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Before leaving for the Big 12, can BYU win a WCC championship?

To do so, the Cougars would have to dethrone perennial national power Gonzaga.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) hugs his teammates and coaches.
Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) hugs his teammates and coaches at the one-minute remaining mark during a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

While there is plenty of excitement about the BYU basketball program joining the Big 12 in 2023, coach Mark Pope has said there’s some unfinished business with the West Coast Conference.

The Cougars have never won a regular-season or tournament championship in the decade that it’s been part of the league. BYU has finished as WCC runners-up numerous times but never No. 1.

Of course, the major roadblock standing in BYU’s way is Gonzaga, the perennial WCC champion. The Zags were undefeated and ranked No. 1 throughout last season, until they lost to Baylor in the national championship game.

Gonzaga has gone to the Final Four twice since 2017.

As the 2021-22 season gets set to tip off in November, the Zags are expected to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason.

So it came as no surprise that they were voted to win the WCC in the preseason coaches’ poll Thursday. And it wasn’t surprising that BYU was picked to finish second.

Last season, the Cougars placed second behind the Zags and lost to Gonzaga in the tournament championship game.

Coach Mark Few has seen the departure of Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi as well as longtime assistant Tommy Lloyd, who is now the head coach at Arizona.

But the Zags have, once again, reloaded. Returning is forward Drew Timme, who averaged 19 points and seven rebounds last season and is a National Player of the Year candidate.

Also returning are Andrew Nembhard, Anton Watson and Julian Strawther. If that weren’t enough, Gonzaga signed the nation’s No. 1 recruit, 7-footer Chet Holmgren, the top-rated recruit in program history.

BYU, meanwhile, finished 20-7 overall and 10-3 in the WCC last season. The Cougars return eight players from a team that earned a No. 6 seed and fell to eventual Final Four-bound UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Two Cougars were named to the All-WCC preseason team — guard Alex Barcello and forward Caleb Lohner.

Barcello decided to return for one more season with BYU after exploring NBA draft possibilities last spring. He led the Cougars in scoring (16.1 ppg), assists (4.3), steals (0.9), 3-point percentage (47.7%) and free-throw percentage (85.6%) a year ago as he was voted to the All-WCC first team and was also an AP All-America honorable mention.

After leading BYU in rebounding (7.1) last year, Lohner was named to the All-WCC Freshman Team. He scored a career-high 19 points against Pacific.

The Cougars have also added a pair of key transfers in Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight.

BYU tips off the season with an exhibition game against Colorado Christian on Nov. 4, then the Cougars host Cleveland State in the season opener on Nov. 9.

As far as the WCC goes, the league is strong at the top besides Gonzaga and BYU, with Saint Mary’s, Loyola Marymount and San Francisco expected to challenge the Cougars for the No. 2 spot.

Saint Mary’s had an uncharacteristic down season a year ago, going 14-10, but it returns all 13 players, headlined by Logan Johnson, Tommy Kuhse, Dan Fotu, Alex Ducas and Matthias Tass. Injuries doomed the Gaels last season but if they stay healthy, they should once again factor in the league race.

LMU returns Eli Scott, who’s back for a fifth season. The Lions also added three transfers — Alex Merkviladze (Cal State Northridge), Kwane Marble (Wyoming) and Cam Shelton (Northern Arizona) to a nucleus that also features proven players like Dameane Douglas, Joe Quintana, Ivan Alipiev and Keli Leaupepe.

Like Saint Mary’s, San Francisco took a step backward last season. But the Dons return two of the best guards in the WCC — Khalil Shabazz and Jamaree Bouyea, who have given WCC opponents, including BYU, a lot of trouble over the years.

For Santa Clara, both Josip Vrankic and Jalen Williams return and it has added Missouri transfer Parker Braun.

Pepperdine is rebuilding after losing guard Colbey Ross and forward Kessler Edwards. The Waves return Jan Zidek, Jade’ Smith and Victor Ohia while they’ve added San Diego transfer Braun Hartfield, who averaged nearly 14 points per game for the Toreros in 2020. Another key transfer is Keith Fisher from Illinois State.

Pacific hired Leonard Perry as its new head coach after Damon Stoudamire left to join the Boston Celtics coaching staff. The Tigers have three returning starters — Pierre Crockrell, Jeremiah Bailey and Jordan Bell, and they’ve added Utah State transfer Alphonso Anderson and Northern Arizona transfer Luke Avdalovic.

San Diego has gone to the transfer portal for help as well. Among those joining the Toreros include Terrell Brown (Pittsburgh), Marcellus Earlington (St. John’s) and T.J. Berger (Georgetown), to name a few. Joey Calcaterra and Vladimir Pinchuk return.

Portland, which went 0-11 a year ago in league play, also has a new head coach in Shantay Legans, who led Eastern Washington to the NCAA Tournament last year. He has brought three of his Eastern Washington players with him and signed four other transfers as well.