After months of watching Gonzaga battle against the top teams in the country, it's time to settle down and enjoy conference play. This should be a very interesting year for the WCC, as St. Mary's has been arguably the best team in the conference so far (including Gonzaga), while teams like USF and Portland have exceeded expectations. With the injury to Brandon Johnson earlier this year, it became clear that the race for the WCC championship became a two horse race. While St. Mary's may have that gaudy 13-1 record, the quality of their opponents has been pretty marginal. Check out this quote from Mark Few, and try to tell me that it isn't a little bit of a shot at the Gaels.
"(My players) realize, if we (scheduled differently), we could've been 13-1," Few said. "But they didn't want that. They never backed away from this. They're glad we came out here and did this, and went to Indiana and went to Orlando and went to Arizona and went to (Utah). They're all right with it."
With all that said, here are my predictions for how the final WCC standings will look.
1) Gonzaga (14-0)
2) St. Mary's (12-2)
3) Santa Clara (9-5)
4) San Diego (8-6)
5) Portland (8-6)
6) USF (6-8)
7) Pepperdine (3-11)
8) LMU (2-12)
Continue reading for individual team previews
St. Mary's (12-2): Is it possible for a team to be overrated and underrated at the same time? If so, that is how I would classify the St. Mary's Gaels at this point in the season. With the impressive 13-1 record at this point, there is no denying that they should be ranked in the top 20, and a challenger to the Zags reign atop the WCC. However, when you look at their victories, it is tough to find a truly impressive win. At this point, the only win that jumps out at me is the home victory over San Diego St. But is that the type of win that really makes people believe that this is the year that they can take down Gonzaga? Patty Mills has been wildly inconsistent on the offensive end, and while I like Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan, I don't think this team has enough talent around the "big three" to win the conference.
Santa Clara (9-5): This team has been quite the enigma so far this season. In John Bryant, the Broncos have the top post player on the west coast. However, the rest of the team has not played at a high enough level to keep the Broncos competitive in some of their bigger games. The reason I think that this team will emerge in the WCC, is because many of the freshman and JC transfers they rely on will finally get comfortable in their roles. Look for the Broncos to really challenge St. Mary's tonight, and then play consistent and strong basketball throughout conference play.
San Diego (8-6): It's been astonishing to see how competitive USD has been since the loss of Brandon Johnson. Not only was Johnson their statistical leader in scoring when he got hurt, but he was the emotional leader for the Toreros. With Gyno Pomare and Rob Jones anchoring this team, USD has the talent to compete for an upper-half finish in the conference. The Toreros open on the road against USF and Santa Clara, and if they can sweep those games, they will likely start 4-0 conference. I'm not sure they can sustain that type of record throughout conference play, but a 4-0 start could propel USD to challenge Santa Clara for 3rd.
Portland (8-6): I love everything about the Portland Pilots so far this season. This group believes in the tough defense that Eric Reveno has been preaching, and it appears that this team is getting ready to turn the corner as a program. The Pilots are off to a 9-6 start, which includes victories over Nevada and Washington. Nik Raivio has proven to be a terrific scorer, while JC transfer T.J Campbell is a true floor general. This team will not be the traditional easy victory that they were in the past, and I expect them to give both St. Mary's and Gonzaga a scare.
USF (6-8): San Francisco suffers from Santa Clara syndrome, and by that I mean the role players on the team do not do enough to complement the star. In Dior Lowhorn, USF has the top PF in the conference, and a guy who can get a double-double every night. However, this team has been plagued by the fact that the rest of the team is just not that talented. Kwame Vaughn and Blake Wallace provide nice scoring options for the Dons, but Manny Quezada continues to be one of the most inconsistent players in the conference. If the guys around Lowhorn can find consistency, then USF could challenge for an upper-half finish. However, I have seen nothing that leads me to believe that this could happen.
Pepperdine (3-11): While I think the top 5-6 teams in this conference are the best they have been in years, the bottom two teams in this conference are at one of the lowest levels in recent history. The reason I have Pepperdine ahead of LMU is because they have actually been playing some inspired basketball lately. Trust me when I say that this team is bad....and I mean really bad....but it seems like they are still buying into what Tom Asbury is trying to preach. If they keep playing hard, I think Pepperdine is capable fo pulling off an upset against USF or Portland during conference play. However, I could be completely wrong, and they could get run off the court by LMU tomorrow.
LMU (2-12): Around two weeks ago, I was seriously considering the possibility that LMU might go winless this season. This team has had to deal with the departure of Bill Bayno because of health reasons, and the injury to Vernon Teal. LMU began the season 0-15, and got their first victory of the season last week against Cal State Bakersfield. I give credit to interim coach Max Good for rallying his team after a 49-39 loss to Seattle U, but I don't see any way that this team gets more then two wins in conference play.