Trying to maintain a working knowledge of 347 division one teams can be difficult and frustrating for the average college basketball fanatic, especially if that fanatic has a day job, or a family, or any sort of societal obligation that requires them to interact with other humans.
One of the cool facets of having so many teams, however, is that there is such a large variance in terms of potential matchups. We observe this, of course, in the nonconference season, when teams' names can be juxtaposed in a seemingly infinite number of two-school combinations, many of which titillate the senses, like cooking with two ingredients you've never paired before, tasting them, and going, "Oh, wow, that's interesting."
Saint Louis hosting Santa Clara is precisely one of these games. On one side, you have an Atlantic 10 team that over-achieved last season to the tune of a No. 14 KenPom ranking, and knocked off Memphis in the NCAA Tournament before taking an elite Michigan St. team to the wire in the second (real) round. Saint Louis plays in what Santa Clara's conference wants to be: the best non-BCS basketball conference in the country. The Billikens would've been picked to win it this year, too, were it not for the leave of absence Rick Majerus is taking this season for health reasons. That must make Jim Crews, working with a lot of the same talent as last year's team, feel just great.
On the other side, you have a largely ignored Bay Area team returning the three-headed monster of Kevin Foster (back from an 11-game DUI suspension and a generally not-as-super 2011-12 season), Marc Trasolini (back from an ACL destruction suffered in an exhibition game in Vancouver, 14 months ago) and Evan Roquemore (who's just back). The Broncos weren't tapped to infiltrate the WCC's top tier this season because, well, they were supposed to do that last year, and since last year's team was mostly just a Roquemore-headed monster that was sad and rarely won, voters sold on SCU, and put em right in the middle of the league pack.
Just as I gave Saint Louis sans-Maj the benefit of the doubt, I did also with a Santa Clara team that was actually, you know, led by three elite players. The name of Saint Louis' most recent game is to slow things down (2011-12: 8th best scoring defense, 10th best Def. Efficiency), and stifle opposing teams' offensive sets, kind of like a homeless man's Wisconsin Badger team. That didn't happen; Santa Clara won comfortably, 74-62. The Broncos made Saint Louis look amateur on Wednesday night -- but really, Kevin Foster made Saint Louis look amateur on Wednesday night.
Now, yes, Trasolini and Roc-Boy are in the building. When called upon thus far, they have contributed with aplomb. Raymond Cowels III is the unsung Foster wing-area counterpart, who provided some reliable minutes Wednesday without screwing anything up. Seven-foot sophomore Rob Garrett needs to come into his own a bit more in order to give Yannick Atanga and John McArthur not just meaning full spells in the post, but also to give Santa Clara that big body down low. There are other components here that make this team tick.
But barring a major change in strategy or another suspension, this Bronco team is The Kevin Foster Show. Wednesday, the man that someone unfortunately nicknamed The Microwave dropped 30. He passed Kurt Rambis as Santa Clara's all-time leading scorer, and he's in the equivalent of the middle of his junior season.
He was everywhere all the time, making left handed floaters, off-balance threes, behind the basket reach-arounds -- all effortlessly. He might have even made more of a difference on defense. The dude logged seven steals and turned five of them into instant points. (Note to the Pac-12: these are the type of breakout guys in your own backyard that you're missing in favor of guys like this. Do better). If there's one major takeaway from this game - and it takes a lot to distract me from the team-centric positivity of a WCC win -- it's that you C.J. McCollum and Nate Wolters freaks out there need to buy low on Kevin Foster.
The second major takeaway is forward-thinking. Santa Clara's next 10 games are against entirely beatable opponents, the most difficult of which should be Utah St. and UCSB at home. This is important because it creates a non-zero chance that a 12-0 Santa Clara team will go to Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 29 to play Duke on ESPN2. If this plays out, the story lines will just run like an IV drip in to Bob Wischusen's earpiece.
More importantly, the public victory for a West Coast Conference that's continuing to scrap for relevance will already be won before the game even starts. One of its teams will bring a sterling record and legitimate national scoring title threat to an ESPN game against an elite opponent - and that team won't be Gonzaga, BYU, or Saint Mary's.
Wednesday night is what all five of us who cling to WCC basketball eventualities were waiting to see: did the on-paper projection from the 2010-11 Santa Clara team outward to the 2012-13 version become a reality? So far, absolutely.
The strength of the components around Foster clearly puts this team in contention to challenge Saint Mary's or BYU for the three-spot in this league. It makes them the prohibitive favorite for the four-spot. In a league that's continuing to add teams, and consistently getting three of them in the NCAA Tournament, that's a big deal.
Will Green is @Zagacious on Twitter. He writes about WCC basketball for a potpourri of fine establishments. If you buy the food, he'll cook you dinner.