Heading into the 2015-16 season the WCC looks very much like a league with three distinct tiers. Legitimate NCAA and NIT teams reside atop the league, fighting for position behind Gonzaga. Teams above average nationally but not at a level to contend in the WCC sit in the middle, with a WCC Tournament miracle their only real hope. Below them all lies the cellar, where hapless teams seem destined to fight simply for respectability.
Now it's time to take a look at Pepperdine, the team I've picked to finish third.
In four seasons under head coach Marty Wilson the Waves have risen from the cellar, through the middle of the pack and last season sat on the brink of disrupting the conference's big-three of Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's. This year is the year the Waves can take that final step
Last season: 18-14 (10-8), 4th WCC. Lost first round of CIT to Seattle.
Projected finish in 2015-16: Third place WCC, NIT at-large.
Last season ended in disappointment for the Waves, with an embarrassing 62-45 loss at Seattle in the first round of the CBI. That loss ended a promising season that was derailed by an injury hobbled home stretch — the Waves went 3-6 to end the season.
Should they stay healthy, especially late in the season, this Pepperdine squad won't look like anything like a team heading for the CBI. They could well end up being an NCAA Tournament sleeper, for the first time since 2002.
That's what happens when a talented team returns almost everything.
Seriously, almost everything. The players on this year's roster were responsible for 97.3% of the points, 95.1% of the rebounds and 94.2% of the minutes played last season. The only reason they lose nearly six percent of their minutes is because reserve point guard Marley Biyendolo, who transferred to SW Baptist, was forced into action when Amadi Udenyi went down with an Achilles rupture in mid-February.
There is more than just continuity in Malibu this season, though, there is serious reason to expect improvement.
Pepperdine has a 3-1 record against BYU over the past two seasons, including a sweep of the Cougars last year. The Waves split their 2014 series with Saint Mary's and nearly managed to do so with Gonzaga — coming up just two points short of knocking off a Zags team that would make the Elite Eight, and that was in a game without the services of Amadi Udenyi.
Senior forward Stacy Davis (15.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG), a two-time all-WCC first teamer and 2013 WCC Newcomer of the Year, will lead the charge for the Waves once again in 2015-16. Davis is on pace to finish his career as the Waves' all-time leading scorer, needing just 395 points to pass Dane Suttle's mark of 1,701.
Joining Davis in the frontcourt is senior forward Jett Raines (10.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG). The 6-foot-7, stretch-four style big had a breakout year as a junior, during which he started every game and posted a team-best offensive rating of 107.1. The undersized but effective combination of Davis and Raines is a match-up nightmare for opposing big men as both can draw fouls in bunches and convert at the line.
Surrounding the frontcourt is a stable of experienced and veteran guards. Sharing duties at the point are juniors Jeremy Major (8.7 PPG, 3.6 APG) and Amadi Udenyi (6 PPG, 4.4 APG). Major is a more defensive-minded player while Udenyi's passing ability is among the best in the conference. While on the floor Udenyi assisted on 34.7% of the Waves scoring last season (28th nationally) while Major came up with steals 3.3% of the time (127th nationally).
Defense won't be an issue for the Waves, who last season finished third in the nation in three point percentage defense (27.3%). In a league with elite offenses like Gonzaga and BYU —which ranked 6th and 12th in the nation respectively in offensive efficiency per KenPom— the Waves have shown the will and ability to muck things up.
They will need to do that in WCC play again this year because, unfortunately, the non-conference doesn't give the Waves much chance to make a splash.
Aside from a trip to UCLA on November 19 there aren't any big names on the schedule. Should things break the right way in their early season tournament, the Gulf Coast Showcase, to play two teams we here at Mid-Major Madness expect to have alright seasons. The Central Michigan Chippewas came in 15th in our preseason Mid-Major Madness Power 15 and Murray State was in the "also receiving votes" category. Those are potential final and semi-final round match-ups, respectively.
Fortunately for Marty Wilson's Waves, the WCC has become established as a multi-bid league on Selection Sunday. That gives Pepperdine plenty of chances to pick up quality wins down the stretch of the season.
The NCAA Tournament is a very realistic expectation for this team and anything less than the NIT should be a disappointment.