Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

WCC preview: With BYU gone, conference becomes even more Zags- and Gaels-centric

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Buh-bye, BYU.

After 12 years of renting in the West Coast Conference – longer, probably, than most expected – the Cougars have finally made a down payment on acreage in the Big 12. They leave having claimed – checking the ledger here – exactly zero WCC regular season or tournament championships, and just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past eight years. Certainly fewer than their fan base expected.

So what’s next?

Well, a student can again show up at a WCC gym in a white shirt and necktie without fear of expulsion for taunting, for starters.

No, really, what’s next?

With BYU joining in 2011, the league rose from the mid-teens on the old Ratings Percentage Index measuring stick to as high as eighth in relative strength among all conferences three of the past five years. That status will take a hit.

Because during their stay, the Cougars’ average RPI or NET – the NCAA’s latest toy – was 52nd among the nation’s 350-plus schools. Aside from Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, no other WCC team’s average finish cracked 100 over the past decade. That leaves a significant resume gap that can’t be filled with a run to the corner expansion store.

Which leaves promotion from within.

The fact is, BYU experienced some recent slippage, finishing fifth each of the past two seasons – suggesting that a handful of programs might be ready to provide the competitive juice that’s being lost.

Foremost among those would seem to be San Francisco – an NCAA Tournament participant in 2022 and now pretty much a 20-win perennial. Santa Clara has finished third the previous two years and produced back-to-back first-round NBA Draft picks. Loyola Marymount ended Gonzaga’s 75-game home-court winning streak last year, and became the first WCC school not named BYU or Saint Mary’s to beat the Zags since 2014.

Those teams are expected to fill out the WCC’s first division beneath the Zags-Gaels ceiling – or should that be Gaels-Zags?

The league’s coaches looked at Saint Mary’s stability – three players with All-WCC history return – and made the Gaels narrow favorites over Gonzaga for the regular season title. It’s the first time since the 2017-18 season that the Bulldogs haven’t been installed as favorites – though they wound up winning the championship anyway.

Loyola Marymount Lions

Coach: Stan Johnson (43-39), fourth year at LMU

2022-23 record: 19-12. WCC: 9-7, fourth

Key newcomers: Justin Wright (6-2, G); Justice Hill (6-0, G); Lars Thiemann (7-1, C)

Key losses: Cameron Shelton, Jalin Anderson

Outlook: The Lions not only won at GU last winter, but beat co-champ, Saint Mary’s – and then lost to the Zags by 43 before an out-in-one at the WCC tournament. They’ll try to smooth out the spikes behind strongman Keli Leaupepe – next to Gonzaga’s Anton Watson the league’s most underappreciated player in recent years – and a big transfer portal haul. The rebuilt backcourt includes point guard Justice Hill, who struggled at LSU, and shooters Justin Wright (North Carolina Central) and Will Johnson (UTRGV). With giant Cal transfer Lars Thiemann and holdover Rick Issanza joining Leaupepe, the Lions have the bulk to battle big-name teams beyond the WCC.

Pacific Tigers

Coach: Leonard Perry (71-137), third year at Pacific

2022-23 record: 15-18. WCC: 7-9, fifth (tie)

Key newcomers: Villiam Garcia Adsten (6-8, G); Lesown Hallums Jr. (6-2, G); Burke Smith (6-11, C)

Key losses: Keylan Boone, Jordan Ivy-Curry, Luke Avdalovic

Outlook: The shuttle between the bench and court may look a little frantic at times, but the Tigers became a pretty tough out for a team with no go-to guys. That looks to be the case again: a rotation 11 deep, minus last year’s top scorers. There’s talent at the point in 43-percent 3-point shooter Tyler Beard and sophomore Moe Odum, who led the WCC in assist-turnover ratio. Slasher Nick Blake could become the offensive focal point, but the undersized Tigers will be challenged on the glass once again.

Pepperdine Waves

Coach: Lorenzo Romar (454-377), ninth year at Pepperdine

2022-23 record: 9-22. WCC: 2-14, 10th

Key newcomers: Michael Ajayi (6-7, F); Ethan Anderson (6-0, G); Curtis Williams (6-6, F)

Key losses: Maxwell Lewis, Mike Mitchell Jr., Jan Zidek

Outlook: Lorenzo Romar’s second time through in Malibu has picked up little steam despite some fine young players, and a few of those have moved on. Two who’ve stayed will try to turn it around: uber-gifted 6-foot-11 forward Jevon Porter and shooting guard Houston Mallette, both all-league talents. Help arrives in point guard Ethan Anderson, a starter at USC and Wyoming but not a super shooter, and prolific junior college scorer Michael Ajayi. Nils Cooper, the son of former Lakers great Michael, is an intriguing freshman, but rotation players like Malik Moore and Jalen Pitre have to make jumps.

Portland Pilots

Coach: Shantay Legans (108-83), third year at Portland

2022-23 record: 14-19. WCC: 5-11, eighth

Key newcomers: Yuto Yamanouchi-Williams (6-10, F); Vukasin Masic (6-5, G); Noah Jordan (6-7, F)

Key losses: Moses Wood, Mike Meadows, Kristian Sjolund

Outlook: The Pilots experienced some slippage after Shantay Legans’ breakthrough first year, and now are feeling the push and pull of college basketball’s new rules of engagement. They took some big hits in the portal, but return two super seniors – point forward Tyler Robertson, the WCC’s most versatile weapon, and swingman Chris Austin, who missed all of 2023 rehabbing a broken leg. That was at the root of Portland’s struggle, which also extended to poor rebounding and so-so defense. Some promising young big men arrive along with Lamar transfer Yuto Yamanouchi-Williams to shore things up inside, and Vukasin Masic is a strong addition on the wing.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Coach: Randy Bennett (507-208), 23rd year at Saint Mary’s

2022-23 record: 27-8. WCC: 14-2, first (tie)

Key newcomers: Jordan Ross (6-3, G); Mason Forbes (6-9, F); Rory Hawke (6-5, G)

Key losses: Logan Johnson, Kyle Bowen

Outlook: A 92-58 wipeout of Hawaii in a Maui benefit game suggests the Gaels deserve their favorite’s role, and that Augustus Marciulionis is finally ready to step out of his two-year apprenticeship at the point. If true, that will make All-WCC holdovers Aiden Mahaney and Mitchell Saxen, and super-shooter Alex Ducas, all the more dangerous. Mahaney, the rookie revelation of 2023, is a Player of the Year frontrunner and a tone-setter beyond his years. Joshua Jefferson looks to have stepped into the job at the 4-spot ahead of Harvard transfer Mason Forbes, who sat out last season.

San Diego Toreros

Coach: Steve Lavin (248-170), second year at San Diego

2022-23 record: 11-20. WCC: 4-12, ninth

Key newcomers: PJ Hayes (6-6, G); Kevin Patton Jr. (6-8, G); Keyon Kensie Jr. (6-8, F)

Key losses: Marcellus Earlington, Jase Townsend, Eric Williams Jr.

Outlook: The portal didn’t do very well by Steve Lavin in his return to college coaching, so now he’s going against the grain – bringing in no fewer than nine freshmen to go with one transfer, sharpshooter PJ Hayes from little Black Hills State. All of Lavin’s returning experience is in the backcourt with Sigu Sisoho Jawara, a solid shooter, and Wayne McKinney, not much of one. Deuce Turner is another marksman off the bench, but the Toreros will be young and slender inside, with maybe 6-9 Jimmy Oladokun Jr. being the most physically ready of the newbies. A long year awaits.

San Francisco Dons

Coach: Chris Gerlufsen (20-14), second year at USF

2022-23 record: 20-14. WCC: 7-9, fifth (tie)

Key newcomers: Mike Sharavjamts (6-8, G); Robby Beasley (6-3, G); Jonathan Mogbo (6-8, F)

Key losses: Khalil Shabazz, Tyrell Roberts, Zane Meeks

Outlook: The Dons have had great success with jitterbug guards and turning up the tempo. The latter won’t change, but suddenly Chris Gerlufsen has gone for size on the perimeter and the versatility to get after people more defensively. And they’ll still be fun to watch, especially with the arrival of 6-8 “Mongolian Mike” Sharavjamts, who made a nice November splash at Toledo. Brothers Ryan (a freshman) and Robby (UC Davis transfer) Beasley are shoot-first types who will make an impact, while USC transfer Malik Thomas provides some perimeter muscle. But USF’s big men haven’t proven to be much more than occasionally useful.

Santa Clara Broncos

Coach: Herb Sendek (533-389), eighth year at Santa Clara

2022-23 record: 23-10. WCC: 11-5, third

Key newcomers: Adama Bal (6-7, G); Jalen Benjamin (5-10, G); Tyeree Bryan (6-6, G)

Key losses: Brandin Podziemski, Carlos Stewart, Keshawn Justice

Outlook: With 83 percent of his scoring having vanished via the draft, transfers and graduation, Herb Sendek had little choice but to plunge headfirst into the portal for proven producers – more than 200 college starts in all. Smallish Jalen Benjamin will run the show as he did at Mount St. Mary’s and UAB, and Arizona transfer Adama Bal brings great size on the wing. Carlos Marshall Jr. went down after just three games as a Bronco, but is another big guard who was twice all-league at Tennessee State. Up front, promising Christoph Tilly earned legit minutes among veterans last year and 7-1 Francisco Caffaro pulled some starts at Virginia.

See Gonzaga preview, page 5