Three storylines to watch as Gonzaga enters the second half of WCC play

click to enlarge Mark Few's crew is making the turn in conference play. - YOUNG KWAK

Young Kwak

Mark Few’s crew is making the turn in conference play.

It is now February, the month before the madness, and roughly the midway point of the West Coast Conference regular season. Which makes this a great time to take a look around the league and catch up on Gonzaga’s conference rivals. Here are three of the biggest storylines around the WCC.

FOUR BID WCC?

Since Gonzaga’s breakout 1999 season, the WCC has averaged 1.7 NCAA Tournament bids per season. Since BYU joined the league a decade ago, that number has climbed to 1.9 bids per season. Twice, in 2008 and 2012, the league has sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament — they were projected to send three teams in 2020, had the tournament not been canceled due to the pandemic.

So far this season, the league has been on pace to set a new record. Gonzaga, obviously, looks like an NCAA Tournament team. Saint Mary’s and BYU, the teams typically in the hunt for the league’s second or third bids, look the part as well. So does San Francisco, which in recent years has been a program on the rise but unable to make it over the hump.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket, published on Friday, projects Gonzaga as a 1 seed, BYU as an 8, Saint Mary’s as a 10 and San Francisco as an 11.

The Zags and the Gaels haven’t done anything to date to jeopardize their position, but BYU and San Francisco have taken a few stumbles since the start of league play. The Dons don’t have any bad losses, but they have lost to the other three teams in contention, including to BYU and Saint Mary’s at home. The Dons likely need to get revenge on the road to stay on the right side of the bubble. BYU has held serve at home against the other three teams so far, but unlike the Dons, the Cougars have had multiple losses to teams outside the top tier. Over the weekend they dropped a disastrous game to ninth place Pacific, which came two days after a buzzer-beating loss to Santa Clara. Speaking of Santa Clara…

BRONCO BUBBLE POPPERS

Had it not been for an illness to the team’s super-senior leader, Josip Vrankic, Santa Clara could easily be in the mix as a fifth WCC team with the potential to earn a bid to the big dance. The Broncos are 9-4 on the season with Vrankic in the lineup, but went just 4-4 while he was sidelined with mononucleosis.

The Broncos have NCAA Tournament talent, though due to their stumbles without Vrankic, they’re lacking an NCAA Tournament résumé. That makes them an incredibly dangerous team; they’re good enough to beat anybody on any given night, and their weak résumé makes losing to them more damaging than it should.

They showed exactly that last week, by taking down BYU at home, 77-76, and then coming up just short against San Francisco on the road, 88-85. In the win over BYU, junior wing Jalen Williams, the league’s leading scorer at 18.9 points per game, scored at the buzzer to sink the Cougars.

SURPRISING SAN DIEGO

Heading into the season, the San Diego Toreros were picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll.

Now though, with nine games played and seven remaining, the Toreros find themselves sitting third in the league standings at 6-3 in league play. They’re off to their best start in conference play since 2008, when they opened 8-1, finished 11-3, won the WCC Tournament and upset UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This turnaround must be welcome news for Gig Harbor native Sam Scholl, now in his fourth year as head coach. Under his leadership, the Toreros have posted just one winning season: his first. Scholl took over the head job after Lamont Smith resigned abruptly amid scandal. Smith had assembled a very strong roster loaded with seniors, and Scholl took that roster and guided it to a 21-15 record. The year after, the Toreros went a disappointing 9-23. The next — last season — they managed just three total wins.

However, the Toreros’ success this season isn’t entirely Scholl’s doing. The Toreros’ six league wins have come against the teams in 10th place (twice), ninth place, eighth place (twice) and seventh place.

Due to the league’s unbalanced schedule, the Toreros are the lucky team that gets to face off against Gonzaga and BYU just once each this season. Last year, that honor landed on Loyola Marymount, who rode their weak schedule to a third place finish in the standings. This year, the only team with a weaker schedule in conference play than the Toreros is Gonzaga, and that’s because Gonzaga won’t be facing off against the best team in the league — because that team is Gonzaga.

Still though, credit where it’s due. The Toreros have made the most of their situation.

UP NEXT

The Zags will play their lone game this season against those San Diego Toreros on Thursday at 6 pm. The game will air on ESPN2. Then they’ll travel to Provo for a big-time clash with BYU. The Cougars are currently reeling on a two-game losing streak that could easily expand to three games by the time Gonzaga gets to town. That game will air on a to-be-determined ESPN network at 7 pm on Saturday. n

Article Source: Inlander