With four head coaching changes this past offseason, the West Coast Conference will have plenty of new looks and faces during the 2016-17 campaign. On the other hand, Gonzaga's Mark Few (18th season), Saint Mary's Randy Bennett (16th season), and Brigham Young's Dave Rose (12th season) have been stepping outside the coaches box for years. For the sixth time in as many seasons, fans should expect those three veteran coaches to lead No. 7 (AP poll) Gonzaga, No. 19 (AP poll) Saint Mary's, and BYU, respectively, to the top three spots in the WCC. That said, there is some upward movement among several other WCC squads, which has the league positioned as the second best league in the West for the third time in the past four seasons. Here is a look at the prospects of each WCC team, in their predicted order of finish:
1. Gonzaga. Consider this: The last time Gonzaga missed the NCAA Tournament, Bill Clinton was in the White House, Tim Duncan was the NBA Rookie of the Year, and the Jazz were about to begin a playoff run that would result in a second straight NBA Finals appearance opposite Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Nearly 20 years into what was once considered an improbable run, Mark Few and the Zags are still rolling.
After dispatching Utah with ease last March and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, the Zags have reloaded. Domantas Sabonis (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Kyle Wiltjer (Houston Rockets) have departed to the NBA, and in their place stand a contingent of international stars and ESPN 100 recruits. Anchored by fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski in the middle, Gonzaga is both talented and deep.
Other high-impact returning players include sophomore Josh Perkins and junior reserve guard Silas Melson. Key newcomers include high school McDonald's All-American freshman center Zach Collins, University of Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss (a former five-star recruit who lead the Huskies in assists, steals and scoring), University of Missouri transfer Jonathan Williams III (a former ESPN top 100 recruit who led the Wildcats in scoring, rebounds, and blocked shots), highly touted French freshman Killian Tillie (he was offered by the University of Utah, where his older brother Kim played), and Cal graduate transfer Jordan Matthews, who was a 3-point specialist for the Bears a season ago.
Gonzaga is currently 12-0 and ranked seventh in the AP poll. The Zags have quality out-of-conference wins over No. 18 Arizona, No. 25 Florida, Iowa State, Washington, San Diego State, Akron and Tennessee.
Postseason prediction: 19th straight NCAA Tournament, top 4 seed.
2. Saint Mary's. Saint Mary's fans have grown accustomed to winning. Randy Bennett may not have had the auspicious start to his tenure that Mark Few did, but the Gaels have been one of the most consistent programs in the country for years, with the Gaels looking for their 10th straight top 75 RPI finish this season. To wit, the last time the Gaels failed to play in either the NIT or NCAA Tournament was 2007.
A big part of the Gaels' success has been their international — specifically Australian — recruiting. For 14 straight seasons, Saint Mary's has had no less than two Australian nationals on their roster, with the Gaels counting current NBA players Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills among their alumni. This season is no different, with seven Australian nationals on the Saint Mary's roster.
Currently 10-1 and ranked 19th in the AP poll, Saint Mary's is looking like the prime threat to take back the WCC crown from Gonzaga for the first time since the Gaels won the league in 2013. Guards Emmet Naar and Joe Rahon trigger the Gaels' success, while breakout junior center Jock Landale has become indispensable, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game so far this season. Saint Mary's tends to schedule on the lighter side, but still managed several quality out-of-conference games, grabbing road wins at Dayton and Stanford.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament, 5-7 seed.
3. Brigham Young University. BYU has all the makings of success: a roster full of highly touted talent, a proven and long tenured head coach with winning ways, and a hunger to win. Certainly, the Cougars have shown flashes of their sky-high potential early this season. Correspondingly, they have also shown that they need more time to come together.
With an aggressive early season schedule, this overhauled roster faced several tough opponents right out of the gate. Talent, almost all by itself, kept BYU in games against USC, Illinois and Valparaiso. A motivated Utah Valley squad, hungry to prove it belonged, came out and punched the Cougars with a vim BYU was unable to answer to. Still, the season is young.
BYU will have a number of chances to prove itself against top 20 Gonzaga and Saint Mary's squads. Avoiding pitfalls against the bottom four of the WCC, while holding serve against respectable San Francisco, Portland and LMU squads, is a must. In the Cougars' quality win over Colorado, we saw BYU cinch down on the defensive end of the floor while exercising a bit more patience in shot selection on offense. Those two keys will determine much of the Cougars' success this season.
BYU head coach Dave Rose has proven that he knows how to get a team playing together — some years, he has tinkered with the roster into late January in a successful effort to get the most productive five on the floor. The results speak for themselves: In the last 10 seasons, BYU winning more than 20 games has been as consistent as a "Whoosh (Kevin)" cheer after a made BYU free throw at the Marriott Center. In that span, BYU has played in the NCAA Tournament eight times and the NIT twice — advancing to the Final Four at Madison Square Garden in both NIT runs.
Sophomore center Eric Mika has exceeded even the lofty expectations of BYU fans, and freshman Yoeli Childs has exhibited an athleticism and ability that will entertain Cougar fans for years to come. Nick Emery and TJ Haws, alongside L.J. Rose and Steven Beo, give BYU enough guard line to hang with anybody.
One prominent but regrettable story line for the 2016-17 version of the BYU Basketeers is the injury bug. L.J. Rose battled an ankle injury early. Elijah Bryant was dealing with an ankle sprain in preseason play, only to suffer a meniscus injury in late November.
Earlier this week, coach Dave Rose announced that senior Kyle Davis was having season-ending knee surgery that would in all likelihood end his BYU career. All of these injuries have slowed the critical coming together of a very talented group of BYU players. Even so, most Dave Rose teams tend to get better as the season progresses, with several BYU teams putting together impressive February winning streaks in recent years. The Cougars open league play against Santa Clara, which, coincidentally, upset Valpo in the Broncos' final non-league game behind 30 points from All-WCC guard Jared Brownridge. If BYU is going to reach its 2016-17 potential, it has to take every league game seriously, beginning tonight.
Postseason predication: NCAA Tournament, 10 seed to play-in game.
4. The University of San Francisco. Newly minted Dons coach Kyle Smith took Columbia from an Ivy League bottom dweller to a winning program, notching more than 20 wins in two of his last three seasons there, including 25 wins en route to the 2016 CBI postseason championship.
WCC league play will likely hold very few surprises for Smith — he was an assistant for a combined 17 seasons at San Diego and Saint Mary's, helping coach the Gaels to the Sweet 16 in 2010 before taking the top job at Columbia. Smith brings the Princeton offense to USF, and if early results are any indicator, it might just be the fit the Dons have been looking for. San Francisco enters league play at a respectable 10-3, with a pair of solid wins over the University of Utah and Illinois State in the Diamond Head Classic.
While they lack something in terms of sheer athleticism, they move the ball around the perimeter efficiently, and Diaper Dandy (apologies to Dick Vitale) Charles Minlend has a burst of athleticism seldom seen on the hilltop in recent years. Playing under an entirely new system, the Dons should continue to improve as the season wears on. They've displayed a penchant for getting hot from beyond the arc, knocking down 16 of 28 threes in their win over Utah. I wouldn't count it much of a surprise if they knock off either BYU or Saint Mary's during league play.
Postseason prediction: NIT for the first time since 2014.
5. Loyola Marymount. The Lions' signature win in out-of-conference play was a three-point victory over Colorado State on the road. Not an earth shattering win, but solid nonetheless. Perhaps more significant is that LMU did not drop a single game that would be considered a "bad" loss. Setbacks to UConn, Nevada, Boise State and surprising UT-Arlington (currently 20th in RPI with wins over Texas and Saint Mary's) are all forgivable.
The avoidance of bad losses has the Lions pointing towards a top 150 RPI and a winning record. LMU alumni and current head coach Mike Dunlap is known to have an unorthodox style, but it seems to be bringing some consistency to the court for LMU. As a former NBA head coach, Dunlap has exhibited some clout on the recruiting trail as well, with a trio of 2017 three-star commitments all ranked in the top 75 at their position, bringing a slight eyebrow raise from those that follow such things. Perhaps Dunlap will perform a turnaround job at his alma mater after all.
Postseason prediction: CBI or CIT.
6. Portland. Terry Porter of NBA fame might be the splashiest hire in an offseason of big moves for WCC programs. The former two-time NBA All-Star and twice NBA head coach brings a big reputation to a Pilots program that, while it showed some signs of progress under former head coach Eric Reveno, could never quite turn the corner. Porter has several key players at his disposal in his inaugural campaign, including do-everything veteran Alec Wintering and nascent sophomore guard Jazz Johnson.
The Pilots have shown flashes of promise, followed immediately by head-scratching letdowns. For example, in a four-game December stretch, the Pilots knocked off a solid South Dakota squad, followed by a convincing win over in-state rival Oregon State. Unfortunately, those quality wins were supervened by a two-point loss to Big Sky team Portland State and then compounded with an overtime loss to Cal State Fullerton. Still, the overall trajectory of the 7-5 Pilots appears to be up at this early point in the season.
Postseason prediction: CBI or CIT.
7. Santa Clara. The theme with the bottom half of the WCC is lack of consistency, and the Broncos suffer from that ailment in spades. Led by dynamic senior scorer Jared Brownridge (19.2 ppg), the fighting Steve Nashes have been brilliant in knocking off Valpo and nearly upsetting Arizona and Washington State, but moribund in losses to Cal Davis and UC Irvine.
First-year head coach Herb Sendek has his work cut out for him. Sendek was once on the coaching fast-track, taking North Carolina State to five straight NCAA appearances before taking over at Arizona State. However, after only two NCAA appearances in nine seasons in Tempe, Sendek and the Sun Devils parted ways. Now, a year and a half later, Sendek finds himself facing an uphill battle with a Santa Clara program that certainly has some talent but has had serious struggles living up to its potential for years.
Still, Sendek is known for infusing his philosophy into his players, and if he has any success with that at all, the Broncos should find some equilibrium as the season goes on.
Postseason prediction: None.
8. San Diego. When Lamont Smith took over the head job at San Diego last season, he said, "We're irrelevant in terms of basketball in this city right now." He immediately set about to rectify that situation, beating cross-town rival San Diego State. A season later, the Toreros dropped a competitive game to the Aztecs, but still, the intensity in the rivalry appears to have been restored along with the Toreros' self-respect as a program.
With only one senior and a roster full of underclassmen, coach Smith is building the old-fashioned way, developing the talent as he recruits it. Entering league play with a 7-5 record and an RPI of 155, the Toreros are much better positioned than they were a season ago when they finished the out-of-conference portion of their schedule with a 5-6 record and an RPI in the 290s.
Certainly, they still have a ways to go, but with the steady efforts of veteran senior center Brett Bailey and the athleticism of a cadre of underclassmen, including Olin Carter III and Juwan Gray, the Toreros appear ready to move out of the WCC cellar.
Postseason prediction: None.
9. Pacific. When Bob Thomason walked off the floor following Pacific's NCAA Tournament loss to Miami in 2013, stability for the Tigers program walked off with him. Since that time, Pacific has had three different head coaches, in stark contrast to the 25-year tenure that Thomason enjoyed. Hopefully for the Tigers, that tumultuous ride is at an end, with first-year head coach Damon Stoudamire at the helm.
Stoudamire, a former NCAA All-American and NBA Rookie of the Year (1996), comes to Pacific with a solid coaching resume that includes stops as an assistant in the NBA, the University of Arizona and most recently the University of Memphis. Although Pacific has some solid players in junior Ray Bowles and senior T.J. Wallace, the Tigers continue to be in a rebuilding mode that has already lasted several seasons. Don't expect much from the Tigers this year. But Stoudamire is a winner, and odds are that he'll be working to identify players on this year's roster who can give the Tigers something to build on for the future.
Postseason prediction: None.
10. Pepperdine. Pepperdine head coach Marty Wilson likely had high expectations heading into the 2016-17 campaign. With back-to-back fourth-place WCC finishes, the Waves appeared poised to take the next step. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck early. On Nov. 5, 2016 WCC all-freshman forward Kameron Edwards suffered a fracture of his jaw in a preseason scrimmage, ending his season before it began. Less than a month later, athletic senior stopper and all around playmaker Amadi Udenyi tore his achilles, ending what would have been his senior campaign (he will have a redshirt available if he so chooses). Seniors Jeremy Major and Lamond Murray Jr. are still battling, but the Waves' strength was in their starters, not their bench. After starting 4-1, the Waves have dropped six in a row.
Postseason prediction: None.
Rocky Steele is the author of "Forgotten Champions: The Story of the 1951 BYU Basketball Team." He is a graduate of BYU (B.A.) and Gonzaga (J.D.), and currently works as vice president of a Utah company. He can be found on Twitter at @RockySteele