BYU’s status in the West Coast Conference seems uncertain after many teams in the WCC gained unexpected losses.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi tweeted “the WCC is a whole lot better than it’s ever been” after a Saint Mary’s fan asked what fans should think after losing to Pacific and Santa Clara.
BYU senior point guard TJ Haws believes the conference is tough every year.
“There are always talented teams and every game is a challenge to win,” Haws said. “This year, I don’t know what’s different, but there are a lot of very good teams and it’s gonna be interesting to see how it all plays out at the end of the year.”
One thing seems certain every year: BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga compete for the top three spots in conference. Except this year every team is a contender.
BYU head coach Mark Pope said he thinks the Gonzaga team is the best in the nation.
“They’re obviously the best team in America,” Pope said. “My initial thought is that our guys are playing so hard and they’re putting their hearts on the floor.”
BYU fell to Gonzaga 92-69 on Jan. 18, the worst margin of defeat for the Cougars this season. The Cougars shot above their average with 51% from the field versus Gonzaga’s 56%. Notably, BYU only shot 30% from three, although its season average is 40.2%. This performance came after BYU shot 50% from three in its previous game versus San Diego and 50% in the game before against Portland.
Despite the blowout, Pope said he was happy to play the No.2 team in the country.
“This Gonzaga team is a gift to our league. They just are. The fact that we get to go on the road to play the number one team in the country, and we get to do that because they’re in our league, it’s awesome,” Pope said. “They’re so good that they can play bad and still win big.”
With Gonzaga at the head, the WCC has five different teams vying for second place: BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Pacific. Saint Mary’s sits one game ahead of the pack at 5-2, while the other four teams are in a four-way tie for third at 4-3.
Most of these teams have beat one and lost to the other. It’s unclear who will end up on top, but senior Dalton Nixon thinks BYU could have a real shot at the conference championship.
“Obviously it’s going to take a lot from everyone,” Nixon said. “There’s no game that’s a freebie, and it’s gonna be a grind and it’s gonna be a battle every game, and if we can have that mentality to be prepared every night, I think that we give ourselves a great shot of being able to be successful throughout the year.”
The Cougars are trying to win the WCC, all without the help of their star player Yoeli Childs for 13 games. The senior forward averages 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds, shooting 59.1% from the field and 54.5% from three-point range. With Childs playing the entire game, BYU is 7-1.
Coach Pope has taken a careful approach to Child’s injury.
“We need to make sure that he is not putting himself at risk for reinjury with his finger because the cost of that would be monumental,” Pope said. “We need to be really judicious and smart about it and give him the best chance to complete this season the way he wants to.”
Of the five teams vying for the No. 2 ranking in the WCC, BYU ranks highest at No. 29. Saint Mary’s come next at No. 34, followed by San Francisco at No. 94 and Santa Clara at No. 99. Pacific rounds out these five teams with a No. 126 rankings as of Jan. 26.
Despite these rankings, no game can be discounted when it comes to the WCC. Numbers don’t seem to tell the entire story behind these teams, as many are winning and losing games they did not expect.
Before the San Diego matchup a few weeks ago, Pope said the team’s only responsibility each week is to focus on each team that is in front of them.
“We’ve gotta come play as hard as we can,” Pope said. “This is the biggest game we’ve ever had this season and if we approach it that way, then we’ll have a really good chance to compete. If we don’t, then we don’t.”