Conference Catchup: WCC race shaping up to be a good one

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our West Coast Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Gonzaga 

Ranked tenth in the country the Bulldogs capped 2012 in solid fashion as they beat Baylor at home and followed that up with a win at No. 22 Oklahoma State. Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris were known commodities entering the season, but how many believed that forward Kelly Olynyk would be the team’s leading scorer on January 2? After redshirting last season, Olynyk is averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and has turned into a key cog in the Gonzaga attack. Ten players are averaging 12.6 minutes or more per game, giving Mark Few personnel options that few teams in the WCC can match.

Contenders: BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara

Two of the three names shouldn’t be a surprise, as it’s become expected that BYU and Saint Mary’s will be perennial contenders to win the conference. The Cougars boast two of the WCC’s top three scorers in Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies, and Saint Mary’s is led by reigning WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova. Of the two teams BYU has the better computer numbers entering conference play, and thanks to Haws going off they’re coming off of a blowout win over Virginia Tech. The team most likely to crash the party that is the Gonzaga/BYU/Saint Mary’s triumvirate? Santa Clara.

Biggest Surprise: Santa Clara 

The return of Marc Trasolini (knee) and Kevin Foster (suspension) was expected to make Kerry Keating’s team much better in 2012-13. But the Broncos entering 2013 with an 11-3 record is a surprise to say the least. Those two combine with guard Evan Roquemore to give Santa Clara a trio of 1,000-point scorers (no other team in the country can make this claim). One area the Broncos need to improve in if they’re to factor into the WCC race is rebounding, as they rank last in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.

Biggest Disappointment: San Diego 

Picked by the coaches to finish fifth in the conference, the Toreros were thought to have a shot at finishing fourth due to the return of all five starters from last year’s team with Johnny Dee leading the way. But the early return don’t look as promising for San Diego, who ranks in the bottom half of the WCC in field goal and three-point percentage and dead last in field goal percentage defense. Add in the fact that they’re not the best when it comes to rebounding and it’s easy to see why San Diego has struggled.

Player of the Year: F Brandon Davies (BYU) 

Davies is the lone player in the WCC who ranks in the top five in both scoring and rebounding, as his averages of 20.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game are third in conference respectively (Santa Clara’s Marc Trasolini is 6th in scoring and 4th in rebounding). Shooting 57% from the field, Davies has reached double figures in all 14 of BYU’s games and has posted four double-doubles as well.

Best Freshman: F Stacy Davis (Pepperdine) 

Davis has been the most productive freshman in the WCC, as he’s averaging 11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Both of those numbers lead WCC freshmen, and Davis has been one of the big reasons why the Waves are off to an 8-5 start.

Three Predictions

– Saint Mary’s will sweat out Selection Sunday. Randy Bennett’s team is one of the WCC’s best, but a look at their non-conference schedule reveals the fact that there aren’t any results that truly jump off the page. That’s why the comeback win over Harvard on New Year’s Eve was so important, especially when considering their 1-2 weekend at the DirecTV Classic in November (losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech, with the former being avenged by the final of 74-46 on December 19). The Gaels will participate in the ESPN BracketBusters event in February, and they’d better have their fingers crossed for a marquee opponent in that one.

– Gonzaga will begin its NCAA tournament run in Salt Lake City and get out of the first weekend. The Bulldogs haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009, and there’s little doubt that this group is talented enough to change that. Kelly Olynyk has been excellent this season and with players such as Kevin Pangos, Elias Harris and Gary Bell Jr. leading the way the Bulldogs are in the Top 10. They’ll win the WCC and grab a protected seed in the NCAA tournament, beginning play at the site closest to their Spokane campus (Salt Lake City) on the way to the Sweet 16. If not further.

– San Francisco’s Cole Dickerson and De’End Parker will both earn all-conference honors. The question here will be which of the two ends up on the WCC’s first team all-conference squad, if not both. Dickerson’s averaging 15.4 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, so he’d be the one more likely to earn first team honors, but Parker’s leading the WCC in three-point percentage while averaging 15.0 points per contest. Dickerson and Parker, along with point guard Cody Doolin, combine to make Rex Walters’ team a dangerous one in conference play.

Power Rankings (* – NCAA tournament team) 

1. Gonzaga *
2. BYU *
3. Saint Mary’s *
4. Santa Clara
5. Pepperdine
6. San Francisco
7. Loyola Marymount
8. Portland
9. San Diego

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.

South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, still ineligible, to declare for draft

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Former Louisville forward and current South Carolina Gamecock Brian Bowen will declare for the NBA draft without signing with an agent as a safety measure in case the NCAA does not clear him to play in the 2018-19 season.

Bowen is the former top 25 prospect that was forced to leave the Louisville program after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college hoops turned up evidence that his family had accepted the first payment of what was supposed to be a $100,000 fee to get him to be a Cardinal.

That investigation was ultimately what got Rick Pitino fired.

“I just felt that it was the right decision,” Bowen told ESPN. “My goal is still to play college basketball, but I felt as though it makes sense to cover my bases.”

Bowen is in a tough spot right now.

On the one hand, he has already missed an entire season of college basketball and there is no guarantee that he will be cleared to play next season, if at all.

On the other hand, the fact that he has not played in a year and that he has not played against any collegiate level competition is one of the reasons that NBA front offices are going to be hesitant to draft him, and that’s not a good thing for a player that was considered a second round pick before he spent a year on the sidelines.

North Carolina’s Cam Johnson undergoes hip surgery

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For the second time in the last six months, North Carolina wing Cam Johnson has undergone the knife.

On Wednesday, North Carolina announced that Johnson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip on Monday, and that he is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson was UNC’s third-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34.1 percent from three. He only played 26 games, however, after missing time due to a surgery to fix a torn meniscus.