LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga is right back where it always seems to be in the West Coast Conference preseason poll.
The Zags are heavy favorites to win their 11th consecutive conference title after collecting all nine possible first-place votes and 81 points. Saint Mary’s was next with one first-place vote from Gonzaga coach Mark Few – coaches aren’t permitted to vote for their own team – and 73 points.
San Francisco and BYU shared third place with 57 points.
Portland, under former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans, is fifth, followed by Santa Clara, Pepperdine, San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Pacific.
“It’s been that (way) since I got here,” senior forward Drew Timme said of GU being in the favorite’s role and taking opponents’ best shots throughout the conference season. “We expect nothing less than that so just another year. We’re excited for it.”
Added senior guard Rasir Bolton, seated next to Timme at WCC media day at the Orleans Arena: “It’s not really talked about a lot. We don’t really focus on it. We focus on basketball and getting the job done.”
Timme, Bolton and junior wing Julian Strawther were named to the 10-player preseason All-WCC team.
Timme, a two-time second-team AP All-American, was the WCC Player of the Year last season. Bolton and Strawther were honorable mention selections.
The Zags have won or shared 21 of the past 22 WCC regular-season titles.
As it’s been most of the past two decades, Saint Mary’s is considered Gonzaga’s primary challenger. The Gaels return eight players, including preseason All-WCC selections Logan Johnson and Alex Ducas, and three promising freshmen, led by point guard Aidan Mahaney.
Mahaney averaged about 18 points per game as Saint Mary’s went 6-0 on a summer tour in Australia, which has been fertile recruiting ground for the Gaels’ program.
The Gaels handed Gonzaga its only WCC loss last season. They’ve played in eight NCAA tournaments and seven NITs in coach Randy Bennett’s 21 seasons.
“The biggest thing the (Australia) trip provided, I’ve got a pretty clear idea in my mind who can do what for us,” said Bennett, whose team went 1-1 in last year’s NCAA Tournament. “You start shaping your team, paring it down and you have to get there as a coach. You have like 12, 13 practices and play six games, it’s a little cheat sheet for who can do what for your team.
“We were going be further along no matter what (with their experience), but doing that helped those freshmen, and we have six new guys, but those three freshmen that will play, it helped us for sure.”
BYU, which will exit the WCC for the Big 12 after the season, is still searching for its first conference regular-season or tournament title entering its 12th season.
The Cougars finished 24-11 last season and fifth in the conference standings at 9-6.
“I don’t get the sense our team is spending any time thinking about last year,” coach Mark Pope said. “I think we know what we are. We’re really young and pretty undersized and so normally that’s not a great recipe in college basketball.
“I really believe people are going to come to these games and look out on the floor and be like, ‘How are these guys doing this?’ I think they’re going to put together a special season and accomplish things nobody thinks they can do.”
Santa Clara’s Keshawn Justice, Portland’s Tyler Robinson, Pepperdine’s Houston Mallette, San Francisco’s Khalil Shabazz and BYU’s Fousseyni Traore rounded out the preseason All-WCC team.
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