National pundits have suggested the West Coast Conference could be a three-bid league. Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s are a combined 30-7. Many have argued the WCC is better than the Pac-12, if not top to bottom than at least the upper tier.
What seems certain is the WCC is on an upswing, especially with the addition of BYU. The Cougars have played in the last five NCAA tournaments and crushed Gonzaga 89-67 in last year’s event.
What remains unchanged, according to the preseason coaches poll and most observers, is that Gonzaga is the favorite.
“Our league’s tough. It’s been tough for a long time,” Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson said. “Actually, BYU coming in makes it a little tougher, but Gonzaga’s still the team to beat, no matter what. They’ve dominated the league for a while and everybody’s looking up at them until someone beats them.
“I haven’t watched (the Bulldogs) much, but they’re pretty good.”
Gonzaga will need to be if it plans on claiming its 12th consecutive championship because the WCC continues to make strides.
BYU (10-3) has one of the better frontcourts in college basketball. Saint Mary’s (11-2) entered the week as the only team in the nation in the top 10 in scoring defense and scoring margin. Loyola Marymount defeated UCLA and Saint Louis, both ranked at the time.
Before losing to Holy Cross on Thursday, San Francisco’s 9-3 start was its best since 2000. Santa Clara knocked off New Mexico and Villanova at a tournament in Anaheim, Calif. Pepperdine won at Arizona State and held two Big Sky foes to 40 points or less.
Prior to Pepperdine’s loss to Washington State on Thursday, the WCC had a .500 record against the Pac-12.
“It’s a competitive league, it always is,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “Now there’s another team (BYU) fighting for the title, so everyone is going to be hungry.”
That’s the good WCC. Meet the not-so-good WCC.
BYU came up short against nationally ranked Wisconsin and Baylor, the best teams on their nonconference schedule. Saint Mary’s had a solid victory over 10-2 Northern Iowa, but missed its chance at a signature win by falling to Baylor by 13 on Thursday.
LMU lost 69-45 to 2-7 Morgan State, which admittedly has played a rugged schedule. Pepperdine scored 39 points and lost by 23 to UCLA. Santa Clara lost by 33 to UC Santa Barbara, by 38 to Washington State and by one to Houston Baptist, which is No. 319 in KenPom.com’s RPI.
Gonzaga is 9-2 against a schedule stocked with marquee names (Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan State, Arizona, Butler). The Bulldogs have yet to face a ranked opponent and might not since No. 14 Xavier has dropped three straight after its brawl with Cincinnati. Illinois and Michigan State cracked the Top 25 following wins over GU.
“This is the best the conference has been that I can remember,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, whose team opens WCC play against visiting Portland on Wednesday. “Now, some teams have played varying schedules, but the teams are better. They’re older. San Francisco had a ton of success last year and has every person on its roster back. Santa Clara had success in the postseason (winning the CIT) and has its main players back. I think Saint Mary’s lost one guy.”
And BYU? “They’re always going to be in the hunt for the title,” Few said.
Gonzaga shared last year’s crown with Saint Mary’s. The Bulldogs went unbeaten three times from 2004-09, but the chances of another unblemished run by anyone are remote. BYU was dominant during its stay in the Mountain West. The Gaels have one win over Gonzaga in four of the last five seasons. GU, BYU and Saint Mary’s are among eight programs that have won 25 or more games the last four years.
BYU, with forwards Noah Hartsock (17.3 ppg, 6.2 rebounds) and Brandon Davies (11 ppg, 6.8 rebounds), wing Charles Abouo (12.6 ppg, 7.2 rebounds) and UCLA transfer guard Matt Carlino (16.7 ppg), leads the WCC in scoring offense (79.6 per game). Saint Mary’s, led by guard Matthew Dellavedova (13.9 ppg, 6.2 assists) and forward Rob Jones (14.0 ppg, 10.6 rebounds), has the conference’s stingiest defense (56.9 ppg).