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Gonzaga Basketball

Fourth-ranked Gonzaga expecting tougher tests in improving WCC once it finally begins conference play

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme maneuvers underneath for a shot against BYU’s Caleb Lohner in the WCC Tournament title game last March in Las Vegas.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga has been making noise in the West Coast Conference and on the national stage for two-plus decades.

This season, the Zags might have some company. The WCC thrived in the nonconference with eight teams posting winning records and four – Gonzaga, BYU, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s – projected to make the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

Those four are in the top 43 in the NET rankings, the NCAA’s primary sorting tool.

“There’s no way we’ve ever been in a position where they’re talking about four teams making the NCAA Tournament this deep, here we are almost in January,” Zags coach Mark Few said.

USF and Saint Mary’s are among Lunardi’s last four teams with byes, meaning they’re not projected to play in the First Four. Gonzaga is the fourth No. 1 seed on Lunardi’s seed list with BYU No. 30, San Francisco No. 33 and Saint Mary’s No. 43.

San Francisco is the only team in the country with 13 wins. The top five, counting Santa Clara, each have double-digit wins. WCC teams are 6-6 in Quad 1 games. The Big 12 (11-7) is the only conference with a winning record vs. Quad 1 foes.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said the conference benefits from the 16-game conference schedule (instead of an 18-game double round-robin) and several programs investing more resources into basketball.

“It helps because it protects some of the better teams’ NET,” Bennett said. “Some people don’t like it because it doesn’t fit perfectly with everybody playing everybody. In a perfect world I’d want that, too, but this is what makes sense for the numbers.”

One thing hasn’t changed: Nine WCC teams are still chasing the Zags.

“They’re definitely the team to get after,” Bennett said. “They’re really good, which is good. It’s all about getting a good schedule and Quad 1 games and they’re going to give you two.”

It’s not surprising that the top four foes on Gonzaga’s WCC schedule rank inside the NET top 85. The closest call was Santa Clara at fourth on the list over Loyola Marymount, which is more than capable of cracking the upper half of the conference standings for the second straight year.

1). BYU (at GU Jan. 13, vs. GU Feb. 5)

The Cougars won their first six games, including a home win over San Diego State and a 32-point rout over Oregon, to climb to No. 12 in the AP poll. They’ve plateaued since, going 6-3, with losses at Utah Valley and neutral-court setbacks against Creighton and Vanderbilt.

Super senior guard Alex Barcello is one of the most efficient scorers in the nation, hitting 48.5% from the field, 48.7% on 3-pointers and 91.2% at the free-throw line. He averages 17.3 points. Secondary scoring has been by committee with grad transfer guard Te’Jon Lucas the only other Cougar in double figures (10.0).

BYU’s frontcourt lost Gavin Baxter (torn ACL) and Richard Harward (complications from a heart issue) for the season. Freshman forward Foussenyi Traore had 19 points and 13 rebounds in his first start. Sophomore forward Caleb Lohner is just 2 of 22 on 3s and his season averages for points (6.9) and rebounds (6.9) are nearly identical to last season.

“Clearly, this is not the roster that we started the season with. It’s going to be like this all spring long,” coach Mark Pope told the Deseret News after Wednesday’s win over Westminster. “It’s going to be guys in and out, and guys stepping up and doing their job. It’s going to be about toughness.”

The Cougars are allowing just 63.9 points per game, on pace to be the program’s best since the 2008 team permitted 63.2.

2). San Francisco (at GU Jan. 6, vs. GU Feb. 24)

USF (13-1) is off to its best start since the 1977 squad won its first 26 games. The Dons set a school record with 20 3s against Academy of Art on Tuesday.

Guards Jamaree Bouyea (17.8 points), Khalil Shabazz (11.0), Columbia transfer Gabe Stefanini (9.1) and Julian Rishwain (6.9) have combined for 109 3-pointers. The team shoots 38% on 3-pointers and ranks tied for 13th nationally with 384 attempts.

San Diego transfer Yauhen Massalski (13.6 points, 7.9 points and 29 blocks), Duke transfer Patrick Tapé, Nevada transfer Zane Meeks and Josh Kunen anchor the frontcourt.

The Dons’ biggest tests will come in conference. Their lone Quad 1 game was a 63-61 neutral-floor win over UAB, No. 50 in the NET.

3). Saint Mary’s (at GU Feb. 12, vs. GU Feb. 26)

The Gaels beefed up their nonconference schedule with mixed results. They defeated Notre Dame, Oregon and Utah State, but came up short against Wisconsin, Colorado State and San Diego State.

Saint Mary’s, one of two teams nationally that returned every player from last season, has improved since last year’s 14-10 season. The offense still struggles to score at times, but the Gaels are averaging 68.8 points (4.5 higher than last season) and hitting 33.3% on 3s (nearly four percentage points better).

Center Matthias Tass averages 12.5 points with guard Logan Johnson (10.3), guard Tommy Kuhse (10.1), forward Dan Fotu (10.1) and forward Alex Ducas (9.4) right behind. Freshman guard Augustas Marciulionis, son of former NBA standout Sarunas Marciulionis (4.6 points, 2.5 assists) has been a nice addition.

“We have to score better, our guards have to play better, they’ve got to shoot it better,” Bennett said following SMC’s 63-53 loss to San Diego State on Dec. 17 in Phoenix. “If we’re going to beat the good teams, Logan has to play, Fotu, Kuhse, Tass, Ducas have to play. Those are your guys and they have to come through.”

4). Santa Clara (vs. GU Jan. 15, at GU Feb. 19)

The Broncos, No. 84 in the NET, scored at least 84 points while opening the season 5-0, including routs over Stanford, Nevada and Texas Christian. They’re 5-5 since – three-time All-WCC forward Josip Vrankic was sidelined by injury for all but one of the losses – but they enter conference play riding a three-game winning streak.

Jalen Williams is having a breakout season. The 6-foot-6 junior guard is the top scorer in the conference (18.8 points, a 7.3-point improvement from last season) while hitting 52% of his shots and nearly 89% at the foul line.

Vrankic, a fifth-year senior, 6-7 senior Keyshawn Justice and 6-10 Missouri transfer Parker Braun combine for 39 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists per game. Green Bay grad transfer point guard PJ Pipes (10.5 points, 4.0 assists) gives the experienced Broncos four players averaging in double figures.