BYU basketball: West Coast Conference enjoyed strong preseason, shifts to league play

Published: Friday, Dec. 27 2013 6:35 p.m. MST

Brigham Young Cougars guard Tyler Haws (3) drives around the defense of Utah State Aggies guard/forward Spencer Butterfield (21) during a game at EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday, November 30, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

Entering its third year of West Coast Conference play, the BYU basketball team is fresh off perhaps its toughest nonconference schedule in history.

The Cougars (8-5) played, and lost to, four ranked opponents — Iowa State, Wichita State, UMass and Oregon — as well as archrival Utah. BYU also beat some very solid teams, including Stanford, Utah State and Texas.

While that difficult preseason slate has certainly prepared BYU for league competition, vying for the WCC championship won’t be easy.

The Cougars finished third in the league standings in their first two seasons in the WCC. And this year, overall, the WCC appears to be much-improved from top to bottom, and it has enjoyed an impressive preseason.

For BYU, WCC play tips off Saturday (2 p.m. MST TWC/ROOT) against Loyola Marymount (8-4) at Gersten Pavilion.

The WCC starts league play as one of just four Division I conferences with every team posting a winning record. The league owns an overall nonconference record of 82-40, a .672 winning percentage.

Meanwhile, three WCC teams rank among the top 25 in RPI — BYU (No. 18), St. Mary’s (No. 23) and Gonzaga (No. 24). League newcomer Pacific is No. 35.

The WCC ranks No. 2 among all Division I conferences in scoring (79.83 ppg), field goal percentage (47.35 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (36.91 percent).

Those are numbers that thrill WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich.

"We are off to a historic start," he said. "Not only are we highly successful at this point, we are playing an exciting brand of basketball."

Last October, Gonzaga (10-2) was picked to win the WCC title as voted on by the league’s coaches. BYU was selected to finish in second place, with St. Mary's (9-3) picked to finish third.

The Bulldogs have had a stranglehold on the league for more than a decade, winning 12 out of the last 13 championships, and earned a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season.

No doubt, the road to the WCC championship goes through Gonzaga. A year ago, the Bulldogs became the first WCC team to achieve a No. 1 ranking since the 1970s. They posted a 32-3 record and made their 15th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

“Gonzaga’s the team to beat, and they’ve been the team to beat for quite a few years in this league,” BYU coach Dave Rose said in October. “That’s why the league has improved so much, because Gonzaga sets such a high standard and everyone is trying to knock them off.”

The Zags are without Kelly Olynyk, who now plays in the NBA, but talented guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are back.

Since joining the WCC in 2011-12, BYU has posted a 1-4 record against Gonzaga. The Cougars have also struggled with St. Mary’s, though BYU killer Matthew Dellavedova has also moved on to the NBA.

Newcomer Pacific (9-2) gives the WCC more depth, and could be a darkhorse to challenge for the WCC title.

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