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Wednesday, January 5, 2005
WCC teams stepping up to test Zags

By Ed Graney
Special to ESPN.com

Do you remember the school bully? Do you remember being left with two options -- deciding between bulking up and fighting back or continuing to endure punishment?

Seven basketball teams from the West Coast Conference apparently have adopted the former attitude this season.
The bar has been raised internally within the conference because of Gonzaga. This league is on the rise. I believe this is a year where we will deserve and receive (multiple) NCAA bids.
Portland coach Michael Holton
"There is no question Gonzaga has made the rest of us work harder and recruit better and schedule tougher while trying to catch them," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "If they go 14-0 in league again, it's not good for the rest of us in terms of (NCAA Tournament) at-large bids."

Don't laugh. It is certainly not a preposterous notion, the tiny WCC deserving more than its automatic bid come March.

This is no longer about King Zag and his seven peasants.

The WCC has an Ratings Percentage Index of eight, ranking ahead of -- among others -- Conference USA, the Mountain West, the Atlantic 10 and the WAC. It has wins against North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Washington, Stanford, Wisconsin, St. Joseph's, Cal, Creighton, Pacific, Fresno State and Nevada-Las Vegas.

League play begins this week and the WCC offers four top 100 teams in Gonzaga, Portland, Saint Mary's and San Francisco.

And that doesn't include Pepperdine, which could contend for the conference title.

And that doesn't include Santa Clara, still the only team to beat No. 3 North Carolina.

"Top to bottom, the league is the best it has been since I have been here," said four-year Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal. "And we've had to do this mostly on road and neutral courts. It's still very hard for our league to get (quality) home games. I expect when all things shake out, there could be as many as three (NCAA) teams from this league.

"And I say that without blushing."

For good reason. Much of the attention out West this season has been paid to Arizona, Washington and whether Rick Majerus realized there was a Jerry's Deli just minutes from the USC campus before reneging on the Trojans.

But look closer. The Mountain West has earned three NCAA bids each of the past three seasons, but its RPI is 10, has been as low as 16 and it's 8-26 against top 100 teams entering the week. The WAC is a bit stronger with four top 60 teams, but only Rice and Tulsa have top 100 schedule ratings. The Big West has one team (Pacific) among the top 100 in RPI.

It's not a stretch to say the WCC is the second-best league in the West next to the Pac-10 this season.

Actually, it's more fact than not.

"I know we're up there," Bennett said. "Obviously, the Pac-10 is the league everyone is going to point to. I don't know if our league is the best out West, but I know we're close. I think our top four teams can play with anyone in the West."

But such a conference does not improve its standing nationally until those at the bottom advance theirs among peers. Preseason polls suggested USF, Loyola Marymount, Portland and San Diego would make up the WCC's lower tier. But entering this week, those teams were a combined 35-17.

"The bar has been raised internally within the conference because of Gonzaga," said Portland coach Michael Holton, whose team is 11-4. "This league is on the rise. I believe this is a year where we will deserve and receive (multiple) NCAA bids."

One possible roadblock: lack of schedule strength.

Gonzaga has a schedule rating in the low 30s. The next best is Portland at 166. The six others fall between 175-261, with Pepperdine, LMU, San Diego and Santa Clara all 200 or worse.

Jessie Evans knows all too well about leagues that fight the annual perception battle. The first-year USF coach spent seven years at Louisiana Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. USF already has beaten Saint Joseph's at home, won at Pacific and recently went a month without losing.

"Having been a West Coast guy for so many years, I knew how good the coaching was in this league," said Evans, who also spent nine seasons as an assistant at Arizona. "It's like I used to tell Sun Belt coaches all the time -- if we don't promote ourselves, no one will."

The more they win, the less such promotion will be needed.

It seems the bully finally has some friends.

Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.