Yes, Gonzaga came away with a 96–83 win at San Francisco earlier this month, but the score does not begin to reflect how closely contested this match up truly was. The Dons actually led with less than five minutes left in the game, but the Zags finished well. West coast NCAA basketball often doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and this contest certainly surpassed expectations. It showcased two talented, disciplined teams with seasoned leadership, as the teams combined for a total of only nine turnovers in the game, and 11 players scored in double digits. Senior guards Josh Perkins and Frankie Ferrari not only expertly handled the ball for USF but also turned in impressive offensive performances. In the end, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few summed up the contest up the best when he stated, “I thought it was two teams really battling at a high level, both teams. We just ended up making a couple more plays at the end.”
The result showed just how competitive the West Coast Conference is. After their narrow loss to Gonzaga, the Dons fell slightly in the NCAA NET Evaluation Tool, and they now rank 37th. The NET relies on game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses. The WCC has two teams in the top 55 (Gonzaga is 2nd and Saint Mary’s is 55th), while the Pac-12 only has one (Washington, which is 32nd). The Dons rank ahead of 11 of the 12 teams from the Pac-12 Conference.
This is a major accomplishment for the Dons and the WCC, especially in a year when St. Mary’s and BYU are struggling. Many experts are now saying the WCC is on its way to becoming a consistent top 10 conference, and others are suggesting that the WCC is now the best conference in the West. While the WCC may have develop strength from top to bottom, after watching the classic battle between the Zags and Dons it’s clear that the top of the conference can compete with the elite conferences.
The West Coast Conference should command at least two NACA bids this season. If USF is able to win some games on the road in addition to their Stanford and Harvard wins and defend at home, they will have a compelling case for an at-large bid for the committee.
Coach Kyle Smith knows his team has a lot of season ahead and will use this narrow loss as an opportunity to learn and to stay visible.
Coach Smith is a firm believer in analytics. He pointed out that “the integrity of their defense” is the area most impacted by statistics and analytics. He said the Dons pride themselves on “limiting good shots.” Although he felt the Dons did not execute exactly to plan against the Zags.
Gonzaga found out early in this game that USF’s defense is top notch. The Dons disrupted Gonzaga’s ability to execute its half court sets, and veteran point guard Josh Perkins was held scoreless in the first half.
The Dons’ home court, War Memorial Gym, has the same motion-tracking cameras that occupy all 30 NBA arenas. The technology allows teams to monitor every move a player makes, measure their stamina and even grades the performance of referees. This allows USF to have their own Player Efficiency Rating (PER) just like the NBA.
Coach Smith calls it “nerd ball,” but it seems to be working as the Dons, despite working with a roster devoid of future NBA players, continue to gain traction both in the WCC and on a national level.
His Dons will get another crack at the Zags. The rematch between the top two WCC teams is on February 7 at Gonzaga.
Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP