The BYU Cougars' 30-point blowout of the Gonzaga Bulldogs last Thursday left the two teams neck and neck for the West Coast Conference regular season title with only a couple of weeks left.
And although it's somewhat odd to look at this week's rankings and see the two teams splitting the #23 spot between the two polls after Thursday's result, it also reflects just how unsettled things are in the WCC with less than a handful of games left to play for each team and a showdown on the last day of conference play that could decide the conference title.
Not that Gonzaga can afford to look that far ahead, despite the obvious appeal of revenge.
"BYU is a good team, but we took some lumps against them in Provo and we've learned," said Gonzaga assistant coach Jodie Kaczor Berry in a radio interview after their 79-59 win over the San Francisco Dons on Saturday. "But Santa Clara and Pepperdine are going to give us a run for our money - they're gonna give us everything they have and we can't let something slip. We have to be ready."
Indeed, while it's probably tempting for both teams to look ahead to that potentially-decisive final meeting, they each face an opponent on Saturday, February 18 that could make them pay for excessively forward thinking.
Pepperdine has already dealt BYU a loss this season in which they were ahead for most of the second half, making them a potentially dangerous opponent for Gonzaga as well. And BYU has to be ready as well: in addition to Santa Clara and USF, the Cougars face the third-place San Diego Toreros who are only one game behind the two front-runners and are as much or more disciplined.
So how might each team match up with these potential challengers?
Gonzaga vs. Pepperdine
Prior to the BYU loss, Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves mentioned in an interview with Spokesman-Review reporter Jess Brown that, "If you take their stats and ours and hold them up next to each other, it’s crazy how similar the two teams are." And if that's true, then perhaps the two teams match up with Pepperdine similarly and face similar challenges.
A look at the numbers for Gonzaga and Pepperdine suggest that the turnover battle will play a significant role in their upcoming matchup - the Waves force opponents into turnovers more often than any team in the WCC (28% in conference play), which also gives them the best turnover rate differential in the conference (6.7%). While the Bulldogs turn the ball over less often than anyone in the conference (20% in conference play), clearly something has to give there. And against BYU - not far behind Gonzaga with the third lowest turnover rate in WCC play (21.3%) - it was Pepperdine's ability to force turnovers that won the game.
Playing at a slower pace than normal for either team, the Waves forced the Cougars into turnovers on a season-high 31.6% of their possessions in addition to getting to the line more than twice as often. Granted Pepperdine was at home, but they also won the turnover battle in their first meeting with the Bulldogs.
None of this is to dismiss the fact that Gonzaga blew out Pepperdine by 29 points in their first meeting in Malibu. However, it required something of a banner day defensively - they had a season-high 49 rebounds and held the Waves to 27.4% shooting, a season-best for the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, Gonzaga's 54.1% was a season-high for an opponent.
The likelihood of either team repeating their early-season performances would seem low - although Pepperdine has struggled all season - which does indeed make that a game that Gonzaga has to be prepared for.
BYU vs. San Diego
Similar to Pepperdine's first performance against Gonzaga, San Diego suffered through season-low shooting (30.2% from the field) in a 9-point loss against BYU in their first meeting. And, again, it's unlikely that they'll repeat that performance, BYU's conference-best defense notwithstanding.
Although the Toreros probably won't overwhelm anyone with individual talent, they run a methodical offense predicated on high screens and cuts and are a disciplined defense that limits scoring without forcing a lot of turnovers. When they head to Provo on Saturday to take on the Cougars, it's possible that they'll enter the game having won 6 of their last 7 with only a loss to the Bulldogs disrupting their momentum.
Despite a slight height disadvantage, USD managed to out-rebound the Cougars and if they can do that again plus get a better shooting performance they could very well be an upset threat.
The importance of winning the WCC Tournament
Nevertheless, the odds are probably in favor of both teams entering that final game of the regular season tied atop the regular season standings with the conference title riding on that last game. Yet winning the regular season title might not be the most important thing - both BYU and Gonzaga could benefit from the post-season security that comes the automatic bid from winning the conference tournament.
Gonzaga has a significant win against the Georgia Bulldogs to their credit, but even if they were to beat BYU on the final day of the regular season losing another game to BYU - a bubble team - or any other WCC team could put them in a precarious position.
And things are even tougher for BYU, given their bubble status. BYU's only significant win thus far this season: Gonzaga. And that loss to Pepperdine will do them no favors if they end up with one or two more losses to Gonzaga or anyone else.
Assuming the standings stay approximately true to current form through the end of the season, winning the #1 seed in the conference tournament by way of winning the regular season might not even be as big a boon as once might first assume: although third-place San Diego is a tough opponent, the St. Mary's Gaels currently sit in fourth place and have beaten both BYU and Gonzaga once already this season. A loss prior to the conference tournament championship game could conceivably lead to a trip to the WNIT depending on how things shake out, particularly for a BYU team that is strong yet doesn't have the best resume.
Clearly BYU's addition to the WCC has been good for women's basketball as they've become an instant contender for the conference title and the conference hasn't generated an at-large bid to the tournament since 2002 (when it was coincidentally Pepperdine and San Diego that made the Big Dance). That prospect of putting more than one team in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade should make the home stretch of the season and the WCC tournament exciting for fans of these two programs and the conference more broadly.