With the Gonzaga Bulldogs having their second “bye” week today, I figured it would be a good time to check in on their conference challengers as the league approaches the halfway point. The WCC continues to track as the 7th or 8th best conference in the country, depending on which website you look at. It’s undoubtedly the best mid-major conference in the nation based on analytics, and it’s having a far better season than the Mountain West. Does that mean it will be a multi-bid league? Perhaps not. But the talent level is starting to see a significant step in the right direction, which is all we can ask for.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-2 overall, 6-0 in WCC, KenPom 4, NET 2)
How good is Gonzaga’s offense? Their adjusted offensive efficiency is a ridiculous 125.5, a full three points better than any other team in the country. Only three teams in KenPom’s history (since 2002) have ever finished a season with a number higher than 125.5.
2015 Wisconsin: 129.0 (Lost in National Championship)
2017 Oklahoma State: 126.0 (Lost in first round, 155th ranked defense)
2018 Villanova: 127.8 (National Champs)
Only one team in the last 20 years has had a better two-point FG percentage than Gonzaga’s 62.0 percent (2016 Belmont – 62.6%)… And now the defense is catching up to the offense. Their defensive efficiency in conference play is 79.6. For reference, Gonzaga’s Final Four team had a defensive efficiency of 84.5 in WCC play. They are first in the league in eFG%, turnover percentage, block percentage, steal percentage, and two-point defense. Obviously, it’s still early and Gonzaga has mainly played the bottom tier of the conference. But there’s been an obvious improvement once the team got healthy. Here’s a crazy stat: Three of the top six single-game defensive ratings of the Mark Few Era have come in the last month (Denver, Pacific, Santa Clara). The difference between the 25th ranked defense and the 43rd (Gonzaga) is only 1.2 points, something Gonzaga should make up if they shut down the top half of the league. The next four games will show a lot, starting on Thursday at BYU, followed by San Diego, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s at home.
The 59-point win (98-39) for @ZagMBB is the largest road win by a Div I team against a Div I opponent since 12/15/1996, when USC won at UC Irvine by 62 (107-45).— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) January 25, 2019
It is Gonzaga's 3rd 50-point road win under Mark Few (since 1999-00) - no other team has more than 1 over that span.
2. San Francisco Dons (17-3, 5-1, KP 41, NET 40)
The Dons have held serve at home against BYU and Saint Mary’s, a good thing in the three-team race for second place. The bad thing is that they’ve struggled in their two road games at Pacific and Pepperdine, escaping with last second victories. Their three-point percentage has been improving, but their free throw percentage is still awful, and their defense is starting to force fewer turnovers and give up more offensive rebounds. They are much like Saint Mary’s from last season in that they have a fundamentally sound and efficient offense run by very experienced players, but may lack the explosiveness to be more than just a solid mid-major. We will know a lot more about this team in the next 10 days. They begin a brutal three-game stretch on Saturday with road games at San Diego, at Saint Mary’s, and at Gonzaga. If they can manage to go 2-1 in that stretch, they may have legitimate at-large hopes.
3. BYU Cougars (13-9, 5-2, KP 95, NET 103)
Well, well, well… even after all the turmoil leading into the conference season, BYU has found themselves in a battle atop the standings just like always. Three weeks after getting waxed in Moraga, the Cougars found a way to buckle down and beat the Gaels at home Thursday night by forcing 15 turnovers and holding SMC to 5-for-20 shooting from deep. This is what BYU has done all season: hold serve at home. They are 10-1 at home and a measly 2-7 on the road, including double-digit losses to SMC and USF. Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws have combined for 40 points a game in conference play. That’s more than the rest of the team combined if you take away Jahshire Hardnett’s contributions. Hardnett hasn’t played since January 5th after rumors of a transfer and then a mysterious hand injury. They host Gonzaga on Thursday night and haven’t beaten the Bulldogs at home since February 20, 2014. Their defense is still very much a work in progress...
Childs grabs his 10th rebound for his 12th double-double of the season and 32nd of his career. He is now fifth all-time in career double-doubles in BYU history #BYUhoops— BYU Game Notes (@BYUGameNotes) January 25, 2019
4. Saint Mary’s Gaels (13-8, 4-2, KP 35, NET 48)
The Gaels offense has been quietly chugging along while nobody has been watching them and is now back into the top 20 nationally, where they have been pretty consistently under Randy Bennett. Jordan Ford leads the league in minutes played and is second in the league in points. Malik Fitts is averaging 17 points and 7.3 rebounds in conference play. Tanner Krebs has finally started to step up and become their third scoring option, averaging 12.1 points the last seven games after scoring just 7.4 in the first 14 games. The problem is that the Gaels lost both their road games to San Francisco and BYU, forcing them to protect their home court in the rematches in order to finish in second. The three-team race is going to be a lot of fun down the stretch, especially now that the #2 seed receives a bye to the WCC semi-finals in Las Vegas.
5. San Diego Toreros (14-7, 3-3, KP 93, NET 107)
San Diego has had an unfortunate start to the conference season because of injuries. Isaiah Wright missed the first three games (1-2) and as soon as he came back, Olin Carter went down with an abdominal injury and he’s missed the last three games (2-1). Add all that up, and you get a team trying to tread water until they are healthy and become a threat. Because once they are fully healthy, nobody wants to face them and their physicality. They have the second-best defense during conference play and they completely eliminate the three-point line. Isaiah Pineiro has been lucky enough to play every game this season and has become a double-double machine. He’s also scored in double figures in all 21 games. Carter is day-to-day, but it would be nice to get him back immediately, with USF coming to town tonight and then traveling to Spokane on Thursday. Four of their final five games are against the league’s Big Four teams, so it’s imperative they are healthy by then.
6. Santa Clara Broncos (11-10, 3-4, KP 198, NET 206)
It’s hard to judge Santa Clara if you’ve only watched them face Gonzaga. Because they definitely aren’t that bad. They have wins over USC and Washington State. They also beat San Diego, won at Pacific, and hung with BYU in Provo until the final minute. Because of injuries to KJ Feagin and Matt Hauser, all of their role players, outside of Josh Martin, are underclassmen. Trey Wertz and Tahj Eaddy are legit guards, and you’ve seen glimpses of it against Gonzaga. If they can get a legit big guy, they could make a pretty big step next season. As for this year, their best-case scenario is to continue to beat the bottom half of the league and maybe pull off an upset at home against USF or Saint Mary’s next month. More importantly, continue the growth of their young players.
When you dunk on an entire fan base pic.twitter.com/d0CaJHHaQw— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) January 25, 2019
7. Loyola Marymount Lions (14-6, 2-4, KP 143, NET 156)
The darlings of the non-conference have not lived up to the hype in conference play. James Batemon has been the focal point of every defensive game plan, and he’s struggled to replicate his non-conference success. He’s only scoring 12.3 points a game on 35.5 percent shooting in conference after scoring 19.2 points on 44.3 percent shooting in the non-conference slate. The team has only made 23 threes in six conference games, by far the fewest in the league. Eli Scott and Joe Quintana look like a pair of solid sophomores, both averaging in double figures the last six games.
8. Pepperdine Waves (9-11, 2-4, KP 172, NET 174)
Four of the Waves last five games have been decided by five or fewer points. They are 1-3 in those games, including a loss to USF, but it shows that the Waves can and will compete. Lorenzo Romar’s team leads the conference in three-point percentage. Colbey Ross is the known quantity, and he’s had another great season. He leads the conference in assists and free throws during league play. But it’s junior Kameron Edwards who has really stepped up. Since battling through some early season injuries, Edwards has averaged 17.1 points and 6.1 rebounds the last seven games. The biggest problem for the Waves is their lack of depth. They only use a seven-man rotation and one of those kids, 5’9” freshman guard Darryl Polk, has an offensive rating of 49.9.
9. Pacific Tigers (11-10, 1-5, KP 179, NET 177)
Damon Stoudamire’s team is much better than their 1-5 record indicates. They were a questionable foul call away from defeating BYU, a last second shot away from beating USF, and they blew a double-digit lead to Santa Clara. Instead, they are left at the bottom of the standings wondering what could have been. It’s still hard to imagine them finishing this low by season’s end, but they’ll have to close games better. All the concerns about Pacific coming into the year have been validated. They have a plethora of talented guards and wings, but their complete lack of size has been a glaring issue. Their two-point defense is ranked 322 in the country. They block no shots and foul teams at an alarming rate. Combine that with one of the slowest tempos in the country and it makes for some ugly basketball sometimes. I’ve said this before, but Lafayette Dorsey is going to be a star next season.
10. Portland Pilots (7-14, 0-6, KP 320, NET 317)
To be quite honest, there are not a ton of positive things to say about Portland. They are the only team in the conference ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom, they have the worst offense and the worst defense in the WCC, and five of their six conference losses have been by double digits. There’s a legitimate chance they go 0-16 in league play (KP says 13.8%), which is unfortunate. They have no seniors on their roster, so it’s all about growth for Terry Porter’s squad. Marcus Shaver and JoJo Walker are a pair of crafty guards who should cause problems the next couple years. It looks like this kid Jacob Tryon is becoming a reliable big man, too. He’s their third leading scorer in conference and played well against Gonzaga last week. The best-case scenario for the Pilots is a couple conference wins and a belief that their young guys can compete next season with another year together.
One last thing: the race for WCC Player of the Year is something to monitor down the stretch. You would imagine it will come down to Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, but don’t count out Yoeli Childs and Jordan Ford. Right now, KenPom has his POY Rankings as: Clarke, Hachimura, Ford, Zach Norvell, and Childs. Brandon Clarke is also 10th in KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.