In the WCC, same-old, same-old
12-24-17

On the occasion of Selection Sunday in 2016, Gonzaga coach Mark Few threw down a gauntlet for the bulk of West Coast Conference basketball programs, saying, “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”

The context was Saint Mary's omission from the tournament bracket. His point was his conviction that the money the league earned (much of by Gonzaga) in the NCAA tournament was being used to subsidize other sports, rather than to try to better some pedestrian basketball programs.

Twenty-one months later, as the WCC begins league play Thursday night, there’s scant evidence that much has changed in the conference. Gonzaga still rules, Saint Mary’s menaces with a perennial contender, and BYU, while formidable, seems forever consigned to battling for third place. (You could argue correctly that Saint Mary’s being picked to win the league is unusual, but the coaches likely would waffle toward Gonzaga with the benefit of the pre-conference results.)

Think about this: There have been six full seasons played since BYU entered the league in 2011-12. Gonzaga has finished first (or tied for it) five times, Saint Mary’s has finished in the two five times, and BYU has finished third four times. Sad to say, on Christmas Eve I’ve got better things to do than compare this league to 30-some Division 1 others, but can there be any conference as predictable? (You could argue Kansas, the perennial Big 12 winner, but at least the other powers there -- Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia, etc. -- rotate.)

The strength of a league, of course, has a lot to do with its depth, and the 2017-18 WCC has the look of a lot of other WCCs, with the possible exception of San Diego (8-3), which has wins at New Mexico State and Colorado and looks salty. Saturday night, San Francisco hit a late three to beat a good Nevada team. The rest of it . . . well, you can take the rest of it.

Five programs -- Pacific, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, Portland and Loyola Marymount -- are all carrying 200-or-poorer ratings in KenPom.com. So those games become everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain for the contenders, and the league credibility is inevitably weakened.

That said, here’s the setup -- with a forecast -- as league play begins. (I’ve opted to rely on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings rather than the RPI, believing it to be a better measure.)

1. Gonzaga (10-3). Zags had been having a relatively promising pre-conference run until a disquieting loss at San Diego State, and even at that, they’re a robust No. 13 in KenPom. Problem areas: Too many turnovers (a modest 224-183 assist-turnover ratio) and some leaky three-point defense (.374). But an 8.8 rebound margin is excellent, Zach Norvell has been a revelation, and the return to health of Corey Kispert (ankle sprain) will help. The hunch is, the Zags will go as far as PG Josh Perkins can take them.

2. Saint Mary’s (11-2). SMC (30 in KenPom) lost a good deal of luster with two losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy. The Gaels have an early league test at BYU Dec. 30. They shoot a brisk .510 but defense has been an issue (.466 allowed). They’re hard to guard, as Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner and guard Jordan Ford -- now starting after playing little a year ago -- all shoot better than 40 percent from three. Jock Landale is a proven force inside, and SMC has a terrific 2.02 assist-turnover ratio.

3. BYU (11-2). Cougars (60 KenPom) have ridden 6-8 forward Yoeli Childs (16.6 ppg) and 6-5 guard Elijah Bryant (16.4), who is shooting .444 from three after hitting just .278 a year ago. Best win is over Utah (59). Defense is a familiar issue; Cougars allow .448 shooting. To contend, they have to keep from kicking games against lesser opponents, something that’s dogged them almost annually.

4. San Diego (9-3). If there’s a surprise in the WCC, the Toreros are it, with quality wins at New Mexico State (80) and Colorado (116). Isaiah Piniero, 6-7 transfer from Portland State, leads in scoring and rebounding (15.2, 6.3), and another transfer, 6-2 Isaiah Wright (Utah) is the second-leading scorer. Three-point defense (.233) has been phenomenal. Side note: Last win came over Life Pacific (maybe a bunch of guys from the local insurance agency?).

5. San Francisco (8-5). Win over Nevada (36) was one of the league’s best so far. Offense has been a significant problem -- the Dons shoot only .400 and .321 from three. Frosh guard Souley Boum, a slender 6-3 and 145 pounds, leads in scoring (14.0) while mostly coming off the bench. Ten players get 12 or more minutes. Dons have double-digit road losses to Arizona State and Stanford.

6. Loyola Marymount (5-6). Lions, who lost a three-point game at Washington, may be the best of what looms as a sketchy second division. They’re getting 19.2 points a game and .532 shooting from 6-1 guard James Batemon, a transfer from North Dakota State College of the Sciences. Best win is against Cal-Riverside (255). As it is for several WCC teams, defense (.446) is a questionmark. LMU opens league play at Saint Mary’s.

7. Pacific (5-8). Tigers completed pre-conference play by getting drubbed by 39 at unbeaten Arizona State. They could be toughened by a decent schedule, albeit with losses against Stanford, Nevada, UNLV and the Sun Devils. JC transfer Roberto Gallinat leads in scoring at 13.7. Defense, at .451, has been faulty.

8. Pepperdine (3-9). Can anybody here play defense? Waves allow .487 overall and .395 three-point percentages, which have a lot to do with six of their defeats having come by 10 points or fewer. Best wins are over Oral Roberts (218) and Cal-Riverside (255). Young team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.

9. Santa Clara (3-9). Only keeping the Broncos out of the cellar because veteran coach Herb Sendek probably will steal a game or two. Otherwise, it’s been an abysmal beginning for SCU, with only two Division 1 wins, against Northern Arizona (328) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (348). Junior guard K.J. Feagin leads with 19 points a game.

10. Portland (6-7). Pilots balanced three losses in the PK80 Invitational with some lamentable opponents, so there are wins against Walla Walla, Oregon Tech and Multnomah. The other three wins are over foes at 295 or worse in KenPom. At least the Pilots have shot the ball well, hitting .413 on threes.


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