Once again, it looks like Gonzaga and the rest in the West Coast Conference. But before fawning over Mark Few’s latest national contender, it’s a good idea to remember that many programs in this league have at one time or another lived in the high-rent district of college basketball. Some historic teams and names associated with the WCC have nothing to do with Gonzaga. There was a time when San Francisco was the dominant name in the sport. Bill Russell-led Dons teams won a pair of national titles in the 1950s and for nearly 20 years held a record believed almost as untouchable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak: USF’s 60-game win streak stood alone until John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins broke the record in 1973.
Similarly, Santa Clara has a rich tradition, having qualified for the first “modern” Final Four in 1952. The Broncos advanced as high as No. 2 in the rankings in 1969 with a team featuring center Dennis Awtrey. And a guard named Steve Nash showed up for the Broncos in the early ’90s. Another memorable WCC entry was Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun Loyola Marymount, the best of which was the 1990 edition featuring the late Hank Gathers. Modern hoops historians might also not realize that Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV made its first Big Dance appearance in 1975 as a member of the old WCAC, predecessor of the WCC, before the Runnin’ Rebels went independent the next season. Tradition makes for nice stories, but current reality suggests it really is Gonzaga and everyone else. So who might be able to challenge Few’s powerhouse? Not many, unless 7-foot-3 Purdue transfer Matt Haarms emerges as a force for BYU, which lost too much firepower to seriously challenge. Likewise, Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s team, the most consistent WCC threat to Gonzaga in the last 15 years, is in rebuild mode after winning 26 games a year ago. Lorenzo Romar, in his second tour of duty at Pepperdine, might have the best team of his current stint, with senior point guard Colbey Ross capable of must-see stuff. But the fact that many believe the Waves might be the second-best team in the conference suggests the wide gap between Gonzaga and the rest, meaning the league will be hard-pressed to net a second entry into the NCAA tournament. The Zags, of course, will be there. And as if Few needed any help, he landed perhaps the top recruit in Gonzaga history, 6-5 guard Jalen Suggs, who along with Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook immediately fills the gaps in the backcourt. Forward Corey Kispert and guard Joel Ayayi pulling their names from the NBA draft ensured a solid veteran core. As usual, the Zags will boss the WCC. At least the race for the Nos. 2-3-4 seeds in the conference tournament should be interesting.
TOP TEN PLAYERS
1. Corey Kispert, Senior, F, Gonzaga
2. Colbey Ross, Senior, G, Pepperdine
3. Jalen Suggs, Freshman, G, Gonzaga
4. Kessler Edwards, Senior, F, Pepperdine
5. Joel Ayayi, Junior, G, Gonzaga
6. Eli Scott, Senior, F, Loyola Marymount
7. Matt Haarms, Senior, C, BYU
8. Drew Timme, Sophomore, F, Gonzaga
9. Jamaree Bouyea, Senior, G, San Francisco
10. Dan Fotu, Junior, F, Saint Mary’s
Even with the key departures, this looks like another chance for Mark Few to make the Final Four — which he has done once, in 2017. Having forward Corey Kispert and guard Joel Ayayi pull their names from the NBA draft to return for another go in Spokane keeps the Zags nationally relevant. If 6-10 sophomore Drew Timme continues the progress he displayed down the stretch last season and ballyhooed 6-5 freshman Jalen Suggs is as good as advertised, Few has a chance at the top overall seed.
This looks Lorenzo Romar’s best team in his second stint in Malibu, with senior Colbey Ross (20.5 ppg last year) the catalyst and headliner. More fireworks are provided by 6-8 junior wing Kessler Edwards (14 ppg), a matchup headache with his ability to post up smaller defenders and too quick for bigger foes. If Romar can find a reliable third scoring option, the Waves likely will emerge as the top challenger to Gonzaga.
Last year the Cougars were the team no one wanted to face because of the considerable firepower at first-year coach Mark Pope’s disposal. Too much of that pop has departed, however. Whereas last season’s Cougars had chilling power beyond the arc, Pope might be more apt to play bully ball this season as the offense likely looks to 7-3 Purdue grad transfer Matt Haarms as the first option.
4. Saint Mary’s
Randy Bennett has won too often to dismiss the Gaels, but even Bennett will have a hard time replacing key graduation losses. One potential positive: 6-7 junior Dan Fotu, who played out of position a year ago, could emerge as a force as he moves out of the post.
5. San Francisco
Todd Golden had the Dons primed for a postseason invite in his first year, and it will be a disappointment if San Francisco fails to chart a similar course this winter. Golden’s go-go offense will still go full throttle with guards Khalil Shabazz and Jamaree Bouyea back, but the departure of Charles Minlend to Louisville on a grad transfer robs Golden of his most dangerous scoring threat.
6. Loyola Marymount
Former Marquette assistant Stan Johnson steps in and inherits one of the most versatile players in the conference in 6-6 battering ram Eli Scott (15 ppg), a high school teammate of the Ball brothers. Marymount might threaten a move up the WCC standings if 7-3 Swede Mattias Markusson, who redshirted a year ago, continues to progress into a formidable post threat.
In his four years, Damon Stoudamire has forged a bit of an identity for the Tigers, who have gained a gnarly reputation by leading the WCC in field-goal percentage defense, rebounding defense and blocked shots a year ago. Having 7-1 James Hampshire back in the fold helps, but the Tigers are unlikely to get much scoring from him or any front-liners. Watch juco guard Jervay Green, who flashed some real upside in a brief stint at Nebraska.
8. Santa Clara
Save some pity for Herb Sendek, who has seemed on the verge of turning around the Broncos’ fortunes only to be dealt a series of setbacks including injuries and transfers. Forward DJ Mitchell, a former Wake Forest transfer, and 6-7 wing Keshawn Justice will have to assume more of the scoring load for Santa Clara to emerge as an irritant, as Sendek’s teams have often become.
9. San Diego
After the Toreros cratered to 2-14 in league play with a graduation-depleted roster a year ago, third-year coach Sam Scholl sought immediate help from the transfer market to resuscitate the league’s worst offense. Of those, ex-Missouri and Duquesne guard Frankie Hughes, ex-Western Illinois forward Ben Pyle and ex-Rice forward Josh Parrish look most likely to make immediate contributions.
Remarkably, Terry Porter has reached the fifth year of his contract having won just 37 of 129 games. Though Porter is a local legend from his playing days with the Trail Blazers, none of his players are old enough to remember him in the NBA. For the second straight year, six players bailed out of the program, and Porter has hit the juco market hard in a last-ditch attempt to save a regime that long ago went sideways with a 7-61 record in league play the last four seasons.