Magazine preseason projections trumpeted it. The players heard it. The coaches heard it.
After nine consecutive West Coast Conference titles, this might be the season the Gonzaga Bulldogs were vulnerable, with the exit of NBA first-round pick Austin Daye and three others (Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs) playing professionally overseas.
But as conference play approaches, the Bulldogs have done nothing to harm their perennial status as WCC favorites.
“Not necessarily us, because we were picked eighth, but a lot of people thought that maybe the Portlands or Saint Mary’ses or San Diegos of our league thought, ‘Gosh, this might be our chance,’ ” Loyola Marymount coach Max Good said. “Well, I’m sure Billy Grier (at San Diego) knew about Gonzaga because of his closeness to Gonzaga’s staff. … But it’s mind-boggling what Gonzaga has done, to lose players like Downs, Heytvelt, Pargo, Daye, and turn around and look like they haven’t skipped a beat.”
Leaning heavily on veteran guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray and a formidable frontcourt with center Robert Sacre and freshman forward Elias Harris, Gonzaga is 11-3 and ranked No. 19 heading into Saturday’s clash against Portland, considered by many as GU’s primary challenger.
“That’s a pretty good makeover,” Pilots coach Eric Reveno said of Gonzaga’s new-look roster. “I like their plastic surgeon. They’re different, but they’re really good.”
The Zags will need to be, if they plan on winning their 10th straight conference title, which would match the second-longest streak in NCAA Division I history (Connecticut-Yankee Conference, 1951-1960; UNLV-Big West, 1983-92). UCLA won 13 straight Pac-8/10 titles from 1967-79.
“You’re continuing what the early Zags started,” Gray said. “You never want to break that or let them down in any way. As long as we come out and play hard, we’ll be happy with whatever the conference brings.”
The list of contenders is perhaps a name or two longer than in recent years. Saint Mary’s has the best preconference record at 13-2. The Gaels don’t have a ton of depth after losing guard Wayne Hunter to a season-ending knee injury, but center Omar Samhan leads the WCC in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (11.0) and he’s surrounded by accurate 3-point shooters. Saint Mary’s had made 41.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett didn’t return phone messages.
Portland (9-5) defeated Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota in the span of a week in late November to enter the rankings for the first time in 50 years. With three straight losses, the Pilots didn’t stay in the poll long, but they seem to be back on track with a 3-1 record over the last two weeks. Portland is loaded with experience and 3-point shooters.
“Portland has played some people and has some good wins,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “Saint Mary’s has a nice record and seems to be playing well.”
LMU defeated Notre Dame in South Bend to trigger a six-game winning streak, its longest since 1995-96. Guard Vernon Teel is healthy after missing half of last season with an injury. Oregon transfer Drew Viney is averaging 16.7 points and 7.2 rebounds.
“Better players,” Good said of the Lions’ improvement. “I laugh when so many people talk about coaching and this and that. The best coaches usually have the best players. There’s never been a good team with bad players.”
San Diego has been up and down, but early wins over Stanford, Houston and Oklahoma show the Toreros are capable. San Francisco boasts Dior Lowhorn, the first player to lead the WCC in scoring in consecutive seasons since GU’s Jeff Brown (1993-94). Santa Clara is without guard Kevin Foster, out indefinitely with a foot injury, but has managed an 8-9 record. Pepperdine is 4-12 but knocked off Utah, which won the 2009 Mountain West Conference tourney.
“Having been a recent bottom dweller myself, I try not to forget where we’ve come from, but I do feel like they’re getting better,” Reveno said of teams picked to finish in the bottom half.