Going from top to bottom in the West Coast Conference looks like a cross-section of college basketball.
At the top you’ve got, quite literally, ranked teams fighting for National Championships. Multiple teams feel like annual NCAA Tournament contenders. Some deliver on that, while others falter and finish their season disappointed in the NIT. In the middle of the league are teams that would consider the NIT an honor, and are good enough to make it. Though most won’t. And at the bottom, where win totals max out in the single digits for a team or two, it’s as grim as any league in America.
There’s something for everyone in this 10-team league. Here’s how we see it heading into November.
West Coast Conference Preseason Power Rankings:
1. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Saint Mary’s has every reason to be hyped coming into the season. The Gaels are coming off back-to-back 29 win seasons and are ranked No. 22 in the preseason Coaches Poll. And almost everybody is back from a team that last year was criminally underrated.
A trio of seniors who have spent their careers in second place and, until last year, feeling snubbed on Selection Sunday, have one final shot at greatness. Center Jock Landale’s penchant for 20-and-10s makes him a trendy pick to earn first-team all-American honors. Double down on the deft big man and sweatband-wearing sharpshooter Calvin Hermanson, who led the WCC with an offensive rating of 129.1 last season, will make you pay from deep. And if neither of them are open, iron man point guard Emmett Naar is comfortable running 20-plus seconds of beautiful offense to find a good look.
About the only question mark in Moraga was how Randy Bennett would replace all-WCC first-teamer and Boston College transfer Joe Rahon. Then Cullen Neal, a grad transfer from Ole Miss who initially committed to Saint Mary’s, came back to campus. One high-major transfer for another? Not bad, coach Bennett.
Mark Few lost three guys who started in the National Championship game this past April, not to mention the lottery pick who he brought off his bench. But the cupboard isn’t bare in Spokane.
The two starters from that game who Mark Few didn’t lose are the two players who posted that game’s highest offensive ratings. Senior forward Johnathan Williams’ athleticism is unmatched in the WCC, making him Landale’s only real competition for Player of the Year honors. And for Josh Perkins, a stop-and-go career has led many to forget that when the junior point guard committed to Gonzaga, he was the second-highest rated recruit in program history, according to ESPN.
Those two, along with senior shooting guard Silas Melson, round out Gonzaga’s veteran core.
The team’s ceiling though depends on the underclassmen. The 2016 recruiting class was Gonzaga’s best ever. Sophomores Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura showed potential in reserve roles last season, while the other half of their class sat on the bench in redshirts. They’ll all be called upon in larger roles this season.
Saint Mary’s has more experience, but Gonzaga’s got a lot more talent.
3. BYU Cougars
Dave Rose’s teams are always talented and experienced. With nine players on the roster having played meaningful minutes in a BYU jersey, this year is no different. Shooting guard TJ Haws (13.8 ppg) was an all-WCC first-teamer last year, and forward Yoeli Childs (9.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) made the all-freshman team. The pair of sophomores give BYU a strong one-two punch that should elevate the program for seasons to come.
But the question is who else will step up for the Cougars? Down low, there’s no clear second option to Childs, and certainly nobody capable of replacing Eric Mika. That’s a weakness, but the uptempo Cougars aren’t averse to playing small ball with a backcourt loaded with potential. Elijah Bryant spent most of last season battling injuries, and Nick Emery’s sophomore slump was brutal. If either returns to the form they showed as freshmen, then BYU will get a big boost. Otherwise, it’s another year where third place looks a lot closer to the teams below than to the top of the league.
There’s something about this year’s team that might not be familiar to Dons fans: familiarity. 10 players from last year’s team return to the Hilltop for this season. Second-year head coach Kyle Smith might have brought more players back in one offseason than Rex Walters did in all his eight seasons combined. Kidding, of course, but that alone is a major step forward for this once-prestigious program.
Sophomore guard Charles Minlend, an all-freshman performer last season, has the potential to be an all-WCC player. The 6’4 shooting guard ranked fourth in the conference in usage, but second on his team to then-senior Ronnie Boyce. With Boyce gone, we can expect Minlend’s minutes will increase. The question is if his shooting percentages will as well.
Preseason all-WCC junior guard KJ Feagin probably won’t end up being the league’s most outstanding player, but there probably also won’t be a player more valuable to his team. Feagin spent much of last year injured, and Santa Clara went just 6-8 without him. With Feagin in the lineup though, the Broncos were 11-8. Head coach Herb Sendek has won coach of the year honors in the MAC, ACC, and Pac-10. There’s no reason to expect he can’t do the same in the WCC, but to expect that in just his second year in Silicon Valley is probably asking too much.
No team ranked fourth through 10th has as much upside as San Diego. Lamont Smith has nine guys on his roster who have played meaningful minutes in a Toreros jersey. And one of them, junior guard Olin Carter III, made the preseason all-conference team. He was an all-WCC honorable mention last season. Unfortunately, there’s not much else beyond experience with the other eight guys. Smith will be counting on a pair of redshirt junior transfers named Isaiah. Isaiah Wright was part of Utah’s backcourt rotation when the Utes made the Sweet Sixteen, and Portland State transfer Isaiah Pineiro was the Vikings’ second leading scorer and rebounder two years ago.
Marty Wilson’s resurrection of Pepperdine basketball took a major hit last season when four players went down with season-ending injuries. Senior point guard Amadi Udenyi is back after suffering a torn Achilles’ six games into last season. Despite spending most of his career as a reserve behind Jeremy Major, the Waves’ all-time leader in assists (494), Udenyi sits just 163 shy of the record. In his last complete season, Udenyi dished out 145 assists. The record is within reach for the now-starter at point guard. Whether he gets there or not, the Waves’ offense will be in competent hands provided he stays healthy.
Second-year head coach Terry Porter’s rebuild begins in earnest this season as he brings back just four players from last year’s roster. Of them, only senior guard D’Marques Tyson (8.5 ppg) and junior guard Rashad Jackson (6.4 ppg) accounted for a significant portion of the Pilots’ production. It’s as close to a blank slate as a coach can ask for. And that’s about all that puts Portland above Pacific and Loyola Marymount. We don’t yet know what the Porter Era will be, but this year he can start to show us. That’s more than you can say about the teams below.
Pacific, like Portland above them, is led by an NBA legend in his second year who isn’t bringing back much from last season. But the situation Damon Stoudamire finds himself in is far more dire than Porter has in Portland. The Tigers got in trouble and lost six scholarships. There are only 10 eligible players on the Tigers’ roster, and just three of them have experience playing for Pacific. Forward Anthony Townes is coming off of a strong sophomore campaign, and should be a double-double machine this year. Other than that though, there’s nothing but question marks. Miles Reynolds played two solid seasons at Saint Louis before transferring, and sophomore Kendall Small spent a year at Oregon.
Head coach Mike Dunlap is entering his fourth year at his alma mater and I’m still not sure what his plan is for this program. A steady stream of transfers, both junior college and Division I, has kept the Lions from the bottom of the league standings. But it’s also meant that there’s not been much continuity. And, from the outside at least, there’s no clear culture. Four of the five returning players ranked among the Lions’ bottom five in scoring last season. Only senior guard Steven Haney (9.4 ppg) has a track record of production in the WCC.