If nothing else, the West Coast Conference has become predictable. Since 1999, Gonzaga has won 19 of the 21 regular-season titles, and 16 times they have claimed the WCC Tournament Championship. As the Zags enter conference play holding the nation’s #1 ranking, there is no reason to believe they won’t win both again.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Despite losing four starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, the Zags have found a way to be 14-1. The feeling is that there are many contenders for the national title this year, and those not on the West Coast will tell you that Gonzaga’s record doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. However, their conference foes know GU is for real.
While Mark Few just reloads, the early returns on this year’s squad is they lack athleticism to defend well, and naturally, chemistry. Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, and Filip Petrusev anchor the starting five, but after that, the Zags are searching for leadership at the point guard position and a consistent outside scoring threat besides Kispert. There is no doubt plenty of talent. All eyes are on Tillie who many say lacks the focus to be a really good pro. Two numbers to watch: The Zags are giving up 68.3 points per contest, which is 172nd in the country, and they are shooting just 67% from the free -throw line.
The bump in the conference road is: A stretch in mid-February where GU plays three of four on the road against St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, and BYU, while hosting USF. However, by then, we should know what the Bulldogs are made of as that will have given them plenty of time to develop team chemistry.
BYU has a new coach in Mark Pope, and a new view on how they want to win basketball games, which may make them a more formidable foe. In the past, the Cougars scored a lot but didn’t play defense very well. This year, they are giving up 10 fewer points per game, and they will need to maintain that difference if BYU is to find themselves in the hunt for one of the top two spots. The roster has seven seniors led by Tyler Haws and Yoeli Childs. Childs, who chose to come back instead of leave for his NBA fortune, has been named to the list of 50 players to watch for the 2020 Citizen Naismith Trophy Men’s Player of the Year, as well as the Preseason Top 50 Watch List for The John R. Wooden Award.
Haws got the Cougs off to an impressive 6-3 start during Childs suspension with wins over Houston, Virginia Tech, and UCLA. And with Childs back in the fold, they should be even better.
The bump in the conference road is: BYU goes to Moraga and Spokane for two of their first five conference games. A split will do wonders for their confidence and put the rest of the league on notice that they want to be one of three WCC teams who dance in 2020.
One perspective might be that Gonzaga’s losses would open the door for St. Mary’s to make a run to first place. But, while this may be a very athletic team, it may not be deep enough. The bigger problem is their lack of rebounding, where SMC is in the bottom 50 in the nation. This year’s Gaels squad will be a typically unselfish Randy Bennett team. They have senior leadership in Jordan Ford and Tanner Krebs and they will have another huge body in the middle with the addition of 7’3″ transfer Aaron Menzies. Bennett made sure the schedule was a little more challenging than in years past with games against Utah State, Dayton, and Arizona State. St. Mary’s went 2-1 against those teams, and as a result, even with a third-place finish, they could be the 3rd WCC team to get an NCAA bid.
The bump in the conference road is: The schedule is quite kind to St. Mary’s. They do have to play Gonzaga twice in the last three weeks of WCC action, before a possible third game in the WCC tourney.
There is a lot of talent in Malibu, so it’s hard to explain a 7-7 non-conference mark that has included losses to Sacramento State. and San Jose State. Pepperdine is lacking depth in the frontcourt due to injuries, but more glaring is the fact they are giving up more points than they are scoring. While Colbey Ross and the Edwards brothers, Kameron and Kessler, are three of the WCC’s best offensive threats, Lorenzo Romar’s team has to find physical presence inside to challenge for a top 3 finish.
The bump in the conference road is: The Waves host Gonzaga and BYU in two of their final four WCC games. That could mean Pep will control its own destiny if they are in the hunt for a top four conference tournament seed.
New USF coach Todd Golden has guided his team to an 11-4 non-conference mark. There is no real marquee victory, but the Dons are scoring lots of points at over 82 a game, and having offensive players is the way you try and keep up with teams like Gonzaga and BYU. Jamaree Bouyea and Charles Minlend lead five Dons who are scoring nearly 10 points or more per game. Coach Golden has already found a rotation of nine players, so their depth is what could push USF up to the 4th spot.
The bump in the conference road is: The middle of the schedule is not kind to the Dons. They will play at St. Mary’s, BYU twice, and host Gonzaga during a six-game stretch that also includes Pacific.
Very quietly, Santa Clara has gone 13-2 through a less than daunting schedule. The difference seems to be on the offensive end, where Herb Sendek’s Broncos are scoring a dozen more points per game than a year ago. Trey Wertz, Tahj Eaddy, Keshawn Justice, and Guglielmo Caruso all have had games of 19 points or more. The front line of Justice, Caruso, and Josip Vrankic will pose problems for the league’s smaller teams.
The bump in the conference road is: Inexplicably, Santa Clara follows its WCC home opener against USD with road games at USF, St. Mary’s, and Gonzaga. They certainly will be battle-tested but they might be in a hole in the standings early.
If there is a team playing for their coach’s job, it’s the Pacific Tigers. Damon Stoudamire has yet to move the UOP program past .500 in three seasons as head coach. They are 12-4 via a very soft non-league schedule, but if they can somehow go 8-8, a 20-win season will get them a bid in one of the lesser postseason tournaments. Jahlil Tripp is leading the Tigers in scoring and rebounding and has Justin Moore, a redshirt transfer from Georgia Tech, right beside him. The Tigers don’t have a lot of offensive firepower, so expect them to play at a slow pace to keep the game in the low 60’s.
The bump in the conference road is: This is a pretty fair schedule for Pacific, except for playing at BYU followed by a home game against the Zags. No excuses this year not to improve if Coach Stoudamire wants to stay in Stockton.
Mike Dunlap coaxed his LMU Lions to 22 wins last season, but with the early 12-0 start, the Lions didn’t do as well as many thought they would. This year, LMU is off to a pedestrian 6-8 mark against a mediocre schedule, which is worse than last year. Eli Scott is the only real bright spot, netting 17 a game, with a spectacular triple-double earlier in the season, something not even the legendary Hank Gathers accomplished for LMU. Sophomore Ivan Alpiev has improved quite a bit after moving into the starting lineup. The Lions are going to grind out every game and possession, which risks letting the lesser teams in the conference play you evenly. While LMU shouldn’t finish below the 8th spot, based purely on their better talent, there is always the possibility because Coach Dunlap tinkers too much with his lineup to have them play with any consistency.
The bump in the conference road is: The Lions play at GU and host BYU before going to Santa Clara, St. Mary’s, and Portland in the middle of February. This precedes the final weekend of the conference season where the 30th anniversary of LMU’s Elite Eight team will be celebrated together with an unveiling of a statue of Hank Gathers.
All signs pointed to Terry Porter needing to finally turn things around in this, his fourth season. Things were encouraging early in Portland, as the Pilots went 6-1 to start the season. However, UP begins conference play as losers of their last four, all by double digits, and six of their last eight. It’s now going to take a miracle for Porter to keep his job. Isaiah White and JoJo Walker are scoring in double digits, but it is the defense that is giving up just a little more than 65 points per game that has mostly been responsible for their 8-7 record. If Coach Porter can get them to guard this well against WCC opponents, then there is the possibility of finishing 7th or 8th. If so, that would be the highest finish in Porter’s tenure.
The bump in the conference road is: Portland hosts the Zags and Dons before a roadie in Provo to open up WCC play. No game will be easy for this team, but keep an eye on the margin of defeat. If they are big numbers, don’t be surprised to see the Pilots spiral downward quickly and finish 0-16 for the second time under Coach Porter.
When Sam Scholl took over the USD job permanently last year, he had a ton of veteran players, although injuries didn’t allow the Toreros to meet expectations for a finish in the top half of the conference with a talented senior group. This year, San Diego is in rebuilding mode due to some key graduations. There are some solid scorers with Joey Calcaterra and Braun Hartfield, but this young squad doesn’t have a lot of depth yet or play with much physical tenacity to make up for its lack of offensive production.
The bump in the conference road is: At the end of February, USD plays at Pepperdine, before hosting BYU and then going to St. Mary’s and Gonzaga. At that point, a long season becomes even longer.