The top three teams in the West Coast Conference have found some separation between themselves and the rest of the pack, which continues to be as congested and unpredictable as ever.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-2, 5-0)
Last week: W 73-55 vs. Loyola Marymount, W 89-66 vs. Portland
This week: Jan 24 at Santa Clara
Gonzaga’s offense since the start of the season has consistently been — by most metrics — the best in college basketball. The Zags’ defense is slowly catching up, and that’s a terrifying reality for the rest of the nation.
Since losing on the road against North Carolina on December 15, the Zags have played nine games. The only team to average over a point per possession against Gonzaga in that stretch is San Francisco. If you look at what they’ve done since the start of conference play on that end, the Zags are holding teams to 0.84 points per possession. It’s the best mark in the league by a considerable margin.
On the other end, things are changing as well. Rui Hachimura is still averaging over 20 points per game, though just barely. Since Mark Few took over, the Zags have only had three players average over 20 points per game over a full season — Kyle Wiltjer (20.4) in 2016, Adam Morrison (28.1) in 2006 and Dan Dickau (21.0) in 2002. In recent seasons especially, when fully healthy, the Zags have been an unbelievably balanced scoring team. We saw a flash of that on Saturday against Portland as seven players scored between 10 and 17 points.
2. San Francisco Dons (16-3, 4-1)
Last week: W 53-52 at Pacific, W 82-63 vs. BYU
This week: Jan. 24 vs. Portland, Jan. 26 at San Diego
San Francisco is navigating the WCC season exactly how a team that wants to finish second behind Gonzaga needs to — and let’s face it, that’s about as good as any team in this league can expect to do year in and year out.
The Dons protected their home court against both of the league’s usual challengers, Saint Mary’s and BYU, and showed well in a home loss to Gonzaga. While they still have to face all three on the road, Saturday’s demolition of BYU was a sign that this team has what it takes.
The Dons shut down a potent BYU offense in dominating fashion, particularly on the glass. San Francisco outrebounded BYU 34 to 20. And BYU is, as usual, a rather big and athletic team. San Francisco, though, is as well. With their four toughest remaining games all coming on the road starting this weekend at San Diego, the Dons better hope that size travels.
3. Saint Mary’s Gaels (13-7, 4-1)
Last week: W 75-55 vs. Santa Clara, W 76-59 vs. San Diego
This week: Jan. 24 at BYU, Jan. 26 at Pepperdine
Saint Mary’s won a pair of home games in dominating fashion last week. The Gaels entered December under .500 and on a four game losing streak. Now, roughly a third of the way through conference play, they’re in position to challenge for second place as usual.
Randy Bennett lost the greatest four-year class in Saint Mary’s history, but his Gaels are still chugging along as usual. The Gaels finished as one of the 20 most efficient offensive teams nationally in each of the previous three seasons, per KenPom. They’re tracking for a fourth straight finish this year as they currently sit at No. 16. If you look at the raw, rather than adjusted efficiency numbers, the Gaels are ninth.
To have that level of consistency despite the unreal roster turnover — Jock Landale, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson and Cullen Neal all graduated, and junior forward Evan Fitzner transferred to Indiana — is a testament to the system Bennett has in place and the level of coach that he has become in Moraga. It’s WCC Coach of the Year level stuff.
4. San Diego Toreros (13-7, 2-3)
Last week: W 76-55 at Portland, L 76-59 at Saint Mary’s
This week: Jan. 24 vs. Loyola Marymount, Jan. 26 vs. San Francisco
Point guard Isaiah Wright returned from injury last week against Portland. Without Wright, the Toreros went 2-2 and were completely out of sorts offensively. Now that he’s back in the fold I expect San Diego to return to the level of team that it was during the non-conference portion of the season. But the injury bug bit more than just Wright. Olin Carter, the team’s second leading scorer (16.5 ppg), missed both games last week with an abdominal injury. And starting center Alex Floresca is working his way back from an ankle injury suffered two weeks ago against Pepperdine. Floresca played just nine minutes in the loss to Saint Mary’s.
5. BYU Cougars (12-9, 4-2)
Last week: W 87-76 at Pepperdine, L 82-63 at San Francisco
This week: Jan. 24 vs. Saint Mary’s
Here’s what BYU has done since the start of WCC play: The Cougars have defeated the teams that they should — Pacific, Portland, Santa Clara and Pepperdine — and been blown out in both games against superior competition — Saint Mary’s and San Francisco.
That’s a path that does not lead to a top-two finish in the WCC in any season, but especially one with a stronger-than-usual top-half of the conference.
How strong is the top-half this year? BYU rates as the No. 5 team in the WCC according to KenPom, where they rank 103rd nationally. Under Dave Rose the Cougars have never finished a season outside of the top-100.
6. Santa Clara Broncos (11-9, 3-3)
Last week: L 75-55 at Saint Mary’s, W 69-57 at Pacific
This week: Jan. 24 vs. Gonzaga, Jan. 26 vs. Loyola Marymount
Much like BYU, the Broncos have taken down the teams they should be beating but failed to pick up wins over any teams above them. Unlike BYU, however, the Broncos are having a successful season relative to expectations. After getting blown out by Saint Mary’s on the road last Thursday, Santa Clara picked up a nice, bounce-back win in Stockton over the Tigers. Tahj Eaddy and Josip Vrankic continue their sophomore surges and look primed to become high-level players out west.
7. Loyola Marymount Lions (14-5, 2-3)
Last week: L 73-55 at Gonzaga, W 74-70 vs. Pepperdine
This week: Jan. 24 at San Diego, Jan. 26 at Santa Clara
James Batemon (17.2 ppg) hasn’t scored over 14 points since December 19th. The Lions have gone 3-4 over that stretch. Batemon was unstoppable over the first month of the season, almost singlehandedly leading LMU to an 11-1 start. Opposing teams are taking him out of the game and forcing other Lions to step up offensively, but nobody else really can.
8. Pepperdine Waves (9-11, 2-4)
Last week: L 87-76 vs. BYU, L 74-70 at Loyola Marymount
This week: Jan. 26 vs. Saint Mary’s
Back-to-back losses have the Waves crashing below .500 in conference play. Their two wins are rather unimpressive, as well. Taking down San Diego on the road two weeks ago seems impressive on paper, but the Toreros were without Isaiah Wright and lost both Alex Floresca and Olin Carter to injury during the game.
That said, it’s a win. With how tight the league race is shaping up to be, one win could be what separates the teams forced to play in the opening round from the teams given a bye into the second.
9. Pacific Tigers (11-10, 1-5)
Last week: L 53-52 vs. San Francisco, L 69-57 vs. Santa Clara
This week: Jan. 26 vs. Portland
Pacific has been competitive at home against some of the better teams in the league. The Tigers lost one possession games to BYU on opening night and San Francisco over the weekend. I think they’re a more talented team than any other ranked seven through 10 in these rankings, but they’re just not getting it done and a 1-5 start is a deep hole to climb out of.
10. Portland Pilots (7-13, 0-5)
Last week: L 76-55 vs. San Diego, L 89-66 vs. Gonzaga
This week: Jan. 24 at San Francisco, Jan. 26 at Pacific
Portland has lost six games in a row, which is the longest losing streak in the WCC this season. KenPom projects it will grow to 17 games — that’s the remainder of the regular season. Considering only one of those six losses, at home against Pacific, has been decided by single digits, I would also agree with an 0-16 projection for the Pilots in conference play.