Over the course of this week, we will spend a few minutes catching you up on how some of the best conferences in the country currently look. With conference play starting up, its time to get into the basketball spirit.
The Cougars are still a bit of an unknown entity, and that is in very large part due to the way that Matt Carlino has kicked off the season. He’s only been on the roster for four games after transferring in from BYU, but Carlino has been fantastic in those four games, averaging 17.3 ppg and 4.8 apg and, most importantly, giving the Cougars a playmaker and a scorer on the perimeter. He’s not Jimmer, but he can take the pressure off of BYU’s big men, as we saw in BYU’s near-upset of Baylor. And those big men — namely Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock — have been terrific in the early going. BYU is the highest ranked team in Kenpom’s efficiency ratings this season and are a much-improved defensive team. That defensive prowess, combined with the 1-2-3 punch of Carlino, Davies and Hartsock, is why BYU gets the nod over Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.
– And-1: I actually think Gonzaga is the second best team in this conference, but seeing as I’ll be touching on them later, I’ll hit on St. Mary’s here. The Gaels have not quite gotten the performance we expected out of Jorden Page and Stephen Holt this year, but the play of Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones has more than made up for that. Dellavedova has seamlessly switched over to primary ball-handling duties after Mickey McConnell’s graduation while Jones has continued his steady improvement throughout his career, averaging a double-double this season despite playing at a size disadvantage every game. Clint Steindl has given Randy Bennett a sniper on the wing while Stephen Holt, while struggling with his shot offensively, has become the Gael’s defensive stopper. The biggest issue I see is in the paint. Yes, St. Mary’s leads the country in defensive rebounding percentage, but I see issues against (much) bigger Gonzaga and BYU front lines if Kenton Walker and Mitchell Young don’t start to have a bigger impact.
Biggest surprise: Santa Clara
The Broncs probably aren’t going to be competing for the top three in this league, but they may actually be the fourth best team in the WCC. While that wouldn’t have been much of a surprise back in August, once Marc Trasolini went down with a torn acl early in September, the expectations for SCU went downhill. But Kevin Foster and Evan Roquemore have become the best back court in the conference and Santa Clara has compiled wins over New Mexico and Villanova. While that performance in the 76 Classic was nice, the fact that the Broncs are 290th in the country in defensive efficiency is going to be a problem down the road.
Biggest disappointment: Loyola Marymount
The Lions started off the season so well, with a double-digit win over UCLA, and followed that up with a nice win over St. Louis earlier this month. But in the meantime, LMU has put together some truly horrific performances, including a 24 point loss to Morgan State, a loss to Columbia and a 13 point loss to North Texas. While the Lions should get a boost with the return of Drew Viney and Ashlee Hamilton, I think we can officially designate LMU “Team Schizophrenia”.
Something left to prove: Gonzaga
I like the Bulldogs. I do. But there are just too many question marks on this team for me to think of them as a real contender to do much more than make the NCAA Tournament and, potentially, win a game. For starters, I’m don’t think Elias Harris is ever going to be a star. He’s a very good WCC-level player, but he’s closer to Rob Jones than he is Perry Jones. The same can be said for Robert Sacre. But the bigger issue is that the Zags simply are not a very good defensive team. Leading scorer Kevin Pangos is a subpar defender, and Gonzaga’s perimeter defense becomes that much more of a liability when David Stockton is on the floor as well. Further complicating matter? Gonzaga has, at times, been the most effective offensively when Stockton and Pangos are on the court together. Who are they going to be able to guard?
Player of the Year: Noah Hartsock, BYU
Most expected Brandon Davies to be the BYU big man that thrived playing in a conference with lesser competition, but its been Hartsock that has had a break out year. The senior has never averaged more than 8.5 ppg in his career, but he’s more than doubled that this season, posting 17.5 ppg and 6.0 rpg for the 9-3 Cougars and league favorites.
POY: Noah Hartsock, BYU
G: Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
G: Evan Roquemore, Santa Clara
G: Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s
F: Rob Jones, St. Mary’s
F: Elias Harris, Gonzaga
3. St. Mary’s
4. San Francisco
5. Santa Clara
6. Loyola Marymount
9. San Diego
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.