WCC schedule promises big-time clashes, fresh starts and plenty of twins

Defending champs Portland, perennial favorites Gonzaga just two contenders in 2020-21

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March 10, 2020; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Portland Pilots head coach Michael Meek celebrates cutting the net against the San Diego Toreros after the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. (UP Athletics)

The West Coast Conference women’s basketball season will tip off Monday, Dec. 28, the league announced Wednesday. One of 13 conferences to complete its tournament prior to widespread COVID-19 cancellations, the 2020-21 season picks up with tournament-champion Portland on the rise and postseason mainstay Gonzaga aiming to retain its place at the top of the table.

As in every season since the conference expanded, all 10 women’s teams play each other twice (home and away), resulting in an 18-game conference season for each school — and high stakes every time. No team has gone 18-0 in WCC play since the conference grew to 10 teams for the 2013-14 season, though Gonzaga has come the closest, finishing 17-1 twice.

The unpredictability of any given WCC season is one of its strengths, and one that speaks to the conference’s parity despite the Zags — who often find themselves in the national top 25 — generally favored at the start of the season. Saint Mary’s handed Gonzaga its sole loss last season, while Portland, picked to finish last in the preseason poll, delivered what would be the Zags’ season-ending loss in the WCC Tournament semifinals before going on to win the whole thing. And still, the question each season is not just “who will beat Gonzaga?”, but “who can break through the noise and make a name for themselves nationally, perhaps to the tune of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid?”

Though non-conference play certainly plays a role, even for a conference that saw five teams finish in the top 150 in the RPI standings regardless of its mid-major status, the real fun happens when WCC play tips off.

Below are four big things to watch for this WCC season, and a few games where these keys will be on display (and if some games appear more than once, well, that’s just that much more reason to tune in):

Welcome to the WCC

Whether teams are welcoming a lot of new players or focusing on one or two key additions, these players’ first WCC games will be crucial to assessing their fit in a high-mid-major, so to say. Nine players in particular are coming in from power-five schools (plus one from the Big East), with at least three eligible to play in 2020-21 so far: Gonzaga’s Cierra Walker (Vanderbilt), Loyola Marymount’s Aquira DeCosta (Baylor) and Santa Clara’s Shayley Harris (UCLA).

Our full WCC player movement tracker can be found here, and the first game for each team takes place on the following dates:

  • Monday, Dec. 28:

    • BYU vs. San Francisco

    • San Diego vs. Santa Clara

    • Loyola Marymount vs. Gonzaga

    • Pepperdine vs. Portland

  • Wednesday, Dec. 30:

    • Saint Mary’s vs. Pacific

Can the champions establish themselves?

Portland’s big win at the WCC Tournament was, in some ways, a shocker — it had the No. 4 seed, after all — but looking at the whole season and how it played some of the conference’s best teams, its success was also just a team reaching its natural peak. With WCC Newcomer of the Year and All-WCC First Team pick Alex Fowler leading a Pilots team that returns four starters, the future is bright, as long as they can — at least once — get past the three teams that swept them last regular season.

Here’s what Portland’s redemption series looks like:

  • Gonzaga: Jan. 9 (away), Feb. 6 (home)

  • San Diego: Jan. 23 (home), Feb. 18 (away)

  • Pacific: Jan. 2 (home), Jan. 30 (away)

Seeing double

If you haven’t heard, the WCC has five sets of twins competing in 2020-21: Gonzaga’s Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong and Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth; San Francisco’s Marta and Marija Galic; Pepperdine’s Jayla and Jayda Ruffus-Milner; and Portland’s Jacksen and Tyler McCliment-Call.

Listing all the games involving these teams? Totally warranted. Everyone wants the chance to see up to six twins on the floor at once.

  • Dec. 28, Feb. 27: Pepperdine vs. Portland

  • Dec. 30, Feb. 25: Pepperdine vs. Gonzaga

  • Jan. 2, Jan. 30: San Francisco vs. Pepperdine

  • Jan. 9, Feb. 6: Gonzaga vs. Portland

  • Jan. 14, Feb. 13: San Francisco vs. Portland

  • Jan. 16, Feb. 11: San Francisco vs. Gonzaga

Gonzaga’s keys to staying at the top

And we’re back to the Zags. Look, 18-0 is still not out of the question, even after suffering a handful of losses to graduation once again. Head coach Lisa Fortier knows how to fill in gaps where necessary and develop players so they’re ready to take over in starting roles as soon as they’re needed (case in point: senior Jill Townsend, who didn’t start a game until last season, where she was named WCC Player of the Year).

But even though Gonzaga’s 17-1 record was relatively solid, the loss of Katie Campbell to injury in early February dampened its hopes as the season progressed. A fresh start will help in 2020-21, but some of their biggest challengers get that benefit, too — especially since they all get to host Gonzaga in the second half of the season. BYU returns 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Sara Hamson and 2019 WCC Newcomer of the Year Shaylee Gonzales, who sat out last season with an injury; San Diego brings back three senior starters (and is led by 2020 Coach of the Year Cindy Fisher); Portland’s mix of freshmen, young talent and transfers will remain formidable; and Saint Mary’s — who handed the Zags their one loss — returns five starters.

Gonzaga will face off against the aforementioned teams on the following dates:

  • BYU: Jan. 23 (home), Feb. 18 (away)

  • San Diego: Jan. 21 (home), Feb. 20 (away)

  • Portland: Jan. 9 (home), Feb. 6 (away)

  • Saint Mary’s: Jan. 2 (home), Jan. 30 (away)

But just as in every WCC season, expect the unexpected. For Gonzaga, finishing undefeated would be a huge triumph over nine other talented teams that only get better year after year — making the expected, perhaps, the dashing of those hopes of an undefeated season once more.