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WCC Preseason Rankings: It’s a race for second and third

Can anybody catch Gonzaga? Probably not.

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs BYU
Gonzaga is looking to win a seventh straight WCC title.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The West Coast Conference is coming off a season that saw five teams post 20-plus wins, with two of those winning 30 or more. Gonzaga ran to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Saint Mary’s did the same in the NIT and San Diego and San Francisco made deep runs into the CIT and CBI, respectively. Of the five teams to make the postseason, only BYU bowed out after just one game.

There’s good reason to expect a similar story this season. Gonzaga appears destined for a deep run in March, while BYU looks ready to return to the Big Dance. Saint Mary’s, San Diego and San Francisco should all have their sights set on the NIT, at worst. And, below those five, the bottom half doesn’t look as bad as it has in recent years.

Let’s take a look.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-5, 17-1 WCC, Sweet Sixteen)

It took more than two decades — which have seen 20 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, four straight Sweet Sixteens and a trip to the title game in 2017 — but now Gonzaga basketball has finally arrived. Preseason prognosticators are higher on the Zags than ever before, punctuated by a No. 3 ranking in the AP Top-25. This isn’t just a team that could make it to the Final Four; this is a team that is expected to.

Three starters return from last year — Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell — along with Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert, each of whom started at times last season. So there’s continuity in Spokane. Then there are the transfers. Former San Jose State Spartan Brandon Clarke (17.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg as a sophomore in 2017) is a like-for-like replacement for Johnathan Williams, and North Dakota grad transfer Geno Crandall (16.6 ppg and 3.6 apg last season) will fill the hole in the backcourt left by Silas Melson.

2. BYU Cougars (24-11, 11-7 WCC, NIT First Round)

The Cougars haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2015, but their three-year dry spell should come to an end this season. Junior forward Yoeli Childs leads the charge for BYU. He’s one of nine guys on the roster who have played meaningful minutes for Dave Rose over the years.

Long known for their up-tempo offense, the Cougars slowed it down last season and put together one of their best defensive performances since joining the WCC. With a veteran-laden team at his disposal, Coach Rose could run that controlled approach with great success this year. Especially if Nick Emery, once he returns from a nine-game suspension, has truly overcome the personal issues that sidelined him last season and develops into the quality basketball player he was expected to be.

3. Saint Mary’s Gaels (30-6, 16-2 WCC, NIT Quarterfinals)

There is simply no way Randy Bennett can reload right away after the loss of Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson. But this Saint Mary’s program will rebuild, and it’s strong enough to survive without taking much of a dip.

Junior guard Jordan Ford (11.1 ppg) is the best returning player from last season and poised to make a leap again this year. Surrounding him will be a supporting cast of freshmen — only one of whom is Australian — and former bit players seeing their roles elevated this season. Will the Gaels offense be a work of art again this season? Probably not. But you can bet Randy Bennett’s guys will buy into that methodical style of play once again. The ceiling isn’t as high as usual, but the floor hasn’t dropped at all.

4. San Diego Toreros (20-14, 9-9 WCC, CIT Quarterfinals)

Sam Scholl is in a pretty good spot for a first year head coach. Well, first-ish. Scholl took over as interim head coach at the end of February and led the Toreros to a 2-2 record in the postseason. And Scholl isn’t the only new guy at USD who was actually around last year: Four of the Toreros’ five freshmen spent last season on the bench as redshirts.

Most importantly, the Toreros return four starters, all seniors, from last season’s surprisingly good squad. And those four starters — Isaiah Pineiro, Isaiah Wright, Olin Carter and Tyler Williams — were the four best offensive players on a team that found success on the defensive end.

5. San Francisco Dons (22-17, 9-9 WCC, CBI Finals)

The Dons ran all the way to the CBI Finals last season and are looking to build on that momentum. But look deeper at that run and you’ll see that all four wins came at home, with Utah Valley being the only quality team the Dons defeated during that stretch.

San Francisco opens the season with 10 home games before the start of West Coast Conference play, so if they do roll over the momentum from last season they could easily enter WCC play with double digits in the win column. How they fare in conference play really depends on how they perform on the offensive end. Last season, San Francisco was the league’s third least efficient offense, per KenPom. And this year they’re playing with basically the same roster. If the shooting improves, the Dons will be for real. If not, San Francisco will be a paper tiger.

6. Loyola Marymount Lions (11-20, 5-13 WCC)

No team in the WCC returns more players from last season than the Lions. Ten guys, who accounted for 85.9% of the Lions minutes, are back for LMU. This marks a dramatic shift from the transfer-laden squads Mike Dunlap has put together over the past three seasons.

Statistically speaking, the Lions were pretty bad last year. But the team certainly didn’t lack fight. Seven of the Lions’ 20 losses were by two possessions or fewer, and all seven of those games came on the road. Maybe they can turn some of those close games into wins this season. The question is, can a bad team come back intact and be any better than before?

7. Pacific Tigers (14-18, 9-9 WCC)

Last year was the first time the Tigers did not finish with a sub-.500 record in conference play since rejoining the WCC in 2013, and Damon Stoudamire’s squad brings back a few key pieces from that team. Roberto Gallinat (14.6 ppg) was the team’s leading scorer. Now a senior, he’s sure to be one of the more exciting players in the league.

That said, pushing past .500 in league play for the first time will hinge on just how impactful a large crop of new faces prove to be in Stockton. The Tigers add four juniors from the junior college ranks, but North Dakota State transfer Khy Kabellis (11.2 ppg in 2016-17) could really push Pacific to new heights.

8. Pepperdine Waves (6-26, 2-16 WCC)

Lorenzo Romar is back in Malibu after a long and successful (?) tenure at Washington. Romar’s resume includes a lot of solid defensive teams, which is welcome news for Waves fans. After putting together an impressive season on the defensive side of the ball in 2015, in which the Waves finished 47th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, Pepperdine plummeted to 328th last season.

The cupboard isn’t bare for the new coach. Six guys who have played meaningful minutes in the program are back this year. But the rebuild is already underway in year one with a seven-man freshman class.

9. Portland Pilots (10-22, 4-14 WCC)

The Pilots won 10 games last season, but three of those came against non-D1 opposition. In March, the WCC mandated that teams can play no more than two such games per season. Sorry, Portland.

The team’s top-three scorers all return, led by sophomore guard Marcus Shaver (12.3 ppg). There’s more experience on this team than you would expect from a roster without a single senior, but maybe not enough talent to make a jump this season — especially if talented but oft-injured Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark can’t stay healthy.

10. Santa Clara Broncos (11-20, 8-10)

Herb Sendek is entering year three with the Broncos and his roster is as barren as it’s ever been. Senior guard KJ Feagin (17.5 ppg) is a legit scorer and high-IQ defender and sophomore Josip Vrankic is coming off a strong first year. But, that’s about all that Sendek brings back.

Southeast Missouri transfer Tahj Eaddy (7.5 ppg in 2016-17) has a record to suggest he can step in and make an impact. But the team’s pair of grad transfers were simply rotation guys on teams from the WAC and Big West. That’s not to say they can’t make a jump, but it is to say the Broncos aren’t landing the kind of grad transfers that Gonzaga gets.