Those were the conference records for the University of San Diego in each of the last two seasons. The program has undergone the collegiate version of a rebuild under head coach Lamont Smith, with the emphasis being on getting underclassmen on the court, and the win-loss records have shown as much.
However, now in the third round of the Lamont Smith era, the Toreros have found more success, and sit at 9-3 on the year after closing out their non-conference slate with a dominating post-final exams tuneup over NAIA opponent Life Pacific (you’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of them).
With impressive road wins under its belt already, USD seems ready to ride a defense that ranks among the best in the nation to a stronger showing in the West Coast Conference this year. Whether the Toreros deliver on that promise or not will depend entirely on how the next two-plus months go on the court.
With conference play tipping off later tonight — USD opens up at home against San Francisco at 6 p.m. — it seems as good a time as any to see how things might shake out. Consider this, then, a classification of each team in the conference, from the title-chasing haves all the way down to the soft underbelly of the have-nots.
Per usual, the WCC is likely to be led once again by the juggernaut that is Gonzaga (10-3 so far this season).
Last year’s national runner-up, Gonzaga has long been the class of the conference, participating in each of the last 20 WCC title games and winning each of the last five. Currently sitting at No. 20 in the AP top 25, the Bulldogs roster two players projected to be drafted this coming summer in foreign-born forwards Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie. Alongside them will be redshirt senior forward Johnathan Williams, among the WCC leaders in scoring at 15.2 points per game, and junior guard Josh Perkins, who’s hitting at a 47.6% clip from beyond the arc. Consider the Bulldogs and head coach Mark Few a lock for the NCAA tournament once again.
Seemingly forever second-fiddle to the ‘Zags is St. Mary’s (11-2), a statement that is likely to be true again this year. The Gaels do have the best player in the conference on their roster, however, in senior center Jock Landale. Landale currently sits atop the conference in both scoring (21.2 ppg) and rebounding (9.6 rpg), and his 6’11, 255-pound frame will present potentially the toughest match-up of the season for undersized teams like the Toreros. While the Gaels are likely to roll through USD in both of their scheduled match-ups, they still lack the supporting talent around Landale to make a meaningful run at Gonzaga’s long-standing reign.
The Battle for Third
Behind the two traditional WCC powers sit three teams who are long shots to take the top spot, but who will surely play a role in deciding who does.
The first is BYU (11-2). The traditional fast-break fiends of the conference, scoring has slowed a bit in Provo this year. However, the Cougars still carry one of the stronger offenses in the WCC (77.1 ppg). Sophomore forward Yoeli Childs provides the team with an inside presence on both sides of the ball, scoring a team-high 16.6 ppg while chipping in 29 blocks and 15 steals on the year. Keep an eye on junior guard Elijah Bryant as well. The Elon transfer put together a 29-point, 9-rebound performance in the Cougars’ most impressive win of the season, a 77-65 downing of rival Utah, earlier this month. With a seemingly-improved defense allowing an average of just 67.6 points per game, the Cougars’ scoring could allow them to sneak into the WCC title conversation.
Included with BYU in this group are two teams with near-identical approaches to on-court success in San Francisco (8-5) and the hometown Toreros (9-3). Both thrive on the defensive end of the floor, ranking as the top two score-stopping units in the WCC, and struggle to find the bottom of the net on offense, ranking as the two worst scoring teams in the conference.
The edge, however, goes to USD because of their more impressive non-conference slate. While the Dons rode rail-thin freshman guard Souley Boum (14.0 ppg) through a schedule that can only make you shrug “eh” (their recent win over Mountain West favorite Nevada notwithstanding), the Toreros racked up impressive victories against New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, and Colorado (all of which could slip into the madness come March) en route to the best start in program history. USD’s defense, paired with the transfer tandem of point guard Isaiah Wright and forward Isaiah Pineiro, gives it a chance in almost any game as long as it can hit its shots.
Seemingly a coin toss at this point, the showdown between USD and San Francisco tonight in America’s Finest City will provide a good glimpse into where these teams will end up at the end of the year.
Caught in the Middle
Welcome to the ho-hum portion of our programming. Both Loyola Marymount (5-6) and Pacific (5-8) will finish the season somewhere below the .500 mark.
For Loyola Marymount, a mediocre run of results thus far is offset only by the play of junior guard James Batemon, a transfer from North Dakota State. Batemon is the conference’s second-leading scorer at 19.1 ppg while shooting at a 53.2% clip from the field, and if he gets hot, the Lions could score a quality win or two.
As for Pacific, a tough opening to conference play that will include matchups with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU all within the first four games will leave the team with little momentum for the rest of the ride to the finish line. In the middle of the WCC pack in nearly every statistical category imaginable, the Tigers have certainly made progress so far this fall after a 4-22 mark last year that included seven vacated wins for NCAA violations. However, a 39-point loss to Arizona State ahead of the holidays shows that there is still plenty of room for growth in head coach Damon Stoudamire’s second season at the helm.
The Cellar Dwellers
Then there’s the rest. It’s going to be tough sledding for all three remaining programs as they fill the conference basement to capacity.
Santa Clara (3-9) will be done in by their defense, which allows opponents to shoot nearly 50% from the field and a whopping 44.1% from deep, both of which are the worst marks in the WCC and among the worst in the country. The scoring of junior guard KJ Feagin (19 ppg) will keep the Broncos around at times, but it becomes difficult to win when the teams you’re playing are making almost exactly as many shots as they miss.
Both Pepperdine (3-9) and Portland (6-7), meanwhile, are just plain bad. Respectively ranked 298th and 303rd in the nation according to collegiate hoops site KenPom, neither team has enjoyed much success so far this season.
Pepperdine has an inexperienced roster that carries just three seniors, and its youngsters have been forced to take the court more often than anticipated because of injury struggles to key players such as sophomore forward Kameron Edwards. The result: the worst scoring (minus 5.2 ppg) and turnover (minus 2 per game) margins in the WCC thus far. Better luck in keeping players healthy could allow the Waves to improve some, however.
Portland’s non-conference scheduling has allowed it to assemble a semi-respectable record in the season’s first month-plus (bonus points if you’d heard of programs like Oregon Tech, Walla Walla, and Multnomah prior to this article). Not surprisingly, all of those games were wins. Alongside those, however, came blowout losses to North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Boise State. Matched up with more (*cough*) real (*cough*) teams in the WCC, it’s hard to see them stringing together more than a handful of wins this season.
As stated earlier, the WCC will once again be a two-horse race in 2017-18, with Gonzaga likely to win by a nose. St. Mary’s may present problems, and it’s likely they down the Bulldogs at least once, but multiple Gaels victories between the two are hard to see.
As for USD, the Toreros project to continue the buzz they’ve generated so far this season. If BYU’s defensive efforts come back to Earth, USD’s own defense could slow the Cougars enough to allow them to challenge for the third spot. The team could also make some noise late in the season, as a February 22 home match-up with Gonzaga could be an upset possibility for the on-the-rise Toreros, who will no longer have to battle big men Przemek Karnwoski and Zach Collins near the basket. However, it’s more feasible that USD is still a year or two away from truly entering the title conversation and this season will only be another step in that direction, meaning an NIT tournament bid should probably be the extent of fans’ ambitions.
That being said, multiple teams have the talent to give the frontrunners a scare (and maybe even a loss) during conference play, and the season promises to be an interesting one for college hoops fans out west (even if the result at the final whistle will probably be the same).
- St. Mary’s
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Loyola Marymount
- Santa Clara
Noah is a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego. In addition to his classes as a Business Economics student, Noah serves as the scouting director for the nationally-ranked USD baseball team and as an NFL correspondent with The Mighty 1090. You can follow him on Twitter @thebackseatlamp