The Zags might be top dog, but the WCC is giving them a run for their money so far this season

click to enlarge Killian Tillie looks to score against North Carolina. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Killian Tillie looks to score against North Carolina.
There were nine seconds left in the game when Pepperdine point guard Colbey Ross went up for three with his Waves trailing No. 1 ranked Gonzaga 73-70 in Spokane. Knowing Ross, it was probably going in.

But, Gonzaga senior forward Killian Tillie stepped out and swatted the ball as it left Ross’ hands, saving the game for the Zags. With that, Gonzaga extended its win streak against Pepperdine to 38 consecutive games with a 75-70 victory.

The Waves came damn close to what no team managed in almost 18 years. They almost beat Gonzaga. Two days prior. Portland scared the crap out of Zag nation for the same reason, as the Pilots led the Zags at halftime before eventually falling 82-75.

Welcome to West Coast Conference play in 2020. Nothing is easy, even if you’re ranked No. 1 in the country and facing teams who haven’t beaten you in years, if not decades.

Gonzaga has lost a few games, here and there, in conference play over recent seasons. Though they’ve all been to either BYU or Saint Mary’s, the cream of the non-Gonzaga crop in the WCC. The last time Gonzaga lost to a WCC team other than those two was Feb. 22, 2014, on the road against San Diego. That was 2,144 days ago.

Last week, both Portland and Pepperdine, two teams who have been bottom-dwellers in the WCC over the past decade-plus, came close to snapping that streak. Which has a lot more to do with this season’s competition than it does with this season’s Zags.

Normally, when Gonzaga is as good as Gonzaga is this season, Zag nation doesn’t have to worry about teams like Portland or Pepperdine, or this week’s foes San Diego or Loyola Marymount. But this season, the WCC is a lot stronger, top to bottom, than it usually is, which means Zag fans need to understand results like last week’s are going to happen again.

Six of the WCC’s 10 teams can currently claim double-figures in the win column. Gonzaga sits at the top with a 16-1 record, but Santa Clara (14-2), Saint Mary’s (14-3), Pacific (14-4), BYU (12-4) and San Francisco (11-6) have all managed the season to this point with respectable results. And none of those teams are the teams who have so far challenged Gonzaga, or who get the chance to challenge Gonzaga this week.

The West Coast Conference is as good as it has ever been.

Zag fans have grown accustomed to beating the crap out of WCC teams. Last season, the Zags beat up on WCC opponents by going undefeated with an average margin of victory of 27 points per game. This year, the margin of victory is just nine points through two games against two of the worst teams in the league. It should be said that both Portland and Pepperdine are better than they’ve been in a long time.

So, if those two teams are able to put a scare into the Zags, are the other teams in the WCC? The answer is absolutely.

Earlier this season while Duke was ranked No. 1 in the country the Blue Devils lost at home to Stephen F. Austin, a team unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament. A couple weeks prior, then-No. 1 Kentucky did the exact same thing to an Evansville team which has fallen off the rails since.

In recent memory, there hasn’t been a season in which the very best teams in the country were vulnerable to massive upsets like they are this year. Gonzaga’s been scared, but survived. That alone is impressive. But it’s still scary.

Pepperdine’s Ross, who is on track to become the Waves all-time leader in points scored and is already the Waves all-time leader in assists (and he’s just a junior), wasn’t even born yet the last time Pepperdine won in Spokane back on Feb. 19, 1998. He very nearly upended that 20+ year run on Thursday, and he did so with a Pepperdine team that isn’t even that good. San Francisco, BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and Pacific are all significantly better. And all of them stand between Gonzaga and the end of the season.