The prize recruit in the West Coast Conference last spring wasn’t a 7-foot center with forward skills, a jumping-jack slasher with a touch from 3 or a consummate playmaker at the point.
The league kept Gonzaga. That was the catch of the year.
No single player can stave off irrelevance in college basketball at the mid-major level, but irrelevance was staring the WCC in the face when word got out that Gonzaga was playing footsie with the Mountain West Conference about jumping ship for the 2019 season.
Without the Zags, the WCC’s national cachet is kaput.
Yes, Randy Bennett has built a fine program at Saint Mary’s that spent the better part of the past two seasons in the Top 25. Brigham Young used to be a March Madness regular and has that massive fan base. San Francisco can still point to national championship banners in its gym.
But that ESPN deal and the league’s comfy financial portfolio is due to Gonzaga’s two decades of success in the NCAA tournament.
So when the Zags wanted some concessions, the league … conceded. The Mountain West passed, having endured much member angst when special considerations were made to keep Boise State as part of the football family some years ago.
WCC schools may not like getting their heads handed to them by the Zags – but they’d miss trying to return the favor.
Not as many will get the chance this year. Part of the new deal is a reduction in conference games from 18 to 16, to reduce the hit tournament résumés always take from the low-end teams. The Zags, for instance, will miss one date each with Pepperdine and Portland – and it figures to have zero impact on the conference standings, Gonzaga entering the season ranked No. 3 in the nation and overwhelming favorites to win the WCC.
But this is the year BYU thinks it can make a return to the bracket, and mid-tier challengers like San Diego, USF and even Pacific believe they can unseat either the Cougars or Saint Mary’s in the top three.
Brigham Young Cougars
Coach: Dave Rose (329-122), 14th year
2017-18 record: 24-11. WCC: 11-7, 3rd
Key newcomers: Gavin Baxter (6-9, F), Kolby Lee (6-9, F), Connor Harding (6-6, G)
Key losses: Elijah Bryant, Payton Dastrup
Outlook: Two years running now, Dave Rose has seen his leading scorer depart early without a hope of playing in the NBA. Elijah Bryant’s exit takes a likely NCAA team down to a maybe, dependent largely on old high school teammates Nick Emery and TJ Haws finally living up to their considerable billing. Emery’s return from a year away from school has cued Rose to return to a more up-tempo attack – that is, when the Cougars don’t throw the ball into forward Yoeli Childs, who will be the only non-Gonzaga entry in the league Player of the Year sweepstakes.
Loyola Marymount Lions
Coach: Mike Dunlap (376-180), 5th year
2017-18 record: 11-20. WCC: 5-13, 8th
Key newcomers: Dameane Douglas (6-7, F), Jordan Bell (6-8, F), Ivan Alipiev (6-7, F)
Key losses: Steven Haney, Mikail Simmons
Outlook: LMU has averaged 19 losses in four years under Mike Dunlap and it seems as if a corner should have been turned by now. Maybe this is the year – only one graduation loss of note, and the Lions return one of the WCC’s tougher nuts in point guard James Batemon. Up front, rugged Eli Scott and 7-3 giant Mattias Markusson made some big strides, and the Lions have some numbers to send at the league’s better teams. But someone among the newcomers – maybe Dameane Douglas, a 35-points-per-game scorer as a high school junior – has to kick in something.
Coach: Damon Stoudamire (25-40), 3rd year
2017-18 record: 14-18. WCC: 9-9, 4th (tie)
Key newcomers: Amari McCray (6-9, C), Khy Kabellis (6-5, G), Jeremiah Bailey (6-6, F), Jahbril Price-Noel (6-7, G)
Key losses: Miles Reynolds, Namdi Okonkwo, Jack Williams
Outlook: The Tigers were down to six scholarship players at the end of 2018 and obviously ran out of gas, which tempered their surprising season a bit. But they still have versatile Jahlil Tripp and Roberto Gallinat to mash the pedal. Gallinat averaged nearly 23 points a game in the last three weeks of the regular season, finding his 3-point stroke. North Dakota State transfer Khy Kabellis will also give the Tigers a much-needed lift in that area. Junior college newcomer Amari McCray will try to give the Tigers something resembling a post presence.
Coach: Lorenzo Romar (391-284), 4th year (1996-99, 2018)
2017-18 record: 6-26. WCC: 2-16, 10th
Key newcomers: Darryl Polk Jr. (5-10, G), Andre Ball (6-7, F), Kessler Edwards (6-6, F)
Key losses: Trae Berhow, Matthew Atewe, Knox Hellums, Nolan Taylor
Outlook: So long to one of the league’s good guys in Marty Wilson, whose luck ran out before his contract. That opened the door for Lorenzo Romar’s second act in Malibu, and the young roster suggests lumps will be absorbed in his get-reacquainted year. But there’s some terrific talent, led by forward Kameron Edwards – who Romar believes can rock from the 3-point line as well as underneath. Point guard Colbey Ross led WCC freshmen in scoring and assists, and Eric Cooper Jr. is a capable scorer. Edwards’ brother, Kessler, adds some muscle underneath along with Andre Ball – a cousin in the infamous basketball family.
Coach: Terry Porter (21-44), 3rd year
2017-18 record: 10-22. WCC: 4-14, 9th
Key newcomers: Crisshawn Clark (6-4, G), Ty Glover (6-7, F), Theo Awkuba (6-10, C), Hugh Hogland (6-10, F)
Key losses: D’Marques Tyson, Philipp Hartwich, Rashad Jackson
Outlook: One of the worst rebounding teams in Division I, the Pilots have big work to do inside just to aspire to the first division. That means production growth from Tahirou Diabate, the only big man with any real experience. The Pilots do have Hugh Hogland coming off a redshirt year, and a couple young shot blockers in Theo Awkuba – 10 a game as a high schooler! – and Josh Phillips. But again the Pilots will be guard-driven, with Marcus Shaver leading the way. Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark will add a welcome physical touch on the wing.
Saint Mary’s Gaels
Coach: Randy Bennett (395-164), 18th year
2017-18 record: 30-6. WCC: 16-2, 2nd
Key newcomers: Malik Fitts (6-8, F), Matthias Tass (6-10, C), Aaron Menzies (7-3, C)
Key losses: Jock Landale, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner
Outlook: That big Jock Landale didn’t get to show his stuff in the NCAAs because of soft scheduling was criminal. Now Randy Bennett has beefed up that area, but the core of the Gaels’ first 30-win team is gone. Guard Jordan Ford is poised for a big year, but they’ll have a new point man in Latvian redshirt Kristers Zoriks. Inside help comes from two transfers, 6-8 Malik Fitts (South Florida) and 7-3 Aaron Menzies (Seattle) – neither of them a Landale, but both able to score. Forward Kyle Clark – maybe the Gaels’ best defender – returns off a knee injury, too.
San Diego Toreros
Coach: Sam Scholl (2-2), 1st year
2017-18 record: 20-14. WCC: 9-9, 4th (tie)
Key newcomers: Emanuel Hylton (6-3, G), Finn Sullivan (6-4, G), Andrew Ferguson (7-0, C)
Key losses: Cameron Neubauer, Juwan Gray
Outlook: Sam Scholl takes over for good after the bizarre ending of the Lamont Smith era, and he’s been gifted with a lineup ready for a run at the top three. The two Isaiahs – all-conference forward Pineiro and point guard Wright – elevated the Toreros even more than expected in their first seasons after transferring, and two other seniors, Olin Carter III and Tyler Williams, give USD possibly the conference’s second-best backcourt. The Toreros will continue to operate piecemeal at the spot opposite Pineiro – unless Yauhen Massalski or Alex Floresca take control of the situation.
San Francisco Dons
Coach: Kyle Smith (143-112), 3rd year
2017-18 record: 22-17. WCC: 9-9, 4th (tie)
Key newcomers: Trevante Anderson (6-1, G), Dzmitry Ryuny (6-9, F), Dylan Belquist (6-6, F)
Key losses: Chase Foster, Souley Boum, Erik Poulsen
Outlook: The Dons have been thrilled with back-to-back 20-win seasons under third-year coach Kyle Smith, including a CIT runner-up finish last year, but they’re hungry for a bigger breakthrough. Getting wing Charles Minlend back after losing a season to injury is a big step – he’ll make all his teammates better. In his absence, this became Frankie Ferrari’s team, and the charismatic guard played himself onto the all-league team. To make a jump, the Dons need 7-footer Jimbo Lull to give them a different look – or a surprise from 6-9 freshman Dzmitry Ryuny.
Santa Clara Broncos
Coach: Herb Sendek (441-331), 3rd year
2017-18 record: 11-20. WCC: 8-10, 7th
Key newcomers: Trey Wertz (6-5, G), Tahj Eaddy (6-1, G), Josh Martin (6-7, F)
Key losses: Henry Caruso, Emmanuel Ndumanya, Kai Healy, Jarvis Pugh
Outlook: The Broncos had some slippage in year two of the Herb Sendek era, so the call went out to a couple of grad transfers, Josh Martin (Cal Poly) and Fallou Ndoye (Bakersfield), to ease graduation losses. Another transfer, Tahj Eaddy, will join the strong backcourt combo of KJ Feagin – one of the WCC’s best – and Matt Hauser, who must bounce back from a foot injury. But other than Josip Vrankic, who quickly played his way into the lineup last year, the front line is all new, and seems inadequate to deal with WCC rigors.
Gonzaga: see seperate preview
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.