We’ve reached the midway point of the West Coast Conference season, which seems like a good time to evaluate the state of each team in the league as we enter the home-stretch. Just how far ahead of everyone else is Gonzaga? Which of the four teams fighting for second are trending in the right direction? Is there any reason for hope with the teams stuck near the bottom? Let’s find out.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-2, 8-0)
Last week: W 93-63 at BYU, W 85-69 vs. San Diego
This week: Feb. 7 vs. San Francisco, Feb. 9 vs. Saint Mary’s
There were two major question marks around this Gonzaga team entering conference play. How would the return of Killian Tillie, and to a lesser extent Geno Crandall, impact the team and its chemistry? The other was could the Zags make the necessary steps on the defensive end to become the truly elite team we expected them to be?
Those two questions go hand in hand, and both have been answered.
Tillie (6.3 ppg) and Crandall (5.1 ppg) have been back for eight games and both are playing well off the bench — Tillie was expected to be a starter this season before his injury, but the rotation is working so it seems Mark Few is opting for a “if it ain’t broke” approach to his lineup. Their biggest impact has been on the defensive end, where the Zags have transformed into a lock-down group. Since the start of conference play Gonzaga has held opponents to just 0.83 points per possession. That’s the best mark in the conference by a whopping 0.16 points per possession.
Gonzaga’s lone defensive lapse in league play came against San Francisco, and the Zags won that game by 13 points. I guess when you boast the most efficient offense of the KenPom era — Gonzaga’s averaging 1.251 points/possession this season — you don’t have to worry too much if you’re not able to string together stops.
2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (14-9, 5-3)
Last week: W 86-80 vs. San Francisco
This week: Feb. 7 vs. Pacific, Feb. 9 at Gonzaga
Saint Mary’s season can be summed up pretty well by just looking at their position in these rankings over the past three weeks. The Gaels fell from third to fifth, thanks to back-to-back losses at BYU and Pepperdine, then rebounded with a win over San Francisco and shot up to second.
The Gaels have strung together losses, and then bounced back with inspired and strong performances all season long. This is, after all, a very young and inexperienced team still learning how to live without Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson. That’s obvious in those losses, when Jordan Ford (21.9 ppg) is forced to play full on hero ball.
In the inspired performances, however, you’d be hard pressed to find much difference between this year’s team and those of years past. Saint Mary’s, amazingly, ranks eighth nationally in offensive efficiency this season, per KenPom, averaging 1.162 points per possession.
3. San Francisco Dons (17-5, 5-3)
Last week: L 86-80 at Saint Mary’s
This week: Feb. 7 at Gonzaga, Feb. 9 vs. Santa Clara
San Francisco is quickly heading for a disappointing end to what started out as the most exciting season on the Hilltop since the 1980s. The Dons still have a fully healthy roster of talent and experience that is nearly unmatched at the mid-major level. They’re certainly good enough to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
But getting there is going to be a challenge. Their non-conference schedule, which was aggressive but unlucky — this isn’t the year to build a resume with home-and-homes against Pac-12 teams, unfortunately — has been holding them back. Now their conference schedule is as well.
The Dons looked like a clear-cut number two team in this league entering conference play, capable of beating everyone except Gonzaga. Now, halfway through, in addition to Gonzaga they’ve lost to San Diego and Saint Mary’s. As a result, those two teams are fighting with the Dons for second place and a coveted double-bye in the WCC Tournament.
4. BYU Cougars (14-10, 6-3)
Last week: L 93-63 vs. Gonzaga, W 67-49 vs. Loyola Marymount
This week: Feb. 7 at Portland, Feb. 9 vs. Pacific
The Cougars are four games above .500 for the year and less than a week removed from a 30-point drubbing, in Provo, at the hands of Gonzaga. But I’m going to say the Cougars are doing better than expected half-way through the conference slate.
BYU entered WCC play on a three game losing streak, the Cougars’ second such streak of the season.
Now, in early February, they’re half-a-game up on Saint Mary’s and San Francisco for second place in the standings. Can the Cougars hold off the other three challengers for the two seed? I wouldn’t bet on it. But just a month ago I would have bet that BYU would finish outside the top-half of the league.
5. San Diego Toreros (15-8, 4-4)
Last week: L 85-69 at Gonzaga
This week: Feb. 7 at Loyola Marymount, Feb. 9 at Pepperdine
The phrase “better than their record” has never described a team as well as it does this season’s San Diego Toreros. Without second-leading scorer Olin Carter (16.5 ppg), who has missed five straight games with an abdominal injury, the Toreros hung with Gonzaga better than any team other than San Francisco has over the past month and a half.
Mark Few, before and after Saturday’s game, almost gushed about the Toreros and their ability when fully healthy. Unfortunately for San Diego fans, this team has been banged up more often than not. In addition to Carter’s five game absence, San Diego has gone extended stretches, at different times, without Yauhen Massalski (three games) and Isaiah Wright (four games). San Diego has had to play without its ideal starting five in over half of the team’s 23 games so far this season.
Yet, halfway through conference play, the team is just a game back of second place and heading towards healthy once again.
6. Loyola Marymount Lions (16-7, 4-5)
Last week: W 60-42 vs. Pacific, L 67-49 at BYU
This week: Feb. 7 vs. San Diego, Feb. 9 at Portland
The Lions have, so far, split their season with Pepperdine and lost every game they’ve played against teams I have ranked above them. Which is about right. They’re the slowest team in the WCC, considerably behind second-slowest Saint Mary’s. Unlike the Gaels, the Lions don’t slow it down to hunt great shots. They slow it down because they can’t get great shots, and limiting possessions is the only way to keep them in the game. That’s failed in every game so far against teams that, unlike LMU, score the ball with ease.
Six teams in the WCC are above average nationally, according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. LMU is not one of them, and the Lions are thusly not above average in the league. Simple as that.
7. Pepperdine Waves (11-12, 4-5)
Last week: W 83-58 at Portland, L 66-59 at Pacific
This week: Feb. 7 vs. Santa Clara, Feb. 9 vs. San Diego
Lorenzo Romar’s second stint in Malibu has gotten off to a solid start as the Waves have already nearly doubled up on last season’s win total. I think it’s safe to say nobody was expecting Pepperdine, with a brand new coaching staff, to make much noise this season. So, their progress report should be more forward looking than the rest of the teams in the WCC.
The future is bright. Romar has always been a solid recruiter, and he’s already put together two good classes at Pepperdine. Plus, Marty Wilson left him with some serious talent. I have two of Wilson’s guys coming off the bench in my ideal, non-Gonzaga eight man rotation.
G: Frankie Ferrari— Will Maupin (@willswccblog) February 4, 2019
G: Jordan Ford
G: Charles Minlend
F: Isaiah Pineiro
F: Yoeli Childs
Bench: Kam Edwards, Colbey Ross & Malik Fitts.
3-7 vs. Zags in a 10-game series, evenly split home-and-home. https://t.co/BkitUbBki9
8. Pacific Tigers (13-11, 3-6)
Last week: L 60-42 at Loyola Marymount, W 66-59 vs. Pepperdine
This week: Feb. 7 at Saint Mary’s, Feb. 9 at BYU
The Tigers entered WCC play with a surprising 10-5 record, though it was comprised mostly of wins over teams that the Tigers should be beating. Since then, the Tigers have picked up just three more wins. And two of those came against Portland, the team stuck in the WCC cellar. Pacific’s progressing basically like Pacific has since rejoining the WCC. The Tigers have never finished above .500 in conference play since rejoining the league and they’re trending towards their fifth season finishing multiple games below .500 in six seasons back in the WCC. Progress? Stagnation.
9. Santa Clara Broncos (12-11, 4-5)
Last week: W 69-63 (OT) vs. Portland
This week: Feb. 7 at Pepperdine, Feb. 9 at San Francisco
The Broncos needed overtime at home against lowly Portland to avoid skidding to a three-game losing streak.
This team has been on a rollercoaster ride that once again seems to be plunging down. The Broncos bounced back from about a million injuries and an 0-4 start to the season by winning nine of 11 games. Herb Sendek’s team owns a 2-2 record against the Pac-12, but since the start of WCC play they’ve been a sub-.500 team. Weird.
10. Portland Pilots (7-17, 0-9)
Last week: L 69-63 (OT) at Santa Clara
This week: Feb. 7 vs. BYU, Feb. 9 vs. Loyola Marymount
The Pilots needed more than 40 minutes to lose a game! That’s progress. Honestly. Portland has lost 10 straight, and 15 of 17, in mostly embarrassing fashion. Saturday, on the road, the Pilots fought and played reasonably well.