- Ky McKeon
The West Coast Conference is enjoying arguably its best season ever, featuring a headliner team in Gonzaga flashing in neon lights, two more at-large Tourney threats, and a pack of six more solid squads. Per KenPom.com, the conference checks in as the 8th best in the country, and has its best adjusted efficiency margin since the site’s debut in 2001-02. With the Pac-12 drowning in the Pacific Ocean and other leagues such as the Big East being “down”, mid-major conferences have a golden opportunity to cash in some coveted at-large bids. Three teams is the most the WCC has ever sent to the Field of 68, happening in 2008 and 2012, so there’s precedent for the league earning multiple bids in 2019.
With that, let’s dive into current state of the WCC…
Gonzaga (14-2 (1-0))
The Zags are clearly a Tourney lock heading into the early stages of conference play. With a NET ranking of 5th and wins over Duke (N), Arizona (N), Creighton (A), and Washington, Gonzaga is poised to compete for a 1-seed in March (and a National Championship). To make an already scary squad even scarier, All-Conference forward Killian Tillie saw his first minutes of action of the young season against Santa Clara and is set to be back to full strength after missing the first 15 games due to injury. A Tourney bid would be the Zags’ 21st in a row and 22nd overall. A 1-seed would be their 3rd.
San Francisco (14-2 (2-0))
One of several surprising WCC squads, the Dons have the best shot out of any school not named Gonzaga to punch an at-large ticket to the Dance. While a Saint Mary’s win at home is the Dons’ only Q1/Q2 victory and a Non-Con SOS of 285 is nothing to write home about, Kyle Smith’s team still ranks 39th in the NET and 45th in KenPom. The Dons get Gonzaga at home on Saturday in what will be a colossal opportunity to seal their first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
Saint Mary’s (10-7 (1-1))
The Gaels may have already missed their chance for an at-large bid with losses in Moraga to Harvard an UC Irvine. Those two defeats gives Saint Mary’s two Q3 blemishes to pair with a 1-5 record against Q1/Q2 competition (beat New Mexico State on the road). All is not lost though for Jordan Ford & Co., as the Gaels still rank 38th in KenPom and 66th in the NET. SMC already blew one chance for a marquee conference victory at San Fran, so at least one win against Gonzaga and very few other league losses is likely required to send the Gaels dancing sans Auto-Bid. The league’s most realistic shot at three bids involves Saint Mary’s winning the conference tournament.
BYU (9-8 (1-1))
BYU is the most disappointing team in a conference otherwise filled with overachievers. After being picked 2nd in the preseason by 3MW, the Cougars have stumbled out of the gates to a 9-8 record and 2-4 mark against Q3 competition. This year’s BYU squad is off to its worst start since 2014 (a year in which it made the Field of 68), seeing its preseason KenPom ranking plummet from 56 to 97. Dave Rose’s squad is not without talent - Yoeli Childs is arguably a top five player in the league - so a conference tourney title in March is certainly not outside the realm of possibilities.
San Diego (12-5 (1-1))
Like San Francisco, San Diego brought back plenty of talent from a 20-win team a year ago. A win over Colorado and near misses at Washington, Ole Miss, and Oregon have shown that the Toreros can compete with Power 6 competition, but an injury to backcourt pillar Isaiah Wright promises to make for a rough early conference season. Similar to BYU, Sam Scholl has himself a WCC star in Isaiah Pineiro and the Toreros are the 10th most experienced squad in the country, suggesting USD has as good a chance as any to steal the auto-bid.
Loyola Marymount (13-3 (1-1))
LMU is my personal pick for most surprising WCC team. The Lions started the year on an 8-0 tear, upending UNLV in Las Vegas and Georgetown on a neutral floor, which helped them debut in the top ten of the NET’s initial (albeit flawed) rankings. Currently sitting at 140th in the NET, LMU will need to take the conference tourney title to make the Field of 68 thanks to one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country, which left it with only one two chances at a Q1/Q2 win. An ugly loss at UC Riverside also doesn’t do the Lions any favors from an at-large perspective.
Dark, Dark Horses
Pacific (10-7 (0-2))
Pacific’s rise to competitiveness has done wonders for the league’s overall ranking, but the Tigers are still a snowball’s chance in Hell away from reaching the Big Dance. Already sitting at 0-2, Damon Stoudamire will rely on his talented stable of guards and deep bench to make waves in the conference tournament.
Pepperdine (8-8 (1-1))
Pepperdine is clearly an improved team under new head coach Lorenzo Romar, off to its best start since 2016. An inconsistent non-conference performance leaves the Waves needing an auto-bid to make a surprise appearance in the Field of 68, but an early conference win against LMU and a near-upset vs. San Francisco is enough to let the rest of the league know that this squad cannot be taken lightly.
Santa Clara (9-7 (1-1))
After a rough 1-5 (and injury plagued) start to the year, the Broncos were deadly in December, knocking off USC, Washington State, and conference foe San Diego. Sure, Santa Clara just lost by 43 to Gonzaga, but don’t be shocked to see the Broncos right in the mix of the middle of the WCC standings at year-end.
Portland (7-9 (0-1))
No mid-major conference in the country can boast about having zero “bad” teams and the WCC is no different. The Portland Pilots are simply not on the same level as their conference foes in 2018-19, ranking 92 spots lower in KenPom than the 9th best WCC squad and projected to finish a full three games back of 9th in conference. A good young core is still a year or two away from competing under Terry Porter.