The West Coast Conference for the past few years has been Gonzaga and everybody else. But as the other schools already have shown this season, there's a whole lot more to the WCC...

Share story

The West Coast Conference for the past few years has been Gonzaga and everybody else.

But as the other schools already have shown this season, there’s a whole lot more to the WCC than the No. 13 Bulldogs.

Santa Clara shocked North Carolina and upended neighbor Stanford in an opening month that brought the Broncos more national attention than since Steve Nash was running the point.

Saint Mary’s earned a trip to Madison Square Garden and plenty of exposure in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. San Francisco put together its longest winning streak in five years under new coach Jessie Evans.

“I don’t know if you can call it a mid-major conference anymore,” said California coach Ben Braun, whose Bears lost to Saint Mary’s earlier this season. “They can play with anyone in the country.”

Longtime Santa Clara coach Dick Davey has been around the WCC long enough to recognize a special season before it begins. He is convinced this could be one of those years, especially for the San Francisco Bay Area teams determined to finally make things tough for the favored Bulldogs.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few knows it won’t be easy.

“I’ve always said this conference is competitive. It has better players than people realize and has always had good, quality coaches,” Few said. “It’s a conference that has always been underrated. It’s sad it takes a couple of big nonconference wins for people to see how competitive this conference is and to appreciate it more.”

Gonzaga’s greatness in the WCC resembles the dominance of those talented 1970s San Francisco teams featuring Bill Cartwright, James Hardy and Winford Boynes — and the Bulldogs are showing no signs of a letdown.

While Gonzaga is still the team to beat, the standings could be more crowded near the top than in years past.

“Gonzaga was really good last year,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “People keep thinking they’re going to drop off, but they’re not going to drop off. We, Santa Clara and Pepperdine have figured out they’re not dropping off, so you better improve your program.

“That’s what’s happening. There are a lot of teams that want a piece of that.”

The Zags, who jumped nine spots in the latest AP poll after their upset of Georgia Tech last Saturday, have won five of the past six WCC tournaments and a share of the regular-season title in six of the past seven years.

They didn’t lose a league game last year.

Gonzaga will get an immediate test this time around, opening the conference campaign at Santa Clara on Jan. 6 and at Saint Mary’s two days later. Pepperdine is another contender.

“Everybody knows Gonzaga’s beatable now,” Santa Clara guard Doron Perkins said. “Everyone in the conference looks like they have a chance to win it.”

Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara have made splashes, but both also lost key games that could hurt their NCAA tournament chances come March. The Gaels lost to Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, then lost on the road to Rutgers and Hawaii.

After defeating North Carolina and Stanford, the Broncos lost to Pacific, Cal Poly and UC Irvine. And they were defeated 68-63 at Arizona State on Wednesday.

The WCC is eighth in the latest RPI ratings, highest ever for the conference. The WCC is on pace to top its previous best nonconference showing, a .649 winning percentage in 1978-79.

“At this point in the season, this is as strong as I’ve seen our conference in a long, long, long time,” said Davey, the Broncos’ 13th-year coach. “My thinking is more along the lines that maybe we have enough teams that are good enough this year that we might be able to get two or three teams in the (NCAA) tournament rather than one, which is customary.”

The WCC has had two teams reach the NCAA tournament only five times in the past 15 years and has never sent three teams.

In the 1950s, San Francisco won consecutive NCAA titles thanks to stars such as Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The Loyola Marymount teams of the ’90s with Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble provided another glimpse of the conference’s potential.

“People don’t realize how tough it is to win on the road in this conference,” Few said. “For us to go 14-0 like we did last year was remarkable. For anybody to go undefeated in this conference is quite an accomplishment, and I don’t say that because we were the ones to do it last year.”

Gonzaga (9-1) plays No. 3 Oklahoma State on Tuesday in Oklahoma City and at Missouri on Thursday.