Despite a wacky season of college basketball filled with cancellations followed by last second additions to the schedule, there was still some consistency to be had: The Gonzaga Bulldogs reign as the best team in the conference. It’s not a shock to many, but considering the uncertainty on a day-to-day basis, the model of consistent dominance has to be appreciated that much more. And now as the regular season closes, the Zags have a chance to retain the West Coast Conference crown.
It was yet another historic campaign for GU head coach Mark Few and his crew as his blistering fast paced team oozed with talent from top to bottom. GU led the nation in scoring offense for the second straight season, averaging 93.2 points per game, the highest average in the NCAA since 2009. The highly potent attack carved out numerous blowout wins for the Zags, as they matched their program record with 21 consecutive games by double digits.
And when considering the level of outside competition, from Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia and Virginia, while also managing a flux schedule, these circumstances make an undefeated season even more impressive.
But by just glancing at the roster, fans and analysts alike saw the potential this squad had from the start in November. From freshman phenom Jalen Suggs to veteran Corey Kispert, the Bulldogs starting five is one of college basketball’s more star-studded lineups in recent memory. Along with Suggs and Kispert, Drew Timme and Joel Ayayi are both contenders for positional awards after having stellar campaigns themselves.
And with the regular season officially in the books, it’s time for this squad to take its talents to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament. This year’s format will look slightly different from prior installments, however. Due to COVID-19 interruptions, the conference has partnered with Kem Pomeroy to develop an algorithm that will seed teams fairly. This will take into account a team’s winning percentage for its strength of schedule and the location of the game. By these measurements, GU will still hold the top seed for the tournament, however other programs have been affected by the new system.
The tournament will commence today with the lower seeded matchups. At 6 p.m., the San Diego Toreros (2-7 WCC) will face the San Francisco Dons (4-9) prior to the Santa Clara Broncos (4-5) meeting the Portland Pilots (0-11) at 9 p.m. In the regular season, the Dons won their only matchup against the Toreros, 70-62. This will be the Broncos and Pilots’ first time playing each other this season as their previous three games were postponed.
GU handled these four teams in the regular season, winning by an average margin of 28.2 points per game.
The second round will pit the winner of the Dons-Toreros matchup against the fifth-seeded Loyola Marymount Lions (7-5) while the sixth-seeded Pacific Tigers (6-7) will face either the Broncos or Pilots. The Lions went a combined 3-0 against USF and USD this season, winning each matchup by eight points or fewer. Likewise, the Tigers went undefeated against their potential second round foes with three blowout victories.
In their only meeting of the season, LMU posed a size advantage in the paint against the Zags. Mattias Markusson and Eli Scott continually tore up the interior as both finished with over 10 rebounds for the night. The duo also limited the Zags to 38 points in the paint, below their season average of 51.7. In the event of a rematch, GU will have to deploy adjustments to accommodate for its lack of size against one of the tallest teams in the nation. Expect Anton Watson and Timme to receive help from perimeter defenders to force the ball out of Scott’s and Markusson’s hands.
However, if LMU wants another shot at the Zags, it would have to go through the Saint Mary’s Gaels (4-6) in the quarterfinals. SMC was a benefactor to Kem Pomeroy’s algorithm as it jumped from eighth in the standings to the fourth seed in the tournament due to COVID-19 cancellations. Eight games in total were scratched from the schedule, including six straight from January to February. The adjusted metrics favored the team’s overall talent despite its sub-.500 record.
The Gaels won their only meeting with the Lions in nail-biting fashion by a score of 65-61 in Los Angeles.
If the regular season is indicative of anything, there could be another installment in the Zags-Gaels rivalry for the semifinals of the tournament. While it dominated both meetings, GU was held to a season-low 73 points in Moraga. It took a strong second half outing to overcome a slow start, as the Bulldogs were not able to play at their pace to start the game. Few second-chance opportunities on offense also hindered the team’s ability to wear down the Gaels on the inside, a strategy GU has mastered over the course of the season.
On the other side of the bracket, a potential matchup between the Pepperdine Waves (7-6) and Brigham Young Cougars (10-3) could take place in the semifinals should the Waves avoid an upset in the prior round. The two teams split the season series, with the most recent game favoring the Waves in a narrow 76-73 win. Colbey Ross iced the game for his Waves after forcing BYU’s Spencer Johnson to turn the ball over, leading to a foul that put Ross to the free-throw line, ending the game effectively.
The grudge match would come down to the Waves ability to slow down the Cougars’ stout 3-point shooting. BYU leads the WCC in efficiency from behind the arc with a mark of 37.9%, led by senior guard Alex Barcello who’s knocked down 48.9% from deep on nearly four attempts per night. However the Cougars found limited success against Pepperdine’s top ranked 3-point defense in the most recent meeting by shooting just 5-for-20, including 1-for-6 from Barcello. If the Waves are to move onto the championship round, it will come down to which strength prevails.
While it’s not officially a lock, it’s highly likely that GU will be awaiting either the Pepperdine Waves or BYU Cougars to determine the WCC Tournament champion on Tuesday.
If the Zags are to replicate their success they had against the Cougars from earlier in the season, Kispert will have to assert himself right from the opening tip. The senior on a rather young roster should be leaned upon when the stakes are raised and the game is a close battle, which has been a common theme in this rivalry. The Bulldogs edged out BYU 82-71 in the most recent affair, a game that saw Kispert shoot 4-for-10 from the field and finish with 13 points, a far cry from when the two teams met a month earlier. The 86-69 victory in Spokane featured a more aggressive outing from the Edmonds native, as he went 9-for-16 shooting to the tune of 23 points.
Fast starts and dominating the paint would be keys to success for the Zags in the event they face Pepperdine in the championship round. While their two wins over the Waves were wide margins, GU struggled coming out of the gate in both meetings. To avoid early woes, an interior presence from Timme and aggressive penetration from guards should wear down the Waves. GU scored more than 50 points in the paint in the two matchups against Pepperdine, an aspect of the game GU has been known to dominate throughout conference play.
Whoever the Zags face in any round of the WCC Tournament, only one thing is for sure; it’s officially March, where anything can happen. At any point a team or player can get hot as major upsets take place, even for a team like the Zags.