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2014-15 West Coast Conference Basketball Preview

Gonzaga looks to be alone at the top of the WCC, again. Can BYU, Saint Mary's or a sleeper from this deep league dethrone the Zags? Get to know the names and numbers of note for this season.

BYU's Tyler Haws dribbles against Gonzaga's Gary Bell.
BYU's Tyler Haws dribbles against Gonzaga's Gary Bell.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last Year: 29-7 (15-3), 1st WCC, WCC Tournament Champion, NCAA Round of 32
Departures: Sam Dower (14.4 ppg), David Stockton (4.2 apg), Gerard Coleman (TR, 6.0 ppg), Drew Barham (61-127 3pt FG), Luke Meikle (TR), Brian Bhaskar
Key Returners: Kevin Pangos (14.4 ppg), Gary Bell Jr. (11.0 ppg), Przemek Karnowski (10.4 ppg)
Must Follow: @ZagMBB

The Zags received 423 points in the preseason coaches poll, good for 13th place. To put that into a WCC perspective, Saint Mary's was the only other WCC team to receive a point and that's all they got, one measly point. A healthy Gonzaga team should not lose a game in conference play this season.

Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell get their fourth and final shot to be the nation's best backcourt. 7-foot-1 junior Przemek Karnowski looks ready to explode onto the national scene after impressive development as a sophomore. Joining those three starters is a long line of talented players. Returning veterans like Kyle Dranginis and Angel Nunez on the wing will compete for minutes with senior transfer Byron Wesley (17.8 ppg last season at USC). Kyle Wiltjer, the 2013 SEC Sixth Man of the Year, will join Karnowski in the paint. Wiltjer announced his transfer to Gonzaga after the 2012-'13 season that saw Kelly Olynyk go from unknown to all-American.

Then there's the incoming freshman class. Silas Melson and Josh Perkins (a four star recruit per ESPN) are the heirs apparent to Bell and Pangos. 6-foot-10 Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas, comes in with experience playing in the top-flight of Spanish basketball.

Gonzaga has always been one of the nation's elite offensive teams under Mark Few. This year he might just have his best group yet.

2. BYU Cougars
Last Year:
23-12 (13-5), t-2nd WCC, NCAA Tournament Round of 64
Departures: Matt Carlino (TR, 13.7 ppg), Eric Mika (LDS Mission, 11.8 ppg)
Key Returners: Tyler Haws (23.3 ppg), Kyle Collinsworth (14.0 ppg)
Must Follow: @BYUbasketball

Dave Rose's run-and-gun Cougars (the tenth fastest team in the nation last year per KenPom) have the ability to outscore just about anyone. This year, that high-octane team should be more efficient — that is, if someone can replace Eric Mika's post scoring. Without Matt Carlino's quick trigger stealing shots better suited for Tyler Haws or Kyle Collinsworth (Carlino was second on the team in usage percentage despite making a paltry 38.5% of his shots from the field) the Cougars offensive potency can only rise.

Tyler Haws is arguably the nation's best shooter and will be in first team all-America discussions. Kyle Collinsworth is a match-up nightmare that can, at 6-foot-6, play point guard, crash the boards and get his own shot from anywhere inside the three point arc. Anson Winder saw his role and impact increase dramatically down the stretch as the Cougars slowly shelved Carlino. Those three make a fantastic back court, and the Cougars have an array of reserves to spell their starting guards, but who's going to score from the post? Nate Austin, Josh Sharp and Luke Worthington, the Cougars' three returning bigs, accounted for just 7.13% of the team's total points last season. That role may have to fall on untested UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes.

3. Portland Pilots
Last Year: 15-16 (7-11), t-6th WCC
Departures: Ryan Nicholas (12.9 ppg), Korey Thieleke (2.3 ppg), Tanner Riley (2.3 ppg), John Bailey
Key Returners: Kevin Bailey (16.5 ppg), Thomas van der Mars (13.5 ppg), Alec Wintering (4.5 apg)
Must Follow: @CoachReveno

The Pilots made some noise nationally last season by taking down then No. 22 Gonzaga at home and dropping 114 on BYU in a triple-overtime thriller. However, they fell by the wayside when Kevin Bailey and Alec Wintering went down with injury and the Pilots limped to five straight losses at the end of the season. Those big wins proved that Eric Reveno's Portland squad is capable, when healthy, of beating anyone in the WCC. If that confidence carries over into this year, the Pilots will be a scary dangerous underdog.

The loss of Ryan Nicholas dents the Portland frontcourt, but the depth around Thomas van der Mars is enough to keep  it among the league's best, maybe even second only to Gonzaga. Sophomore point guard Alec Wintering is the youngest key player on this team, but he started all 27 games he played as a freshman. This is a veteran team that has experience going into hostile environments — at No. 1 Michigan State last season, at UNLV and New Mexico in 2012 and at No. 2 Kentucky in 2011. Now this veteran and experienced team knows it can beat that level of competition.

4. Saint Mary's Gaels
Last Year:
23-12 (11-7), 4th WCC, NIT 2nd Round
Departures: Stephen Holt (15.2 ppg), James Walker III (9.8 ppg), Beau Levesque (9.2 ppg), Matt Hodgson (3.3 ppg), Jordan Giusti (TR, 3.3 ppg) Paul McCoy (1.9 ppg), Eividas Petrulis (1.9 ppg)
Key Returners: Brad Waldow (15.1 ppg), Kerry Carter (9.3 ppg)
Must Follow: @smcgaels

Saint Mary's brings back just two starters from a down year which saw them finish fourth in the WCC. To call a 23 win season a down year shows you just how far this program has come under head coach Randy Bennett.

Bennett's kept open the Aussie pipeline that brought Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova thru Moraga but he won't be relying on it this season. More important than the three Australians on the roster are the three power-conference transfers joining the team. All three are likely to start alongside Brad Waldow and Kerry Carter. Joe Coleman, a 6-foot-4 wing from Minnesota, will join Carter and 5-foot-11 Stanford transfer Aaron Bright in the backcourt while Desmond Simmons, a senior forward from Stanford, helps out alongside Brad Waldow.

The Gaels surely have the talent to finish higher than fourth but the question is whether or not this mix-and-match team can find its chemistry.

5. San Francisco Dons
Last Year:
21-12 (13-5) t-2nd WCC, NIT 1st Round
Departures: Cole Dickerson (15.1 ppg), Cody Doolin (13.0 ppg), Avry Holmes (TR, 12.5 ppg), Tao Xu (signed pro contract in China)
Key Returners: Kruize Pinkins (12.3 ppg), Mark Tollefsen (10.5 ppg), Tim Derksen (9.0 ppg), Matt Glover (8.0 ppg)
Must Follow: @DonsAthletics

Rex Walters' Dons finished tied for second in the WCC a year ago and earned a berth in the NIT. That success came without senior point guard Cody Doolin, who decided to leave the team after just four games. Walters has steadily led the Dons up the WCC standings despite having an absurdly high number of players leave the program before their eligibility expired — 23 players have either quit, transferred or been dismissed since Walters took over in 2008. That ability to overcome adversity should help keep the Dons from slipping too far down the standings this season.

The bruising Kruize Pinkins needs to replace all-WCC big man Cole Dickerson. He'll be aided by the long, athletic and constantly improving Mark Tollefsen. The backcourt of Matt Glover and Tim Derksen will have to make up for the loss of starting guard Avry Holmes to transfer. For that to happen, Derksen will need to play at the level he reached down the stretch last season (12 ppg in March). This team is less talented than before but as long as Walters is in charge, the may just be the grittiest team out west.

6. San Diego Toreros

Last Year: 18-17 (7-11) t-6th WCC, CIT Quarterfinals
Departures: Dennis Kramer (11.5 ppg), Mike Davis, MJ Marconi
Key Returners: Johnny Dee (16.6 ppg), Christopher Anderson (6.2 apg), Duda Sanadze (12.9 ppg), Jito Kok (4.7 ppg)
Must Follow: @usdmbb

Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson have been one of college basketball's best backcourt duos since their freshman season. Aside from those two, Bill Grier hasn't had much else to work with over the past three years. Last season saw the addition of Duda Sanadze, a potent scorer from the wing. Sanadze added balance to the Toreros scoring but did nothing to help them score from the post. Center Jito Kok is as good at keeping opponents shots out of the basket — he's 66 blocks shy of the San Diego career record and he's averaged 59 per year through his first two seasons — as he is bad at putting his own shots in the basket. If he can turn the corner offensively, this team will finally live up to the high preseason expectations that this talented backcourt warrants. Otherwise, Grier and company had better hope that sophomore forward Brandon Perry averages more than the 6.3 ppg he posted as a freshman at Cal State Northridge two seasons ago.

7. Santa Clara Broncos
Last Year:
14-16 (6-12), t-8th WCC
Departures: Evan Roquemore (10.7 ppg), Jerry Brown (7.6 ppg), John McArthur (4.0 ppg), Julian Clarke, Robert Garrett
Key Returners: Jared Brownridge (17.2 ppg), Brandon Clark (16.9 ppg), Denzel Johnson (4.2 ppg), Yannick Atanga (5.0 rpg)
Must Follow: @SantaClaraHoops

Last season saw an impactful freshman class come in to replace a prolific senior class that had led the Broncos to postseason titles in the 2013 CBI and 2011 CIT. Of that freshman class, only Jared Brownridge — 2014 WCC Newcomer of the Year — was prepared for the college game from the get-go.

Kerry Keating's squad doesn't return an interior scoring presence to replace Jerry Brown. Yannick Atanga and three incoming players — two freshmen and graduate student Dominic Romeo, who played for one season at defensive end for Notre Dame — will hold down the paint for this guard dominated team. If one of those four proves to be a capable scorer from the post, the Broncos will over-perform this season. Otherwise, last year's talented freshman class has to wait just one more season before becoming a major threat in the WCC.

8. Pepperdine Waves
Last Year:
15-16 (8-10), 5th WCC
Departures: Brendan Lane (13.0 ppg), Malcolm Brooks (TR, 10.3 ppg), Malte Kramer (4.6 ppg), Nikolas Skouen (3.8 ppg), Austin Mills (TR), Allen Stevens, Jeff Van Dyke (TR)
Key Returners: Stacy Davis (15.1 ppg), Jeremy Major (9.1 ppg), Amadi Udenyi (5.9 ppg)
Must Follow: @PeppBasketball

Marty Wilson's Waves have a solid trio in all-WCC big man Stacy Davis and sophomore guards Jeremy Major and Amadi Udenyi. Five players will look to replace Brendan Lane's minutes, led by incoming 6-foot-10 freshman Nate Gehring — who passed on interest from closer-to-home schools like Creighton and Iowa State — and 6-foot-7 junior Jett Raines. However, replacing Lane will be nearly impossible. Last season he and Davis combined to form one of the conference's best frontcourt units, but that only helped the Waves to a sub-.500 conference record. This year seems destined for a slight regression. Unfortunately, in the parity laden depths of the WCC, a slight regression likely means a significant drop in the standings.

9. Loyola Marymount Lions
Last Year:
13-19 (4-14), 10th WCC
Departures: Anthony Ireland (18.5 ppg), Gabe Levin (TR, 11.1 ppg), Ben Dickinson (TR, 8.5 ppg), Alex Osborne (6.3 ppg), Nick Stover (TR, 4.8 ppg), C.J. Blackwell (TR), Nino Jackson (TR), Max Heller (TR), Alozie Erondu (TR)
Key Returners: Evan Payne (15.5 ppg), Ayodeji Egbeyemi (RS SR, 10.6 ppg in '12-'13), Godwin Okonji (RS SR, 4.9 ppg in '12-'13)
Must Follow: @LMULions

Change is the theme for this year's Lions. Not only do the Lions have to contend with the graduation of their once-in-a-generation talent, Anthony Ireland, but their entire coaching staff and an unusually high number of transfers. Only three players return from last year's active roster, most importantly sophomore guard Evan Payne. A trio of redshirts decided to stick around as well. Two fifth year seniors, Ayodeji Egbeyemi and Godwin Okonji — both were injured in a car accident on the way to practice last preseason — will provide leadership to this young team. The final redshirt is 6-foot-11 Zambian sophomore Patson Siame. He's yet to log a minute in college but could be a game changer for the LMU program. Two-and-a-half years have passed since he signed with the Lions.

Replacing former head coach Max Good is Mike Dunlap, an LMU alum known best for his days coaching the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

10. Pacific Tigers
Last Year:
18-16 (6-12), t-8th WCC, CIT Semifinals
Departures:
Tony Gill (11.4 ppg), Andrew Bock (11.3 ppg), Sama Taku (11.1 ppg), Ross Rivera (8.2 ppg) Trevin Harris (7.6 ppg), Khalil Kelley (6.0 ppg), Aaron Short (TR, 4.7 ppg), Spencer Llewellyn (TR).
Key Returners: T.J. Wallace (7.0 ppg), Gabriel Aguirre (2.6 ppg)
Must Follow: @PacificMensBB

Ron Verlin's Tigers enter their second year in the West Coast Conference. Last year they struggled with the upgrade in competition from the Big West. This year they'll struggle because they have to replace eight players who collectively accounted for 81.08% of the Tigers' scoring. Last year's hyper-experienced team is now a team of eleven underclassmen.

A 9-2 record in the non-conference pushed Pacific into the CIT despite a dismal showing in conference play. While I expect the Tigers to struggle this season, the incoming players have been recruited for the WCC rather than the Big West style of play. This traditionally strong mid-major program won't be a cellar dweller forever.