Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Some things never change. In the West Coast Conference, that means every team is gunning for Gonzaga. Mark Few's Bulldogs captured yet another WCC title a year ago and posted a conference best 29 victories. Never resting on their laurels, Few and company brought in a top-notch recruiting class and once again should be the cream of the crop in the conference.
Things look pretty similar right behind Gonzaga as well, with the usual suspects giving chase in the form of BYU and Saint Mary's. Dave Rose's Cougars have one of the premiere scorers in the nation and if they can find balance up front, they might just go from being a bridesmaid to the bride in 2014-15. Randy Bennett and the Gaels posted 23 wins a year ago, but this year's roster will look quite different. That however, doesn't mean there will be a dropoff in wins, as Saint Mary's should once again linger around the top of the WCC standings.
The team that the big boys better watch out for is Portland. Eric Reveno's Pilots knocked off both Gonzaga and BYU a year ago, but finished one game under .500 overall (15-16). That should change this season, as the team is loaded with potential, particularly its perimeter shooting.
Joining Portland just below the upper echelon will be San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego. Rex Walter's Dons finished third in the standings a year ago and posted 21 wins overall. The team has scoring threats in the frontcourt, but will need to prove itself in the backcourt to stay within striking distance down the stretch. Kerry Keating's Broncos should improve on their 14-win season from a year ago thanks to solid guard play. However, like many teams in the league, a one-dimensional offense makes it hard to compete with the Gonzagas of the world. Bill Grier's Toreros posted a winning season last year (18-17) thanks in large part to stellar defensive play and a confident backcourt. The formula looks the same so not much should change this time around for San Diego.
The bottom of the WCC will feature Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Pacific. Marty Wilson can't seem to keep his best players happy. The Waves won eight conference games a year ago and finished fifth in the standings. That would be a pleasant surprise this season considering losses both up front and in the backcourt. Max Good is out at Loyola Marymount, making room for Mike Dunlap to take over the reins in L.A. The good news is that Dunlap has a clean slate. The bad news is, patience is still the mantra regarding the Lions. Ron Verlin ushered in Pacific's return to the WCC last year and the Tigers were able to finish with a winning overall record (18-16), even if only six of those wins came in conference play. An empty cupboard might be an understatement considering the team's top returning scorer averaged just seven points per game a year ago.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Gonzaga
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Gonzaga, 2. BYU, 3. Saint Mary's, 4. Portland, 5. San Francisco, 6. Santa Clara, 7. San Diego, 8. Pepperdine, 9. Loyola Marymount, 10. Pacific
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
GONZAGA: Not only does Gonzaga have the talent to run away with the conference crown, there is enough in the cupboard to make a serious run at the national title. The Zags lose a solid frontcourt option with the departure of Sam Dower (14.4 ppg), but have more than enough to compensate. The backcourt is top heavy with the return of Kevin Pangos (14.4 ppg) at the point and Gary Bell Jr. (11.0 ppg). Now throw in USC transfer Byron Wesley (17.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg), along with sixth-man Kyle Draginis (6.1 ppg) and there are plenty of moving parts for Few to work with. Replacing Dower up front would be a concern for most teams, but Gonzaga has the ever-evolving seven-footer Przemek Karnowski (10.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) in the middle to play along 6-10 Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer (10.2 ppg in 2013). The cream of the recruiting crop has a pedigree in the 6-10 Damantas Sabonis. Son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, the younger Sabonis is a versatile athlete that moves well for a big man and has a strong all-around game.
BYU: The Cougars won 23 games a year ago, but played second fiddle to Gonzaga with a second-place finish in the WCC (13-5). There are a couple of notable losses this season, namely guard Matt Carlino (13.7 ppg) transferring to Marquette and forward Eric Mika (11.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg) going on an LDS mission, but Rose doesn't seem worried about making up that production, as scoring sensation Tyler Haws is back in the fold. The WCC Player of the Year last season, Haws (6-5, 200) finished sixth in the nation in scoring at 23.2 ppg. The hope is that versatile guard Kyle Collinsworth (14.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.6 apg) returns to form after having ACL surgery last year. Scoring in the backcourt won't be a problem, but BYU must find it along the frontline. Forward Nate Austin (6-11, 230) is a force on the boards (7.9 rpg), but doesn't bring much in terms of scoring (3.8 ppg). Freshman Isaac Neilson (6-10, 230) could be called upon to shoulder the scoring burden down low and keep teams honest when defending BYU's perimeter game.
SAINT MARY'S: The Gaels also won 23 games last season, but Randy Bennett has his work cut out for him with mass defections across the board, most notably guards Stephen Holt (15.2 ppg) and James Walker II (9.8 ppg) and forward Beau Levesque (9.2 ppg). What Bennett must do is mesh his holdovers with 10 newcomers and come up with a winning formula. Stanford grad student Aaron Bright (9.3 ppg) will take over at the point and team with Minnesota transfer Joe Coleman (8.7 ppg) in the backcourt, along with senior Kerry Carter (9.3 ppg). Another grad student Desmond Simmons (6-7 forward from Washington) will get plenty of work up front and should fit in well with a healthy Garrett Jackson (6-6, 225) and big man Brad Waldow (6-9, 260), who is a force in the low post. Redshirt freshman forward Calvin Hermanson (6-6, 200) could be a star in the making and has a chance to shoulder some of the scoring load early on for Saint Mary's.
PORTLAND: Coach Reveno returns four of his five starters and seven of his top eight scorers from a year ago and that is definitely a good thing as the Pilots try and move up the WCC ladder this season. Sure, a 15-16 overall record that included just seven conference wins isn't exactly something to brag about, but there were key victories along the way that showed Portland as a gritty, competitive team. This is a team that will win this year with its backcourt play. Perimeter shooting will be the key and that will likely center around senior guard Kevin Bailey (16.5 ppg). Opponents will pay the price for paying too much attention to Bailey, as fellow guards Bryce Pressley (8.7 ppg), Bobby Sharp (8.4 ppg) and Alec Wintering (7.7 ppg) are all capable of making big shots. Forward Ryan Nicholas (12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is gone and his production down low will be sorely missed. It will also put more pressure on 6-11 center Thomas van der Mars (13.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg), who is an all-conference caliber performer after leading the WCC in field-goal percentage last season (604).
SAN FRANCISCO: Rex Walters' Dons were once again in the mix for the conference crown a year ago and once again, fell just short, posting a third-place finish (13-5), while winning 21 games overall. Walters must immediately find adequate replacements for the departed Cole Dickson (15.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) up front and Avry Holmes (12.5 ppg) in the backcourt. The best options along the frontcourt come in the form of senior forward Kruize Pinkens (12.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and junior forward Mark Tollefsen (10.5 ppg). Perimeter scoring will be handled by junior guards Tim Derksen (9.0 ppg) and Matt Glover (8.0 ppg). Walters will need to rely on a freshman or two to handle the point this year, as a lot is expected of newcomers Devin Watson (6-1) and Frankie Ferrari (5-11). Watson averaged 25.0 points and 8.0 assists per game as a HS senior. The Dons' aren't going to win any scoring titles this year, but they will continue to contend nonetheless.
SANTA CLARA: Kerry Keating's days may be numbered at Santa Clara. Yes, he has a pair of postseason titles under his belt, but they were CBI and CIT crowns, not NCAA or even NIT championships. In fact, the Broncos haven't even made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996. That streak will probably continue this season unless Keating finds a way to get production from somewhere besides his two backcourt stars. Sophomore guard Jared Brownridge had a record-setting freshman season averaging 17.2 ppg. A great shooter, with a non-stop motor, his numbers shouldn't waiver this season. It certainly helps that senior Brandon Clark is roaming along the perimeter as well after netting 16.9 ppg as a junior. Quality big men have been scarce under Keating's watch and this year is no different. There isn't a whole lot of scoring punch up front as Keating will look to senior forward Yannick Atanga (3.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) to up his game, along with sophomore forward Nate Kratch (3.6 ppg) and seven-foot center Robert Garrett (1.3 ppg).
SAN DIEGO: There were plenty of positives to take from San Diego's season a year ago, as the Toreros brought an end to a four-year streak of losing campaigns, finishing 18-17 overall, with a postseason appearance in the CIT. With four starters returning, Bill Grier's squad may take another step in the right direction. The best of the bunch returning is All-WCC senior guard Johnny Dee (16.6 ppg), who led the NCAA in free throw accuracy last season (.945). Dee is not the only option along the perimeter for San Diego, as fellow guards Duda Sanadze (12.9 ppg) and Christopher Anderson (10.3 ppg) bring scoring punch as well. Like most teams in the middle of the conference, a lack of difference makers down low is the Toreros' weakness. Dennis Kramer (11.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg) was the team's best option in the paint last season, but the 6-11 center has moved on. A lot is expected of CS-Northridge transfer Brandon Perry (6-7, 265) and sophomore Brett Bailey (6-6, 205), but this team lacks size and will only go as far as its perimeter game takes it.
PEPPERDINE: The recurring theme in Malibu is that Coach Wilson must continue dealing with players leaving before their time is up. This year is no different as guard Malcolm Brooks (10.3 ppg) has moved on to Cal State Fullerton. Adding fuel to the fire is the graduation of Brendan Lane (13.0 ppg). The cupboard isn't totally bare though, as centerpiece Stacy Davis returns to lead the way. The 6-6 junior guard is an all-conference performer with the ability to both score (15.1 ppg) and rebound (7.6 rpg). However, Davis can't do it alone and Wilson must find help from a slew of youngsters that includes seven freshmen and five sophomores. Sophomore point guard Jeremy Major (9.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) did some nice things a year ago and could evolve into a go-to-guy in 2014-15. Oregon transfer A.J. Lapray (6-5, 190) and Oklahoma Player of the Year Shawn Olden (6-3, 175) could see tons of minutes early on.
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Mike Dunlap era at Loyola Marymount begins in 2014-15. Returning to his alma mater, Dunlap is intimately familiar with what it takes to produce at LMU. After 30 years in the college and NBA coaching ranks, Dunlap will preach patience as he attempts to turn things around. That's a good thing, since he will need to offset the significant losses of guard Anthony Ireland (18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg) and forward Gabe Levin (11.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg). In fact, only two starters return from last year's squad, but with only 13 total wins and four WCC victories, a change may be just what the doctor ordered. There is only one bona fide scorer on the roster to speak of and that is sophomore guard Evan Payne (15.5 ppg). Minutes should be abundant for role players like Matt Hayes (6-1, 170), Chase Flint (6-1, 180), Ayodeji Egbeyemi (6-4, 210), Simon Krajcovic (6-3, 185) and David Humphries (6-4, 200). There is no way to sugarcoat the inexperience up front for Pepperdine, which will need youngsters to mature in a hurry.
PACIFIC: Verlin was able to post a winning season in his first year at the helm at Pacific. Making it two in a row will be a monumental task. Verlin's squad went 18-16 last year, but really struggled in conference play with a 6-12 record. Pacific loses about 80 percent of its scoring from a team that put up a modest 73.1 ppg to begin with. Key losses include Tony Gill (11.4 ppg), Andrew Bock (11.3 ppg) and Sama Taku (11.1 ppg). Sophomore guard T.J. Wallace (7.0 ppg) returns as the team's top offensive threat, but must carry the load after starting just three games a year ago. Verlin has fortified his roster with juco transfers like Dulani Robinson (5-8, 165), Alec Kobre (6-2, 185), Sami Eleraky (7-0, 245) and Eric Thompson (6-8, 240), but it is likely to be a long year in Stockton.