Five takeaways from the WCC's impressive start to the 2021-22 college basketball season

·6 min read

Nov. 17—College basketball insider Jon Rothstein lobbed the idea Tuesday night, minutes after unranked BYU stunned No. 12 Oregon 81-49 in front of a pro-Ducks crowd at the PK80 Invitational in Portland.

"The WCC looks like it's primed for a massive season outside of Gonzaga. BYU beats Oregon by 32 and Santa Clara already owns wins over Stanford and Nevada," tweeted Rothstein, who works at CBS Sports. "Three bids? This is ONLY November."

BYU's resounding win over an Oregon team that was projected to finish second in the Pac-12 Conference, behind only reigning national semifinalist UCLA, may have been the loudest statement made by the West Coast Conference through the first two weeks of the 2021-22 college basketball season, but it hasn't been the only one.

After 31 games, WCC teams have a 24-7 record, supporting a growing belief the conference may have a chance to send three teams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, BYU).

According to KenPom.com, which ranks conferences using an adjusted efficiency margin model, the WCC is the nation's seventh-rated conference behind only the Big Ten, Big-12, SEC, Big East, Pac-12 and ACC. WCC teams are also 2-2 against the Pac-12, with San Diego's narrow 75-70 overtime loss at California depriving the conference a third win.

Here are five early impressions from the WCC's strong start to 2021-22.

1. All roads (still) go through Spokane

Not unlike other years, it'll be the teams below Gonzaga in the WCC that define the conference in 2021-22. Again, it doesn't appear the Bulldogs will do them any favors. Mark Few's team hasn't scored less than 84 points in a game and the Bulldogs are already winning games by a margin of 24.3 points, including their much-anticipated showdown with then-No. 5 Texas.

Even if the WCC as a whole is better suited to challenge Gonzaga in 2021-22, the Bulldogs have never lost more than three conference games in a season under Few and they've lost three combined WCC games over the past five seasons. That includes a 46-1 record from 2018-21. Gonzaga has also gone undefeated in WCC play six times since Few took over in 1999-2000.

2. BYU poised for 13-0 start?

BYU's football team racked up a 4-0 record against the Pac-12 and the basketball team picked up where Kalani Sitake's squad left off, routing Oregon in a game that saw the Ducks enter as 4 1/2 -point favorites. Record books suggest the Cougars haven't survived nonconference play without a loss in the modern era, but there's a path in 2021-22 for a BYU team that brings back sharpshooting guard Alex Barcello, likely the best player in the conference not wearing a Gonzaga uniform, and has played suffocating defense through three games, allowing just 56 points per game.

With a 66-60 win over San Diego State and Tuesday's defeat of Oregon, the Cougars have cleared two of the biggest hurdles on their nonconference schedule and should be favored in at least eight of their 10 remaining games. BYU still has to play in-state rival Utah at the Huntsman Center, although the Utes are under the direction of a new coach, Craig Smith, and return just one starter from 2020-21. The Cougars will have another challenging nonconference test, on Dec. 11, when they host Creighton.

3. Beware of the Bay

Saint Mary's has traditionally played second fiddle to Gonzaga in the WCC standings, winning 25-plus games 11 times under Randy Bennett. San Francisco looks poised to win at least 20 games for the fifth time in six years, through the "Nerdball" approach employed by Todd Golden and predecessor Kyle Smith. Santa Clara, meanwhile, is on a positive track to secure its fourth consecutive winning season with former Arizona State coach Herb Sendek.

The Bay Area could have three teams clawing for postseason berths this season with the possibility that none is named Stanford or California.

The Gaels (Saint Mary's), Dons (USF) and Broncos (Santa Clara) entered Wednesday with a combined record of 10-0 and an average KenPom rating of No. 55. The Dons have secured one top-80 KenPom win, edging out No. 76 Davidson. The Broncos beat No. 77 Stanford and No. 73 Nevada comfortably, handling the Cardinal 88-72 and dominating then Wolf Pack 96-74. Although the Gaels lack a quality win, they've won their first three games by a combined 47 points.

4. Bottom five hold their own

It's possible the conference will send its top three teams to the NCAA Tournament and potentially two or three more to postseason events like the NIT, CIT or CBI. Meanwhile, the bottom of the conference could be the best it's been years.

Though the sample size is small, it's notable that just one WCC team, Pepperdine, enters Wednesday's slate with a sub-.500 record. While the top five teams in the conference have a combined record of 16-0, the bottom five have held their own, relatively speaking, with a record of 8-7.

San Diego has the conference's best loss after three games, conceding a road game to Cal, but it came after the Toreros emerged with one of the WCC's most surprising wins — a 75-68 defeat of Nevada in a game in which the Wolf Pack were 14-point favorites.

5. Bronco engine

Santa Clara deserves to be singled out after winning its first three games by a combined 45 points and scoring at least 84 points in each. Sendek's team is scoring a WCC-high 89.3 points per game and four of the conference's top 10 scorers are from Santa Clara, with no other team placing more than one.

Behind Barcello, Gonzaga's Drew Timme and Portland's Caleb Austin, Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams is fourth in the conference at 17.7 points per game while fellow preseason All-WCC selection Josip Vrankic is seventh at 16.3. Two other Broncos are averaging at least 15 points, with Keshawn Justince and PJ Pipes both sitting at 15.3.

Santa Clara's NCAA Tournament drought stretches back to the Steve Nash era, and the Broncos haven't won more than 20 games in a season since 2012-13. The second accomplishment is much more realistic than the first, given the Broncos still have nonconference games against TCU, Cal and Boise State, and would likely need to edge out Saint Mary's or USF for the WCC's third NCAA berth, but this may be the Santa Clara team best equipped to do it since Nash's final season in 1995-96.