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West Coast Conference: After pandemic-shortened banner season, outlook cloudy for many teams

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In early March, it looked as if 2020 was going to be a bounteous year for the West Coast Conference – six schools with 20 or more wins, three teams a lock for the NCAA Tournament and a national title contender in Gonzaga.

But pandemics happen.

Now 2021 is just uncertainty upon question mark upon doubt. From unprecedented player movement to trying to cobble together schedules to the latest surge in COVID-19 numbers, just getting a season in would count as a triumph – and any forecast seems futile.

Well, except maybe in the WCC, where only once in the past 23 years has Gonzaga failed to win either the regular season title or the postseason tournament.

By the time Brigham Young had made a summer splash, landing giant Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms and spirited freshman talent Caleb Lohner away from Utah, the Zags had already corralled their highest-rated recruiting class in history. Led by No. 6 national recruit Jalen Suggs, the newcomers at Gonzaga have helped it earn the first preseason No. 1 ranking in the school’s history.

After four seasons with no NCAA Tournament bid, BYU was stung by the 2020 cancellation – especially with a senior-heavy lineup. But second-year coach Mark Pope is already starting to turn Provo into a destination, and the Cougars will be in the NCAA mix even with all the roster churn – presuming there is an NCAA Tournament.

Beyond that, it seems like a scramble in the making. Saint Mary’s took significant personnel losses and, at this point, seems to be a show with all supporting cast and no stars. That could crack the window for a top-three finish by either Pepperdine or San Francisco.

There’s one new face in the coaching ranks – former Marquette assistant Stan Johnson moving in at Loyola Marymount after the dismissal of Mike Dunlap.

BYU Cougars

Coach: Mark Pope (24-8), 2nd year

2019-20 record: 24-8. WCC: 13-3, 2nd

Key newcomers: Matt Haarms (7-3, C), Caleb Lohner (6-8, F), Brandon Averette (5-11, G)

Key losses: Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Jake Toolson

Outlook: The Cougars lost more than 70% of their scoring, but two big summer acquisitions have amped up the buzz – 7-3 Purdue grad transfer Matt Haarms and prep standout Caleb Lohner, who bolted from rival Utah. Yet the key figure may be Utah Valley grad Brandon Averette who figures to run the point, but isn’t nearly the shooter TJ Haws was – though Alex Barcello (48.6 percent from 3) can fill it up from outside. BYU was a feeble 344th in offensive rebounding in 2020, but has great size and promising juniors in Gavin Baxter and Kolby Lee.

Loyola Marymount Lions

Coach: Stan Johnson, 1st year

2019-20 record: 11-21. WCC: 4-12, 8th

Key newcomers: Kodye Pugh (6-8, F), Quentin Jackson Jr. (6-2, G)

Key losses: Jordan Bell, Erik Johansson, Seikou Sisoho Jawara

Outlook: At 7-3, Mattias Markusson was new coach Stan Johnson’s biggest recruit – even though he’s already put in three years on the LMU roster. The Swedish giant redshirted last year after his mother died, then shopped around in the transfer portal before opting to return. He’s not slick, but can be a problem – and having him around will make rugged Eli Scott an all-WCC player. There’s also brawny Keli Leaupepe and sleek Dameane Douglas, so the question marks are in the backcourt – both ball-handling and distance shooting. Quentin Jackson Jr. should find minutes more easily than he did at Temple.

Pacific Tigers

Coach: Damon Stoudamire (62-68), 5th year

2019-20 record: 23-10. WCC: 11-5, 3rd (tie)

Key newcomers: Jervay Green (6-3, G), Marial Mading (6-11, F), Jordan Bell (6-8, F)

Key losses: Jahlil Tripp, Gary Chivichyan, Amari McCray

Outlook: It can be argued that the Tigers are losing the WCC’s most valuable player. Nobody meant more to his team than Jahlil Tripp, and last year that was a lot – Pacific zoomed from ninth to third. Now the offensive go-to figures to be guard Jervay Green, who was in Nebraska’s starting lineup a year ago before a suspension and had double-figure scoring pop in the Big Ten. There were some nice finds last year in Seattle point guard Pierre Crockrell Jr., Daniss Jenkins and Jahbril Price-Noel, but the Tigers’ smallishness up front means coveted JC forward Marial Mading needs to have immediate impact.

Pepperdine Waves

Coach: Lorenzo Romar (74-78), 6th year (1996-99, 2019-present)

2019-20 record: 16-16. WCC: 8-8, 6th

Key newcomers: Kendall Munson (6-8, F), Kene Chukwuka (6-9, F)

Key losses: Kameron Edwards, Keith Smith

Outlook: Point guard Colbey Ross, the most dynamic force in the WCC, returns for one more assault on the conference’s upper echelon, a mission at which the Waves underachieved a year ago. Sleek forward Kessler Edwards is another all-WCC talent, but the Waves need more consistent contributions from the supporting cast: quicksilver guard Sedrick Alt-man and Jade’ Smith, who was derailed by a knee injury. Sharpshooter Skylar Chavez is sitting out the season over COVID concerns. Grad transfer Kene Chukwuka is the big arrival up front, though he showed little pop at Pitt, but what the Waves really need is to guard – they were last in the WCC in defensive efficiency.

Portland Pilots

Coach: Terry Porter (37-92), 5th year

2019-20 record: 9-23. WCC: 1-15, 10th

Key newcomers: Ahmed Ali (5-11, G), Mikey Henn (6-8, F), Eddie Davis (6-6, F)

Key losses: Isaiah White, JoJo Walker, Malcolm Porter

Outlook: A combination of the pandemic, buyout wherewithal and his own likability seems to have saved Terry Porter’s job for a final contract year, despite averaging 23 losses over the past four. Another exodus of players – including Porter’s son Malcolm – brings another round of roster churn, leaving just three notable holdovers: improving big man Tahirou Diabate, point guard Chase Adams and wing shooter Takiula Fahrensohn. Washington State transfer Ahmed Ali will inherit JoJo Walker’s scoring burden in the backcourt, while Cal Baptist grad transfer Mikey Henn tries to inject some muscle into Portland’s front line.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Coach: Randy Bennett (440-182), 20th year

2019-20 record: 26-8. WCC: 11-5, 3rd (tie)

Key newcomers: Jabe Mullins (6-5, G), Leemet Böckler (6-6, G), Mitchell Saxen (6-10, F)

Key losses: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tanner Krebs

Outlook: The last time Randy Bennett faced a season with no returning double-figure scorer and so many questions, the Gaels won 29 games and a piece of the WCC title. That’s expecting too much this year, when the linchpin is 6-10 Matthias Tass, who has all-conference talent but is coming off ACL surgery. The other holdovers seem like mostly role players at best, though Dan Fotu might thrive if he gets to play at his natural big forward spot. But there’s help coming – particularly from big guards Leemet Böckler and Jabe Mullens, Washington’s player of the year, and big man Mitchell Saxen.

San Diego Toreros

Coach: Sam Scholl (32-40), 3rd year

2019-20 record: 9-23. WCC: 2-14, 9th

Key newcomers: Frankie Hughes (6-4, G), Josh Parrish (6-4, F), Ben Pyle (6-7, F)

Key losses: Alex Floresca, James Jean- Marie

Outlook: Count Sam Scholl as a convert to the church of the transfer makeover. Seven of the Toreros’ 12 scholarship players began their careers at other four-year schools, and a huge wave arrived this year, starting with grad transfer guards Frankie Hughes (Duquesne) and Josh Parrish (Rice). But there’s a flip side – the Toreros also lost leading scorer Braun Hartfield late in the summer. Finn Sullivan’s late-season development was a plus, but a lot of USD’s hopes rest on big man Yauhen Massalski coming off a broken ankle. New Mexico transfer Vladimir Pinchuk provides insurance there.

San Francisco Dons

Coach: Todd Golden (22-12), 2nd year

2019-20 record: 22-12. WCC: 9-7, 5th

Key newcomers: Damari Milstead (6-2, G), Julian Rishwain (6-5, G), Samba Kane (7-0, C)

Key losses: Charles Minlend, Jimbo Lull, Jordan Ratinho

Outlook: Todd Golden’s 22 wins gave him the best WCC coaching debut since … wait, Mark Pope won 24 at BYU last year. Nonetheless, it was the fourth straight 20-win season at USF, a sign the program is here to stay. Alas, Golden’s best player, wingman Charles Minlend, decided to go – off to Louisville – so now the team belongs to a pair of hummingbird guards, Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, who are bothersome on both ends of the floor. The Dons really need a jump from redshirt Isaiah Hawthorne and especially Dzmitry Ryuny, whose outside touch at 6-9 can make him a matchup problem.

Santa Clara Broncos

Coach: Herb Sendek (64-64), 5th year

2019-20 record: 20-13. WCC: 6-10, 7th

Key newcomers: Christian Carlyle (6-5, G), Trent Hudgens Jr. (6-2, G)

Key losses: Trey Wertz, Tahj Eaddy

Outlook: Herb Sendek’s backcourt has become a nice farm system for big-time programs – KJ Feagin heading to San Diego State a year ago, Trey Wertz and Tahj Eaddy off to Notre Dame and USC, respectively, this year. That leaves the Broncos woefully thin at guard as they plot a return to the WCC’s first division. But there are lots of options elsewhere – DJ Mitchell and Keyshawn Justice are more than capable on the wing, Josip Vrankic is a steadying presence and particularly Guglielmo Caruso, whose injury led to a slide in conference play. Florida Gulf Coast transfer Christian Carlyle is an important addition.

See our Gonzaga preview elsewhere in this section.

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