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WCC preview: There’s a reason Saint Mary’s is unanimous pick

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 2, 2017, 11:12 a.m.

Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams dunks over Saint Mary’s Jock Landale during the first half of a WCC title game last March. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams dunks over Saint Mary’s Jock Landale during the first half of a WCC title game last March. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The West Coast Conference has already seen its Upset of the Year.

It came in October when nine of the league’s head coaches made Saint Mary’s their pick to finish atop the regular-season standings – the Gaels’ Randy Bennett not being allowed to vote for his guys. Being favored is no real surprise in itself – the Gaels were 29-5 last year and return four starters, including Player of the Year favorite Jock Landale.

But the unanimity is certainly telling.

Especially since Gonzaga, which has swept the last five regular-season and tournament titles, won its way to the NCAA championship game last April. Seems rather shoddy regard for the national runner-up, no?

But it certainly injects some drama into the season that 2017 lacked, what with the Bulldogs beating SMC three times and cruising through the league, aside from what’s become the annual stumble at home against BYU.

The Gaels aren’t just about Landale. Three other starters return, including all-WCC forward Calvin Hermanson, and they have a ready-made replacement for graduated all-league point guard Joe Rahon in Cullen Neal – who originally signed with SMC before his dad became head coach at New Mexico. After stops there and at Ole Miss, Neal is back where he started.

Elsewhere in the WCC, Brigham Young’s accustomed spot in the top three will be threatened both by the defection of Eric Mika to a pro career and by San Francisco’s rapid development under coach Kyle Smith. That suggests any WCC pretensions about being a three-bid NCAA Tournament league are premature.

In the meantime, keep your programs handy. Last year, four new coaches joined the WCC at Pacific, Portland, Santa Clara and USF. Now that turnover has morphed into massive roster churn. Between old names out and new faces in through the channels of graduation, transfer, signing or being run off, WCC rosters averaged 13 transactions apiece. At Pacific alone, 11 players from the 2017 roster aren’t returning. Portland brought in an 11-player recruiting class.

But all that means is that the WCC’s lower-division programs are building for a day when they can muster some roster continuity. For the moment, the story is whether the Gaels can upset the continuity at the top.

Brigham Young Cougars

Coach: Dave Rose (305-11), 13th year

2016-17 record: 22-12. WCC: 12-6, 3rd

Key newcomers: Jashire Hardnett (6-0, G), Kajon Brown (6-5, G), Rylan Bergersen (6-6, G)

Key losses: Eric Mika, Kyle Davis, L.J. Rose

Outlook: The stunning decision by Eric Mika to go pro and a school investigation into the possibility that Nick Emery received improper benefits clouds the prospects for BYU, where Dave Rose is starting to feel some public heat. The Cougars still have firepower – TJ Haws was all-WCC, Elijah Bryant is dynamic if his knee is whole and Yoeli Childs will be a force up front.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Coach: Mark Few (503-113), 19th year

2016-17 record: 32-2. WCC: 17-1, 1st

See the Gonzaga preview here.

Also:

Zags’ recruiting evolves, but fit is still key.

GU has mastered the art of the rebuild.

New Gonzaga videoboard is picture perfect.

Loyola Marymount Lions

Coach: Mike Dunlap (365-160), 4th year

2016-17 record: 15-15. WCC: 8-10, 6th

Key newcomers: James Batemon (6-1, G), Cameron Allen (6-2, G), Eli Scott (6-5, F)

Key losses: Brandon Brown, Stefan Jovanovic, Buay Tuach

Outlook: More roster churn and the lack of a top-tier scorer suggest the Lions haven’t turned the corner four years into Mike Dunlap’s stay. The lack of offensive options – Steven Haney is the top returning scorer at 9.4 points per game – means the Lions may try to make things happen with a more relentless defensive style, if there are enough athletes on hand to do so.

Pacific Tigers

Coach: Damon Stoudamire (11-22), 2nd year

2016-17 record: 11-22. WCC: 4-14, 9th

Key newcomers: Kendall Small (6-0, G), Miles Reynolds (6-2, G), TySean Powell (6-8, F)

Key losses: T.J. Wallace, Ray Bowles, Jacob Lampkin

Outlook: Damon Stoudamire has the transfer express cranked up full, only one reason why 11 players from the 2017 Tigers won’t return. Late grad transfer Namdi Okonkwo is the only man on the roster taller than 6-8, but expect instant impact from Kendall Small, who ran into a logjam at the point at Oregon but will be a handful for WCC defenses.

Pepperdine Waves

Coach: Marty Wilson (85-113), 7th year

2016-17 record: 8-22. WCC: 5-13, 8th

Key newcomers: Eric Cooper Jr. (6-3, G), Harrison Meads (6-7, F), Darnell Dunn (6-6, F)

Key losses: Lamond Murray Jr., Jeremy Major, Chris Reyes

Outlook: Injuries devastated the Waves in 2017 and then graduation took Lamond Murray Jr., so Marty Wilson starts over with some decent sophomore talents – point guard Elijah Lee, burly Nolan Taylor and Kameron Edwards, a gifted wing coming off a broken jaw. But the Waves have to find some defensive and rebounding identity, plus some 3-point shooters.

Portland Pilots

Coach: Terry Porter (11-22), 2nd year

2016-17 record: 11-22. WCC: 2-16, 10th

Key newcomers: Taki Fahrensohn (6-6, G), Marcus Shaver Jr. (6-2, G) Tahirou Diabate (6-9, F)

Key losses: Alec Wintering, Jazz Johnson, Gabe Taylor

Outlook: Another revolving door in Portland, where there are 11 new faces in a class that got some national buzz, though perhaps for volume. Marcus Shaver Jr., a late pickup after a coaching change at UC Santa Barbara, is a likely standout, with JoJo Walker getting a look at the point. Long Tahirou Diabate grew up in Mali, but became a high school terror in Japan.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Coach: Randy Bennett (365-158), 17th year

2016-17 record: 29-5. WCC: 16-2, 2nd

Key newcomers: Cullen Neal (6-4, G), Kristers Zoriks (6-3, G)

Key losses: Joe Rahon, Dane Pineau, Stefan Gonzalez

Outlook: There’s a reason the Gaels are getting a lot of love as a pick to unseat Gonzaga atop the WCC: the league’s most veteran lineup, and player of the year candidate Jock Landale and grad transfer Cullen Neal to replace the point guard Joe Rahon. The ultra-efficient Gaels have also become a much better defensive team, though GU’s athleticism will always present challenges.

San Diego Toreros

Coach: Lamont Smith (22-39), 3rd year

2016-17 record: 13-18. WCC: 6-12, 7th

Key newcomers: Isaiah Wright (6-2, G), Isaiah Pineiro (6-6, F), Andrew Ferguson (7-0, C)

Key losses: Brett Bailey

Outlook: Two transfers named Isaiah – Wright and Pineiro – become eligible, which should be a boost to the WCC’s most-painful-to-watch offense. It’ll certainly be a boost to Olin Carter III, who has blossomed into an all-WCC caliber guard. If Juwan Gray or Tyler Williams can make a similar jump, the Toreros could make a little noise.

San Francisco Dons

Coach: Kyle Smith (121-95), 2nd year

2016-17 record: 20-13. WCC: 10-8, 4th (tie)

Key newcomers: Erik Poulsen (6-11, C), Souley Boum (6-3, G), Jamaree Bouyea (6-2, G)

Key losses: Ronnie Boyce III, Marquille Smith

Outlook: The surprise of the WCC in 2017, Kyle Smith goosed 20 wins from a young roster. Serial shooter Ronnie Boyce III is the only real loss and now the Dons have a promising big man in junior college center Erik Poulsen, who will help them do battle against Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU. Charles Minlend and Jordan Ratinho will make the Dons go, however.

Santa Clara Broncos

Coach: Herb Sendek (430-311), 2nd year

2016-17 record: 17-16. WCC: 10-8, 4th (tie)

Key newcomers: Henry Caruso (6-4, F), Shaquille Waters (6-6, F), Matt Turner (6-3, G)

Key losses: Jared Brownridge, Nate Kratch

Outlook: KJ Feagin will get a new appreciation of just how much defensive attention his old teammate Jared Brownridge attracted by inheriting the go-to-guy label. Matt Hauser makes for a steady backcourt mate, but the Broncos need to find some scoring from newcomer Matt Turner and grad transfer Henry Caruso, who averaged 15.0 points a game as a junior at Princeton.


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