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WCC Countdown: 10 facts heading into 2019-20

One of the most competitive conferences in the country, the West Coast Conference is coming off a record-breaking 2018-19 season. Let’s count down 10 facts about the WCC to help ring in the new season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs BYU
Gonzaga’s LeeAnne Wirth (left) and BYU’s Sara Hamson (right) look to power their respective teams this season in the WCC.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

About ten years ago, the West Coast Conference was known for one thing: being the home of the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

From 2009 to 2012, the Zags went 42-2 in conference play, including two undefeated seasons, and went to two NCAA Sweet Sixteens and the 2011 Elite Eight. There wasn’t much competition conference-wide — if Gonzaga didn’t win the tournament, something must have gone wrong.

Or, in the case of the 2012 WCC Tournament final, the team was simply outplayed by the new kid in the conference, BYU, who had already handed Gonzaga one of its two conference losses.

That tournament loss may not have been the most critical turning point from from Gonzaga’s pure dominance — perhaps that didn’t come until the 2015-16 season, where the Zags went 10-8 in conference play and saw San Francisco and BYU represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament? But it was still a statement win.

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs BYU
BYU celebrates after defeating Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC Tournament championship game.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Fast forward to the upcoming season, where Gonzaga finds itself in a precarious first place in the preseason poll, seven months after an injury-filled postseason and losing three senior starters to graduation. As usual, BYU is breathing down their necks, while Pacific is experiencing a surge in 2019-20 and Saint Mary’s is never quite out of the picture.

Entering a new season, one must ask again: Has the WCC achieved the parity expected from a truly competitive conference? And will anyone ever hit that elusive 18-0 record, or is an undefeated season in a 10-team conference where everyone plays each other twice an impossibility with this group?

Keeping all this in mind, let’s count down to the upcoming WCC season with 10 recent facts about the conference — one for each member school:

10 — WCC wins for Pacific in 2018-19

It’s not their most ever — the Tigers had 12 wins in their first season in the conference and 13 wins a season later — but after three losing seasons in the following years, once again reaching that 10-win mark in 2018-19 was extremely important for Pacific.

Nowhere is that progress shown more plainly than in the 2019-20 preseason poll, where Pacific slid in at No. 3 behind Gonzaga and BYU. It’s the Tigers’ highest-ever preseason ranking; they took fourth prior to the 2014-15 season but hadn’t been voted that high since.

While Pacific only finished two points clear of Saint Mary’s in the poll, that closeness is to be expected, as each team won at home against the other last season. If Gonzaga-BYU is the battle for first, Pacific-Saint Mary’s is the battle for third — and perhaps a late upset for a shot at the conference tournament title.

9 — Teams that finished 2018-19 non-conference play above .500

The WCC has had 10 teams since Pacific joined for the 2013-14 season. As many as seven of the 10 have had winning non-conference records in the same season, but last season was the first time in conference history that nine teams did so.

Despite its 7-5 non-conference record putting it in ninth place heading into WCC play, Loyola Marymount had two of the most impactful wins in that stretch, a Pac-12 sweep against UCLA and at Arizona, to open its season. The Lions will get another shot at UCLA this season, on Nov. 9.

8 — Non-senior preseason All-WCC picks

Last season, seven seniors made the Preseason All-WCC Team. This season, just two seniors appear on the list, along with seven juniors and a sophomore.

It’s a natural turnaround after seeing six All-WCC selections from last season graduate, but Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier doesn’t think this means the conference is getting weaker.

“It might be a transition year,” Fortier said at the 2019 WCC Tip-Off. “But I don’t think it’s a rebuilding year for our league.”

In fact, if anything, the conference is getting stronger.

“I think everybody in conference has gotten better, and I think those of us four through 10 [in the standings] the last few years are always wanting to take a crack of [the top three teams],” said Pacific head coach Bradley Davis.

7 — WCC’s RPI ranking in 2018-19

Trailing just the five power conference schools and the Big East, the WCC had a strong overall showing in the final RPI standings. Gonzaga’s No. 13 ranking — boosted by its 3-1 regular-season record against power conference teams — was higher than the entire Big Ten, where No. 16 Maryland led the conference.

BYU (27), Saint Mary’s (62), Pepperdine (85) and Pacific (97) also cracked the top 100.

6 — Teams that made the 2019 postseason, tying a league record

For the third time in WCC history, and the first time since 2016, six WCC teams played postseason games: Gonzaga and BYU went to the NCAA Tournament, while Loyola Marymount, Pacific, Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine accepted bids to the WNIT.

Pepperdine was the last WCC team standing in the WNIT, winning its first two postseason games ever en route to the third round of the tournament. But its success came at the expense of Saint Mary’s, as the teams were paired up in the second round and the Waves grabbed the 65-61 win.

5 — Preseason All-WCC picks not from BYU or Gonzaga

Just like last season, half of the All-WCC Preseason Team is made up of players from two of the favorites to win the conference. The other half is a mix of players from the other eight schools who also weren’t on last year’s preseason list, though all five were All-WCC selections at the end of last season.

Led by 2018-19 WCC Defensive Player of the Year and All-WCC First Team pick Valerie Higgins (Pacific), the other four of these All-WCC selections are Chelsey Gipson (LMU, All-WCC First Team), Tia Hay (Santa Clara, All-WCC Second Team), Brooklyn McDavid (Pacific, All-WCC Second Team) and Sam Simons (Saint Mary’s, All-WCC Freshman Team).

4 — Games that Gonzaga won on its summer European tour

The Zags went on their first-ever foreign tour in August, going 4-0 against teams from Spain and Italy. This trip was a long time coming — back when head coach Lisa Fortier was an assistant under now-Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, Fortier was the team representative who originally asked school officials to fund the trip.

Although the competition wasn’t all that, mainly groups of professional players who had little experience together, the team also got to see Gonzaga’s study abroad campus in Florence, Italy, and did some volunteering.

BYU did a foreign tour prior to last season, where it went 3-0 (and held an intra-squad scrimmage) while visiting the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Italy. Other WCC teams that have gone abroad include Santa Clara, who went to Costa Rica in 2018, and Pacific, who visited Italy in 2016. The NCAA allows teams one foreign tour every four years.

3 — Points separating Gonzaga and BYU in the preseason poll

As expected, the Bulldogs (78 points, 7 first-place votes) and Cougars (75 points, 3 first-place votes) are expected to duke it out for first place in the WCC once again. BYU notably swept Gonzaga last season, taking both regular-season games as well as the 14-point win over an injury-depleted Zags team in the WCC Tournament title game.

Despite BYU’s recent dominance over Gonzaga, the Cougars’ own injury woes may have prevented them from securing the preseason top spot. Shaylee Gonzales, the 2018-19 WCC Newcomer of the Year, tore her ACL over the summer. The injury will likely keep her out for the season.

2 — Wins in the 2019 NCAA First Round, a WCC first

The WCC has sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament 12 times, but both representatives hadn’t won their opening games until 2019. While tournament champion BYU upended Auburn before falling to Stanford, regular-season champion Gonzaga beat Little Rock and lost to Oregon State.

Since 1992, the first time the conference participated in the NCAA Tournament, the WCC has had a team make it to the second round 11 times, the Sweet Sixteen six times and the Elite Eight once.

1 — First-year head coaches’ Division III rivalry renewed

“I was asking girls to pay $75,000 a year to come play basketball. Now we have full scholarships.”

So said Pepperdine first-year head coach Kristen Dowling at the 2019 WCC Tip-Off on Oct. 2, who came from non-scholarship Division III program Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (made up of players from three of the five Claremont Colleges in Southern California). Dowling isn’t the only one to share this sentiment, as fellow first-year head coach Michael Meek of Portland also came from a Division III school, George Fox University.

Dowling’s and Meek’s teams faced one another “at least three or four times” while coaching their respective programs, and could double that number in a single season with two regular-season games and a potential WCC Tournament matchup.