Oct. 29, 2001
The Brawl For It All: SCU vs. USF
WCC associate commissioner Don Ott has called the '98 conference semifinal between Santa Clara and USF probably the best semi in league history. Four years later, I believe, those same two will square off in a memorable title game for a berth in the NCAA tournament.
A Bay Area final would mean 3-time defending WCC Tournament champ Gonzaga will be finally slain. How can you disrespect the champs? To be the man, you have to beat the man, right? To be reasonable, any team with Dan Dickau has a chance to retain possession of the scepter. But the little guy won't be nearly as effective without Casey Calvary's inside presence. Calvary was the one constant in three straight runs to the Sweet 16 and there is no second coming on that roster. Make no mistake, the way the Zags shoot it, they have to be given at least a puncher's chance. And never disregard the heart of a champion.
According to the coaching staff, rebounding and defense are the biggest question marks on this team. Jamie Holmes took 7.5 rebounds a game with him and Brian Jones was the best on-ball defender in the conference. David Emslie must be a presence on the inside. He's listed as a 7-footer and must play like it, averaging 10 points and 6 or more boards a game. Freshmen Borchart and Legge will be counted on to contribute right away along with returnee Jim Howell. The best front-court defender may be Jason Westphal, who will enter games early and take on active power forwards like USF's Darrell Tucker. Westphal can be a stopper and figures to blossom in his last go-round. Brian Vaka will be the best perimeter defender while Ross can make the team complete if he's committed on the defensive end. There won't be many games where they score under 70 and the Broncos can become a dangerous team if they play Davey's trademark "D", implemented by assistant Sam Scuilli.
By the end of last season, the Broncos were much more than Jones and Holmes. Still, replacing a pair of first-team all conference players, who were the highest scorers and the best rebounders will be a chore. Bailey became a starter at the point with the heart of an IRS agent, Ross was a consistent scorer and Holbrook was nearly automatic when he got his shoulders square to the rim on threes. With a game on the line, I'll take my chances with any of those three taking the big shot.
The cliche says that games aren't played on paper. But if they were, USF has the goods to make a serious run. The front-court tandem of Hondre Brewer and Darrell Tucker is as good as it gets in the conference. LyRyan Russell is back at the point and John Cox (Chubby's son) returns after a redshirt year. Jason Gaines was starting at the point before he blew out his knee and will return with Tayo Akinsete, who lit up the Broncos at Leavey last season. This group, even if they get little from any of the newcomers, could claim the WCC regular season crown. The key man is Tucker, who must shake the tag of underachiever. There was talk of him going pro after his sophomore year. That was unlikely after earning honorable mention All-WCC honors from the league coaches.
If you like, the Psychic Friends Network will validate the upcoming SCU-USF final. Dionne Warwick has closed her eyes and watched the tournament unfold. To set up the Bay Area final, the Broncos will beat surprising LMU while the Zags run will end at the hands of the USF. Santa Clara will play for those who lost to the likes of Russell, Cartwright, and Hakeem Ward. The 188th meeting between the two teams will go down to a final possession. With the score tied at 81, the Dons will deny Ross coming off a flex cut and Holbrook will be open at the top of the circle as Tucker desperately flies out to challenge. Justin will pump fake, bounce once and release a 19-footer with 2.3 left on the clock. Before Dionne can tell you the ending, she is interrupted by a ringing telephone. On the other end of the line is....Gonzaga.