By Manny Nunez
Everyone knows that the Ides of March are slowly creeping upon even the most casual college basketball fan. Even before the tournament, the buzz is felt throughout the nation with so many conference tournaments. For hundreds of schools, this is their final opportunity to try and punch a ticket and extend their season, no matter how low their regular season record is.
In the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga looms as the heavy favorite. Saint Mary’s and BYU are going to be your legitimate threats. However, there are other schools that have a viable chance to play a bit of spoiler.
San Francisco, currently in fourth place, has shown some strong signs of being a team that you wouldn’t want on your line of the bracket when the WCC commences next week.
— LMU Men's Basketball (@lmuhoops) February 24, 2017
The Dons have developed to become a team that could be a tough out as they have won six of their last nine games despite a tough 53-51 loss at Loyola Marymount Thursday evening. No matter the case, they will finish fourth or fifth in the conference, meaning a win in Las Vegas during the conference tournament could be a little trouble for Gonzaga.
The Dons’ 16 of 19 wins this season have been decided by more than 10 points, whereas their defense has averaged allowing just a hair above 60 points per game in 10 of their last 11 games. They have done it with youth and inexperience. 13 players are underclassmen, where 11 of those have led the team in scoring this year.
Senior Ronnie Boyce has led the team in scoring throughout the year and is the only Don averaging double figures at 13 points per game. Freshman Jordan Ratinho has picked up a lot of the pace recently to give coach Kyle Smith another option. Even if USF doesn’t reach the WCC Finals, this team could become a force to be reckoned with in the next three years with the youth getting experience and the further development of chemistry under Smith, who is in his first year.
“I could not be more proud with these bunch of guys,” Smith said, “When I came into this program we didn’t have much expectation except to go out there and play some good basketball. They didn’t surprise me with their wins, but they impressed me more with how much of a unit they have become. Right now it is important that we finish strong heading into next week playing good basketball at the right time.”
After a slow start to conference play, the LMU Lions have slowly found some of their niche. They have convincingly won five of their last nine games and have for the first time in a few seasons won conference games by more than 15 points (vs. San Diego and Pepperdine).
Mike Dunlap has put together an athletic squad led by Brandon Brown and Buay Tuach that can lead, but his supporting cast with Steven Haney and Petr Herman has picked up a lot of the slack that has transpired to some big wins.
“All around these guys have shown their worth,” Lions head coach Mike Dunlap said. “In a lot of our games they have cut it close. Many of our guys can come through when our top players lose focus, and over the last few games it has shown.”
Known as the Cardiac Lions this year, many of their contests have come down to the wire. Last night against the Dons it was no different, falling into their own game and pulling in the end with a second half surge and a strong defensive hold. Trevor Manuel was a key role in the victory, checking in during the middle of the second half and scored all 10 of his points that helped propel an 11-0 that gave the Lions the lead for good.
“Trevor was a big part of our win,” Dunlap said. “One of the key points he made was hitting his free throws to secure the victory with the last few possessions. We obviously need more games like that, but with our roster a number of our players can spark up at the right time and make a different. It’s what we ask for.”
The key factor will come down to experience and versatility for both teams. The Lions are playing good basketball at the right time, while the Dons are going to rely on inexperience, but deep athleticism. Both teams have struggled against the top teams in the conference, but identically they have shown what they are made of. Statistics show that no matter who you play it is hard to beat a team three times, and these two teams can play spoiler while turning a few heads.
“Right now our confidence factor can be measured,” Dunlap said. “The guys now have a taste of the piece of the pie. The locker room is becoming easy to coach, and they are having fun. Right now everyone has a lot of ownership on the team.”
Smith concurs with Dunlap in the intangibles.
“We have to stay with what we do and we have to believe in ourselves,” Smith said. “Closing out the season we will see our character and we have to see what we can do to finish strong and carry it over.”