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Zags open defense of title (again)

WCC loaded with veteran stars

Same old West Coast Conference.

Wait, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

The conference sent a record three teams to the NCAA tournament last year and those three – Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego – return nearly all their key players. In fact, a record eight of the 10 first-team All-WCC players from a year ago are back, though San Diego’s Brandon Johnson is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Eight-time defending champion Gonzaga remains the favorite. Saint Mary’s has a veteran cast and legitimate title hopes. San Diego remains a threat, even without 2008 WCC tournament MVP Johnson.

Upstart Portland, which visits Gonzaga tonight in the WCC opener for both teams, Santa Clara and San Francisco appear capable of crashing the top three. Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount remain in rebuilding mode.

“I don’t know if it’s the best it’s ever been, but it’s close,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “There’s a lot of good players and lot of teams with a lot of veterans back.

“Experience in college basketball gives you a real chance.”

That’s precisely what Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, San Diego and Portland possess. Gonzaga (9-4) snapped a three-game losing streak with a road win over No. 15 Tennessee on Wednesday, a victory the Bulldogs hope steered them back on course.

“It was a thing where we had confidence issues, myself probably more than the other guys,” senior guard Jeremy Pargo said. “A win like Tennessee can give us back a lot of things that we wanted.”

Saint Mary’s wants to end Gonzaga’s run of conference supremacy. The Gaels split with the Bulldogs last year, but Saint Mary’s lost at San Diego while GU went unblemished the rest of the conference season.

“It starts with (guard) Patty Mills, he’s obviously a guy that is going to have an opportunity to play at the next level,” Few said. “(Diamon) Simpson is as good a power forward that’s come through the league in a long time. You start with those two and put in a great low-post scorer in (Omar) Samhan and throw some other good shooters out there, that’s a pretty good mix.”

The Gaels return 80 percent of their scoring and 89 percent of their rebounding from last season. Gonzaga checks in at 77.2 and 72 percent, respectively. San Diego was at a whopping 96.2 percent of its scoring and rebounding, prior to Johnson’s injury.

Portland (9-6), which has already equaled its win total from last year, has victories over Washington and preseason WAC favorite Nevada.

Junior guard Nik Raivio, younger brother of former Zag Derek Raivio, averages 16.2 points, fourth in the WCC. Junior college transfer T.J. Campbell averages 10.1 points and 5.1 assists. He’s made 47.6 percent of his 3-pointers.

Starting sophomore center Kramer Knutson (concussion) has missed four straight games, but he’s listed as probable tonight.

“They’re a very experienced team that has shown they can beat anybody,” Few said.

San Francisco, under new coach Rex Walters, features forward Dior Lowhorn, who led the conference in scoring at 20.5 last year. The Dons posted their first winning non-conference record since 2004-05.

Santa Clara senior center John Bryant scored 33 points in a recent win over UTEP. Only Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin has more rebounds than Bryant, who averages 12.3 per game to go with 17.9 points.

Loyola Marymount is down to seven scholarship players after injuries to four key players. Head coach Bill Bayno has been on a leave of absence for medical reasons since Nov. 23. Max Good is the acting head coach.

Pepperdine has just three wins with a young squad. In a recent loss to Hawaii, seven of the nine players that saw action were freshmen or sophomores.

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