and as a consequence the WCC has always been the sport’s Troma Studios (or Roger Corman.)
But like “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”, the WCC is your favorite conference that you just don’t know about yet. It’s schools have some of the best locales in Division I, from West Los Angeles to San Francisco to the Great Northwest and the copious amounts of homegrown recreational drugs available therein (Seriously, busting Josh Heytfelt for shrooms is like busting Brian Butch for Milwaukee’s Best and fried cheese curds.) Their atmospheres are simultaneously small school and big city. The co-eds are for the most part freshly released from the morally judgmental bounds of Catholic high school and are, how shall we say, in their experimental stage.
The improbability of the WCC having as many teams in the tourney as the ACC seems increasingly realistic, particularly given the sheer number of ACC Bubble teams dependent on mid-major maintenance of the status quo. That there’s a very real possibility none of these three teams will advance to the Sweet 16 does nothing to diminish their accomplishments this year, and quite frankly we’d rather see San Diego be a pain in UConn’s ass for the first half rather than have to watch Clemson get beat by the Mountain West champ yet again. Herewith, then, is a look at the three soon-to-be Tourney teams from our adopted conference.
When Deadspin does it’s Biblically lengthed Tournament Preview next week, of the three insights written regarding the University of San Diego one will inevitably be that Rob Jones, the team’s starting Freshman forward, is the grandson of People’s Temple founder Jimmy Jones. This is altogether understandable. College Basketball is perhaps the most wholesome of sports, and even if wholesome is a misused word, the culture of One Shining Moment and Coach K commercials certainly does not conjure images of one of the most infamous serial killers from an era of infamous serial killers. That said figure is brought up in conjunction with College Basketball…at a Catholic School…in San Diego… makes the story that much more fascinating (Imagine if David Koresh had a grandson playing for Baylor in the next decade…given Koresh’s prodigious libido this is entirely possible.)
San Diego is the WCC’s WCC school (in the way Bukowski is an alcoholic’s alcoholic.) Despite not having the history of a USF or the success of a Gonzaga, they have managed to stay consistently relevant for the same reasons they won this year’s WCC Tournament: scrappy play, smart coaching (and the occasional benefit of home court advantage.) If nothing else San Diego’s success can do what WCC success has so often done, benefit the future of a larger, more reputable school. Kentucky can stop worrying about that December loss to the Toreros and start worrying about Kent State’s strength of schedule. Given the solipsistic fandom of the Kentucky faithful it’s not far fetched to think that even the Jonestown Massacre will somehow seem a necessary evil to the Wildcats 2008 Sweet 16 run.
The most obvious side effect of Gonzaga’s success would seem to be the increased expectations now placed on them. With multiple Sweet Sixteen appearances come multiple pressures, and despite another year of Top 25 rankings and tough as nails non-conference scheduling, the Bulldogs have lost the majority of those games and haven’t been able to shake the air of ennui that hangs over a roster that is as deep and versatile as any team in school history. They can go inside (Heytfelt, David Pendergraft, Abdullahi Kuso), they have eclectic wings (Matt Bouldin, Austin Daye), they even have an athletic point in Jeremy Pargo. And of course, this being Gonzaga, they can shoot. What they have yet to do is put up a marquee win this year, so to the casual observer it would seem that the pressure is on the Zags. Frankly, though, Gonzaga’s continued success should do nothing but put pressure on the dregs of the WCC, because in a conference where the cellar consists of inherently attractive schools from Marina Del Rey, Malibu, San Francisco, and Portland, the real question should be how in the hell a team from fucking Spokane is able to out-recruit them.
St.Mary’s has five regular season losses, at Southern Illinois, at Texas (where they hung with the Top 10 Longhorns), at San Diego, at Gonzaga, and at home to Kent State in the Bracket Buster. They have wins against the Zags, Oregon, and Drake. Miami lost to Wake Forest and Florida State (twice), not to mention that their non-conference schedule was about as tough as Chico State’s. There’s no reason the Gaels shouldn’t be in, so let’s just end the argument there. St. Mary’s doesn’t have nearly the talent Gonzaga does, but what they do have is a superlative backcourt, a good frontcourt with forward Damion Simpson and center Omar Samhan, and they just play smart, tough basketball. In other words, they are this year’s Gonzaga. Unfortunately, their hair isn’t nearly as amusing.