They don’t hand out trophies for nonconference play, but the West Coast Conference earned some gold stars with its performance in the season’s first two months.
The WCC posted a 102-47 mark for a 68.5 winning percentage, edging last year’s 100 wins and 67.1 percentage. The conference went 10-7 against the Pac-12. Six teams won at least 11 games and no other conference could match the WCC’s four programs with 12 or more wins.
But the same questions remain. Can anybody catch No. 1 Gonzaga? Can anybody break up the Big Three of GU, Saint Mary’s and BYU?
“The league is better,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, whose team opens conference play at Portland on Thursday. “The teams at the top are good, and I’ve said all along those teams in the middle are a lot better than they have been. It’ll be a good challenge.
“This particular year, the teams are older. All those teams were somewhat young last year. Everybody stuck around, except at our place.”
Per usual, the Zags were preseason WCC favorites and they’ve only strengthened their case with a 14-1 start that includes victories over Oregon, Washington, Arizona and North Carolina.
The Zags cruised to a 16-0 conference record last year but stumbled against Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament title game. The biggest difference between this season and last is that the Gaels and BYU appear better equipped to challenge the Zags.
Saint Mary’s upgraded its nonconference slate and holds wins over Wisconsin, Utah State, Cal and Arizona State (by 40). Senior guard Jordan Ford (21 points per game) is a WCC Player of the Year candidate. Junior forward Malik Fitts isn’t far behind at 16 points and 7.5 boards.
The Gaels (13-2) are fifth nationally in field-goal percentage (50.4) and first in 3-point percentage (44.3). They boast an experienced roster but recently lost starting center Matthias Tass to a torn ACL.
BYU, under first-year coach Mark Pope, went 11-4, three of those losses without star forward Yoeli Childs, who was suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games. Childs is averaging 21.2 points and 9.8 rebounds.
The Cougars relied on Childs and TJ Haws last year, but they have additional options with Utah Valley transfer Jake Toolson (14.7 points) and Arizona transfer Alex Barcello (10.4 points) joining Haws (12.5 points). Toolson, Barcello, Dalton Nixon and Connor Harding carry shooting percentages in the low- to mid-40s on 3-pointers.
San Francisco, Santa Clara, Pepperdine and Pacific appear capable of finishing in the upper half with an outside shot at cracking the top three.
USF (11-4) is eyeing a fourth consecutive 20-win season, the previous three under Kyle Smith, now at Washington State. Junior Jamaree Bouyea (14.5, 4.1 assists) has more than doubled his production from last season stepping in at point guard for the graduated Frankie Ferrari.
Santa Clara (13-2) faced a soft schedule, but the Broncos are off to their best start since the 1969 season. Trey Wertz (12.5 points) leads a balanced attack featuring seven players averaging at least 8 points.
Pacific, projected eighth in the preseason poll, was 12-3 — its best start since the 2004 season — before falling to UC Irvine. Twelve players average double-figures minutes. The Tigers rank 23rd nationally in scoring defense (60.4) and fifth in rebounding margin (plus 10.8).
Pepperdine (7-7) followed a five-game losing streak with four straight wins before falling to San Jose State. Colbey Ross, the program’s all-time assists leader, and the Edwards brothers (Kameron and Kessler) combine for 52.4 points per game.
San Diego (7-8) is rebuilding after losing four senior starters from a 20-win squad. Loyola Marymount forward Eli Scott is averaging 16.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5 assists, but the Lions (6-8) will probably take a step back from last year’s 22-win season. Portland (8-7) is making progress after winning just seven games a year ago.