Let’s break down the conference challenges ahead for Gonzaga’s men’s hoops squad

Conference play is all that’s between the Zags and March Madness.

The halfway point of the season is nearly upon us. College basketball teams begin to shift from their non-conference schedule into league play, and Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference is no different. The Zags are once again the overwhelming favorites, but this year the league might be tougher than ever. For the next two months the Zags will be playing conference foes and nobody else, so it’s time to get caught up on the rivals they’ll be taking on. Here’s a look around the West Coast Conference.

SAN FRANCISCO DONS (12-1)
Off to their best start since the 1976-77 team that opened the year with 26 consecutive victories, the Dons sit atop the West Coast Standings entering league play. Their senior backcourt of Jamaree Bouyea (17.8 ppg) and Central Washington transfer Khalil Shabazz (10.5 ppg) form one of the more dynamic guard duos in the game. Head coach Todd Golden’s analytic-heavy approach has led to the Dons taking and making more threes than just about any team in the sport. They’re not one-dimensional in that regard, though. San Diego transfer Yauhen Massalski (13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Duke transfer Patrick Tape (3.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) give the Dons a pair of big old-school forwards who can dominate on the block. They’re a balanced team offensively and are exceptional on the defensive end.
Play Gonzaga: 1/6; 2/24

BYU COUGARS (11-3)
Third-year head coach Mark Pope has led BYU to back-to-back seasons exceeding expectations. This year, expectations were set pretty high, and the Cougars were living up to them as they made their way into the AP Top 25 for three straight weeks straddling November and December, but critical injuries have led to some stumbles. Starting center Richard Harward went down and his replacement, Gavin Baxter, suffered the third season-ending injury of his career six games into the season. All three of the Cougars’ losses have come since as the team adapts to its new small-ball reality. Senior guard Alex Barcello (17.9 ppg) is still around, though, after his AP Honorable Mention All-America campaign last season.
Play Gonzaga: 1/13; 2/5

SAINT MARY’S GAELS (11-3)
Coming off their worst season in over a decade, many prognosticators expected the Gaels would have a down year again as they returned literally their entire roster from a season ago. Instead, the perennial thorn in Gonzaga’s side has proven sharp. If you remember the 2019 WCC Tournament championship game that saw the Gaels upset No. 1-ranked Gonzaga, you should have a pretty good idea of what this year’s Gaels bring to the table. Stingy defense and slow-as-molasses offense limit possessions and keep the score low. Their defensive rebounding prowess, second best in the nation, also limits opportunities for opponents. It’s ugly, but it works. Senior forwards Matthias Tass (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Dan Fotu (10.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) anchor the Gaels on both ends of the court.
Play Gonzaga: 2/12; 2/26

SANTA CLARA BRONCOS (10-5)
The Broncos were the talk of college basketball early in the season with a 5-0 start that saw them wipe the floor with quality squads in Stanford, Nevada, and TCU. Things started to come apart when senior forward Josip Vrankic (15.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.1 apg) was sidelined with mononucleosis. Since he’s returned, however, the Broncos have found their winning ways once again. This is a high-powered offense when healthy, with four players averaging double-figures in scoring. Junior wing Jalen Williams (18.8 ppg) has scored the second-most points in all of college basketball this season. As long as they can avoid the injury or illness bugs going forward, this is a team that is much better than its record would indicate.
Play Gonzaga: 1/15; 2/19

PORTLAND PILOTS (9-6)
Shantay Legans parlayed his NCAA Tournament appearance with Eastern Washington last season into a bigger gig as head coach in Portland. His first season in the Rose City is off to a better start than anyone could have expected. Legans had to rebuild a roster that saw all but one player leave the program during the offseason, so he brought a handful of his former Eagles with him to fill the void. The real challenge comes in conference play, where the Pilots are a combined 1-45 over the past three seasons. EWU transfer Tyler Robertson leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game.
Play Gonzaga: 1/29

LOYOLA MARYMOUNT LIONS (7-5)
The Lions were preseason darlings in the WCC for bringing back almost everyone from a surprisingly successful 2020-2021 campaign. Things haven’t worked out as planned for second-year head coach Stan Johnson, however. The Lions lost their season opener, at home, to Chattanooga and almost immediately ended their hope to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament in the process. Since then, they’ve done almost nothing to change that perception. Do-it-all super senior Eli Scott leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg), rebounding (6.7 rpg), and assists (3.8 apg) but has had a tendency to disappear for stretches this season.
Play Gonzaga: 1/1; 1/27

SAN DIEGO TOREROS (7-6)
Last year the Toreros fell victim to the coronavirus a handful of times. They managed just 14 games played all season. So far this year they’ve played 13, and we’re only halfway through the season. By that measure, this year is already a success. San Diego had an impressive start with a win on the road at Nevada early on, but since then they’ve done nothing of note. St. John’s Transfer Marcellus Earlington leads the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg) but beyond that, there isn’t much to worry about on head coach Sam Scholl’s roster. Scholl took over a few years back due to a scandal, but he’s yet to elevate the team beyond what it was then, which it still is now, which is a cellar dweller in the West Coast Conference.
Play Gonzaga: 12/30

PEPPERDINE WAVES (6-9)
Gonzaga fans know Lorenzo Romar from his nearly two decades as head coach at the University of Washington, where he led the Huskies to a hyped-up version of a whole lot of nothing. Things are going the same way for him in his second stint in Malibu. The Waves flat-out suck, even though they’re loaded with talent. Houston Mallette (11.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) took home WCC Freshman of the Week honors a couple of weeks back, and then his teammate, Mike Mitchell Jr. (8.1 ppg, 4.9 apg), earned those honors a week later. There is talent on this roster, but it isn’t leading to results. Look back at Romar’s time in Seattle and you’ll see a similar theme. There is talent, but beyond that, there is not much else, and it’s not enough to matter.
Play Gonzaga: 1/8; 2/3

PACIFIC TIGERS (5-9)
The Tigers have been perennial cellar-dwellers in the WCC since they rejoined the conference in the 2013-2014 season. They had been real players in their former conference, the Big West, for at least a decade before that, but since rejoining the WCC they’ve fallen flat on their face. Pacific is easily the worst team in the WCC this season. First-year head coach Leonard Perry faces a long and arduous uphill battle with his rebuild. Former head coach,and NBA legend Damon Stoudamire built this team to respectability before taking a job with the Boston Celtics this offseason. The thing is, he built them to respectability when nobody expected them to be respectable. Now, they’re expected to be bad. And that they are.
Play Gonzaga: 1/20; 2/10

Article Source: Inlander