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WCC Power Rankings: Gonzaga returns to the top

After two weeks in second the Zags locked down the top spot once again with solid work on the defensive end.

NCAA Basketball: North Alabama at Gonzaga
Mark Few’s talks with guard Josh Perkins during a game against North Alabama last week.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference portion of the season has been a massive success for the WCC.

Five teams enter conference play with double-digits in the win column, and traditional powers Saint Mary’s and BYU aren’t among them. The league is better and deeper than normal.

Let’s take a look around the West Coast Conference as we get ready to flip the calendar over to 2019.

Team of the Week

G — Olin Carter III: Senior, San Diego
Led the team with 19 points against Grand Canyon and matched his career high, set in his first game as a freshman, with 7 rebounds.

G — Jordan Ford: Junior, Saint Mary’s
The Gaels’ go-to scoring option this season went for 16 points against San Jose State, second on the team, but dished out five assists with just one turnover. He’s Mr. Everything offensively right now for Saint Mary’s, for better or for worse.

G — Ajare Sanni: Freshman, Pacific
Led the team with 23 points on 8-16 shooting in the upset win over UC Irvine.

F — Isaiah Pineiro: Senior, San Diego
Recorded his third double-double of the season with 17 points and 12 rebounds against Grand Canyon.

F — Brandon Clarke: Junior, Gonzaga
Recorded a line of 16 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals against North Alabama. Has 46 blocks for the season. Gonzaga’s single-season record is 70, held by Austin Daye.

Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (13-2)
Last week: W 96-51 vs. North Alabama, W 89-54 vs. CSU Bakersfield
This week: Jan. 5 vs Santa Clara
Previous: Second

The Zags’ return to the top spot has just as much to do with their play as it does with San Francisco taking a loss. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.

At this time last season Gonzaga had fallen to No. 3 in my rankings after a disappointing December. In total, the Zags played nine games last season in which they turned the ball over on 20-plus percent of possessions and five of those came during December. It was a problem. Mark Few recognized this and fixed it.

The result: Gonzaga turned the ball over on just 13.8 percent of possessions in WCC play last season, best in the league.

This December, it’s been defense, rather than turnovers, hurting the Zags. Over Gonzaga’s first seven games this season, only Duke managed to score above one point per possession.

But, once the calendar flipped to December, the wheels fell off and the Zags allowed Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina to score over 1.1 points per possession in successive games. It was a problem, and Mark Few recognized that.

Against Denver and North Alabama the Zags played with energy and pride on the defensive end. Even Geno Crandall, out with a broken hand, has been screaming, yelling and clapping from the bench as the Zags defend. Did Few find a fix once again? We’ll have to wait until the Zags face some decent competition, but I’m not betting against him at this point.

2. San Francisco Dons (12-2)
Last week: L 73-71 at UC Santa Barbara
This week: Jan 3 vs. Saint Mary’s, Jan. 5 at Pepperdine
Previous: First

The sky is falling in San Francisco. Well, only kind of. The Dons could’ve used a win over the weekend in Santa Barbara, but they got a two point loss instead. That game sits just outside of quad two at this point, but the Gauchos are rising in the NET. Which is to say, it won’t be seen as a truly bad loss by the people who matter. I’m not sure if it shut the door on the Dons’ at-large chances or not, but it certainly doesn’t help. There will be no room for error in WCC play, though. That’s for sure.

3. San Diego Toreros (11-4)
Last week: W 61-58 vs. Grand Canyon
This week: Jan. 3 at Santa Clara, Jan. 5 vs. Pacific
Previous: Third

The bad news: Isaiah Wright has a hairline fracture in his wrist. The senior point guard was averaging 13.2 points and five assists per game so far this season. He’s expected to be out for four weeks.

The good news: Yauhen Massalski returned to the starting line up for the first time since getting injured against Mississippi on November 28. He’s still not the player he was before the injury, when he was averaging 8.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but this is a good sign for a San Diego team struggling with injuries.

4. Saint Mary’s Gaels (9-6)
Last week: W 75-45 vs. San Jose State
This week: Jan. 3 at San Francisco, Jan. 5 vs. BYU
Previous: Fourth

Tommy Kuhse moved into the starting lineup on December 1 against Cal. Before that, the Gaels were averaging 9.4 assists per game. In Kuhse’s first six games as a starter, Saint Mary’s averaged 16.3 per game. The offense kind of looked like the Gaels of old. In their last two, however, the average has dropped back to nine.

5. Pacific Tigers (10-5)
Last week: W 84-75 (OT) vs. UC Irvine
This week: Jan. 3 vs. BYU, Jan. 5 at San Diego
Previous: Seventh

The Tigers enter conference play with ten wins for the first time ever. Since rejoining the WCC for the 2014 season, Pacific has averaged 12.6 wins per year. They’re just three shy of beating that average this year.

When Damon Stoudamire took over in 2016 the Tigers were coming off an eight win season. They won 11 games in his first year at the helm and 14 last year. KenPom is not as high on the Tigers as I am right now, but even the metrics predict a 16-win season.

All that said, UC Irvine was the first decent team the Tigers have defeated this year. Prior to that, Pacific had not taken down a top-200 KenPom team. UC Irvine was No. 100. Up next, No. 85 BYU, a trip to No. 90 San Diego and a trip to No. 3 Gonzaga. We’ll find out if Pacific is a paper tiger or not over the next week and a half.

6. BYU Cougars (8-7)
Last week: L 103-81 at Mississippi State
This week: Jan. 3 at Pacific, Jan. 5 at Saint Mary’s
Previous: Fifth

The Cougars now have two three-game losing streaks on their resume this season. Though this one — vs. UNLV in Las Vegas, at San Diego State and at Mississippi State — is much more reasonable than the previous. It’s still not good. I expected BYU to finish second in the WCC this season, easily. Looking at them now, it might be a tough task to finish in the top-half of the league.

7. Santa Clara Broncos (8-6)
Last week: W 79-71 vs. Washington State (Spokane)
This week: Jan. 3 vs. San Diego, Jan. 5 at Gonzaga
Previous: Eighth

They may be seventh in my power rankings, but they’re first in grit and I don’t care how corny that sounds.

The Broncos opened the season with an embarrassing loss, at home, to a Prairie View A&M team that is now 1-11 on the year. They lost their next game, too, and their best player in senior guard KJ Feagin. And then they lost another game, and another. When they finally got one in the win column, it came with the loss of starting center Fallou Ndoye to injury.

But they turned a corner with that game against San Jose State, and have gone 8-2 since Thanksgiving.

I know the Pac 12 is trash, but Santa Clara looked equally garbage to start the year and since then the Broncos have picked up two wins over Pac 12 teams. They beat USC in double-overtime despite playing just seven guys. Over the weekend in Spokane, the largest city in Washington State’s market, they took down the Cougars with only eight scholarship players available.

There’s been some weird addition by subtraction in the South Bay this season.

8. Loyola Marymount Lions (12-2)
Last week: W 77-59 vs. UC Davis
This week: Jan. 3 at Pepperdine, Jan. 5 vs. Portland
Previous: Sixth

Speaking of paper tigers.

I’ve had the Lions in the bottom half of the rankings for two straight weeks, despite the fact that they’re entering the new year with just two losses. Which speaks more to the quality of the West Coast Conference this season than it does to LMU.

That said, it does speak to the quality of LMU as well. The Lions play exactly like a mid-major team without much talent. They grind you down defensively and limit possessions. And, when they need a bucket, they go to the one guy with nationally impressive talent on the team: James Batemon.

It’s worked for the most part, but they’ve yet to face a team ranked in the top-100 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. That’s about to change, as fully half of the WCC ranks 76th or better (Gonzaga comes in at No. 1) in that metric.

9. Pepperdine Waves (7-7)
Last week: W 100-64 vs. Alabama A&M
This week: Jan. 3 vs. Loyola Marymount, Jan. 5 vs. San Francisco
Previous: Ninth

Well, the Waves didn’t play between Dec. 20 and Dec. 31, and closed out non-conference play with a 100-64 win against an Alabama A&M team that is now 1-13 on the season. So, not exactly a blockbuster end to the year in Malibu, but a win nonetheless.

10. Portland Pilots (7-8)
Last week: L 79-64 at Cal State Fullerton
This week: Jan. 5 at Loyola Marymount
Previous: 10th

Portland started the season 5-2, just like Pepperdine. Now, both teams are one game below .500 on the season. Pepperdine has one win over non-Division I competition. Portland has two. And that’s the entirety of my reasoning for having these two teams in the order they’re in and honestly about all I feel the need to say about them.