By Jesse Kramer
As usual, the West Coast Conference will be one of the better mid-major leagues in college basketball. Gonzaga figures to be a top 25 team once again, following an extremely successful season where the Zags earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Brigham Young, which lost to Baylor in the 2013 NIT semifinals, will be much-improved and could crack the top 25 as well at some point this season.
San Diego will also be improved, and St. Mary’s should be competitive as always.
As usual, the Zags figure to be nationally ranked and the team to beat in the WCC. They return their starting backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., in addition to backup point guard David Stockton (3.4 apg, 1.5 spg) and shooting guards Drew Barham (3.2 ppg, 44.4 3P%) and Kyle Dranginis (2.9 ppg). The Bulldogs also add guard Gerard Coleman, who averaged 13.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists at Providence two years ago.
Last year, the Bulldogs main scorers were forwards Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Pangos and Bell Jr. will need to become more assertive as scorers now that both big men are gone. Despite making more than 39% of his three-pointers, Bell Jr., who averaged nine points per game, occasionally seemed hesitant to shoot.
Pangos, who posted 11.9 points and 3.3 assists per contest, rarely hesitated when a scoring opportunity arose, but his inconsistency was sometimes an issue. Five times he attempted more than 10 field goals and made three or fewer.
The Zags’ frontcourt, a huge, deep strength last season, is now much thinner. Olynyk bolted for the NBA, and Harris, Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi graduated. Redshirt senior Sam Dower and sophomore Przemek Karnowski should start. Although they combined for only 27 minutes per game, they also combined for 12.3 points and 56.2% shooting from the field.
Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, who becomes eligible after the first semester, will add some much-needed depth.
2. Brigham Young
This should be Brigham Young’s best season since Jimmer Fredette departed Provo. The Cougars return one of the nation’s best scorers in junior Tyler Haws, and Matt Carlino is one the most under-appreciated point guards around.
Haws, who averaged 21.7 points and shot 38.1% from beyond the arc, made national headlines last year with his 42-point performance against Virginia Tech. Although that was easily his most impressive outing, he had eight other games with at least 25 points. In four NIT games he recorded 27.8 points per contest.
Carlino posted team-bests 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game, and he also averaged 11.5 points and 3.6 rebounds. The 6’2″ point guard shot only 33.5% from deep on the season, but six times he made at least four treys. In the NIT, he shot 41.9% from long range in addition to averaging 18 points, 6.3 rebounds, and eight assists.
Also returning to the Cougars’ backcourt is sophomore Kyle Collinsworth, who returned from his two-year Mormon mission in Russia. As a freshman in 2010-11, he provided a big boost with 5.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.7 minutes per game.
In the frontcourt, Brigham Young will use juniors Nate Austin and Josh Sharp and freshmen Eric Mika and Luke Worthington.
Austin posted 3.6 points and 4.6 boards per contest, and he ranked No. 58 in offensive rebounding percentage. He will bloom with the increased playing time.
Mika, a top-100 recruit, was averaged a double-double as a high school senior and shot better than 67% from the field.
3. San Diego
San Diego turned some heads late last season when it took second-seeded St. Mary’s to overtime in the WCC semifinals. The Toreros wound up losing that game by a mere three points, but with three returning starters, they will be a strong team once again.
Like Gonzaga and Brigham Young, San Diego has a very good, veteran backcourt. However, it is very undersized. Christopher Anderson, who stands at 5’7″, mans the point, and 6-foot Johnny Dee is a pure scorer. Both juniors, they have compiled the experience necessary to make the Toreros a contender in this tough, mid-major league.
Anderson is the conference’s best returning point guard. He averaged 5.7 assists per game last season, and recorded 188 assists and only 94 turnovers for 2:1 ratio. He was only one of the league’s better backcourt defenders, averaging 2.1 steals per contest. In a single game, he had as many as seven swipes.
Dee, who should be one of the WCC’s leading scorers this season, did not yet have the consistency to be a full-fledged star last season. He averaged 15 points and 2.4 three-pointers per game and was the conference’s top free-throw shooter at 88.8%.
The Toreros’ starting frontcourt graduated and John Sinis, a stretch four who came off the bench, left the program. This means senior forward Dennis Kramer, who was plagued by injuries last season, and centers Simi Fajemisin and Jito Kok will have to take on bigger roles. They will get from Cal State Northridge transfer Thomas Jacobs, who averaged 4.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 2011-12.
As a sophomore, when he was healthy, Kramer averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 51.5% from the field. If he can stay healthy, he will be a good veteran presence in the starting lineup.
Kok played 18.3 minutes per game last season as a freshman and ranked in the nation’s top 50 in block percentage.
4. St. Mary’s
The last few seasons, St. Mary’s has been with Gonzaga at the top of the standings. That should change a bit this season as the Gaels adjust to life without Matthew Dellavedova, who led the WCC in assists the last two years, and Mitchell Young. Jorden Page, who seemed like the prime candidate to replace Dellavedova as starting point guard, left the program after injuring his knee in March. The Gaels will now have to look to seniors Stephen Holt and James Walker III to run the point.
Holt, the team’s top returning scorer with 11.6 points per game, averaged 1.5 assists and 1.2 steals last season. Walker III posted 6.9 points per game and shot better than 41% on three-pointers.
Despite the loss if Young, the Gaels’ frontcourt is still in fine shape. They return small forward Beau Levesque and power forward Brad Waldow, who is primed for a huge season, and add USC transfer Garrett Jackson.
5. San Francisco
The Dons will be a dangerous team on any given night because of two reasons: (1) Forward Cole Dickerson and point guard Cody Doolin an incredible inside-outside duo; (2) they have seven players capable of shooting efficiently from three-point range.
Despite being only 6’7″, Dickerson is one of the nation’s best defensive rebounders, and he can also score the ball in a variety of ways. Doolin sometimes struggles to score the ball, although he still averaged 12.2 points last season, but he posted the WCC’s third-best mark with 5.6 assists per contest. He also ranked in the nation’s top 50 in assist rate.
6. Loyola Marymount
Loyola Marymount returns four starters from last year’s team, which limped to a 1-15 finish in the WCC but won three tournament games to advance to the conference semifinals. The Lions lost starting forward and leading rebounder Ashley Hamilton, but they return senior point guard Anthony Ireland, who led the team in points, assists, steals, and three-pointers.
Ireland, along with Ayodeji Egbeyemi, Chase Flint, and C.J. Blackwell will construct a talented, deep backcourt.
Despite the loss of Hamilton’s 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, the Lions’ frontcourt remains solid with seniors Alex Osborne and Godwin Okonji.
7. Santa Clara
Santa Clara takes a big hit with the losses of starters Kevin Foster, Marc Trasolini, and Raymond Cowels III. Foster was an electric scorer, Trasolini was one of the more talented WCC big men last season, and Cowels III was a nice complement to Foster on the perimeter.
The Broncos still have some talent in their backcourt. Senior Evan Roquemore averaged 12 points and 5.2 assists, and junior Brandon Clark recorded 7.2 points per game while shooting 41.5% from beyond the arc.
In order for the Broncos to break out of the bottom third of the standings, they will need Yannick Atanga, John McArthur, and Robert Garrett to fulfill larger roles in their frontcourt. Although none have the making of stars, Atanga was one of the nation’s better rebounders by percentage last season.
It’s tough to know what to expect from Portland this season. The Pilots return their starting frontcourt of Ryan Nicholas and Thomas van der Mars, and they return two other starters in guards Tanner Riley and Kory Thieleke.
The big questions for the Pilots will be outside shooting and point guard play. Nicholas, a 6’7″ forward, is their best outside shooter at 37.8%, and next in line is Riley at only 31.6%.
In terms of the point guard position, Derrick Rodgers graduated, and his two potential replacements are junior David Carr and sophomore Bryce Pressley. Carr averaged 2.3 assists in 17 games last season before his season ended with a torn ACL. Pressley filled in at point guard when Carr got hurt and posted 2.2 assists per game during the final two months of the season.
Pepperdine returns three starters from last year’s team that finished 4-12 in the WCC. The Waves are not particularly talented, but one player to keep an eye on is sophomore forward Stacy Davis, who will be the team’s star this season. Davis averaged 11.2 points and 7.3 rebounds as a freshman.
Sophomore Jett Raines as well as UCLA transfer Brendan Lane will also serve key roles in the frontcourt.
The Waves’ backcourt is led by sharpshooters Nikolas Skouen and Malcolm Brooks. Skouen averaged eight points last season and shot 46.4% on three-pointers, and at Lamar (Colo.) Community College, Brooks posted 18.2 points per game while shooting 42.4% from deep.
Pacific’s return to the WCC will not be one of the happier moments in the program’s history. The Tigers lost three starters and two of their top bench players, leaving them with a very thin roster.
Senior Sama Taku will most likely assume Lorenzo McCloud’s point guard duties while 6’8″ forward Tony Gill heads the frontcourt.
WCC Player of the Year
Tyler Haws, Brigham Young
WCC Defensive Player of the Year
Jito Kok, San Diego
WCC Freshman of the Year
Eric Mika, Brigham Young
WCC All-Conference Team
Matt Carlino, Brigham Young
Anthony Ireland, Loyola Marymount
Johnny Dee, San Diego
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
Tyler Haws, Brigham Young
Cole Dickerson, San Francisco
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.