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Saint Mary’s unseats Gonzaga as WCC favorites in coaches’ poll

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)

For the first time in 17 years, Gonzaga isn’t favored to win the WCC men’s basketball title.

Saint Mary’s took over the top spot in the conference coaches’ preseason poll, released Thursday in Las Vegas at the WCC’s annual tip-off event. Gonzaga was second, followed by BYU, San Francisco and Santa Clara.

The surprise wasn’t that Saint Mary’s is favored, but that the Gaels are resounding favorites. They picked up all nine possible first-place votes. Gonzaga received one first-place vote from Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. Coaches aren’t permitted to vote for their own team.

“It’s nice people are thinking of us that way (as favorites) but honestly it feels like we had a target on our back all last season,” Saint Mary’s forward Calvin Hermanson said. “In our minds, Gonzaga is still the team to beat after losing to them three times last year.”

The Zags don’t carry the WCC favorite’s role into a season for the first time since the 2000-01 poll listed Pepperdine No. 1, San Diego No. 2 and Gonzaga No. 3.

“It doesn’t sit well, but Saint Mary’s is a great team,” said Gonzaga senior forward Johnathan Williams, who joined junior point guard Josh Perkins on the preseason All-WCC team. “They’ve been building their program just like the Bulldogs have. We just have to go out there and just prove ourselves again.

“Each and every year we are considered underdogs around the country.”

Williams, Perkins and Hermanson were joined on the All-WCC team by the Gaels’ Jock Landale and Emmett Naar, BYU’s Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws, San Diego’s Olin Carter III, San Francisco’s Charles Minlend and Santa Clara’s KJ Feagin.

Williams was a first-team selection last season while Perkins was honorable mention.

Gonzaga, which has won or shared 16 of the last 17 WCC titles, has reached 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments. The Zags lost one WCC game a year ago, falling to BYU in the regular-season finale to snap a 29-game winning streak.

The Zags were hit hard by graduation and the NBA Draft. They’re replacing three starters – Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews – and lottery pick Zach Collins from last year’s 37-2 team that advanced to the NCAA title game.

“It’ll be different looking,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team faces an exhibition game against College of Idaho on Nov. 4 before opening the season versus Texas Southern on Nov. 10. “It’s probably going to be more face-up and drive, and in some instances (more) perimeter oriented. We always kind of play to our strengths. Some days we had Dan (Dickau) and Blake (Stepp) firing 3s from all over the land and other days we’ve pounded it inside.”

Saint Mary’s is trying to build on one of the best seasons in school history. The Gaels went 29-5 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Gaels lost WCC defensive player of the year Joe Rahon and forward Dane Pineau but they return four starters. WCC player of the year candidate Landale averaged 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds last year. Mississippi graduate transfer Cullen Neal, a 6-foot-5 wing, averaged 9.4 points last season and 12.3 points as a sophomore at New Mexico.

“People focus on our offense a lot, but our defensive numbers were really good,” Bennett said. “When you pull two (Rahon and Pineau) out, who is going to replace those minutes defensively? Offensively, I think we have a lot of ways to score.”