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.
Today we examine the four teams jockeying for position in the middle. For these teams a postseason berth in either the CIT or CBI should the minimum expectation. Unfortunately, it's probably the ceiling for those expectations as well. A few upsets of the top-tier WCC teams, without picking up any bad losses, and maybe we can talk NIT for a team or two.
4. Saint Mary's Gaels
Last season: 21-10 (13-5), tied for second place in the WCC. 4 seed NIT, lost first round to 5 Vanderbilt.
This year's Gaels are closer to the teams in the middle than they are to the teams ahead of them. So, they're here with the middle of the pack. But, they're also one of the WCC's three marquee programs so they garner a bit more of an in depth look than a paragraph or two. So, they get their own preview which goes up the morning of Friday, October 9. For now, an excerpt.
It's not an indictment of the WCC that Saint Mary's is basically the best of the rest despite losing all five starters from a team that made the NIT. The WCC has established itself as a league that year in and year out contends for best of the non-power-five. And part of that is because Randy Bennett built Saint Mary's into a nationally relevant program. As long as he's coaching the Gaels, and as long as their home court is McKeon Pavilion, they'll deserve the benefit of the doubt.
5. Santa Clara Broncos
Last season: 14-18 (7-11), tied for sixth place in the WCC.
For what it's worth, Broncos fans, I firmly believe your team will be better than Saint Mary's, if only slightly better. But, despite that, I don't really know if your team can finish with a better record. Average attendance last year at the 4,700 seat Leavey Center was 1,768. That doesn't create much of a home court advantage, and when jockeying for position in a tight and competitive league you need some kind of advantage when Portland, Pepperdine or Pacific comes to town.
That said, this should be a solid season in Santa Clara. Kerry Keating's team is led by one of the best guards on the West Coast in junior Jared Brownridge (15.9 ppg). With Brownridge driving the Broncos there is plenty of promise. If the team can get wins may just come down to how fast Brownridge can get his supporting cast to go.
The Broncos have won two postseason titles this decade, the 2011 CIT and 2013 CBI. In both seasons Keating employed an uptempo offense. In down years like 2014-15, the Broncos are significantly more sluggish. They ranked among fastest third of college basketball teams in the 2011 and 2013 seasons but last year, per KenPom, were 309 out of 351 in adjusted tempo — tied with the equally hapless Pacific Tigers. It isn't clear if the uptempo offense breeds success in Santa Clara, or vice-versa and Keating lets his more talented teams run and gun but it is a very striking correlation none the less.
Things should change this year, because, unlike last year the Broncos should be far more efficient. Gone is Brandon Clark (15.8 ppg). The senior guard finished just shy of Brownridge in scoring but took 72 more shots. 6-foot-6 forward Nate Kratch averaged 5.2 points per game on 52.9% shooting while 6-foot-6 guard Jarvis Pugh scored 3.3 points per game on 58% shooting. The junior and sophomore, respectively, are set for a major uptick in workload this season.
The most interesting freshman 6-foot-11 Henrik Jadersten. Last year the Broncos were severely undersized and forced to deploy Kratch at the five more often than they would have liked. Jadersten not only has the size to play the five but brings experience, having played for Sweden's U-18 and U-20 national teams.
6. Portland Pilots
Last season: 17-16 (7-11), tied for sixth place in the WCC. Lost first round of CIT.
The biggest question mark for the Pilots, who are coming off what can only be described as a season of promise that ultimately ended in disappointment — I picked them to finish third in the WCC and at one point in January wrote about their potential to make the NIT, instead they lost at home to Sacramento State in the opening round of the CIT.
The promise last season was a solid backcourt of Alec Wintering (12.6 ppg), Bryce Pressley (7.9 ppg), and Kevin Bailey (16.5 ppg) combined with the imposing and talented front line of 6-foot-11 Thomas van der Mars and the 6-foot-10 duo of Volodymyr Gerun and Riley Barker. All of those players except Wintering and Pressley have graduated.
There were flashes of quality from the players who will be thrust into greater roles around Wintering and Pressley.
6-foot-6 sophomore Jason Todd showed an ability to score inside and out last season, shooting 50.8% from two and 42.9% from three, scoring five points in 23 minutes per game. Sophomore guard D'Marques Tyson was under-utilized (playing 17.5% of available minutes last season) but posted an effective field goal percentage of 58.7%.
Wintering and Pressley are known commodities. The rest of the team has to step up and maintain efficient offensive production in the face of added playing time for the Pilots to stay afloat. As a result, Portland is probably the most hard to predict team in the WCC.
7. Pacific Tigers
Last season: 12-19 (4-14), tied for ninth place in the WCC.
Ron Verlin's program is in its third year back in the WCC, a league it helped found before bolting to the Big West.
Very little has been lost from last year's tied-for-last place team. That's what, at the very least, separates the Tigers from the teams below them (teams that lost considerably more). Unfortunately, it's also what keeps the Tigers well below the teams above them.
Alec Kobre was the only Tiger to take more than ten shots all season and post an effective field goal percentage above 50%, and he managed just 50.8%. This team can't score. They were held to 50 points or fewer on six occasions last season.
With pretty much everybody back, there's not a lot of reason to expect that to change.
Junior guard T.J. Wallace (13.0 ppg) is the favorite to earn all-conference honors (he was an honorable mention last season). He was the only Tiger to earn all-conference honors last season. When you have just one all-conference caliber player, and that player shoots below 40% from the field, where do you find hope?
Well, you have to search. And this season hope stems from the fact that the Tigers are now acclimated to this league and its style of play. It stems from the hope that Verlin and his staff have been recruiting guys to play a more finesse game than those who they recruited to the Big West. But those recruits are just freshmen and sophomores, can they really out play the four starters who return from last year?