Gonzaga has never been more powerful, while BYU and Saint Mary’s have seemingly dropped to the middle of the pack as the WCC season begins

Coach Mark Few's Gonzaga team should again dominate the West Coast Conference, although the league has seemingly improved top-to-bottom with more non-conference victories than ever before. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Provo • This week’s West Coast Conference men’s basketball news release accurately points out that WCC teams have collectively posted the most successful non-conference season in league history entering Thursday’s start to the WCC season.

Nine of the 10 teams have records of .500 or better, five programs already have 10 or more wins and the overall winning percentage of .671 (100-49) is a conference record. Never before has the conference won 100 non-conference games, the release boasts.

Of course, never before has the league played so many non-conference games, after the WCC dropped two league games from its schedule last spring to appease Gonzaga.

Has the league really improved, top to bottom?

BYU coach Dave Rose isn’t so sure as the Cougars prepare for Thursday’s 9 p.m. MST league opener at Pacific. Rose notes that “four or five teams” put together non-conference schedules they hoped would bolster their credentials for the NCAA tournament. The other half of the league did not.

“I think there is another group that is just trying to win,” Rose said.

And win they did. No question, teams such as San Francisco, San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Pacific have improved. But two-thirds of the so-called “Big Three” — BYU and Saint Mary’s — might be going in the other direction after playing more difficult non-conference schedules.

“I think that anybody who has followed the league for awhile is probably pretty impressed with this year’s preseason results,” Rose said. “But I think there is definitely a divide in the approach towards the preseason. … The fact that there are a handful of 10-win, 11-win teams speaks a lot to how difficult it is going to be to win in this league.”

Here’s a closer look at the league’s 10 teams, ranked here according to NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking:

1. Gonzaga (13-2, NET ranking: 6)

The Bulldogs have won or shared 17 of the past 18 WCC regular-season championships and six consecutive conference tournament championship and should run away with both league titles again. They beat No. 1 Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational final, lost to only North Carolina and Tennessee, and are still awaiting the return of injured star Killian Tillie, who had ankle surgery in late October. When it comes to the WCC, Gonzaga is in a class by itself.

2. San Francisco (12-2, NET ranking: 40)

The Dons have been rising under third-year coach Kyle Smith and appear poised to post their best conference finish in decades with 6-foot-4 guard Charles Minlend returning from a year off and joining star point guard Frankie Ferrari on The Hilltop. They opened December with an 85-81 win over Buffalo, beat Cal and Stanford last month before falling 73-71 to UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 29.

3. Saint Mary’s (9-6, NET ranking: 64)

The Gaels are rebuilding a bit and lost four straight games in November to sort of fall off the radar, much like BYU. But they followed the skid with four straight wins, including victories over California and New Mexico, and have the WCC’s leading scorer in junior guard Jordan Ford (22.7 ppg.). Newcomer Malik Fitts has also bolstered coach Randy Bennett’s club that won 30 games last year.

4. San Diego (11-4, NET ranking: 80)

New coach Sam Scholl has kept the Toreros on their upward trend after replacing Lamont Smith and has a senior-laden group led by 6-6 forward Isaiah Pineiro, who is averaging 20.8 points per game and is one of the WCC’s best players. USD boasts wins over Colorado and Washington State and a 7-0 home record in non-conference games.

5. Loyola Marymount (12-2, NET ranking: 114)

The Lions knocked off Georgetown 65-52 in the Jamaica Classic in November to serve notice they are a team to be reckoned with and have been solid ever since, losing only at UCLA and UC Riverside. Junior guard James Batemon (19.2 ppg.) is one of the league’s most explosive scorers and LMU has already surpassed last year’s win total, 11.

6. BYU (8-7, NET ranking: 115)

The Cougars have never finished lower than third since joining the WCC in 2011, but this may be the year that ends. BYU strengthened its non-conference schedule, but has not delivered the wins necessary to boost its national profile. The Cougars enter league play having lost six of their last nine games. Still, junior forward Yoeli Childs (22.3 ppg., 10.1 rpg.) is a candidate for league player of the year honors.

7. Pacific (10-5, NET ranking: 170)

The Tigers have made more free throws (287) than any team in Division I college basketball and thrive on dribble penetration and one-on-one play. They put together a nice four-game winning streak in December and are led by guard Roberto Gallinat, who scores 14.6 points per game.

8. Pepperdine (7-7, NET ranking: 222)

Lorenzo Romar returns to Malibu for his second stint as head coach and has terrific sophomore guard Colbey Ross (19.4 ppg.) leading a rebuilding effort after the Waves won just six games last year.

9. Santa Clara (8-6, NET ranking: 231)

Sophomore guard Tahj Eaddy has been a nice find and is averaging 15.8 points per game after the Broncos lost senior guard KJ Feagin for the season with a foot injury.

10. Portland (7-8, NET ranking: 286)

Four starters returned for coach Terry Porter, including guard Marcus Shaver Jr. and forward Josh McSwiggan, but the Pilots are still probably a year or two away.


At the Alex G. Spanos Center, Stockton, Calif.

Tipoff • Thursday, 9 p.m. MST


Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Records • BYU 0-0, 8-7; Pacific 0-0, 10-5

Series history • BYU leads 10-6

Last meeting • BYU 80, Pacific 65 (Jan. 27, 2018)

About the Tigers • Former NBA star Damon Stoudamire is 35-45 in his third season in Stockton. … They defeated the Cougars 67-66 at home last year when BYU G Zac Seljaas’ potential game-winning shot at the buzzer was ruled too late. … Four players average in double figures: G Roberto Gallinat (14.3 ppg.), G Lafayette Dorsey (12.5 ppg.) F Anthony Townes (10.8 ppg.) and F Jahlil Tripp (10.5 ppg.).

About the Cougars • They begin their eighth season in the West Coast Conference having finished third five times and second twice. … Senior F Luke Worthington is playing some of the best basketball of his career and is averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds the last two games while shooting 70 percent from the field and 100 percent from the free-throw line. … Junior F Yoeli Childs is 19th in the nation in scoring (22.3 ppg.), 17th in rebounding (10.1 rpg.) and fifth in double-doubles with eight.