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Conference Reset: The West Coast has a lot of mystery to it

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

That's Ron Verlin, coach of Pacific, who's got his team playing very well so far. (USATSI)
That's Ron Verlin, coach of Pacific, who's got his team playing very well so far. (USATSI)

We're once again doing our mid-season catch-up on the 10 biggest leagues in college hoops. We're going to run these on the day leagues start intra-conference play -- or at least as close to them as possible. The WCC started over the weekend, so let's get right to it.

Here's the West Coast Conference reset:

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Gonzaga

Teams with work to do: Saint Mary's, Pacific

Teams already out, barring a miracle: BYU, rest of the league.

Most memorable moment to date: It's actually been a pretty quiet couple of months, all told, for the West Coast Conference. The biggest news was the sudden departure Cody Doolin took from San Francisco. That was just after Thanksgiving, and it left USF in a lurch. The team isn't nearly as strong now with him gone. Game-wise, there haven't been many standout performances from either teams or players. It's not a weak league, but it's not been burning down the world, either.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Saint Mary's exceeded expectations by starting 9-0 ... then promptly fell to Earth with an 0-3 showing at the Diamond Head Classic. And now, because of NCAA sanctions, SMC will not have head coach Randy Bennett for the first five games of conference play. That's a big deal, for sure. The Gaels were fool's gold early, most definitely.

Coach feeling the heat: For the second year in a row we think it's San Diego's Bill Grier, who hasn't finished above .500 since 2007-08. Minimally, we think USD needs to go 9-9 in league this season for Grier to feel somewhat comfortable.

Player who needs to step up: At 14 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, Cole Dickerson leads San Francisco in those categories. But he's down from his average last year, and the Dons do not have enough around him now -- since Doolin left the team a month ago -- to make up for the production. He hasn't underperformed, but he can be better, for sure.

Team better than its record: At 9-5, San Diego's a team with options that hasn't fully clicked yet. I could see a situation where the Toreros get their act together and become a top-four team in the conference.

Team not as good as its record: Although it is off to a nice start with new coach Ron Verlin, I'll pick Pacific for this one. The Tigers have a lot to prove in the league. More on them below, but their game -- tonight, in fact -- against Saint Mary's is a big-time opportunity.

Three must-see games:

  1. Pacific at Gonzaga (Jan. 4)
  2. Saint Mary's at Gonzaga (Jan. 25)
  3. Gonzaga at Saint Mary's (March 1)

Player of the Year favorite: Tyler Haws has been good for BYU, but it's Kevin Pangos. He's the best player on the best team, and his stats are close to Haws'. Pangos has just one game so far where he's failed to score double digits. He's averaging 18.2 points in addition to 4.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds. He's also practically automatic from the foul line (92.3 percent). He's scoring nearly 1.4 points per possession, which is among the most efficient in the country. Pangos!

Freshman of the Year favorite: Eric Mika has been just about what we thought he'd be. The big man at BYU is putting up 14.2 points and 6.6 rebounds in 26 minutes per. And he goes on his Mormon mission for the next two seasons after this one's over. It'll be BYU and college hoops' loss for him to show us something like this, then have to leave for two seasons.

Probable all-league team: Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga); Anthony Ireland (Loyola Marymount); Tyler Haws (BYU); Brad Waldow (Saint Mary's); Johnny Dee (San Diego)

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are still the class of this league, and you wonder if it's ever going to change. There just isn't a club that's even close to the Zags, and I say this in a "down" year for Mark Few's program. Realistically this looks like a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. And it's miles ahead of who I've got at second in the WCC. Gary Bell, Jr. has been quite solid (UPDATE: but now is out with a bad paw), and Sam Dower (13.8 PPG) has finally shown progress here in his final season (but also on in the short-term because of injury).

2. Saint Mary's: The Gaels at No. 2 is something of a guess, I think. Now without Bennett for five games, it could be hard to judge the team. But Steve Holt! and Waldow have been too solid to bypass SMC below second in the league at this point.

3. Pacific: The Tigers could be the biggest surprise in the league if they're able to keep rolling into January. Already at 9-2, getting to 20 wins this year would be one of the better coaching jobs in the country. Ron Verlin's team is best in the WCC in only one major category: free-throw percentage. At 81 percent from the foul line, that will be a valuable asset.

4. BYU: The Cougars have way too much talent to be 8-6 right now. There've been a few disappointing teams across the country, but give me BYU at the top of that list. I'm giving the team the benefit of the doubt by placing it fourth overall. Only Santa Clara has more losses in this league.

5. Loyola Marymount: The Lions have senior Anthony Ireland to carry the load. They've been helped by a bad non-conference schedule (only San Diego's is worse in the WCC).

6. San Diego: Junior Johnny Dee can lead the way, but I'm putting USD at No. 6 because the Toreros have proven to possess the best defense in the conference so far. Allowing .966 points per possession, it's the lowest mark of all in the WCC. At their best, the Toreros are the most exciting team outside of Gonzaga in this conference.

7. Pepperdine: The Waves have a solid defender in Brendan Lane, but outside of him there's not a lot to like when they don't have the ball. In general this group is the definition of average, I think. An 8-5 team with a mediocre RPI and strength of schedule, Pepperdine lacks explosiveness, and while it's not the worst team, it's unlikely it'll be able to beat any of the top three teams in the league.

8. San Francisco: Rex Walters is just trying to make due in a season that could've spiraled out of control -- but hasn't yet. Cole Dickerson is the key. The team is swiping the ball 8.4 times per game, which is best in the conference. I think that's keeping them afloat, because opponents are scoring on USF almost at will; the team's adjusted defensive rating sits at 111.3 points per 100 possessions, by far the worst in the WCC.

9. Portland: The Pilots will get up and down the court, which has led to them scoring more than 80 per game. The defense isn't made for that kind of wear and tear, though. Eric Reveno is a smart coach who's efficient with his roster, but a lack of talent means this team has a ceiling. I might be underselling their place in the conference here, but there's no way this is a top-six team in the league.

10. Santa Clara: When you lose more than 4,000 points worth of production, this happens. It's not Kerry Keating's fault. Santa Clara's the only school other than Saint Mary's and Gonzaga to finish top-four in the WCC five of the past seven years. A down year comes with the territory. The bright spot: The Broncos turn the ball over less than 10 times per game. A silver lining for any coaching staff.

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