The WCC's Stretch Run Is Crowded

Feb. 10, 2004

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    There is not one Santa Clara fan who could accuse the Broncos of backing their way into a high seed in this year's West Coast Conference Tournament in March. After last week's heartbreaker in San Diego, the Broncos are going to have to take care of business on the road to get that sought after bye and avoid Friday's first round games.

    "I think we'll have our hands full," says Dick Davey of the upcoming trip to Southern California. "When you don't have a dominating team, there's a significant difference in playing home and away. We can be reasonably successful if we play as well as we can on the road. So far, we haven't shown the ability to do it."

    While every coach in the conference will say all league games are important, the loss at USD was a crusher. Not just because the Toreros hadn't won yet in league, but the fact the other contenders had already beaten them.

    Says top assistant Steve Seandel: "It was no more significant than the single reason that USF has already won here; Pepperdine has won here. When a team is struggling to get wins, you've got to beat them and we just didn't get it done."

    In this crapshoot called the race for second-place, five teams are separated by just a game-and-a-half, meaning Santa Clara would have just as much a chance as anyone else. However, the obstacle is finding a way to succeed away from the Leavey Center; the Broncos are 0-3 on the road in league and it only gets tougher.

    With five games left, the only Santa Clara home game is "Senior Night" against Saint Mary's. They must go to L.A. and play the final two games of the season in the Northwest, where teams feel blessed to come out with a split. The LMU game is crucial based on standings alone and a win at Pepperdine would give Davey's team the tiebreaker over the Waves based on a head-to-head sweep. A split keeps them in the chase; a sweep would make the SMC game a showdown for second while being swept would almost guarantee having to win four games in four days in March.

    USF gets four of their final five games at home starting this week with Gonzaga and Portland and hosting the L.A. schools on the final weekend of league play. Those games sandwich a trip to San Diego, where the Toreros have competed against the likes of the Zags. Brad Holland told me if they can learn to handle the ball better (they are averaging 19 turnovers per game), then they can beat anybody in the league. Santa Clara fans can hope USD puts it together against the likes of USF and Pepperdine.

    The Waves get three of their last five games on the road and have to play Saint Mary's and USF on the road to end their season. At Firestone Fieldhouse they lost to USF but pinned a loss on the Gaels. On the road, Paul Wesphal's team is only 1-3 with the lone win at USD. A win over the Gaels would give them the tiebreaker over SMC while a win at USF gives them a season-split with the Dons. They are learning to play with Yakhouba Diawara (20 ppg. in league) who is too big to guard with a perimeter guy and too quick for most post players.

    Earlier this season the Broncos crashed the Waves with Diawara making his season debut. They will either have a better handle on him this weekend or with his improvement be even harder to handle.

    Saint Mary's is in the best spot at the present, up one-half game on the field for second-place with four of their final six games at home. Their road games: at USD and Santa Clara. However, they host the Zags on Saturday as GU proceeds with its mission to run the table. An SMC upset would put them in the driver's seat with Paul Marigney at the steering wheel (50 points in 2 wins over USF). Other than the hiccup in SoCal, they have been the best team south of Spokane. Either way, the Santa Clara-Saint Mary's showdown will be a battle with a lot on the line.

    If Portland somehow takes 2nd, the Pilots will have done so by knocking out four teams ahead of them. They must play two of the three Bay Area schools on the road, travel to Gonzaga and host Santa Clara during the final weekend in a game that could have meaning for every spot from two-through-six. Over the last few years, the Pilots haven't been a good road team but make things difficult for anyone (even Gonzaga) at the Chiles Center.

    The race is on for five teams all sharing the same dream: Two byes and a trip to the conference semifinals. While everyone in the conference concedes Gonzaga is the best team, there isn't one school that would shy away from the chance to get them on Monday night in a winner-take-all.

    With so many teams in the chase, it's almost too difficult to find a rooting interest. Except, of course, ALWAYS cheering against USF and Saint Mary's. Any Bronco fan doesn't need to look at standings or stats to understand that.

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