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Sports >  NCAA basketball

College basketball 2021-22: Despite Gonzaga’s hold on WCC, there’s plenty of intrigue among top contenders

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

And the long goodbye begins.

After 10 years in the West Coast Conference, the Brigham Young Cougars gave their two years’ notice in September, having finally cracked into the big time with an invitation from the Big 12.

So now they have the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons to accomplish what they haven’t managed yet: a league championship.

That surely wasn’t what the BYU faithful envisioned when the Cougars found a basketball life preserver with the WCC after taking their football program independent. Having just watched their heroes pummel Gonzaga in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, they could be excused for seeing cakewalks to conference titles in the church league.

Except again all the signs suggest that there’s another wait-’til-next-year in the Cougars immediate future.

Whatever despair among its fan base attended the end of Gonzaga’s undefeated-until-the-last-game run through the herky-jerky 2021 college basketball season was quickly replaced by another surge of expectation when coach Mark Few and his staff rounded up the No. 1 recruit in the country – Chet Holmgren – and the No. 2 incoming class.

With national player of the year front-runner Drew Timme and one of the country’s top point guards in Andrew Nembhard joining those glitzy newcomers, it’s clear why the Zags are overwhelming favorites not just to win the WCC – again – but to return to the Final Four.

But even as Gonzaga tends to smother the competition, the WCC has managed to thrive as a collective. Four teams – GU, San Francisco, BYU and Saint Mary’s – showed up in kenpom.com’s preseason top 50, and Loyola Marymount is not far behind at No. 69. As a league, the WCC ranks seventh among college hoops’ 32 conferences, up a spot from where it ended the 2021 season.

If Gonzaga’s dominance isn’t coming to an end, one other WCC trend has – the NBA-pedigree coach – with a split decision. Damon Stoudamire managed to make Pacific a tough out again in a five-year run before leaving to join the staff of the Boston Celtics. At Portland, Terry Porter was a colossal flop, winning just seven conference games in five years and leaving his successor – former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans – to launch a massive makeover.

Brigham Young Cougars

Coach: Mark Pope (44-15), 3rd year

2020-21 record: 20-7. WCC: 10-3, 2nd

Key newcomers: Te’Jon Lucas (6-2, G), Seneca Knight (6-7, G), Atiki Ally Atiki (6-11, C)

Key losses: Matt Haarms, Brandon Averette, Connor Harding

Outlook: Alex Barcello’s decision to take the NCAA super-senior option and return for one more year puts the Cougars in position to make a return to March Madness. The WCC’s sharpest shooter is an underrated passer and improving at finding his own shot, and he has an intriguing cast around him. Rugged Caleb Lohner is BYU’s next all-league big man, and two transfers – Te’Jon Lucas (Illinois, via Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight (San Jose State, via LSU) – are proven scorers. Two keys: keeping oft-injured forward Gavin Baxter in one piece, and finding a bigger role for athletic Gideon George.

Loyola Marymount Lions

Coach: Stan Johnson (13-9), 2nd year

2020-21 record: 13-9. WCC: 7-5, 3rd

Key newcomers: Cameron Shelton (6-2, G), Kwane Marble (6-5, G), Alex Merkviladze (6-8, F)

Key loss: Mattias Markusson

Outlook: Stan Johnson managed the rare feat of dislodging one of the WCC’s Big Three – Saint Mary’s – for the third spot in the standings, albeit in an abbreviated league schedule. Gigantic Mattias Markusson is the only personnel loss of note, and there are three proven transfers, led by Cameron Shelton, the Big Sky scoring champ at Northern Arizona. But the heart and soul of the Lions remains Eli Scott, an all-leaguer on the super-senior plan and a terrific passer for a rugged, inside force. Forward Dameane Douglas had a breakout year before injury, and is an underappreciated talent.

Pacific Tigers

Coach: Leonard Perry, 1st year

2020-21 record: 9-9. WCC: 6-7, 5th

Key newcomers: Greg Outlaw (6-4, G), Luke Avdalovic (6-5, G), Nick Blake (6-6, G)

Key losses: Daniss Jenkins, Broc Finstuen

Outlook: It’s been 16 years between head coaching gigs for Leonard Perry, whose first stab – at Idaho – was considerably less than a success. If he can maintain the siccum predecessor Damon Stoudamire injected in the program, that might help overcome some size limitations. Forward Jeremiah Bailey has all-league potential, and no WCC point guard is less turnover prone than Pierre Crockrell III, though Pacific’s deliberate attack helps that. Among the transfers, high school vagabond Nick Blake (UNLV) was once a top-100 recruit, and former North Idaho standout Alphonso Anderson was the Mountain West’s sixth man of the year at Utah State.

Pepperdine Waves

Coach: Lorenzo Romar (89-90), 7th year

2020-21 record: 15-12. WCC: 7-6, 4th

Key newcomers: Maxwell Lewis (6-7, F), Keith Fisher III (6-8, F), Braun Hartfield (6-6, G)

Key losses: Colbey Ross, Kessler Edwards, Sedrick Altman

Outlook: It’s hard to imagine the Waves without do-everything point guard Colbey Ross, or his NBA draft pick sidekick Kessler Edwards. But all Lorenzo Romar was able to goose out of them was a College Basketball Invitational championship, so turning the page isn’t all that traumatic. If the Waves’ holdovers don’t inspire much expectation, they’ll get immediate help from two transfers – steady San Diego swingman Braun Hartfield and forward Keith Fisher III, a starter at both San Jose State and Illinois State. And watch out for forward Maxwell Lewis, a top-100 player who skipped his senior year to train for the NBA before opting for college.

Portland Pilots

Coach: Shantay Legans, 1st year

2020-21 record: 6-15. WCC: 0-11, 10th

Key newcomers: Mike Meadows (6-2, G), Tyler Robertson (6-6, F), Chris Austin (6-4, G)

Key losses: Ahmed Ali, Eddie Davis, Latrell Jones

Outlook: After steering Eastern Washington to a near-Cinderella moment against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, Shantay Legans took about 10 minutes to make the leap to Portland to build from the ashes of the Terry Porter disaster. He brought three ex-Eagles with him, led by Mike Meadows and Tyler Robertson – two of the army of newcomers replacing 12 of 13 scholarship Pilots. While Legans eschewed transfers at EWU, getting the Pilots competitive will require some seasoned hands. Chris Austin was Fordham’s scoring leader, and Moses Wood (UNLV) and Kristian Sjolund (UTEP) can shoot it outside, as Legans likes in his big men.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Coach: Randy Bennett (454-192), 21st year

2020-21 record: 14-10. WCC: 4-6, 7th

Key newcomers: Augustus Marciulionis (6-4, G), Chris Howell (6-6, G)

Key losses: none

Outlook: The Gaels lost not a single point from the 2021 team through player departure – not that they had any points to spare. Randy Bennett’s worst offensive team – SMC shot under 40% in half of its games – was also his best defensively, but that same-old, same-old lineup will have to find more scoring. Getting Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler for a full season will help, as will the arrival of Augustus Marciulionis – son of Sarunas, the Hall of Fame international legend – to play alongside explosive Logan Johnson in the backcourt. A bounce-back year from Dan Fotu up front is a must.

San Diego Toreros

Coach: Sam Scholl (33-49), 4th year

2020-21 record: 3-11. WCC: 2-7, 9th

Key newcomers: Jase Townsend (6-3, G), Bryce Monroe (5-11, G), Marcellus Earlington (6-6, F)

Key losses: Yauhen Massalski, Jared Rodriguez, Finn Sullivan

Outlook: It’s easy to write off USD’s 2020-21 season – four different COVID-19 shutdowns resulted in just a 14-game campaign. Still, Sam Scholl’s influx of Division I transfers – other than forward Josh Parrish – played out as a major disappointment, so the next wave has to be an improvement. Things figure to revolve around high-scoring Jase Townsend (Denver), who can score from deep and at the rim and should pair nicely with the Toreros’ top returner, Joey Calcaterra. A dreadful rebounding team last year, USD got reinforcements in two Power Six transfers, Terrell Brown (Pitt) and Marcellus Earlington (St. John’s).

San Francisco Dons

Coach: Todd Golden (33-26), 3rd year

2020-21 record: 11-14. WCC: 4-9, 8th

Key newcomers: Yauhen Massalski (6-10, F), Zane Meeks (6-9, F), Gabe Stefanini (6-3, G)

Key losses: Taavi Jurkatamm, Damari Milstead

Outlook: The WCC’s most entertaining backcourt – this side of Gonzaga, anyway – tended to blur USF’s deficiencies up front, which Todd Golden addressed vigorously in recruiting. Four Division I transfers ranging from 6-8 Patrick Tape (Duke) to 6-10 Yauhen Massalski (San Diego) to 7-2 Volodymyr Markovetskyy (Washington State) shore up the inside. They just have to avoid clogging it up too much so that quicksilver guards Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz still have room to operate. They’ll have some new company – and a provider – on the perimeter in Gabe Stefanini, who led the Ivy League in assists at Columbia.

Santa Clara Broncos

Coach: Herb Sendek (76-72), 6th year

2020-21 record: 12-8. WCC: 4-5, 6th

Key newcomers: PJ Pipes (6-2, G), Carlos Stewart (6-1, G)

Key losses: Guglielmo Caruso, Christian Carlyle

Outlook: The Broncos’ lack of any notable progress in Herb Sendek’s five years as coach has to be a concern at the school which once took out a full-page ad in Gonzaga’s hometown newspaper proclaiming “Game On.” But these Broncos can put some scorers on the floor, especially if Louisiana high school phenom Carlos Stewart can make a seamless jump to the college game. Steady super senior Josip Vrankic was the WCC’s rebounding champ and has a nice touch, and Keshawn Justice is rugged inside and out. Green Bay transfer PJ Pipes provides more perimeter pop.

See Gonzaga preview on Page 3

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