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John Blanchette: West Coast Conference slate not likely to be a walk in the park for Gonzaga

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 31, 2018, 9:44 p.m.

Adieu to the figgy pudding portion of the Gonzaga basketball schedule.

As necessary as breathers and end-of-the-calendar workshopping are for the power players of college hoops, even Cheez-It bowls can be worthier amusements than the paycheck matchmaking that shuttles the likes of Denver and North Alabama this way, or even the feistier souls of Cal State Bakersfield, Monday’s victims.

There have been years, of course, when January and February brought more of the same for the Zags.

This doesn’t figure to be one of them.

Oh, the Bulldogs might well win the West Coast Conference four or five games clear of the field, and could even run the table. When an opponent has their full attention, they’re certainly that good – and will be even better once Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall return to the rotation.

But the pre-New Year’s vibe up and down the WCC suggests more hard nights than easy ones. Consider that four other teams already have 10 or more wins this season.

And that none of them are Saint Mary’s or Brigham Young.

Given the last decade’s hierarchy in the WCC, this is a little like finding that the roadies have displaced the Pips doo-wahing behind Gladys Knight.

But there they are – Loyola Marymount and San Francisco at 12-2, San Diego at 11-4 and Pacific at 10-5. In fact, conference play begins next week without a single WCC team under the .500 mark.

No one’s inking in the WCC for multiple NCAA bids. The likelihood is, it will still take a massive upset at the conference tournament for it to happen.

But as of Monday morning, there are four WCC teams among the top 85 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool – yes, the NET, the new ratings toy college basketball adopted after sending the reviled RPI to the metric boneyard.

If you can’t pack the bracket, playing well is the best revenge. And one key to playing well is scheduling well.

After some hard – and maybe even begrudging – self-evaluation over the past few years, some WCC schools have tweaked their approach, tapped consultants, dug deeper to buy more no-return home games, sought out neutral-site opportunities and, in one case, blew up the old scheduling model.

“What you’re trying to do is get winnable games,” said WCC associate commissioner Aaron Woliczko, the league’s basketball wrangler, “and that’s whether you’re a rebuilding program or a top program. You have to have a strategy for it, just as you do with a game, and you have to be honest with yourself.”

Where it got especially honest for the WCC was the realization that the massive gap in the old RPI numbers among members wasn’t doing anyone much good. So last spring, the league lopped two games off the conference round-robin – often as not, taking two low-end teams off the upper-end schedules – to allow better nonconference opportunities.

That freed Gonzaga, for instance, to schedule no fewer than eight Power 6 opponents this fall – without second games against Portland and Pepperdine that could drag down their NET numbers that might, say, break a tie in the NCAA seeding room.

But it also necessitated that some of the lodge brothers take on a more aggressive mentality in scheduling. You’ll recall a senior-laden Saint Mary’s team winning 28 games last season – and missing out on an at-large bid mostly due to a milquetoast non-WCC schedule.

This year, Randy Bennett took on some neutral site matches against Mississippi State and LSU, and a tough road trip to Western Kentucky. Alas, all those seniors are gone, and the Gaels have lost some home games, too, that have them 9-6. Likewise, BYU – with three Top 25 teams scheduled – has struggled to 8-7. San Diego booked four Pac-12 opponents and Ole Miss in trying to boost its postseason resume, and came away 2-3 in those games.

“Our teams that wanted to schedule for an at-large did,” said Woliczko. “They all bought in.”

But so did others who weren’t scheduling quite so ambitiously. Loyola opened the season with a road upset of UNLV, then later beat Georgetown on a neutral floor. When the first NET was revealed the Lions were at No. 10 nationally – ahead of Kansas, no less. Now that the market has corrected itself, they’re back at 112 – and still as ecstatic.

It’s not about scheduling all heavyweights. As it happens, the WCC has just seven top 100 wins.

But the league is 14-13 against the Power 6 and 10-7 against the Pac.

“My cup of coffee in the morning is opening up Jerry Palm’s conference RPI ranking on CBS,” said Woliczko. “Most years we’re a double-digit league. Now we’re a solid No. 8. That’s a pretty good barometer of where you want to be. Those are the leagues that can send multiple teams to the NCAAs.”

And even if they don’t, it’s still a better place to be.

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