Monday, March 3, 2014
Planning for Success: A deeper WCC
By Eamonn Brennan
The West Coast Conference is that rarest of birds: The mid-major league that realignment made better.
For a host of institutional and geographic reasons, Gonzaga was never tempted to realign upward these past few years. It's been a sturdy member throughout its 15-year run of success. Nowhere else made much sense. This set the WCC apart from other top mid-major leagues of the past decade, almost all of which lost a standard-bearer: The Valley lost Creighton; the Horizon lost Butler; C-USA lost Memphis; the Colonial lost everyone. But Gonzaga and the WCC's unique position -- and the desire of BYU to find a convenient men's hoops home when the Cougars went independent in football in 2010 -- have managed to put Jamie Zaninovich's league in a stronger position than ever before.
Gonzaga and BYU are the top two seeds in the WCC tournament.
Top to bottom, per KenPom.com's conference efficiency average rankings, the WCC is better than the Mountain West Conference and is the ninth-best league in the country. This while Gonzaga is having an uncharacteristically injury-prone and so-so season, though not so-so enough to do something so crazy as, you know, not win the conference title. That position has a lot to do with the non-San Diego State or non-New Mexico MWC having a straight-up awful season, but still.
Gonzaga is not nearly as far out ahead of the rest of the league as it normally is this time of year. Some years, that's because Gonzaga is good and the rest of the WCC is not so much. Some years, Saint Mary's is the only challenger. Some years -- OK, last year -- Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. None of those things is true right now.
Which is to say that this week's WCC tournament in Las Vegas could be Champ Week's most entertaining.
Gonzaga and BYU are your No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, so they have Thursday's opening round off. The Zags will play the winner of No. 8 Pacific and No. 9 Santa Clara; BYU gets the winner of No. 7 Portland and No. 10 Loyola Marymount. That should all be fairly standard.
But San Francisco, the No. 3 seed, is where things get interesting. The Dons are having their best season in at least a decade. They finished the conference regular season ranked third in the league in points per possession (1.09) and second in points allowed (1.05) and finished 13-5 in league play. In November, Rex Walters' team began the season losing 92-90 and 93-90 in back-to-back home losses to Nevada (meh) and Idaho State (bad), respectively, and falling to Illinois State (meh) at home two weeks later. An 81-57 loss at St. John's went mostly unnoticed. Since then, though, the Dons' only losses have come to Gonzaga (twice), BYU (twice) and Saint Mary's (once).
The Gaels' season has been a little rough by their recent standards; they are, after all, the only WCC program in the past 15 years to unseat Gonzaga from the regular-season throne. But as the No. 4 seed in the conference, and with efficient inside-out scoring from Brad Waldow and Stephen Holt (Steve Holt!), they are absolutely a threat to win three games in the WCC tournament.
That's a standard disclaimer for Champ Week, and what makes it so great: Any team can get hot enough to win three games, and next thing you know you're going to the Dance with a sub-.500 record. But the WCC has been light on that kind of drama during Gonzaga's reign. Mark Few's program is usually that much better than the field. But this season's combination of a merely good Gonzaga with a stronger and deeper WCC might yet give us something more.