The conference season hasn’t even started and it’s already been a pretty good year for West Coast Conference men’s basketball teams.
Four have won at least 10 games and seven of nine boast winning records. WCC teams are 81-44 for a 64.8 winning percentage, easily surpassing last year’s 60.5.
Gonzaga (13-1) has hogged most of the headlines, cracking the top 10 with the school’s best start since joining D-I in 1958. The Bulldogs, whose 11-year title run was stopped by Saint Mary’s last season, are solid favorites to reclaim the WCC’s top spot. Gonzaga is balanced and has front-court depth that few teams can match.
“Our bigs can attack in a variety of ways,” coach Mark Few said. “They post you hard, two or three can drive, Sam (Dower) can shoot it out to the 3 as can Kelly (Olynyk) and ‘E’ (Elias Harris). The issues we’ve had with this team, if we’ve had many issues, is sometimes we fall in love with the jump shot because we can shoot jump shots pretty good, too. At the end of the day, the bigs have been our bread and butter.”
The Zags have won four straight, including a pair of pulsating victories over Baylor and Oklahoma State, both picked to finish in the top three of the Big 12 Conference.
“We’re confident in ourselves and our teammates and our abilities,” said Olynyk, the team’s leading scorer at 15.7 per game. “And what we’re most confident about is we still have a lot of room to grow.”
Gonzaga isn’t the only WCC team with momentum entering conference play. Saint Mary’s, led by 2012 WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova, rallied from an 18-point deficit to edge Harvard on Monday. They Gaels have won three in a row and their offensive numbers (79.9 points per game, 50.1 percentage shooting) barely trail Gonzaga’s.
BYU, winners of eight of its last 10, clobbered Virginia Tech 97-71 on Saturday. No. 22 Oklahoma State’s only losses are to Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. Tyler Haws poured in 42 points against the Hokies. Brandon Davies ranks third in the WCC in scoring (20.1) and rebounding (7.9).
Santa Clara, picked sixth in the preseason poll, is perhaps the biggest surprise. After going winless in conference last year, the Broncos are 11-3 and gave top-ranked Duke fits before falling by 13 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They’ve lost twice in overtime. Santa Clara is the only D-I program with three active 1,000-point career scorers (Kevin Foster, Marc Trasolini and Evan Roquemore).
“I think some of these teams are able to gain some confidence with the schedules they’re playing,” Few said. “They’re not playing schedules like we are and confidence is a big factor. If you think you’re good and you believe that’s probably as big a factor as anything.”
Pepperdine, which plays host to Gonzaga on Thursday, dropped its first two games but has won 8 of 11. San Francisco, despite six players leaving the program after last season, has put together a winning record. Cole Dickerson’s 11.9 rebounds per game ranks fourth nationally. San Diego seems to be on an upswing.
Loyola Marymount point guard Anthony Ireland leads the WCC in scoring at 21.3 points per game. Portland has a losing record but played a rugged nonconference schedule. Ryan Nicholas (Gonzaga Prep) leads the Pilots in scoring (13.8) and he’s second in the WCC in rebounding (9.7).
Gonzaga will try to carry its strong nonconference into the 16-game WCC schedule.
“We had some really tough (nonconference) games, a lot in the Big 12,” Olynyk said. “It really prepares us for later because our conference is molded with different types of teams. The Big 12 gives us more physical teams, guys that are really athletic. It helps us for later in the season and the tournament so we can play any style of play.”