By Manny Nunez
The name “Gonzaga” has become synonymous with the name of the giants in college basketball as the Bulldogs have dominated the West Coast Conference in the 17-year Mark Few era. Sure there is so much history from this team in the past even before they became dominant, but Few has changed the culture of that small Jesuit school in Northern Washington to become a national powerhouse.
Getting to the Final Four though has always been this team’s challenge, and arguably they had their best team ever last season but faltered in the Elite Eight with a close loss to eventual national champion Duke. Kevin Pangos played with such a magical style and developed into that elite player in his four years, once again proving the Zags’ prowess in the area of player development. Gary Bell Jr. was also an important asset as both combined to average nearly a third of the team’s offense last season.
With the two cornerstones of last year’s team departed, the Zags are looking to returnees Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Kanowski as the nucleus to what should be another WCC Champion.
Adding BYU to the WCC mix a few years ago has strengthened the conference, and the Cougars once again look like another tournament team behind the play of Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer. However, with so much attention the Bulldogs have received over the years, breaking their barrier is tough as St. Mary’s has found out with some outstanding teams over the past few years.
There is still a lot of talent below Gonzaga and BYU, and expect an upset here against either of these two schools.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs – Losing Pangos after having him for four years will really test the Bulldogs recruiting strength as they will activate red-shirt freshmen Bryan Alberts and Josh Perkins, both looking to replace Pangos’ shoes. There is still a lot of talent and height on the team as leading scorer Kyle Wiltjer returns and big men Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis will dominate the glass. They are built to be a strong tournament team, but the question lies just like every year, “Will this be the roster that gets Gonzaga to the Final Four?”
2. BYU Cougars – Another tournament bid means another strong season from the Cougars. They have benefited from the transition to the West Coast Conference as they try to build a balanced schedule. Head coach Dave Rose returns four starters, including the triple double sensation Kyle Collinsworth. He was also in the top 100 in nearly every offensive statistical category, putting the Cougars in a strong case to be a possible threat come March.
3. Pepperdine Waves – This will be the team that could threaten a possible perfect season for the Bulldogs. Head Coach Marty Wilson has had to rebuild this program from scratch and has done an outstanding job in his five-year reign. Wilson has 10 of its top 11 scorers returning, and their up-tempo offense could tire out a lot of their opponents. All-WCC first team selection Stacy Davis will lead the way, and Lamond Murray Jr. could certainly have a much better season as he becomes an important tool.
4. Santa Clara Broncos – The Broncos have improved, but they are just shy from becoming a potential tournament team. Jared Brownridge returns as one of the conference’s leading scorers, and there is a lot to expect from Matt Hubbard, a transfer that came in mid season. There is also a lot of chemistry that built so quickly and that was left after the other offensive assets Brandon Clark and Denzel Johnson have left. They could most likely be a dangerous sleeper team.
5. Saint Mary’s Gaels –The Gaels have lost a tremendous amount of talent, so head coach Randy Bennett has to consummate a restructuring, of sorts. Emmett Naar is the team’s only returning starter, so now its time for Boston College transfer Joe Rahon to make an impact right away. They have once been that team that pressured Gonzaga, so now the challenge is for Bennett to get them back into that top three in the league. However, the Gaels schedule very tough, so they will be mentally prepared to compete.
6. Pacific Tigers – Since adding the Tigers to the West Coast Conference, Pacific has lost a much of appeal that the had in coming in from the Big West. Head coach Ron Verlin has three of its top four scorers back, and T.J. Wallace will be a big name to talk about. Eric Thompson can also produce inside and can help add some offensive spark, but there is a chance that the Tigers could see a surge.
7. Portland Pilots – The Pilots have so much to replace at the frontcourt, losing top scorer Kevin Bailey. However, the back court of the Pilots will make them a tough beat. Top 10 scorer Alec Wintering returns and hopes to keep things right off the success of earning a bid to the CIT tournament last season.
8. Loyola Marymount Lions – Many have this team in the bottom of the pack considering that leading scorer Evan Payne transferred to Long Beach State. However, even with him on the team the Lions still have a lot of threat and chemistry that can surprise a lot of people. Mike Dunlap has always praised his height, and with Marin Mornar and Ayodeji Egbeyemi returning, there is a good chance that this team will be frustrating to work with in the glass.
9. San Francisco Dons – The Dons will have a lot of work to make up with Mark Tollefson heading to Arizona. They don’t return much, even though Tim Derksen and Devin Watson statistically will help with the team’s backcourt. However, there are nine newcomers on the team, so Rex Walters will have to see this as a rebuilding year to hopefully settle in for a strong next few years.
10 . San Diego Toreros – Bill Grier was let go last year after another frustrating year. Former New Mexico assistant coach Lamont Smith loves a challenge, and he will have one on his hands with six freshman and losing key offensive threats Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson. This means Duda Sanadze and Jito Kok have to take part to make sure they can compete within the conference.