We are no stranger to talented mid-major programs these days.
George Mason and VCU have both made the Final Four in the last six years. Butler is coming off of back-to-back trips to the National Title game. Harvard, Iona and Belmont all have the makings of teams from one-bid leagues that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament come March.
What’s rare, however, is when you find a mid-major league that is as deep and balanced as some of the high-majors. Belmont steam-rolled the Atlantic Sun last season going 19-1 and winning the league by three games and returned everyone this season. Iona’s only real challenge for the MAAC crown is going to be a Fairfield team that is playing like, well, Fairfield. The Ivy is better than you think, but if Harvard is really as good as they looked in the Bahamas, the likes of Princeton and Penn and Yale don’t have a chance at winning the conference.
Enter the WCC.
Gonzaga hasn’t been a secret in over a decade, and they’ve been a nationally ranked powerhouse — a high-major program, if you will — since Adam Morrison and his glorious porn-stache graced the Spokane campus. With BYU entering the fray this season, that gives the league another national brand and a program that will, at the worst, consistently be competing for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. St. Mary’s isn’t quite on that level yet, but if Randy Bennett keeps the momentum building in the direction it has been for the last four or five years, the Gaels will give the WCC as good of a top three as any league outside the BCS conferences.
But what you may not know about the WCC is that the middle of the league is much better than a typical mid-major conference.
Let’s start with Santa Clara. The Broncs finished third in a watered-down 76 Classic over the Thanksgiving weekend, but in the process they knocked off both New Mexico and Villanova, two teams thought to be headed for the NCAA Tournament. And while Kevin Foster as been his same old self and Evan Roquemore as been better than we could have imagined, the Broncs are winning these games without Marc Trasolini, their second-leading scorer from last season that tore his acl back in September.
Well, what about Loyola Marymount? Yes, the Lions have lost to Middle Tennessee State and Harvard, they also have notched wins over UCLA and St. Louis. The scary part is that LMU is only going to get better. Their most talented player, Drew Viney, won’t be able to suit up for a couple more weeks thanks to a foot injury and Ashley Hamilton, their second-leading scorer this season, hasn’t played in the last three games, including Tuesday night’s win over St. Louis.
Do the math, and its fair to say that five of the nine teams in the WCC can compete with — and beat? — anyone in the country.
There’s more, too. Pepperdine knocked off Arizona State (which may say more about Arizona State than about Pepperdine, but still), Portland beat Florida Atlantic and while San Francisco has stumbled out of the blocks, Rex Walters’ team finished third in the conference last season and returned basically their entire roster.
In other words, the middle of the WCC is much, much better than a typical mid-major league.
So unless you are playing San Diego, you better come ready to play. Every night in the WCC is going to be a dogfight.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.