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Gonzaga Basketball

WCC improving, but Gonzaga still rates as solid favorite

Coach Kyle Smith, shown against Saint Mary’s last season, guided San Francisco to a 12-2 nonconference record. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

By virtually every metric, from rudimentary win-loss records to the NCAA’s newfangled NET rankings, the West Coast Conference is experiencing a major upswing.

That’s a welcome change at the WCC’s Bay Area-based offices and for 10 member programs.

What hasn’t changed is the rest of the conference is still chasing Gonzaga, and the seventh-ranked Zags are about to get a lot better.

Gonzaga knocked off No. 1 Duke on a neutral floor and ascended to No. 1 in the polls before falling to Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Zags have done it without foward Killian Tillie – considered a preseason candidate for WCC Player of the Year and All-America honors – and most of it without guard Geno Crandall, sidelined the last nine games with a fractured hand.

Crandall is expected to play in Saturday’s WCC opener against Santa Clara. Coach Mark Few told that Tillie, recovering from ankle surgery, is “on track” to make his season debut Saturday.

Their return eliminates GU’s depth concerns and should boost the Zags at both ends of the court. The combination of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and a healthy Tillie could be the best frontcourt in the country.

The Zags posted four straight easy victories leading up to Santa Clara’s visit.

“Everybody can analyze it and overanalyze it,” Few said of Gonzaga’s 13-2 nonconference mark. “The bottom line is the way those games were stacked up was as tough as anything we’ve taken on. The timing of it … when you’re in Maui everybody thinks they can win the national championship, nobody has any issues.

That crowd we faced at Creighton and where Creighton was at that particular time, and even walking into that hornet’s nest at Chapel Hill. They were geared up and ready, and that was a really big game for (North) Carolina, that’s a statement in itself. In lieu of the injuries we’ve had and to do it with limited numbers has been really impressive.”

The WCC’s numbers have been impressive, too. Five teams have double-digit wins – it didn’t hurt having more opportunities with the conference slate trimmed from 18 games to 16 – and nine carry at least .500 records.

The WCC leads the nation in field-goal and free-throw percentage, and ranks second in scoring. The conference posted a 10-7 record against the Pac-12.

There is no clear pecking order behind the favored Zags, but San Francisco, San Diego and Loyola Marymount appear capable of dropping perennial powers Saint Mary’s and BYU down a rung or two.

LMU (12-3) had the best start in school history when it reached 10-1. USF (13-2) matched its best start since 2000 before falling to UC Santa Barbara. San Diego is 11-5 and has wins over Colorado, Washington State and San Diego State.

“We’re pretty good at a lot of things,” USF coach Kyle Smith said. “We don’t pass the eye test. You’re not going to look at us and go, ‘Whoa,’ but we make good decisions at both ends of the floor.”

The WCC’s improvement reflects a collection of quality coaches and numerous teams boasting rosters with talent and experience. Smith also mentioned Few, who has pushed for conference schools to step up their investment in basketball and in scheduling.

“We were in our conference meeting with the coaches, we kind of took Mark’s cue,” Smith said. “He thought we need to take on more challenges as far as scheduling, and I think we have. I think we’re seeing the benefits of it.”

Saint Mary’s bolstered its schedule and suffered its first four-game losing streak since 2007 before rebounding with four consecutive wins. BYU’s Yoeli Childs is a WCC Player of the Year candidate but the Cougars absorbed seven nonconference losses.

Still, both programs have been fixtures near the top of the standings. BYU has never finished below third since joining the WCC in 2012. Saint Mary’s hasn’t finished below fourth since 2003.

“BYU played an incredibly tough schedule,” Smith said. “And I was just looking at Saint Mary’s KenPom numbers and they’re about where they’ve been.”