WCC improving, but Gonzaga still rates as solid favorite

Jim Meehan

The Spokesman-Review

By virtually every metric, from rudimentary win-loss records to the NCAA’s newfangled NET rankings, the West Coast Conference is experiencing a major upswing.

That’s a welcome change at the WCC’s Bay Area-based offices and for 10 member programs.

What hasn’t changed is the rest of the conference is still chasing Gonzaga, and the seventh-ranked Zags are about to get a lot better.

Gonzaga knocked off No. 1 Duke on a neutral floor and ascended to No. 1 in the polls before falling to Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Zags have done it without foward Killian Tillie — considered a preseason candidate for WCC Player of the Year and All-America honors — and most of it without guard Geno Crandall, sidelined the last nine games with a fractured hand.

Crandall is expected to play in Saturday’s WCC opener against Santa Clara. Coach Mark Few told CBSsports.com that Tillie, recovering from ankle surgery, is “on track” to make his season debut Saturday.

Their return eliminates GU’s depth concerns and should boost the Zags at both ends of the court. The combination of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and a healthy Tillie could be the best frontcourt in the country.

The Zags posted four straight easy victories leading up to Santa Clara’s visit.

“Everybody can analyze it and overanalyze it,” Few said of Gonzaga’s 13-2 nonconference mark. “The bottom line is the way those games were stacked up was as tough as anything we’ve taken on. The timing of it … when you’re in Maui everybody thinks they can win the national championship, nobody has any issues.

“That crowd we faced at Creighton and where Creighton was at that particular time, and even walking into that hornet’s nest at Chapel Hill. They were geared up and ready, and that was a really big game for (North) Carolina, that’s a statement in itself. In lieu of the injuries we’ve had and to do it with limited numbers has been really impressive.”

The WCC’s numbers have been impressive, too. Five teams have double-digit wins — it didn’t hurt having more opportunities with the conference slate trimmed from 18 games to 16 — and nine carry at least .500 records.

The WCC leads the nation in field-goal and free-throw percentage, and ranks second in scoring. The conference posted a 10-7 record against the Pac-12.

There is no clear pecking order behind the favored Zags, but San Francisco, San Diego and Loyola Marymount appear capable of dropping perennial powers Saint Mary’s and BYU down a rung or two.