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Around the WCC: Encouraging First Month

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The middle of the pack is strong, but what about the top?

SF Gate

Over the summer, Gonzaga rejected the Mountain West and remained in the West Coast Conference for the foreseeable future. Earlier this month, Keith wrote about the early returns of that decision. Today, we take a deeper dive into how the WCC has looked the first four weeks of the season. There’s a lot of positives overall, but they come with a downside. I’ll break down the conference as a whole to start and then assess each team. At the end, I’ll tell you what it means for Gonzaga.

The WCC currently ranks eighth in KenPom and Sagarin and seventh in Barttorvik. For the purposes of this article, we’ll only reference KenPom for the sake of consistency. The conference’s rank of eighth is tied for the highest it’s been in the 18-year history of the website. It has never had more than five teams inside the top 125. Right now, it has six. It ranks a full point and a half ahead of the Mountain West in terms of average efficiency and two points over the A-10 and Missouri Valley.

Ken Pomeroy

As of Thursday morning, there are only 18 undefeated teams remaining in the country. Three of them reside in the WCC (Gonzaga, USF, LMU). All three teams were in the top 25 of the new NET Rankings released by the NCAA. San Diego, who has a win over Colorado and two close losses to Power 5 schools has a ranking of 69. In short, the depth of the conference is better than it has been in many years, possibly ever. One of the reasons is because these teams have a lot of experience. LMU, USF, USD, and Pacific returned essentially the same teams from last season. They are all led by upperclassmen and the continuity from year to year shows on the court.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-0, KenPom #4, Offense: 3, Defense: 24)

Biggest Win: 89-87 vs #1 Duke

Key Player: Brandon Clarke (140 ORtg, 77% FG, 4.1 blocks/game)

Not much needs to be said about Gonzaga that you guys don’t already know. They’re going to be tested in these next four games, starting Saturday at Creighton. If they beat Creighton, they will have wins over the ACC, Big 10, Big East, Pac-12, and SEC in the first 30 days of the season. If they somehow get through everything unscathed, they will have FIVE top 50 and eight top 100 KenPom victories in the first month of the year. That would be wild.

BYU Cougars (5-3, KP #66, Offense: 64, Defense: 62)

Biggest Win: 75-65 vs Utah Valley

Key losses: 0-3 vs KenPom Top 100 teams

BYU really misses Elijah Bryant. They also really need Nick Emery to come back from suspension. They get him back next week. Without him, they are essentially a two-man team. Yoeli Childs is still a beast, averaging 20 and 12 while shooting 56 percent inside the arc. TJ Haws is their only reliable outside shooter and single-handedly kept them in the game against Houston until the final 10 minutes last weekend. Jashire Hardnett is generally fine, but he struggles against good opponents. He has an offensive rating below 100 in all three of their losses and is not a threat from deep. They’ve relied on Dalton Nixon to pick up Nick Emery’s minutes, and he’s shot 1-for-13 from deep and all his advanced stats are down from a season ago. The same goes for Zac Seljaas, who hasn’t been the same since his freshman year. Luke Worthington, who started 29 games last season, has been relegated to the end of the bench. Basically, every role player who was supposed to take a step up this season has yet to take that step. It’s forced Childs and Haws to carry the team and the two of them weren’t enough to beat Nevada, Houston and Illinois State. Their at-large chances are hanging by a very small thread. We’ll see how they operate when Emery returns, but it’s been a disappointing start.

Saint Mary’s Gaels (3-4, KP #70, Offense: 39, Defense: 143)

Biggest Win: 73-58 at #116 New Mexico State

Key losses: 0-4 vs KP Top 100

Speaking of teams with only two players, let’s talk about the Gaels. It’s only natural for a team to rebuild when they lose the senior class they did, plus the departure of Evan Fitzner to Indiana. Randy Bennett continues to do the same thing he always does: run an efficient offense that doesn’t turn the ball over. The problem is that he doesn’t have enough talent to knock down shots this season. Jordan Ford might lead the WCC in points this year, and he’s already got two 30-point performances this season. Malik Fitts, a redshirt sophomore transfer from South Florida, is the real deal. He put up 27 and 10 against Harvard and is averaging nearly a double-double. And that’s where the talent drops off. Elijah Thomas is their starting SG and is a high-level athlete, but he doesn’t look to score. Tanner Krebs has seen his offensive rating dip 20 points this season, albeit still a small sample size. Big men Jordan Hunter and Jock Perry are both okay offensively, but are useless when it comes to rim protection. SMC is 348th in the country in block percentage and their two-point FG defense is 268th. Bennett finally scheduled some tough games this season and they’ve lost basically all of them. It’s their first four-game losing streak since 2007.

San Francisco Dons (6-0, KP #69, Offense: 152, Defense: 33)

Biggest Win: 61-57 vs #83 Harvard

Key Player: Frankie Ferrari (10.8 ppg, 6.2 apg)

You can pick any one of seven players as their “key” player and you would be correct. All seven guys in their main rotation play critical minutes and all of them are good. Five of them average in double figures, and the two that don’t (Jamaree Bouyea and Nate Renfro) are probably their two best defensive players. You might still think of USF being a team that chucks up a bunch of threes and you may have nightmares of Gonzaga losing every year on the Hilltop. But this Dons team knows how to defend really, really well. Their three-point defense and rebounding are both top five in the nation and their steal percentage is in the top 25. Granted, their non-conference schedule isn’t great, but they have held all six teams to under 65 points. Frankie Ferrari facilitates the offense. Jordan Ratinho and Charles Minlend are both efficient scorers. Matt McCarthy is one of the best rebounders in the country, and actually leads the team in scoring. And Jumbo Lull is a seven-foot behemoth who is in the top 20 in offensive rebounds and has the best offensive rating of anyone on the team. Kyle Smith and his analytics have this team clicking and it would not be shocking if they finished second in the league this season. This start is not a fluke.

San Diego Toreros (5-2, KP #105, Offense: 99, Defense: 107)

Biggest Win: 70-64 vs Colorado

Key losses: at Ole Miss, at Washington

Remember last year’s San Diego team with Olin Carter, Isaiah Wright, and Isaiah Pinero that was really tough defensively and had one of the best three-point defenses in the country? Well, they brought the whole band back and they’re doing the exact same thing this season. The three of them are all seniors now and their three-point defense is still in the top 25 nationally. Basically, new head coach Sam Scholl is picking up right where Lamont Smith left off. They gave UW all they could handle, and with another bounce, probably could have won that game. They went on the road last night and played Ole Miss tough as well. The biggest concern is starting center Yauhen Massalski came down with an ankle injury last night and had to leave on crutches. The Toreros aren’t going to kill you with skill, though their big three are very talented, but they will hurt you with physicality and tenacity. They can bog offenses down, and with an average possession length of nearly 19 seconds themselves, they can bring the game to a grinding halt if they have to. They have road games with San Diego State and Oregon coming up in the next couple weeks.

Loyola Marymount Lions (7-0, KP #124, Offense: 137, Defense: 105)

Biggest Wins: 61-50 at UNLV, 65-52 vs Georgetown

Key Player: James Batemon (21.7 ppg, leads the country in FT made)

What a job Mike Dunlap has done at LMU. His team was 8-23 his first season four years ago. He brought them to 15-15 two seasons ago, had to manage the team through a death of an incoming freshman last season, and now has a fantastic senior class that is leading them to their best start in school history. They don’t score a lot, mostly because they have one of the slowest tempos in the country, right up there with Saint Mary’s. But they get a ton of offensive rebounds and they force a lot of turnovers, which gives them several more possessions than their opponents. They only give up 57.4 points/game, good for 13th in the country. They also have the best free throw percentage in the nation. Put another way, the Lions don’t do anything exceptionally; they just do a lot of little things really well. And when you have an upperclassmen trio of James Batemon, Mattias Markusson, and Jeffrey McClendon providing leadership to a bunch of young kids, they all feed off doing the little things correctly. They face UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Sunday.

Pacific Tigers (5-4, KP #154, Offense: 144, Defense: 180)

Biggest Win: 83-76 at Idaho State

Losses: 0-4 vs KenPom top 175

Pacific is one big man away from being a pretty nice team. They have several guards and forwards who can all score and defend fairly well, but the team lacks any size whatsoever. Anthony Townes is their starting big man and he’s only 6’6. But let’s talk about the guards because they can be electric. Senior Roberto Gallinat, who led the team in scoring a year ago, is doing so again this season. Sophomore Lafayette Dorsey is right on his tail. After showing glimpses of brilliance last season, he’s starting to come into his own this year. He’s put up double figures and an offensive rating over 100 each of the last four games. Next season, he and Ajare Sanni will be the best young backcourt in the league. Sanni put up 32 at Fresno State last night in an overtime loss and was hitting some ridiculous threes (7-11 from deep). Those two guards plus junior swingman Jahlil Tripp could be a really nice trio next season if they could find a real big man. As for this season, Pacific will battle for a top five spot, but realistically seem just a little behind USF and USD to really threaten. But I like where Damon Stoudamire has this program heading.

Pepperdine Waves (4-2, KP #193, Offense: 140, Defense: 272)

Biggest Win: 86-80 vs Miami (OH)

Losses: 0-2 vs KenPom Top 150

Lorenzo Romar’s first season at Pepperdine has been challenged because of the fires in California. From reports, his family almost lost their house and many others on the team were very scared of the same fate. They had a game postponed and practices were scarce for a while. But after a 2-1 trip in the Bahamas, they returned home on Monday and beat Idaho State (who is now 0-3 vs the WCC). It’s going to be hard to judge Romar for a couple years until he gets his own players up to speed. He brought in a large freshman class and a pair of transfers from Oregon. But for now, he has standout sophomore Colbey Ross, who averages 20 a game and should headline this team until he graduates. Eric Cooper and Darnell Dunn are a pair of seniors averaging double figures and then Kessler and Kameron Edwards round out the main scorers. Like Pacific, the Waves have virtually no size. Their defense is in the bottom third in most categories, as is their rebounding. They could surprise a team or two because they have some dudes who are pure scorers, but I don’t expect them to get out of the bottom three this season. Give Romar some time to work his recruiting magic and we’ll see what happens.

Portland Pilots (5-4, KP #264, Offense 198, Defense 306)

Biggest Win: 72-67 vs Cal Poly

Losses: 0-4 vs KenPom Top 300

Portland is young. Like, really young. Like, not even a single senior on the roster young. Which is to say: they are a year away. The good news is that they have four players who can really score the ball. Marcus Shaver, Josh McSwiggan, JoJo Walker and Franklin Porter can all fill it up. The latter three all shoot above 40 percent from deep. As a team, they’re in the top 50 in threes attempted in the country. The bad news is that they play no defense. The Pilots give up nearly 80 points a game and they force no turnovers. But if this roster stays together and develops, they have a good chance of cracking the top five next season.

Santa Clara Broncos (1-5, KP #239, Offense: 263, Defense: 222)

Biggest win: 71-63 at San Jose State

Key losses: the rest of their schedule

Santa Clara was going to have a rough season before it even started. They lost four rotation players from last year and didn’t really bring in anyone to replace them. They lost at home to Prairie View A&M to begin the year and then lost their star guard KJ Feagin for the season the following game. They are now led by sophomore guard Tahj Eaddy, who is next in line to become the face of Bronco Basketball. Eaddy started high school late and also transferred from Southeast Missouri St, so he is a 22-year-old sophomore, which is pretty crazy. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 3.3 assists. Josip Vrankic and Keshawn Justice are a pair of underclassmen forwards who can score, but can’t rebound. In fact, the whole team has trouble rebounding. They also have trouble doing anything particularly well. They aren’t in the top 100 in any meaningful statistical category.

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I just wrote 2,300 words on these WCC teams. Now what the heck does it all mean? Well, the 2-6 spots in the standings are probably the most competitive they have ever been. You can make an argument that USF and USD could finish second and third and I wouldn’t disagree. The middle of the conference is stronger than ever, but that means the top has never been worse. Outside of Gonzaga, there is nothing remotely close to an elite team. Each of the last nine seasons, there has been at least two teams in the top 50. This year, there’s nobody inside the top 65 besides GU. Saint Mary’s is rebuilding, BYU is struggling to find a third option at the moment, and USF and USD aren’t quite there yet.

So I guess it’s up to you to determine whether or not this is a good thing. Would you rather have six solid, yet unspectacular teams, or the usual two-three really good teams and a pile of nothing at the bottom? For me, I don’t think Gonzaga will lose a conference game, but they should be challenged more than usual, which is a good thing. If Pacific can creep into the top 150 and the WCC has SEVEN top 150 KenPom teams, then every road win for Gonzaga looks even better on a resume. It’s just disappointing that there isn’t another team who will sniff the NCAA tournament.