THE STANDARD BEARER: Gonzaga Bulldogs
There hasn’t been a lot of mystery in the West Coast Conference this century. For 11 consecutive years Gonzaga has finished in first place in the regular season standings. At some point that run has got to end. Right? UCLA’s did, and they’re the only Division I school in history to win their conference for more consecutive seasons.
The Zags are 7-2 this season, with losses at Illinois and against Michigan State. But they’ve accumulated several solid out of conference wins against Washington State, Notre Dame, Oral Roberts and Arizona. And they have Butler and Xavier left. It’s not a done deal, but it’s looking good that the Zags will reach their 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
But last year’s club and this year’s club are rare things for Mark Few. They aren’t overwhelming favorites to win the Conference. There are two problems. One is perimeter play, and the second I’ll get to in a minute. Gonzaga lost their two most-used guards – Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson. Everyone knew Gray was gone (he was a senior), but Goodson, who had started 68 of 69 games, unexpectedly left and transferred to Baylor – to play football. Gray led the team in scoring, assists and steals. Goodson was the defensive stopper.
Stepping into that void has been freshman Kevin Pangos. Pangos – because he’s small and Canadian – has drawn comparisons to Steve Nash. But John Stockton is probably a better comparison. Pangos doesn’t have high major athleticism or size, but he’s tough, understands the game, and carries a reputation of being a great shooter. Everyone saw that reputation come true in Gonzaga’s win over Washington State. Pangos connected on 9-13 threes and scored 33 points. Take away that game though and he’s only shooting 27% from deep. Still, he leads the team in assists while maintaining a very solid TO rate of just over 15%.
The other guards getting serious minutes are fellow freshman Gary Bell Jr and sophomore David Stockton (who can really be compared to John Stockton). Bell has been a pleasant surprise defensively and is shooting 38.9% from three. Stockton, who might weigh 150 pounds, has made 57% of his 3-pt attempts.
The inside is much more settled. 7-footer Robert Sacre has been solid, averaging 15 and 7. Junior Elias Harris still hasn’t bounced back to his freshman form, but he’s an elite rebounder, especially on the defensive end, and leads the team with 8.3 a game.
THE NEWCOMER: BYU Cougars
One of the reasons Gonzaga has had so much success in the West Coast Conference is that BYU was in the Mountain West Conference. Well, that is no longer the case, and on February 2nd the Zags will make a trip to the Marriot Center in Provo to get acquainted.
BYU started off their post-MWC, post-Jimmer era with a thud, dropping the season opener to Utah State. Since then they’ve been solid, but sit at 8-3 and without a signature win. Their best wins are over Nevada and Oregon. They took Baylor to the wire, but a loss – at least in the eyes of the RPI – is a loss.
For the first ten games of the season this was Noah Hartsock’s team. The senior big man was a role player next to Jimmer Fredette last season, but now he’s averaging 16.9 ppg and 6.7 rpg, and doing it with a ridiculous offensive rating north of 127. Hartsock is making 58% of his 2s, 40% of his limited 3s and 84% of his FTs. He’s been in double figures every game, and had back-to-back double-doubles against Oregon and Weber State. But in the eleventh game of the season Matt Carlino – a freshman transfer from UCLA – became eligible. In his first collegiate game (against Baylor) Carlino not only scored 18 points on 4-8 3-pt shooting, but did it in a way that Cougar fans are used to: with style. He took ill advised deep 3s and knocked them down, he took shots with 6’9 defenders in his face and knocked them down, and he juked and jived his way to the rim. It’s only one game, but it was exactly what BYU has been missing. They need a shooter/dribble-driver to help open things up for their stable of forwards.
Senior Charles Abouo and junior Brandon Davies are the other players to benefit from Jimmer’s graduation. Abouo is one of those players who doesn’t really have a position. He’s just a basketball player. At 6’5 he’s the best offensive rebounder on the team, and has the 2nd best defensive rebounding rate. He’s made over half his threes and he shoots 53% on 2s. If he was three inches taller everyone in the nation would know his name. Davies is a 6’9 sex-crazed power forward. After being dismissed from the team for admitting to pre-marital sex (gasp!) Davies was re-instated much to the delight of Cougar faithful. As an athlete, Davies is the player on BYU’s roster most likely to be confused for someone who plays at Kentucky. He’s long and strong, can run, is a great rebounder, and averages over 11 a game.
THE BRIDESMAID: St Mary’s Gaels
From 2004 to 2010 St, Mary’s finished 2nd in the West Coast standing every season. Then in 2011 they broke through and forced a tie with Gonzaga at the top. And though they’ve made the Big Dance three times during that stretch, last year wasn’t one of those trips. In five of those eight years the WCC was a one-bid conference, including last season. St. Mary’s either needs to start winning the conference tourney, or doing enough out of conference to satisfy the committee on Selection Sunday.
Randy Bennett’s team is 8-1 this season with Northern Iowa as their best win. The loss is to Denver, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Their chance comes next Thursday and Friday when they face Baylor and Missouri State back-to-back. At minimum, they have to split those games, though to be honest anything short of a Baylor win means they’ll be putting all their eggs in the conference tourney basket. You would think they’d be playing a smarter schedule by now.
The Gaels always do a good job limiting extra possessions for their opponents, but this year’s team leads the nation in defensive rebounding. 6’6 senior Rob Jones is top-20 nationally in the category, and fellow senior Kenton Walker would be as well if he played enough minutes. Jones – a transfer from San Diego – has become more effective as he’s built an outside game. In his four seasons his 3-pt% has gone from 12.5% > 25% > 33.1% > 45.8%. He’s made 57% of his 2s, and began the season with seven consecutive double-doubles.
Junior Matthew Dellavedova is a bit turnover prone but averages 6 assists per game while continuing his scoring at 13.4 ppg. He splits his shots between 2s and 3s, and knocks down both. He’s also competing with Harvard’s Oliver McNally to be the best free throw shooter in the nation.
The Field: 10%