The West Coast Conference, top to bottom, hasn’t been this good in a long time. Maybe ever. The league currently ranks eighth nationally in KenPom, which is tied with the 2015 edition for their best position ever.
That said, there’s never been this much of a gap between the best team in the league and everybody else. In 2017, Gonzaga set the WCC record with a conference margin of victory of +26.2. Through ten games this season the Zags’ WCC margin of victory is +31.1.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-2, 10-0)
Last week: W 92-62 vs. San Francisco, W 94-46 vs. Saint Mary’s
This week: Feb. 14 at Loyola Marymount, Feb. 16 at San Diego
Well, I’m convinced. The Zags are playing the best defense of any team in the nation.
KenPom has Gonzaga at No. 20 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which isn’t bad but certainly doesn’t scream “the best.” But that’s because it’s a season-long calculation which weighs every game equally. For the first 12 games of the year Gonzaga played with a blasé attitude on the defensive end. They gave up 1.04 points per possession during that span. But back-to-back losses to Tennessee and North Carolina forced the Zags to step it up defensively. Since then, they’ve been allowing just 0.78 points per possession.
On Saturday, the Zags proved their defensive renaissance wasn’t just the result of playing middling, at best, offensive teams. They held Saint Mary’s, a top-15 team nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, to just 0.67 points per possession. That’s the least efficient performance from a top-15 team this season.
2. BYU Cougars (16-10, 8-3)
Last week: W 83-48 at Portland, W 69-59 vs. Pacific
This week: Feb. 14 at San Diego, Feb. 16 at Loyola Marymount
There seems to be a pretty simple formula for coming in second in the WCC, and BYU has finally figured it out: just don’t lose games you shouldn’t.
So far, BYU’s done exactly that. The Cougars’ three conference losses? At San Francisco and at Saint Mary’s, the two other teams with reasonable shots at finishing in second, and at home against Gonzaga.
Over the weekend the Cougars had a scare from Pacific, for the second time this season. But BYU closed out the game and got the win once again. Both other teams fighting with BYU for the 2-seed in the WCC Tournament have found themselves in battles with inferior teams as well, but unlike BYU, those two teams haven’t always been able to hold on for a win. As a result, the Cougars own a game-and-a-half lead on both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco.
Keeping that lead down the home stretch will be difficult, however. BYU faces four top-100 KenPom teams over the final five regular season games. The only team not in the top-100 left on the schedule is LMU, on the road, in a game KenPom predicts to be a one point BYU loss.
3. Saint Mary’s Gaels (15-10, 6-4)
Last week: W 78-66 vs. Pacific, L 94-46 at No. 4 Gonzaga
This week: Feb. 14 at Santa Clara, Feb. 16 vs. Pepperdine
Before this weekend the Gaels had lost by 40-plus points at the hands of Gonzaga on just three occasions, all of which came between 1999 and 2001. At that time Gonzaga was powering itself onto the national radar with absolutely no margin for error. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, was a program in disarray. The Gaels had just two seasons above .500 over the 11 years prior to Randy Bennett’s arrival in the fall of 2001.
Results like that made sense back then. But that was 20 years ago; for the past ten-plus years this series has been a real rivalry. A 48 point demolition — the second largest margin of defeat in series history — should not happen now. But it did, and it says a lot more about Gonzaga than it does Saint Mary’s.
There’s just one piece of advice you can give the Gaels: Put it behind you. Just put Saturday’s result in the past and move on. Forget about it. Don’t take anything away from it. Just walk away and don’t look back.
4. San Francisco Dons (18-6, 6-4)
Last week: L 92-62 at No. 4 Gonzaga, W 78-72 vs. Santa Clara
This week: Feb. 14 vs. Pepperdine, Feb. 16 at Portland
The Dons snapped a three-game losing streak, all of which came on the road against top-100 KenPom teams, with a six point home win over Santa Clara. It wasn’t the most inspiring bounce-back performance but it got the job done.
From here, things get a lot easier. San Francisco has already faced both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga twice, which leaves just one game remaining against a team ahead of them in the standings: at BYU on February 21. Win out, as KenPom projects they will, and a second place finish will almost certainly be assured.
5. Pepperdine Waves (12-13, 5-6)
Last week: L 79-71 vs. Santa Clara, W 70-67 vs. San Diego
This week: Feb. 14 at San Francisco, Feb. 16 at Saint Mary’s
No team in the WCC plays to the level of its competition like Pepperdine does.
The Waves own a 3-2 record this season against the league’s top-100 KenPom teams. But, they’re 2-4 against everybody else. Perhaps this week’s bay area road trip to San Francisco, which only won by three points in the first meeting, and Saint Mary’s is actually a blessing in disguise for Pepperdine.
6. San Diego Toreros (16-9, 5-5)
Last week: W 65-63 at Loyola Marymount, L 70-67 at Pepperdine
This week: Feb. 14 vs. BYU, Feb. 16 vs. Gonzaga
The Toreros are finally fully healthy but they have yet to regain their early-season form. After an inspired performance two weeks ago in Spokane — this season, losing by 16 points to Gonzaga is an accomplishment — the Toreros found themselves in tight road battles with the WCC’s two other Southern California schools. San Diego went 1-1 in those two games. Since Christmas the Toreros have put together back-to-back wins just once.
7. Santa Clara Broncos (13-12, 5-6)
Last week: W 79-71 at Pepperdine, L 78-72 at San Francisco
This week: Feb. 14 vs. Saint Mary’s, Feb. 16 vs. Pacific
An ugly and injury-plagued start made it seem like this would be a lost season in the South Bay. But then, somehow, the shorthanded Broncos started playing quality basketball. Now, it seems they’re somewhere in between. The future is bright, though. Sophomore forward Josip Vrankic continued his stellar season by averaging 25 points over two games last week.
8. Loyola Marymount Lions (17-8, 5-6)
Last week: L 65-63 vs. San Diego, W 72-55 at Portland
This week: Feb. 14 vs. Gonzaga, Feb. 16 vs. BYU
Over half of the Lions’ wins in conference play have come against the two teams ranked below them. Their remaining schedule features just one such game: Feb. 23 at Pacific.
9. Pacific Tigers (13-13, 3-8)
Last week: L 78-66 at Saint Mary’s, L 69-59 at BYU
This week: Feb. 16 at Santa Clara
The Tigers, for the second time this season, played a competitive game against BYU. On Saturday in Provo it was just a five point game mid-way through the second half. But, as was the case in the conference opener in Stockton, the Tigers came up short.
10. Portland Pilots (7-19, 0-11)
Last week: L 83-48 vs. BYU, L 72-55 vs. Loyola Marymount
This week: Feb. 16 vs. San Francisco
Portland has just five games left to avoid becoming the first team with a goose egg in the conference win column since Santa Clara in 2012. That team finished at No. 276 in KenPom. The Pilots currently rank No. 327. The Pilots appear destined to become just the fourth WCC team to finish a season ranked outside of the top-300 in KenPom. They might even beat out the 2008 LMU team that finished ranked No. 332 to claim the title of lowest ranked WCC team of the KenPom era.