Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say … Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than they have in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.
That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished 8th in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga did narrowly escape the Bronco challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the down the WCC tournament title, but are these more balanced days here to stay, and flourish, in the WCC?
The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI ranking of #9 is the best it has been since the 2004-05 season, and Ken Pom’s conference rankings also lists the WCC as the 9th best league in the land, but there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of their core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting to coach improved teams in 2014-15.