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WCC preview: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga?

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 26, 2017, 7:59 p.m.

Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins, pictured driving for a layup against North Dakota, will lead the Zags when they open WCC play against visiting Pacific on Thursday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins, pictured driving for a layup against North Dakota, will lead the Zags when they open WCC play against visiting Pacific on Thursday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

So, let’s see what the WCC’s ‘Big 3’ has been up to the last two months.

Gonzaga has been what we thought it would be: Pretty darn good and wildly entertaining (see first 34 minutes against Texas, second half vs. Creighton, entire 50 minutes vs. Florida, entire 40 minutes vs. Ohio State), and not-so-good at times and wildly inconsistent (last six minutes of regulation vs. Texas, overmatched against Villanova, sleepy against North Dakota and outplayed by San Diego State).

Saint Mary’s started the season in the national picture but dropped off the radar with back-to-back losses. The Gaels are playing their way back into the conversation – they’re an 11 seed in the latest Bracketology – with a six-game winning streak.

BYU is riding an eight-game winning streak and, do not adjust your glasses, playing pretty good defense. The Cougars have a Big 3 of their own: forward Yoeli Childs, wing Elijah Bryant and point guard TJ Haws.

In the NCAA’s RPI, Gonzaga is No. 48, Saint Mary’s 49 and BYU 54.

Let’s see what the rest of the WCC pack has been up to.

San Francisco could crack the top three but the Dons have been a bit of an enigma. They knocked off Mountain West preseason favorite Nevada. The day before, they lost to middling Duquesne.

San Diego has been the surprise of the conference. The Toreros’ 8-2 start was the program’s best since joining Division I in 1979.

Santa Clara, picked fifth in the preseason poll, is 3-9 with wins over LaVerne, Northern Arizona and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Broncos are 348th out of 351 D-I teams in the NCAA’s RPI. Arkansas-Pine Bluff is No. 350.

WCC play begins Thursday and the top – or cluttered bottom, for that matter – looks no more settled than it did two months ago. Most agree the top two teams are No. 20 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, but in what order?

Coaches pegged the Gaels as resounding favorites in the preseason poll but those voting totals might be closer or look different if coaches had the benefit of a mulligan.

The Zags, who entertain Pacific on Thursday, have one of the nation’s best offenses (90.2 points, No. 8) but they’ve been turnover-prone and leaky defensively (74.7 points, No. 233).

GU senior guard Silas Melson hasn’t monitored Saint Mary’s and BYU because the Zags have been dealing with a tough non-conference slate, but he does remember the preseason rankings.

“For sure (it’s) motivation,” said Melson, shortly after Gonzaga’s 72-70 loss to San Diego State. “We’re just coming off a game we 100 percent think we could have won and then people thinking we could come in second to Saint Mary’s … we’re ready to go instantly.”

The Gaels have been highly efficient on offense but they’re not as stout defensively as last year’s crew. They lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.02) and rank 15th in field-goal percentage (51.0), thanks to center Jock Landale (21.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 64.7 percent field goal) and point guard Emmett Naar (12.0 points, 9.2 assists).

“We’re feeling good,” Landale told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “Rebounding and defense are the two things we always concentrate on. We know we have to get better there, but for the most part we’ve got confidence in each other.”

BYU’s biggest question mark is the lack of frontcourt scoring options outside of Childs (16.6 points, 8.5 rebounds).

“Of all the springs, summers and falls I have been here with my team, this was as good as it has been as far as commitment to be a tougher group, especially on the defensive end,” coach Dave Rose told the Salt Lake Tribune recently.

San Francisco should be factor with a roster packed with returners and freshman guard Souley Boum (14 points per game). The Dons have been without guard Charles Minlend, who hasn’t played due to a shoulder injury.

San Diego appears primed to move into the top five behind two transfers: Isaiah Wright (Utah) and Isaiah Pineiro (Portland State). The Toreros have road wins over WAC preseason favorite Grand Canyon, New Mexico State (receiving votes in AP poll) and Colorado.

The Toreros are in the top 12 in field-goal percentage defense (37.0) and scoring defense (61.1). They’re No. 1 in 3-point percentage defense (23.3).

Pacific, Portland, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara all rank outside of the RPI top 220.


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