West Coast Conference Basketball: Gonzaga Leads Up An Exciting Stretch Run

West Coast Conference basketball has become a regular in the NCAA Tournament scene every March. Gonzaga is still one of the country’s most popular midmajor teams. BYU has a recent run to the Sweet 16 anchored by Jimmer Fredette back in 2011, and St. Mary’s did the same in 2010. All three schools are regulars in the Dance. This year could be different on two levels—on the one hand, maybe the WCC will finally break through and end up with a team in the Final Four. On the other hand, maybe it will be a one-bid league on Selection Sunday.

Let’s start with Gonzaga who’s the cream of the crop in the conference. The Zags are 21-2 overall, and projected as a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The team is built around two high-quality frontcourt players. Senior forward Elias Harris averages 15 points/7 rebounds per game, and the big seven-footer, junior center Kelly Olynyk is posting an 18/7.

What makes Gonzaga even more interesting is that their two sophomore guards are capable of doing more. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell each started last year as freshmen. They’re only combining for 20 ppg this year, which isn’t bad, but second-year starters at a program like this should be capable of more. Perhaps if necessary, they can deliver. Pangos is the team’s primary three-point shooter and hits a red-hot 44 percent from behind the arc. If this team is going to make a big run in March, they’ll likely a need a lights-out game from three-point range somewhere along the way.

I’m still surprised Lunardi has Gonzaga projected this high on the seedings, because they really haven’t beaten anyone. They lost at home to Illinois in December, something we should note took place when the Illini were playing much better than is the case today. And the Zags dropped a one-point nailbiter at Butler. Even within the conference, their wins over St. Mary’s and BYU have come at home.

Talent-wise, I think Gonzaga can finally have a breakthrough March. Olynyk gives them a player a lot of teams will find it tough to match up, Pangos can light it up from downtown and Harris is just a solid all-around player. Bell has an upside that could make him an X-factor in any game. All the pieces are there. But when it comes to evaluating their resume right now, where are the marquee wins? We’re still taking Gonzaga’s ability to beat really good teams on faith.

At least we know the Zags are going to be in the NCAA Tournament and that’s more than can be said for St. Mary’s and BYU. Each team is having a good year, with the Gaels at 19-4 and the Cougars on 18-6, but that’s good for the NCAA bubble. Lunardi has them splitting down the middle, with St. Mary’s leaning in and BYU leaning out. So even if the bracket were unveiled today, the West Coast Conference might range anywhere from 1-3 teams.

The resumes of the two challengers are completely opposite. St. Mary’s has the better overall record and also got a one-point win at BYU. They’ve also lost games to Pacific, Northern Iowa and Georgia Tech, all of which count as black marks when the committee evaluateseverything. From a personnel standpoint, they’re a deep team, with seven players getting significant minutes, but a lot of it is just average interchangeable parts. If the Gaels play well down the stretch or in the NCAAs, it starts with senior guard Matthew Dellavedova and extends to junior guard Stephen Holt. The pair averages 17 ppg and 12 ppg respectively.

None of BYU’s losses are bad—they lost to their two primary conference rivals, along with Florida State, Notre Dame, Iowa State and Baylor. Their problem is going to be that the Selection Committee has shown they want more than quality losses, they want you to see you beat some people. BYU hasn’t done that and time is running out. A road game at St. Mary’s on February 21 is must-win and their home game with Gonzaga a week later might be as well.

St. Mary’s also needs to play like their back is to the wall. If they lose one more game in the regular season, and then another in the conference tournament (we may as well assume the latter, since if they win the tournament they go  automatically and this whole discussion is moot), you’re talking about a six-loss team with no notable wins. It would be a close, but my guess would be the Gaels get left home in that scenario. The remaining schedule isn’t easy—St. Mary’s plays two more games against Santa Clara, who at 17-7 is the one dark horse in a league owned by the Big Three. Then they’ve got Gonzaga and BYU at home.

The West Coast Conference regular season ends early, on March 2, so the tournament can get some national television exposure before the power leagues take over the airwaves. It’s going to be an exciting few weeks for some teams that have developed a nice basketball pedigree, and still have a lot on the line.