The Zags aren't just rolling through the season, they are improving. Saturday's game against the Memphis Tigers of the American Athletic Conference allowed the nation to see that this isn't just some offensive juggernaut that outscores its opponents.
Take a look at the Gonzaga defense.
Never in the history of KenPom have the Zags posted a better adjusted defensive efficiency rating. They're currently sitting at 91.0, more than two full points better than they've ever posted at the end of a season (93.1 on that Mike Hart led defense that just so happened to earn a one seed in the tournament). To put that into some perspective, a two point drop for the Zags would move them from a tie for 15th best in the nation all the way down to 33rd. If the NCAA tournament was simply the team with the best defensive efficiency advancing, that's the difference between the first and second weekends.
But it isn't, and that's good. Because the Zags have the nation's third most efficient offense.
2. Saint Mary's Gaels
17-5 (9-2), RPI: 68, KenPom: 60, Last: 2
Last week: W 68-54 vs. Loyola Marymount, L 67-62 vs. Pepperdine
The Gaels made easy work of the Lions last Thursday. Defensively they held Evan Payne and Marin Mornar in check, or rather didn't let either of them have a big night, and forced LMU to find production elsewhere. That strategy will normally work against the Lions like it did for the Gaels. Helping them on the offensive end was a 13 point, 7 assist night from Aaron Bright.
Bright went down with an ankle injury just before halftime against Pepperdine. He did not return to the game. Pepperdine, which trailed at the time he went out, would go on to win the game. I'm not taking anything away from the Waves, they outplayed the Gaels, but I don't think they get that result with Bright on the floor. It's the kind of game that you give all the credit in the world to the victor, but put an asterisk next to for the loser. Just like when Wisconsin lost to Rutgers without Frank Kaminsky.
Luckily for the Gaels they face Pacific at home on Thursday and then have a full week before traveling to Provo to take on the Cougars. If Bright isn't back by then though, they'll be in trouble.
14-8 (7-4), RPI: 129, KenPom: 85, Last: 4
Last week: W 50-43 vs. Pacific, W 67-62 vs. Saint Mary's
Aside from an inexplicable two point loss at home to IUPUI, the Waves made their way through the non-conference schedule pretty much as expected. They looked primed for a big improvement over last season's 8-10 conference record. Early on in WCC play they did exactly that, taking BYU on the road and nearly upsetting Gonzaga. Their only losses in their first seven games came against the Zags and Gaels, two teams perennially atop the West Coast Conference.
Point guard Amadi Udenyi went down with a hamstring injury a game before the Waves faced the Zags, missed three in a row and then came back just in time for a two game slump against San Francisco and Santa Clara on the road. Last week he returned to his pre-injury form and the Waves look once again like the kind of team that can disrupt the order of the WCC's top-three teams.
That's why I have them ranked ahead of BYU. I don't think they're capable of making as much noise on a national level as the Cougars, but in conference play they have all the right ingredients. Stacy Davis is a force on the inside and should be all-WCC once again. Jeremy Major and Amadi Udenyi are two of the better assist-men in the conference. And the emergence of Jett Raines as a stretch four who is shooting lights out inside the arc make the Waves offense just good enough.
Defensively, they shut teams down on the perimeter, 9th in the nation in 3pt FG% defense, and force teams to pound the ball inside. While the Waves aren't exceptional defensively inside the arc, most WCC teams don't have talented enough post players to pull out victories down low.
4. BYU Cougars
17-7 (7-4), RPI: 61, KenPom: 39, Last: 3
Last week: W 78-74 vs. San Francisco, W 78-57 vs. Santa Clara
So, BYU went 2-0 last week but they don't jump Pepperdine or a team that went 1-1? For two reasons.
First, BYU beat two teams that it should beat anywhere this season but especially at the Marriott Center
While Pepperdine has all the pieces to play spoiler atop the conference, BYU doesn't. The Cougars are a stereotypical caricature of a West Coast Conference team. The WCC is a guard-laden league, the Cougars start four guards. The WCC is an offensive juggernaut, the Cougars are the highest scoring team in the country. There isn't, outside of Saint Mary's and Gonzaga, a year-after-year reputation for dominant post players in this league, the Cougars don't seem to have a single viable big man on their roster this year.
And that's what hurts them in these power rankings. Sure, BYU can outscore anyone, anytime, anywhere. But in their three games against top-four teams: Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer scored 24 points), Saint Mary's (Brad Waldow scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds) or Pepperdine (Stacy Davis scored 23 points), they haven't won the rebounding battle in any and they've lost all three.
BYU plays at Pepperdine on Thursday in a game with major implications in the race not to finish fourth and run up against Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
12-11 (5-6), RPI: 177, KenPom: 122, Last: 8
Last week: W 69-64 vs. Santa Clara, W 57-53 vs. San Francisco
I was about ready to give up on San Diego. The Toreros offense was MIA for the first half of conference play. They still rank dead last in points per 100 possessions in conference play, scoring 94.7. That's a full five points fewer than the ninth place team, Pacific, and 25 below first place Gonzaga.
The Toreros have rattled off three straight — BYU, Santa Clara and San Francisco, all at home — and seem to have found a bit of a spark on offense. Their points per 100 possessions in those three games were 104, 115 and 110, significantly above their average.
Freshman Vasa Pusica is the main reason for this offensive resurgence. Coming off the bench last week he scored 16 points in both games, doing most of his damage behind the three point line. Pusica's production is doubly helpful in it not only provides much needed scoring but also pulls defenses away from Johnny Dee, the NCAA's active leader in three point field goals made.
11-12 (5-6), RPI: 172, KenPom: 198, Last: 5
Last week: L 69-64 vs. San Diego, L 78-57 vs. BYU
Last week it was the Broncos who entered the WCC Power Rankings on a surprise three game winning streak. Then San Diego came along and clipped them en route to their surprise three game winning streak. That was followed up by a trip to Provo and a pretty much as-expected loss.
Santa Clara is better, and more consistent, than San Diego on the offensive end but on defense they are pretty close to terrible. As you might expect, then, the Broncos have been routed when they've faced the top three offenses in the conference (Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's).
They're five and six in these rankings and 5-6 in conference play, so this isn't exactly a stretch to say but I wouldn't be surprised if Santa Clara finishes above San Diego in the standings. In terms of power — like, the ability to knock off a team stronger than them — Santa Clara just isn't quite on San Diego's level. Yet.
9-14 (3-8), RPI: 199, KenPom: 135, Last: 7
Last week: L 78-74 vs. BYU, L 57-56 vs. San Diego
A dismal season continues for San Francisco. The only bright spot being freshman point guard Devin Watson.
Aside from him, there is only one thing you really need to know about San Francisco this season. The free throw line is the key to the game for this team. The Dons are one of the better teams in the country at getting to the line (58th in free throw rate). Unfortunately, they're very nearly the worst team in the country at scoring from the free throw line (345th out of 351 teams, converting just 60.6% of the time).
If I'm coaching against the Dons it's time to take the hack-a-Shaq approach and apply it to positions one through five. Unsurprisingly, Devin Watson is the only decent free throw shooter on the team (but he's only a 71% shooter).
12-10 (3-7), RPI: 140, KenPom: 151, Last: 6
Last week: L 64-46 vs. Gonzaga
Portland is perhaps the hardest team to understand in the WCC. All of the pieces are there. Sophomore point guard Alec Wintering should be an all-conference player next season. Kevin Bailey is a big shooting guard who knows how to get buckets — Mark Few said on the Gonzaga radio pre-game show before last Thursday's game that he, and I'm paraphrasing, wouldn't be surprised if Bailey got some looks at the next level. Thomas van der Mars and Volodymyr Gerun are very talented bigs who form the biggest front-court in the conference outside of Spokane.
Somehow the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.
This team hasn't been the same since Riley Barker suffered a career ending knee injury against Santa Clara on January 8.
7-16 (3-8), RPI: 214, KenPom: 225, Last: 9
Last week: L 68-54 vs. Saint Mary's, W 76-71 OT vs. Pacific
Pretty much the same as last week for the Lions, who are finally showing improvement under first year head coach Mike Dunlap.
With Evan Payne coming off the bench for the past six games the Lions have posted a 3-3 record. With Evan Payne in the starting line up this season the Lions went 3-9. He's the team's leading scorer at 17.8 points per game (3rd in the WCC). His average has dropped to 12 points per game since he started coming off the bench, but the team's win percentage has improved.
Less bad shots from Payne helps that cause, but more shots from Marin Mornar is at least as important. Mornar is scoring just shy of 15 points per game since Payne lost his spot in the starting line-up, which was the same time that Mornar moved into the starting line-up. His career high before that switch was 13 points.
LMU's has been held below 100 points per 100 possessions just once since taking Payne out of the starting line-up — Gonzaga did that to them, no big deal. Eight times before making that move were the Lions held below 100 points per 100 possessions. This is not a coincidence.
10. Pacific Tigers
10-13 (2-9), RPI: 238, KenPom: 236, Last: 10
Last week: L 50-43 vs. Pepperdine, L 76-71 OT vs. Loyola Marymount
The Tigers' roster is loaded with dudes in their first year of Division I basketball. It's no surprise that they're struggling.
They've played just three really good offensive games this season but only one of those came in WCC play, their win over LMU in January. Their other conference win came against San Diego, back when San Diego couldn't shoot if their lives depended on it. That's about the only way you score 0.885 points per possession and still manage to win a basketball game.
With only two home games remaining, vs. Gonzaga and Portland, it's unfortunately likely that this team finishes the season with a 2-16 record in WCC play.