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Coming off a third-place finish in his teams' debut season as a West Coast Conference member, BYU head basketball coach Dave Rose on Monday said that last year's league finish "was a little different for us," and that his players "expect more of themselves" in their second year through the conference.
Speaking with me at the WCC Men's Basketball Tip-off gathering in Los Angeles, Rose reflected on his first WCC media event a year ago, saying "this day last year was really uncomfortable for me."
"I didn't really know a lot about the league," said Rose of his first exposure to the WCC. "I knew some of the coaches, but hadn't scouted their teams that much, so I didn't know a lot of their personnel...but this feels a lot more normal, where the players that are here--I know them, I've watched them, seen them play, I know the rosters of most of the teams, and I know the challenge."
Rose's Cougars were the third of three WCC teams to make the NCAA Tournament in 2012, joining regular season and conference tournament champion St. Mary's, and Selection Sunday regular Gonzaga in the Big Dance. The WCC ended up with more NCAA bids than the Pac-12, and has been making steady inroads toward shifting the balance of power in western college hoops.
"This really is an impressive league," said Rose. "The strides that they've made in the last couple of years, just with media coverage and TV deals...(this) is a place that I think will really challenge us and really stretch us, and I know that our players feel the same way, too."
Having won four Mountain West Conference championships in six seasons as a league member, Rose begins pursuit of his first WCC crown, with his team having been picked to finish second by the league's coaches.
Of being picked ahead of last season's regular season and conference tourney champ, Rose said "that surprises me; St. Mary's beat us twice last year, and they've got their whole team returning, except one guy."
"The expectation is for Gonzaga to be a little bit better, and maybe the expectation is for us to be better. The bottom line is there are probably realistically four or five teams that could win this league, depending on how things go--hopefully we're right in the middle of it."
"You realize that to win a conference championship, no matter what league it is, you have to be consistent from the first weekend in, until the last weekend. Obviously trying to win the West Coast Conference regular season championship, for us, is a real priority because we've never won one. There are really good teams, and it's a real challenge."
Rose speaks passionately when detailing the pursuit of a conference crown; he has always relished the marathon-like aspect of the league season, and today compared it to the sprint-like experience of March Madness.
"It's a great experience to get in the NCAA Tournament and make a little run and win a few games," said Rose, "but that experience of winning a regular season conference championship and then the tournament championship is a real test of your team and their consistency and their ability to perform under all kinds of adverse situations."
"We've had a pretty good run of (championships), and hopefully we can get back on top of that; this challenge will be as challenging any we've been through. Gonzaga is as highly-ranked with a roster full of as many good players as they've had in years. I think that they're a little amped up over the fact that their (conference championship) string got broken last year."
Asked what has his guys "amped up" in 2012-13, Rose said it's "the fact that we finished third last year," and "for a lot of the returning guys, that's a little different for us, and I think that they expect more out of themselves."
"I think we want more and we've prepared so far to this point to do better, and if that happens, it will be a direct result of the preparation of our guys."
Speaking about the caliber of the league in general and BYU's place in the conference, Rose said "the talent level in this league is really impressive, and I think our guys understand that."
I'm really happy to be a part of the (WCC). I think the league has credibility all over the United States, after recruiting now for two years to BYU in the WCC. (League membership) obviously is a real benefit; we've got a lot of players that are excited to come to BYU and play in the WCC."
I had conversations with WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich and seven of the nine league coaches (I ended up missing Loyola Marymount head coach Max Good and San Diego head coach Bill Grier); here are some quick hitters from those interviews. To hear the complete interviews, go to "Cougar Cuts," above left:
WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich--
"I think the untold story is how deep the conference is; I think BYU probably saw that in their first year last year, that there are no easy outs in this conference."
"To a program, you can almost go down the list--I think almost every single program is looking stronger, injuries aside, than they were last year--and that's what you want: wherever anybody is in a conference, for them to be getting better, and I think we have that."
Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few--
"I think year in and year out, (the WCC) should be looked upon as a three-bid league. Somebody might say 'what's the big deal with that?'; well, the big deal is the Pac-12 got two (bids) last year and were lucky to get two."
Pepperdine Head Coach Marty Wilson--
"I wouldn't say (the WCC) surprised anyone, because people know about our league, especially with what Gonzaga and St. Mary's have done over the long haul, and adding BYU and their history and tradition of their basketball programs, but just the emergence of the some of the other teams, and those other teams continue to get better."
"Last year, our league beat some of the Pac-12 teams, and I think that just magnified what our league is about, and I think it's going to continue to shine."
Portland Head Coach Eric Reveno--
"I want BYU to roll, and keep rolling and keep drawing fans...I just want to get my program better, competitively. I love the fact that BYU is in the conference and sets such a high bar, I love the way they do their business and how they conduct themselves as student-athletes, and their values--I think that's why they're a great fit in the conference. It's great to have them, and we're going to keep trying to get better to beat them."
Saint Mary's Head Coach Randy Bennett--
"Reflecting back on (his team's 2012 win at BYU), that is what won the league for us. Tough place to win, and we were able to get that tough win, and that was the leg up over Gonzaga, which didn't get that win. (The postgame locker room celebration) was crazy. Even though BYU had not been in our league, (the players) understood what it was like to get a win at BYU. We appreciated what had just happened...there was a lot of dog-piling...you might have thought we won the championship that night."
San Francisco Head Coach Rex Walters--
"It's a great guard league. You talk about the guy that you guys got (BYU's Matt Carlino), you talk about Gonzaga, St. Mary's, Loyola Marymount, San Diego with their guard play, Pepperdine--people don't know Lorne Jackson, he's pretty darn good--you can go to Evan Roquemore (at Santa Clara), it's a great point guard league; it's a battle every night. It's not the NBA, but in the NBA, if you don't bring it as a point guard you get exposed. It's the same thing in our league.
Santa Clara Head Coach Kerry Keating--
(The WCC) is the strongest it has ever been. Obviously the addition of the Cougars has been huge for us, from a competition standpoint, from a recognition standpoint, from a media exposure standpoint...having a long two or three decade run of success in college basketball."
"We're excited where we're at, to be a part of this, excited about where it could go, and feel that probably if things happen the way they should, four if not five teams will find themselves in the mix on the board in March, and hopefully we can get to that fourth team getting in to the (NCAA) Tournament out of our league."