ZAGS Invade Moraga for Annual Rivalry Game at McKeon

Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer presents an inside-outside threat on offense for the Zags. (Photo by William Mancebo)

By Connor Buestad |

On Thursday night at 8pm, the Zags and Gaels will renew their storied rivalry on the hardwood in front of a nationally televised audience (ESPNU). Over the last decade, WCC fans have been spoiled with countless great games between these two clubs. Mark Few and Randy Bennett replenish their talent pool every year it seems, always ready to make an honest run at a WCC crown come March. 

After last week's loss at home to BYU, Gonzaga has dropped out of the AP Top-25 for the first time in recent memory. At 6-1 in conference, they share the same WCC record as St. Mary's. Surprisingly, SMC received eight AP Top-25 votes to Gonzaga's five this week.*

To Mark Few's credit, the Zags four total losses this season are nothing to be ashamed of. Notorious for playing a treacherous non-conference schedule, this year's Gonzaga team has lost to (#25) Texas A&M, (#19) Arizona, UCLA, and BYU. 

Traditionally a school known for relying on productive and exciting guards, this year's version of the Zags hinges more on their inside presence. With guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. gone, the face of their program is now 6'10" senior Kyle Wiltjer (22ppg), who is a dynamic offensive scorer who will be tough to contain for the Gaels. Wiltjer is flanked down low by Domantas Sabonis (Arvydas' son), a hefty big man who has a polished offensive skill set, similar to his father. 

Countering the Zags' two-headed monster will be a surprising Gaels team led by, you guessed it, a crop of crafty Australians. Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau lead an offense that is shooting a Warriors-esque 46% from three-point land. Sophomore Aussie Jock Landale has also come on strong as of late, winning WCC Player of the Week honors following his 7-for-7, 24-point performance on Thursday versus UOP.  

The Gaels only bad loss this year came on the road at Pepperdine, falling to Waves in Malibu by three. Randy Bennett's only other blemish this year was a hard fought four-point loss at CAL, a game in which the upstart Gaels earned a great deal of respect from Cuonzo Martin. 

As we now approach late January, there is not a single Mid-Major in the Top-25. It is rare that Gonzaga makes their trip to Moraga without at number next to their name, so you have to believe the McKeon Pavilion faithful will be smelling blood in the water on Thursday night. Adam Morrison certainly isn't walking through that door...

* Section925 has yet to earn a voting seat at the Associated Press table. 

“At First Blush” - The Current West Coast College Hoops Landscape

Corey Hawkins is leading the red hot UC Davis Aggies (photo by Fred Gladdis)

By Connor Buestad (

With Selection Sunday just one month away (March 15th), we figure it’s no longer too early to dive into a bit of Bracketology with a decidedly west coast bias. Of course, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Joe Lundari is the godfather of modern bracketology. And although he currently doubles as a marketing staffer for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, he still shows love to west coast bubble teams. Namely in 2009 when he punched St. Mary’s (CA) ticket for the NCAA’s in his faux bracket, only to watch in horror when the Gaels were left out of the Big Dance that year. Creighton was the only other school that Lunardi incorrectly invited to the Dance in ‘09.

By mid-February, Lunardi’s bracket predictions start to take shape and at least half-resemble what the actual tournament will look like come March. So let’s take a second to explore what’s been happening out west in the world of college hoops. Who on the left coast should be polishing up their dancing shoes? Some of the names Lunardi has penciled in might surprise you.


Let’s start in the Big Sky Conference, where the Sacramento State Hornets are having their best basketball season in god knows how long. Led by the sensational scorer Mikh McKinny who played JUCO ball in Fremont before transferring up to Sacramento, the Hornets find themselves in second place in the conference just behind Eastern Washington. Lunardi has liked what he’s seen out of Sacramento enough to put them in the Dance as a 16 seed. This would give them a spot in the first-round “play in” game, and their reward for winning would be a matchup with Kentucky. But hey, YOU NEVER KNOW, right? But first things first, Sac needs to make the NCAA tourney, and this will likely require them to win the Big Sky Conference tournament. Traditionally, the team that wins the Big Sky regular season gets to host the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the “Hornets Nest” only seats eleven-hundred folks. So if they host, they’ll host in Reno, Nevada. Trip to Reno for the 2015 Big Sky tournament anyone??

The vibe inside the Hornets Nest has been electric with Mikh McKinny leading the Sac State attack. (photo by Andrew Watson)


Exemplary basketball is also being played down the road in Davis this year. The UC Davis Aggies are sitting atop the Big West Conference with a 9-1 record. This has impressed Uncle Joe enough to grant UCD a 14 seed in the 2015 Dance.

Since becoming a Division 1 basketball team, UC Davis has not had a winning record. However, I suppose that isn’t such a big deal in Big West hoops when you consider Cal Poly made the 2014 NCAA’s while sporting a losing record. They even won their first tournament game.

Irregardless, Davis is really good this year and it is because of their lights out shooting. Who shoots it for them you ask? Hersey Hawkins' son, Corey. The younger Hawkins sports a similar stroke to his father, and after transferring over from Arizona State, he has finally come into his own as a prolific scorer. If the Aggies can win the Big West Tourney at the Anaheim Pond this March, there’s no reason to believe they can’t ride some streaky shooting to the Sweet Sixteen. Now wouldn’t that be something.


Down the coast in San Diego, Steve Fisher is still kicking at the age of 69 (he turns 70 in March). Suddenly a staple in the tournament, the Aztecs are good yet again, and it is because of their smothering, 40-minutes-of-hell type defense. Colorado State is also a formidable squad this year, thus Lunardi has two Mountain West teams as NCAA contenders (SDSU as a 9 seed and Colorado State as a 10 seed).

College hoops junkies the world over were saddened by the passing of Jerry Tarkanian last week. “Tark the Shark” coached two current Mountain West teams during his career, UNLV and Fresno State. Both of these squads find themselves in the middle of the pack in conference play. Perhaps one of which will make a surprise run at conference tournament title in Tark’s honor? Get out to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas March 12-14 to see for yourself...


That same weekend in March, Vegas will also host the PAC-12 tournament at the MGM Grand. Last year’s winner was UCLA. This year the prohibitive favorite will be Arizona. The Wildcats are seemingly stacked at every position and are currently 21-3. Lunardi only has them as a 2 seed, but this Arizona team reminds some people of the Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Miles Simon 1998 team. Well, maybe they're not quite at that level. But a Kentucky-Arizona NCAA battle in 2015 would be a real treat.

Utah is the second best team in the PAC thus far this year with a 9-2 conference record. Even if Keith Van Horn isn’t walking through that door, Lunardi has them as a 3 seed.

As is usually the case the PAC-12, the middle of the conference standings are quite crowded. Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, and UCLA could all make a case for having a tournament worthy resume. Hell, even the CAL Bears, who are just 6-6 in conference still have a shot at NCAA glory due to their recent five game winning streak highlighted by a slew of last second victories. When the dust settles, Lunardi expects we’ll see just four PAC-12 teams in the Dance. Right now those teams are Arizona, Utah, Stanford, and UCLA.

The up and down Bears started their year with a win over Syracuse at The Garden. (photo by Mike Stobe)


The conference that boasts the best team on the west coast is Gonzaga. Well, if you think they’re better than Arizona, that is. The Zags are really damn good again, due in large part to a phenomenal backcourt duo in Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos. Coach Mark Few also has brought some bench scoring to Spokane by way of Lithuania. Arvydas Sabonis’ 6’10” son, Domantas, is scoring 10 points a game off the bench for the Zags this season. Naturally, Lunardi has Gonzaga as a 1 seed. Whether they finally make a Final Four run is another story entirely.

The mighty Gales of St. Mary’s have managed to retain the second spot in the conference this year behind 20 points a game from senior Brad Waldow. Senior point guard Kerry Carter has also been a leader for the Gaels. Credit Randy Bennett with putting together yet another solid team Moraga. The coach won his 300th game for the Gaels this year and even though he doesn’t have Aussies Patty Mills or Matthew Dellavedova to work with, he’s still winning games.

As always, we endorse an early March getaway to Orleans Arena in Vegas to watch the grossly underrated WCC Tournament. Not only will Zags and Gaels have high powered teams to watch, but BYU certainly will too. The Cougars gave Gonzaga a run for their money in last year’s tourney, and this year should be no different. Senior Tyler Haws is averaging 22 PPG and his running mate Kyle Collinsworth is one of the best rebounding guards in America.

It won’t be long before Championship Week is again upon us and Dickie V is screaming at you on TV from his living room. And he might just be hollering about the UC Davis Aggies and Sac State Hornets out west. That is if they “pass the eye test” over the next 30 days. But whatever happens in the madness of March, Jerry Tarkanian will be watching from heaven with a towel in his mouth.

RIP Tark (photo by Susan Ragan)

“36 Hours in Vegas” - A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

The ultra intense Rex Walters led the USF Dons to a near upset of BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad (

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen's club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

David Stockton cuts down the nets after Gonzaga's win (photo by Ethan Miller)