With Zags on ice until Saturday, let's catch up with the region's other college hoops squads

click to enlarge The Cougars are off to a strong start in Pullman, but the competition has not been great as of yet. - WSU ATHLETICS
WSU Athletics
The Cougars are off to a strong start in Pullman, but the competition has not been great as of yet.


It’s been a long week here in Zag nation. Gonzaga hasn’t taken the court since Dec. 2 and won’t again until Dec. 19. While fans are missing out on five scheduled games, this has provided a good chance to take a look at what’s going on in the wider world of college basketball.

AROUND THE REGION

The Zags aren’t the only undefeated team in the Inland Northwest. Down in Pullman the Washington State Cougars have rattled off five straight wins to start the season.

Senior guard Isaac Bonton has been impressive, averaging 17.4 points per game. He’s the team’s best player and by far it’s most important. Bonton’s taken nearly 40 percent of the Cougars’ shots so far this season.

The good news is, Bonton’s strong performances have led the Cougars to a 5-0 record. The bad news is, it’s not that impressive. The wins have all come at home, and they’ve been by four, three, four, three and nine points respectively. Of the teams the Cougars have beaten, only one is expected to be even remotely respectable this season.
Put another way, they’re barely beating bad teams. That said, the Cougars have also defeated Eastern Washington.

The Eagles are the polar opposite of the Cougars. EWU’s record is just 1-3 on the season, but all three of their losses have come against Pac 12 teams. WSU and Arizona beat the Eagles by just three points each. The Eagles have been competitive, as they were expected to be. Despite their record, they’ve actually been climbing in the advanced metrics. In statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, perhaps the most widely referenced in the sport, the Eagles have climbed five spots despite not yet defeating a Division I opponent.

Then there’s Idaho. The Vandals are 0-4 on the season under second year head coach Zac Claus. They’ve lost three of their games by double-figures, except of course their game against WSU, which they somehow lost by just three points.

AROUND THE CONFERENCE

Just as Gonzaga went onto its COVID-19 pause, the San Diego Toreros came off of theirs. The West Coast Conference has rolled along even as its biggest, baddest team has ground to a halt. It’s looked pretty good even without the Zags leading the way, too.

BYU, the only WCC team to defeat Gonzaga a season ago, was expected to fall back to earth a bit after putting together their best season in nearly a decade. Almost all the players responsible for that season were lost to graduation, so it’s supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Cougars. They’re not as good as they were a year ago, but the rebuild is way ahead of schedule.

Second year head coach Mark Pope’s team is 6-2, with no bad losses and a trio of quality wins already on the resume. A win Friday against San Diego State would go a long way for BYU’s bid to make the big dance.

Similarly, Gonzaga arch-rival Saint Mary’s was expected to take a step back after losing its three best players from last year. A season-opening loss to Memphis made it seem the step back might be bigger than expected. Since, though, the Gaels have rattled off six straight wins. Randy Bennett’s teams always float around the top of the conference, regardless of how much they have to replace. Tuesday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Eastern Washington will be a real litmus test for both squads.

San Francisco and Pepperdine, two teams on the rise in recent seasons, have had some triumphs and some struggles in the early going.

San Francisco fell victim to a massive upset to start the season, but just two days later pulled off one of their own by taking down then No. 4-ranked Virginia. They’ll try to find that magic again on Wednesday against Southern California. Pepperdine, on the other hand, looked impressive in a triple-overtime loss to then-No. 22 UCLA. As was the case last season, the Waves look good against the best teams on their schedule, but never manage to actually take them down.

Meanwhile, two teams not expected to be good this year find themselves near the top of the standings. Santa Clara’s undefeated at 5-0. Portland, which has gone 1-31 in WCC play over the last two years, is 4-1 this season. The twist? Neither has played a single good team.

Gonzaga won’t have to worry about those two. This year, the Zags might not have to worry about any team in the WCC. Even as impressive as BYU and Saint Mary’s have been relative to expectations, they’re nowhere near the No. 1 team in the country.

NEXT UP
Assuming the Zags are cleared to return to activity, they’ll face a huge test against third-ranked Iowa and national player of the year frontrunner Luka Garza this Saturday at 9 a.m. (CBS).

POP Power from Warhol to Koons: Masterworks from the Schnitzer Family Foundation @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Jan. 24
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