Gonzaga’s rare, one-year absence as the West Coast Conference preseason favorite officially came to an end Thursday to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
The Zags returned to their customary spot atop the poll of the conference’s 10 men’s basketball coaches. Gonzaga was followed by Saint Mary’s, BYU, San Francisco and San Diego, the WCC announced at its annual tip-off event at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“We welcome that,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of high expectations. “This team got the news last April when Rui (Hachimura) and Killian (Tillie) decided to come back. I think we knew we were on the brink of having an opportunity to not only to be good, but hopefully be one of the really special teams.”
A year ago, Saint Mary’s was heavily favored in the preseason poll, pushing GU out of the top spot for the first time since 2001. The coaches got it wrong as the Zags edged Saint Mary’s by one game to claim their sixth consecutive regular-season title.
Four Zags occupied spots on the 10-player preseason All-WCC team. Senior point guard Josh Perkins, junior forwards Hachimura and Tillie and sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. were joined by Loyola Marymount’s James Batemon, BYU’s Yoeli Childs, San Francisco’s Frankie Ferrari, Santa Clara’s KJ Feagin, Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford and San Diego’s Isaiah Pineiro.
It’s the first time since 2012 that one team has had four preseason All-WCC selections. That year it was GU’s Gary Bell Jr., Sam Dower Jr., Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos.
Gonzaga received the maximum 81 points with nine-first place votes. Coaches aren’t allowed to vote for their own team. BYU picked up one first-place vote, presumably from Few. The Zags figure to open the season in the top five of the AP preseason poll.
Saint Mary’s was second with 68 points, followed by BYU (67), San Francisco (57), San Diego (52), Pacific (39), Loyola Marymount (37), Pepperdine (22), Santa Clara (18) and Portland (15).
The Gaels posted their first 30-win campaign last season but failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. They lost two-thirds of their scoring and they’re replacing WCC Player of the Year Jock Landale, first-teamer Emmett Naar and second-teamer Calvin Hermanson.
“Everyone needs to grow up,” said coach Randy Bennett, whose Gaels have finished first or second in 10 of the past 11 seasons. “Every guy has to make a move up.”
Elijah Bryant skipped his senior year, but BYU returns six players with at least 10 starts and Nick Emery is back following a one-year absence. The Cougars are planning a return to their uptempo style after playing at a slower pace last season.
“This group is suited to push the ball and get up and down the floor,” coach Dave Rose said.
Gonzaga’s balance is reflected in its four All-WCC representatives. It will have additional candidates in transfers Geno Crandall and Brandon Clarke. Tillie averaged 12.9 points last season, Norvell 12.7, Perkins 12.3 and Hachimura 11.6. The foursome helped the Zags go 32-5 and reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season.
“If we buy in and play together, we can be great,” Perkins said. “We have a lot of pieces to the puzzle.”
Perkins and Hachimura were first-team All-WCC selections last season. Tillie was on the second team and the WCC Tournament most outstanding player. Norvell was the conference newcomer of the year.
The Zags open the 16-game WCC campaign against Santa Clara on Jan. 5 at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Their season opener is Nov. 6 against visiting Idaho State.