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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
BYU basketball coach Dave Rose yells on the sideline during game against Weber State at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

STOCKTON, Calif. — Last spring, the West Coast Conference’s perennial powerhouse, Gonzaga, strongly considered a move to the Mountain West Conference.

After the WCC announced some major changes — a 16-game regular season schedule, byes for the top two seeds in the WCC Tournament and a bigger revenue share for teams that win NCAA Tournament games — the Zags decided to remain in the league.

One of Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s concerns over the years has been the WCC’s overall profile, including a conspicuous lack of depth in the conference. Aside from the league's "Big Three" — the Zags, Saint Mary’s and BYU — the rest of the league has been slogging along between mediocre and abysmal.

As the WCC gets set to tip off the 2018-19 season Thursday, however, it appears a few of the conference's mid-level teams have made significant strides. The WCC concluded nonconference play with an overall record of 100-49 — the best-ever for the league — and a 87-49 mark against Division I opponents.

Both San Francisco and Loyola Marymount enter league play with 12 nonconference wins while San Diego and Pacific have earned 11 and 10 wins each. Saint Mary's has nine victories and BYU has eight.

Of course, Gonzaga owns a league-best 13 wins, is ranked in the top 10 and remains the overwhelming favorite to claim another WCC crown. The Zags' preseason was highlighted by a victory over No. 1 Duke.

Meanwhile, it appears that several programs, including USF, San Diego, LMU and Pacific, have improved.

“Anybody who’s followed the league for a while is probably pretty impressed with this year’s preseason results," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "I think there’s definitely a divide in the approach towards the preseason. There are four or five teams that were trying to schedule to put a resume together for the NCAA Tournament. I think there’s another group that’s just trying to win. There’s been a lot more wins in the preseason in a lot of the years that we’ve played in the league. Gonzaga’s one of the top 10 teams in the country. That’s happened before so that’s not new. The fact that there’s a whole handful of 10-win, 11-win, 12-win teams, that speaks a lot to how difficult it’s going to be to win games in this league.”

The Cougars never have finished lower than third in the final WCC standings since joining the league in 2011-12 but finishing that high this season could be a challenge.

Four WCC teams rank in the top 80 of the most recent NET rankings — No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 40 San Francisco, No. 65 Saint Mary’s and No. 80 San Diego. In the most recent ESPN Bracketology update by Joe Lunardi, Gonzaga is projected as a No. 2 seed and San Francisco is projected as a No. 11 seed.

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“It might be the best top-to-bottom conference it’s been since BYU entered it. There are a lot of really good teams,” said Cougar forward Yoeli Childs. “San Francisco is playing great. San Diego is playing great. You obviously have Gonzaga, who’s been unbelievable this year and Saint Mary’s is always really good. Top-to-bottom, it’s a really good conference. We’re super-excited that everybody’s coming in 0-0. We’re really excited to make a statement. It doesn’t matter what everybody’s records are right now. Everybody is 0-0. We want to come in and win a conference championship. That’s the goal.”

BYU (8-7, 0-0) at Pacific (10-5, 0-0)

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