Much-improved San Diego adds intrigue to WCC men’s basketball race

Big Three of BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s might have some company in 2017-18 title chase

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) shoots past Idaho State Bengals center Novak Topalovic (13) during the game at the Marriott Center Thursday, December 21, 2017.

Provo • From BYU’s perspective, there is good and bad news as the 2017-18 West Coast Conference men’s basketball race begins later this week.

The good news is that the two teams picked to finish ahead of them in the league standings, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, might not be as good as they were last year. The Zags (10-3) and Gaels (11-2) still are powerful and likely will battle the next nine weeks for the regular-season title, but they’ve seemingly dropped back to the pack a little bit after outstanding campaigns in 2016-17.

The bad news is that a couple teams outside the WCC’s “Big Three” of GU, SMC and BYU are much better, specifically San Diego and San Francisco. The Toreros own road wins over Grand Canyon, New Mexico State and Colorado, and the Dons knocked off Nevada 66-64 in Las Vegas late Saturday night and already have eight wins.

“San Diego is really good,” BYU coach Dave Rose said after the Cougars improved to 11-2 with a 73-52 win over Texas Southern, their eighth straight victory. “Those three road wins that they have are really impressive.”

Rose said he hasn’t seen USD play yet but knows they’ve played strong defense and have a couple Division I transfers who are leading them in scoring, former Ute Isaiah Wright (13.6 ppg) and ex-Portland State wing Isaiah Pineiro (15.2 ppg).

“So that’s the next chapter for me is to jump into these league teams and see exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it,” Rose said last week.

As for the Cougars, who open league play with homes games Thursday against Portland and Saturday against Saint Mary’s, guard TJ Haws said the Cougars are “definitely ready” to challenge for a league title, and star forward Yoeli Childs said a demanding nonconference schedule prepared them well.

“The WCC is a grind, and the level of play definitely steps up,” Childs said. “Every game is like a rivalry game because every game just means so much to the outcome of your season. It is a different level of competition and something we are ready for.”

Here’s a closer look at the league race, with nonconference record and predicted order of finish:

1. Gonzaga (10-3) • Having played by far the most difficult schedule in the league to date, the No. 20 Zags have lost to No. 1 Villanova, Florida and at Mountain West favorite San Diego State. Still, the Zags are No. 13 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and have reloaded with Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert joining key returners Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie, Silas Melson and Rui Hachimura.

2. Saint Mary’s (11-2) • The Gaels fell out of the national rankings with back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia on Thanksgiving weekend, but they have won six straight, including a 74-63 win at California. Most of the familiar names — Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson, Emmett Naar, Evan Fitzner and Tanner Krebs — are back and bolstered by Ole Miss/New Mexcio transfer Cullen Neal and sophomore Jordan Ford.

3. BYU (11-2) • Eight straight wins, including a 4-0 run against Utah teams, has pushed the Cougars to No. 60 in the Pomeroy Ratings, No. 58 in Sagarin and revived hopes of a championship season after losing Eric Mika and Nick Emery. BYU hasn’t lost since Weber State transfer McKay Cannon was made eligible Nov. 29.

4. San Diego (9-3) • The 69-59 win at Colorado on Dec. 12 gave the Toreros their best start in program history at 8-2, but they took a step back the next time out with a 86-83 overtime loss at home to North Texas. Still, coach Lamont Smith has USU rolling in his third year.

5. San Francisco (8-5) • Led by freshman Souley Boum and returners Chase Foster, Jordan Ratinho and Matt McCarthy, the Dons have the toughest league opener of any upper-level WCC team — at San Diego.

6. Portland (6-7) • The Pilots have lost to some good teams, including Portland State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, DePaul and Boise State and might be better than their record suggests.

7. Loyola Marymount (5-6) • Sharpshooter Steven Haney is back and bolstered by the likes of James Batemon (19.1 ppg.), Eli Scott and Zafir Williams. Lions gave good teams such as UT Arlington, Portland State, Washington and Oregon State decent games before faltering late.

8. Pacific (5-8) • Tigers enter league play on a four-game losing streak after winning five of six.

9. Santa Clara (3-9) • Herb Sendek seemingly got it turned around last year, but Broncos have been a disappointment in the veteran coach’s second season.

10. Pepperdine (3-9) • Former Utah assistant Marty Wilson is on the hot seat in Malibu, but Waves always play well when Cougars visit.

THURSDAY’S WCC OPENERS <br>• Pacific at Gonzaga, 7 p.m. MT, ESPN2 <br>• Portland at BYU, 7 p.m., BYUtv <br>• San Francisco at San Diego, 7 p.m. MT, AT&T RM <br>• Pepperdine at Santa Clara, 8 p.m. MT, TheW.tv