BYU basketball: Cougars open WCC play looking up at Gonzaga
Cougars open league play looking up at No. 10-ranked Zags.
Published: January 3, 2013 11:10AM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:31PM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Brigham Young Cougars forward Brandon Davies (0) takes a breather during a time out, Davies had 18 points in the first half, in basketball action, BYU vs. Weber State, in Ogden, Saturday, December 15, 2012.

Provo • Gonzaga’s incredible run of 11 straight seasons in which the Bulldogs won at least a share of the West Coast Conference regular-season men’s basketball championship was snapped by St. Mary’s last year.

The Zags’ response?

A bigger, stronger and more talented team this season, one that is not only a prohibitive favorite to reclaim the WCC title, but also a strong candidate to make a long NCAA Tournament run. The No. 10 Zags (13-1) are being called a potential Final Four club in some circles.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “I am really looking forward to the league race [that began this week]. I think Gonzaga, if you have a chance to see them play, you understand that they are really deep, really skilled.”

Although Gonzaga coach Mark Few hates being asked if this is his best team ever in Spokane — preferring to wait until March to make those sort of proclamations — most other WCC coaches came to the realization in the past two months that everybody else is probably playing for second after watching the Zags plow through the likes of Kansas State, Clemson, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

“There’s a legitimate chemistry on this team that you could see if you hung out with us for a day or two,” Few told reporters after a 69-68 win at No. 22 Oklahoma State. “I know a lot of coaches say that, but with this group, it is really, really strong. ... They just play for one another, for the team.”

Adding to the feeling that Gonzaga will dominate the league this year is the notion that the teams believed to be the Zags’ biggest challengers back in November — Saint Mary’s and BYU — have been inconsistent, especially BYU. The Gaels (11-3) have lost to Georgia Tech, Pacific and Northern Iowa and lack a true great win, while the Cougars (10-4) don’t have any marquee wins, either.

BYU doesn’t have any bad losses, but all four of the Cougars’ nonconference setbacks — to Florida State, Notre Dame, Iowa State and Baylor — were by double digits.

“Saint Mary’s is going to be really tough with those returning players they have, and [Matthew] Dellavedova at the point,” Rose said. “So we are excited to get started. We get started with a really good [Loyola Marymount] team, a team that came in and beat us at our place last year.”

The biggest surprise, though, is Santa Clara. After going 0-16 in the league last year, the Broncos were a surprising 11-3 heading into Wednesday night’s showdown with Bay Area rival San Francisco, as seniors Kevin Foster (18.9 ppg) and Marc Trasolini (15.9 ppg) have put themselves among the top players in the conference.

The Broncos “have really had a great nonconference schedule,” Rose said. “They played a really competitive game at Duke, down only two at halftime,” though they eventually lost 90-77.

Picked fourth in the preseason coaches poll, LMU (7-6) has been mildly disappointing, although point guard Anthony Ireland leads the league in scoring (21.3 ppg.).

As a whole, the league is about where it was last year, after putting three teams into the NCAA Tournament for the second time ever in 2012. The WCC has a .648 winning percentage (81-44) in nonconference games this season, after going .605 last year.

The league went 3-4 against the Pac-12 and 4-1 against the WAC, but 0-6 against the Mountain West.

West Coast Conference preview

Listed by predicted order of finish

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Nonconference record • 13-1. RPI • 7

Outlook • Picked to win the league in the preseason by WCC coaches, the Zags are now a prohibitive favorite after beating West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

2. Saint Mary’s Gaels

Nonconference record • 11-3. RPI • 102

Outlook • A rather soft nonconference schedule has Gaels’ RPI in the 100s, but point guard Matthew Dellavedova makes them the league’s second-best team.

3. Santa Clara Broncos

Nonconference record • 11-3. RPI • 76

Outlook • Kevin Foster is back and averaging 18.9 points per game, and the Broncos appear ready to erase memories of last year’s 0-16 league record.

4. BYU Cougars

Nonconference record • 10-4. RPI • 33

Outlook • Cougars have two great players in Brandon Davies and Tyler Haws, but the drop-off in talent after those two is too steep to call them a league title contender.

5. Loyola Marymount Lions

Nonconference record • 7-6. RPI • 220

Outlook • Junior Anthony Ireland is a scoring machine (21.3 ppg.), but the Lions have been mildly disappointing in their nonconference games and lost to Alaska-Anchorage.

6. San Francisco Dons

Nonconference record • 7-6. RPI • 171

Outlook • Rex Walter’s team won its last two nonconference games after dropping five in a row, and have enough talent to move higher in standings.

7. Portland Pilots

Nonconference record • 7-8. RPI • 238

Outlook • More was expected in nonconference games from a team that returned four starters, including leading scorer Ryan Nicholas.

8. San Diego Toreros

Nonconference record • 7-8. RPI • 245

Outlook • Has some talent with senior forward Chris Manressa, sophomore guard Christopher Anderson and sharpshooter Johnny Dee, but has been wildly inconsistent.

9. Pepperdine Waves

Nonconference record • 8-5. RPI • 189

Outlook • Freshman Stacy Davis has been a pleasant surprise with an 11.3 scoring average, but Waves lost some head-scratchers in December, including a 67-63 loss at Utah Valley.

Loyola Marymount at BYU

P At the Marriott Center (Provo)

Tipoff • Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV • BYUtv. Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Records • BYU 10-4, LMU 7-6

Series history • LMU leads, 3-2

Last meeting • LMU 82, BYU 68 (Jan. 19, 2012)

About the Lions • Point guard Anthony Ireland leads the WCC with a 21.3 scoring average and former Davis High and College of Eastern Utah star Chase Flint is averaging 7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. ... Ashley Hamilton (14.8 ppg) and Ayodeji Egbeyemi (11.3 ppg) are also averaging in double figures for the Lions.

About the Cougars • Tyler Haws leads in scoring at 20.9 ppg after scoring 42 points in last week’s 97-71 win over Virginia Tech, the most in the NCAA Division I basketball this season. ... Brandon Davies is averaging 20.1 ppg, making BYU the only team in the country with two players averaging 20 or more points per game. ... They finish WCC play on March 2 at LMU.