2013-14 Mid-Major Conference Preview: West Coast Conference

With all these guys returning can the Zags repeat as champs? - USA TODAY Sports

Four WCC players from last season are in the NBA right now. The Zags aren't likely seeing a #1 by their name again this season. Despite that, the conference continues to improve. Which teams are closing in on Gonzaga and which are falling behind?

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. Things keep rolling along with the West Coast Conference.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last Year: 32-3 (16-0), Regular Season & Tournament Champion, NCAA Tournament Round of 32
Key Departures: Kelly Olynyk (17.8 ppg, now with Boston Celtics), Elias Harris (14.6 ppg, now with Los Angeles Lakers), Mike Hart (3.9 rpg).
Key Returners: Kevin Pangos (11.9 ppg), Gary Bell Jr. (9.0 ppg), Sam Dower (6.9 ppg), Przemek Karnowski (5.4 ppg), David Stockton (3.4 apg).

It's going to be a down year for the Zags, but only because replicating a season that saw the program's first AP #1 ranking and number one seed in the NCAA Tournament will be nearly impossible. Talent-wise it isn't impossible, but the Zags' reputation among voters must have taken a big hit after the early exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Losing Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, the Zags' two leading scorers last season, creates an obvious void. While the focus of the Gonzaga offense should shift to the backcourt of Pangos, Bell Jr. and Stockton, don't expect the frontcourt to drop off much. Senior Sam Dower and sophomore Przemek Karnowski both posted highly efficient offensive numbers last season. Their time on the floor was limited, due to the exceptional play of Harris and Olynyk, but if you project their stats out to a full forty minute game, they have the look of players that will step in right away.

For lazy or uneducated commentators, calling the frontcourt Gonzaga's weakness this year will be pretty easy. The real question, though, lies at the three spot. Ultimate glue guy Mike Hart excelled in that position last year, and his gritty play and constant energy will be hard to replicate. He will be replaced by Providence transfer Gerard Coleman. Hart was not asked to score, but Coleman most certainly will be. If Coleman is up to the task, Gonzaga will once again have the complete package.

2. BYU Cougars
Last Year: 24-12 (10-6), 3rd WCC, NIT Semifinals.
Key Departures: Brandon Davies (17.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, now with Philadelphia 76ers), Brock Zylstra (7.6 ppg), Craig Cusick (3.8 ppg).
Key Returners: Tyler Haws (21.7 ppg), Matt Carlino (9 ppg), Nate Austin (3.6 ppg), Kyle Collinsworth.

The Cougars had the talent to make the NCAA Tournament last season, but they didn't have the ability to win big games and because of that, were left on the outside looking in. After an NIT run that saw the Cougars beat quality teams, for the first time all season, Dave Rose's squad finished the season hungry for more. Now with the new season upon us, that hunger should help BYU return to the NCAA Tournament after a one year absence.

Brandon Davies was a force in the paint last season. Replacing him will be difficult, but incoming freshman Eric Mika (#28 in the ESPN 100) has all the tools to contribute immediately. Tyler Haws' 21.7 ppg were tied for 7th best in the nation. The speed at which the Cougars play will allow Haws to challenge for the scoring title once again this season. Think about this, Jimmer Fredette scored 780 points in his first two seasons as a Cougar. Haws scored 780 last season.

Matt Carlino is a solid but unspectacular point guard. His two years of experience in running the Cougars up-tempo style will make it easy for newcomers to get integrated into the offense. Along with the freshmen, Kyle Collinsworth returns from his two year LDS mission to Russia. Collinsworth is a 6-7 guard who plays with the ball in his hands and is a match-up nightmare.

3. San Francisco Dons
Last Year: 15-16 (7-9), T-5th WCC
Key Departures: De'End Parker (11.7 ppg).
Key Returners: Cole Dickerson (15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Cody Doolin (12.2 ppg, 5.6 apg), Tim Derksen (7.4 ppg), Mark Tollefsen (7.2 ppg), Avry Holmes (6.7 pgg).

This time last year the Dons were trying to figure out how they would replace six transfers and three graduating seniors. Rex Walters and his staff took an overhauled roster and won nearly half of the games they played. Point guard Cody Doolin and power forward Cole Dickerson somewhat quietly played their positions as well as anybody in the nation. Now seniors, those two will lead a team composed mainly of stellar sophomores. Not only did Walters and his Dons stay afloat during what could well have been a disastrous season, they reloaded with talent that should put San Francisco back on the national basketball map.

Tim Derksen and Avry Holmes were two of the five players named to last year's all-WCC freshman team. The other sophomore listed above as a "key returner", Mark Tollefsen, was not named to the freshman team despite posting the 12th best offensive rating in the country (128.3). The Dons were an offensive juggernaut last season and they look to remain the same this year. Returning are five players who shot over 40% from three and all five took at least 69 threes. If the Dons' defense has improved any from last season, this team will be hard to outscore.

4. Saint Mary's Gaels
Last Year: 28-7 (14-2), 2nd WCC
Key Departures: Matthew Dellavedova (15.8 ppg, 6.4 apg, now with Cleveland Cavaliers), Mitchell Young (7.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Key Returners: Stephen Holt (11.7 ppg), Beau Levesque (10.5 ppg), Brad Waldow (10.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

Matthew Dellavedova will be impossible to replace. On top of replacing one of the most vocal leaders in all of college hoops, Randy Bennett and his staff need to replace the player who ranks first in Gaels' history in the following categories: points, assists, minutes, three pointers made and attempted, free throw percentage, games, starts and wins. What's more, there isn't anybody in place to step into Dellavedova's shoes.

Freshman Cullen Neal was allowed to leave the program to play for his father, Craig, at New Mexico. Senior Jorden Page suffered a knee injury in the WCC Tournament final and is not on this year's roster. Walk-on sophomore Jordan Giusti isn't the kind of scorer Randy Bennett wants in a point guard. That leaves senior Stephen Holt, who has been a shooting guard up until this season, to shift over to the point. The Gaels had one of the best shooting guards in the west for Holt's three seasons. Now they have one of the best shooting guards in the west playing point guard.

Beau Levesque and Brad Waldow anchor a highly efficient front court, last season they posted offensive ratings of 125.0 and 118.7 respectively. A program that has been dominated by great point guard play, from Patty Mills to Mickey McConnell and Dellavedova, will now look to the front court. They are in for a down year, but don't expect the Gaels to stop being one of the game's premier mid-major programs.

5. San Diego Toreros
Last Year: 16-18 (7-9), T-5th WCC
Key Departures: Ken Rancifer (10.2 ppg), Chris Manresa (9.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Cameron Miles (4.9 ppg).
Key Returners: Johnny Dee (15.0 ppg), Christopher Anderson (9.4 ppg, 5.7 apg), Dennis Kramer (4.2 ppg).

Bill Grier's Toreros have one of the best backcourt duos out west in Christopher Anderson and Johnny Dee. Unfortunately, they don't have much else. Aside from two wins against BYU, the Toreros were a completely unspectacular team last season. Aside from Anderson and Dee, there isn't much offensive talent on the roster, especially in terms of offensive efficiency. No player outside of the backcourt had an offensive rating over 100.0 last season. The front court of Dennis Kramer and Jito Kok is a major question mark. Kramer averaged over 8 points per game as a sophomore but slumped as a junior, putting up just 4.2 last year. Kok is excellent at defending the rim but was non-existent on offense last season as a freshman. There is a lot of youth on this roster, making the future bright in San Diego, it's just not quite there yet.

6. Santa Clara Broncos
Last Year: 26-12 (9-7), 4th WCC, CBI Champions.
Key Departures: Kevin Foster (19.3 ppg, 4.3 apg), Marc Trasolini (15.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Raymond Cowels III (9.4 ppg)
Key Returners: Evan Roquemore (12.0 ppg, 5.2 apg), Brandon Clark (7.2 ppg), Yannick Atanga (6.2 rpg).

Kerry Keating's Broncos have won postseason championships in two of the past three seasons (CIT in 2011, CBI in 2013). In the season between those two championships, the Broncos won eight games, none of which came against WCC foes. The reason for that disastrous season were the losses of Marc Trasolini to injury in the preseason and then Kevin Foster in January. Foster, Trasolini and Cowels totaled 5,194 points over their careers.

This season they will be without their two stars, once again, as well as Mr. Consistent Raymond Cowels. Unlike the last season they spent without Foster and Trasolini, this time they have had time to prepare. The obvious keys this year are senior point guard Evan Roquemore and junior guard Brandon Clark. A large group of talented freshman will help keep the Broncos afloat this season. Keating told me at WCC media day that he has been playing the freshmen together at practice. Much like Saint Mary's, both teams have too much to replace at once, they're in for a down year but won't be down for long.

7. Loyola Marymount Lions
Last Year: 11-23 (1-15), 9th WCC.
Key Departures: Ashley Hamilton (12.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg).
Key Rerturners: Anthony Ireland (20.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.6 apg), Ayodeji Egbeyemi (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Alex Osborne (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg).

Anthony Ireland is my pick for best player in the WCC and without a doubt the most underrated player in the country. His 20.2 ppg last season was tied for 14th best in the nation. He'll once again post ridiculous numbers but unless someone else is able to contribute consistently, the Lions won't rise very far up the standings. Ayodeji Egbeyemi and Godwin Okonji were set to be major contributors on this team. I say "were" because those two are now out indefinitely. Last week, while driving to practice, they were injured in an automobile accident. Head coach Max Good is hopeful that Egbeyemi will be able to return soon. In Okonji's case things aren't looking as good. His left leg requires further examination to determine the extent of the injury. While their basketball playing ability has taken a hit, the two are otherwise going to be fine according to coach Good, who said, "We are very thankful that both Godwin and Ayodeji are doing well and were able to come home following the accident."

In their place, newcomers Patson Siame and Ben Dickinson will be thrown into the fire. Siame, who played on the world team at the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit, is a native of Zambia and one of the most highly touted centers in his class. Dickinson sat out last season after transferring from Binghamton. In his freshman season he averaged 13.5 ppg and 6.1 rpg, good enough to earn a spot on the America East all-rookie team.

7. Pacific Tigers
Last Year: 22-13 (13-5), 2nd Big West, NCAA Tournament Round of 64
Key Departures: Lorenzo McCloud (11.1 ppg, 4.0 apg), Travis Fulton (9.4 ppg), Collin Beatty (5.9 ppg), Rodrigo De Souza (4.5 ppg).
Key Returners: Sama Taku (8.1 ppg), Ross Rivera (7.6 ppg), Tony Gill (7.2 ppg).

New conference, new coach and new starting five. The Tigers are an old and experienced team, with seven seniors on the roster this year, but they lose four of last year's five starters. They won't be in the WCC cellar this year but they might next year. Head coach Ron Verlin knows he and his staff will have to change they type of players they recruit. The small, athletic rosters of the Big West stand little chance against the big and more skilled teams in the WCC. Once the Tigers get their recruiting figured out, they should quickly rise in the standings. Of the ten teams in the WCC this season, Pacific has the fourth best winning percentage since 2000.

8. Portland Pilots
Last Year: 11-21 (4-12), T-7th WCC
Key Departures: Derrick Rodgers (6.3 ppg, 3.4 apg).
Key Returners: Ryan Nicholas (13.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Kevin Bailey (11.4 ppg), Thomas van der Mars (7.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

Despite a .432 winning percentage over seven seasons, with another disappointing season looming, head coach Eric Reveno is likely not on the hot seat. The University of Portland is a proud academic school, and Reveno is fully bought into the importance of academics. From his bio on the Pilots' website, "The team boasts a 100% graduation rate, a perfect 1000 rating in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, and 11 Academic All-WCC selections since 2007."

Off the court, things look great in Portland, but on the court they look much worse. Senior Ryan Nicholas was the only legitimate weapon on the team last year, and this year looks no different for the 6-7 power forward. Junior Thomas van der Mars has shown steady improvement over his career. Incoming junior transfer Volodymyr Gerun, who last played at West Virginia, will provide depth in the frontcourt. Guard play has been questionable for a couple of seasons now. Last year David Carr played point guard for the first 17 games before being sidelined with a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy this year, the Pilots will improve. The problem, every team ahead of the Pilots on this list is significantly better.

10. Pepperdine Waves
Last Year: 12-18 (4-12), T-7th WCC
Departures: Lorne Jackson (13.6 ppg), Jordan Baker (11.4 ppg, 3.1 apg),
Key Returners: Stacy Davis (11.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Nikolas Skouen (8.0 ppg), Jett Raines (6.6 ppg).

When Gonzaga first rose to prominence in the early 2000s, Pepperdine was the thorn in the Zags' side. Since those two NCAA Tournament appearances (2000 and 2002), the Waves have had only one season above .500. Head coach Marty Wilson is turning things around in Malibu (seriously, it can't be hard to recruit elite talent to Malibu). His third season looks to be a bit of a step back in the rebuilding effort. Stacy Davis, the reigning WCC Newcomer of the Year will once again be a force. Other than Davis though, there is little certainty. Lorne Jackson, a fifth year senior, was the experienced leader last season. He's gone, as is junior Jordan Baker who transferred to San Jose State.

Two consecutive large freshman classes are helping build the Waves back up. Marty Wilson has the program heading in the right direction but it will take some time before the improvement is noticeable.

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