The West Coast Conference had a nice year in 2013-14, to be sure. For a time, though, it looked like it would be even more than that.
The WCC once again put two teams in the NCAA Tournament, just like it has in four of the past five years. Gonzaga again advanced at least one round, just like it has in each of the past six years. The league went 71-41 out of conference against Division I foes and finished a very respectable ninth in the RPI, proving its No. 10 ranking from the year before was no fluke.
All of that would’ve seemed like a worst case scenario in late December, though, after the flying start the WCC got off to. On December 20, the league was 64-33 in non-conference play, with four teams in the top 25 in the RPI and all 10 teams at least .500 or better. St. Mary’s was undefeated at the time and Pacific was 8-1 in its first year back after a 42-year absence. Gonzaga and BYU were in prime position for NCAA bids after their typical tough non-conference schedules.
A potentially golden year started to turn just before the start of conference play, though. St. Mary’s participated in the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas on ESPN and went 0-3. The league went just 7-8 in its last 15 non-conference games. And then, parity struck in conference play.
Just three WCC teams finished with less than seven conference losses. The same Pacific team that topped Big West champion UC Irvine and Mountain West teams Nevada, Fresno State and Utah State-the latter on the road in impressive fashion-got off to a 1-6 WCC start and never recovered. St. Mary’s was uncharacteristically inconsistent, and even BYU needed to hustle late to earn an NCAA at-large bid.
At the end, Gonzaga won the WCC yet again, BYU won eight of nine to finish the regular season, and San Francisco made a surprising charge to tie for second. Both the Bulldogs and Cougars advanced to the NCAAs, but neither received easy draws and the result was a 1-2 record in the tourney for the conference. The league’s final product was not horrible, but a far cry from how it looked three months earlier.
In hindsight, perhaps the conference wasn’t quite as strong as it looked earlier, but the lesson also once again was that parity hurts leagues like the WCC. Still, this looks poised to remain a top 10-12 conference for the foreseeable future. Gonzaga remains a national name, BYU and St. Mary’s are still solid, and there’s almost always at least one from the rest of the group that challenges the top three. Pacific rejoining was a great addition, and if Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount ever get back to their former glory, the WCC could take that next step yet and become another Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley, threatening to crack the top 5 conferences every so often.
Las Vegas is hardly a unique location anymore-the WCC was one of four D-I conferences to host its tournament there this year-but the conference continues to have a great deal of success there, playing to strong crowds. The WCC also made a smart move this year in eliminating the confusing double-bye format and going to a traditional first round-quarterfinal-semifinal-final format that is much easier to follow.
This year’s tourney opened with a pair of mild upsets as No. 10 Loyola Marymount edged No. 7 Portland 67-64 and No. 9 Santa Clara dumped No. 8 Pacific 81-64. The quarterfinals then played out according to seed, though Santa Clara very nearly shook the entire bracket. The Broncos led top seed Gonzaga most of the way and tied the game on a basket by Jared Brownridge with 10 seconds left, but David Stockton’s layup with 1.4 seconds left allowed the Bulldogs to escape with a 77-75 win. In the other quarters, No. 3 San Francisco topped No. 6 San Diego 69-60, second-seeded BYU defeated LMU 85-74, and No. 4 St. Mary’s got by No. 5 Pepperdine 80-69.
The first semifinal was mostly uneventful, as Gonzaga jumped on St. Mary’s early once again. Stockton scored 21 points and the Zags defeated the Gaels 70-54 to convincingly sweep all three games in the season series. The second semi was terrific, as BYU and San Francisco went to overtime. USF played from behind almost all game but kept within striking distance and finally tied the score on a three by Mark Tollefsen with 3:21 left in regulation. Neither team scored the rest of the way, though, and that was the Dons’ best chance to win, as the Cougars got the early jump and made 9 of 11 foul shots in the extra period to hold on for a 79-77 win.
The championship game wasn’t much of a contest. Gonzaga never trailed, building a 21-point first half lead. BYU made a late run, getting within eight in the final minutes, but the injury to Kyle Collinsworth severely hampered the Cougars, and the Bulldogs completed a 75-64 win
Player of the Year: Tyler Haws, G, Jr., BYU
Newcomer of the Year: Jared Brownridge, G, Fr., Santa Clara
Defensive Player of the Year: Brendan Lane, F, Sr., Pepperdine
Coach of the Year: Rex Walters, San Francisco
Kyle Collinsworth, G, So., BYU
Stacy Davis, F, So., Pepperdine
Johnny Dee, G, Jr., San Diego
Cole Dickerson, F, Sr., San Francisco
Sam Dower, F, Sr., Gonzaga
Tyler Haws, G, Jr., BYU
Stephen Holt, G, Sr., St. Mary’s
Anthony Ireland, G, Sr., Loyola Marymount
Kevin Pangos, G, Jr., Gonzaga
Brad Waldow, C, Jr., St. Mary’s
- Charter member Pacific returned to the WCC from the Big West after a 42-year absence.
- The WCC sent at least two teams to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years
- Gonzaga qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the 15th consecutive year
- St. Mary’s and San Francisco both made the NIT as the WCC matched the league record of four teams in the NCAAs and NIT set back in 1989. Both teams were 4 seeds and hosted first round home games. The Gaels roared back from a 10-point second half deficit to defeat Utah in their opener before losing at eventual champion Minnesota, while USF was eliminated by LSU in the first round.
- Pacific advanced to the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament before losing to eventual champion Murray State.
- San Diego’s Johnny Dee led NCAA Division I in free throw percentage (94.5%).
What we expected, and it happened: Gonzaga. Need not say anymore, the Zags are still kings of the WCC. Every so often, though, one still needs to take time out and appreciate what a run GU has put together. This is a school that in the national scene was no different than Portland, Santa Clara or any other WCC school 20 years ago, regionally respected but never thought of nationally.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Loyola Marymount was supposed to be a contender for a first division finish in Anthony Ireland’s senior year. Instead, the Lions stayed in the abyss they’ve been struggling to get out of for better than 20 years now, finishing in the basement in the WCC.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Few saw San Francisco’s season coming. Coming into the year, the Dons were picked to be one of the best of the bunch after the traditional top 3, but the loss of 3-year starting point guard Cody Doolin early on was thought to be a serious blow. Instead, USF got better as the season went on and by the end of the year was playing at nearly an NCAA Tournament level.
Team on the rise: Pepperdine. The Waves took a step forward this year, and four starters return, though big man and WCC Defensive Player of the Year Brendan Lane will be missed.
Team on the decline: None. St. Mary’s might be the chic pick for this category, but we’re not ready to write off Randy Bennett. There are a number of teams that could arguably be called stagnating, but none that look to be falling off seriously from last year.
Next Season Conference Outlook
San Francisco finally penetrated the WCC’s Big 3, but the top three will continue to remain stout. Gonzaga is going to be loaded-again. Adding USC transfer Byron Wesley instantly soups up the offense, and with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr. and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, the Zags will be in almost everyone’s top 20. BYU is not going anywhere, either, and Tyler Haws could be even more of a scoring machine next year than he has been. And St. Mary’s is reloading yet again, this time with transfers, welcoming former Stanford guard Aaron Bright and Washington forward Desmond Simmons. Along with Brad Waldow, those are three big pieces who should keep the Gaels in contention yet again.
The next group is capable of breaking through again, though. USF brings back three starters from the team that jelled so well late this year. If the Dons can build even a little more depth, it’s hard not to be excited about their chances to win 20 games again. San Diego returns almost everyone, and this is the last chance for super guard Johnny Dee to shake up the WCC. Pepperdine is an improving team, too.
The rest of the conference looks a level below, though Portland and Santa Clara have surprised before. The Broncos in particular return Jared Brownridge, a revelation as a freshman. Pacific and Loyola Marymount are both in rebuilding mode, although LMU may have struck gold for the future in hiring the highly regarded Mike Dunlap. As a whole, the WCC should remain solid, though a few more high-profile wins outside the conference may be the difference between this being a two- and three-bid league.