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Saint Mary's, not Gonzaga, new team to beat in WCC

Greg Peterson  
VSiN.com

November 10, 2017 07:42 PM

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After 37 wins and a trip to the NCAA championship game, Gonzaga coach Mark Few is reloading this season.

Though just two teams made the NCAA Tournament from the West Coast Conference, coach Mark Few and Gonzaga made it a banner year with a run to the NCAA championship game. It was the first time any of the teams currently in the conference made the title game since the great Bill Russell attended San Francisco in the 1950s.

The storyline entering the 2017-18 season is the same for the conference as it has been for a long time — two teams tower over all others in Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. The only twist is there's a new favorite.

Gonzaga loses four key players from last season’s 37-2 team but returns the majority of its bench as well as forward Johnathan Williams and point guard Josh Perkins. Senior guard Silas Melson will be tasked with helping Perkins in the backcourt after he averaged 7.2 points while shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range. Williams is by far Gonzaga's top returning big man after he went off for 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, but 6-foot-10 sophomore Killian Tillie is developing well after seeing limited minutes a year ago.

The Zags still resemble a tournament team and likely a Top 25 squad, but this could be a year where they do not dominate the conference.

Saint Mary's had a 29-5 season with three of its losses coming at the hands of Gonzaga and the other two being against Arizona in the second round of the big dance and UT Arlington in nonconference play. Unlike Gonzaga, the Gaels’ top three scorers are back

What that means is look out America, because Jock Landale averaged nearly a double-double last season, while deadly 3-point shooter Calvin Hermanson and point guard Emmett Naar are back for one more attempt at a magical march in the tournament.

The lone knock on this team is that coach Randy Bennett is not bringing in much fresh talent via recruiting, but he does bring in one of the best graduate transfers on the market this year in Cullen Neal. The 6-foot-3 guard began his career playing for New Mexico before playing in SEC country for Mississippi in 2016-17.

As a sophomore at New Mexico, Neal posted 17 points per game, and while his scoring average went down to 9.4 points a season ago, he became a more efficient scorer by hitting over 40 percent of his 3s at Ole Miss.

This could be the year the Gaels finally make that deep run and threaten making it to the Elite Eight or possibly, if everything goes right, a Final Four.

Brigham Young got off to a rocky start last year but improved throughout the campaign and pulled off a stunner on the road to hand Gonzaga its lone regular-season loss in the final WCC game. While the Cougars have built a team that should compete for an NCAA Tournament bid, they have to wonder what could have been had Eric Mika not decided to leave school to play professionally.

BYU will have a dynamic stable of guards with T.J. Hawes returning and L.J. Rose eligible after transferring from Houston. The Cougars also bring back 6-foot-5 guard Elijah Bryant. But the recent departure of junior guard Nick Emery, who made a total of 172 3s in his first two years on campus, could hurt a little.

Portland was dead last in the conference last year, but leading scorer and senior leader Alec Wintering was lost for the season in January with a torn ACL. Second-year coach Terry Porter is bringing some solid players into the program including his two sons, Franklin and Malcolm. The transfer of dynamic guard Jazz Johnson stings and likely takes this team from threatening to reach 20 wins to hoping to get to .500 while this young team takes some lumps in hopes of brighter days in the future.

Pepperdine loses Lamond Murray Jr., who averaged 21.4 points for a 9-22 team, so it could be a battle for the Waves to not finish last in the conference.

Aside from Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's, Santa Clara is the team most likely to make some noise in this conference. The Broncos have a coach in Herb Sendek who has been to the NCAA Tournament before, and he brings in a key graduate transfer in former Princeton standout Henry Caruso.

While the team loses leading scorer Jared Brownridge and forward Nate Kratch, Sendek does bring in two three-star guards in Matt Turner and Shaquille Walters. With the improved recruiting and addition of Caruso, this looks like a 20-win team that should hang in a lot of games against solid competition.

San Francisco was able get to 20 wins last season but faded late, losing five of its last seven games. The Dons a nice low-post duo to build around in Chase Foster and Matt McCarthy.

Loyola Marymount has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1990 and is just praying to not completely embarrass itself this season. The program has relied exclusively on mediocre JUCO transfers in recent years and 2017-18 looks like more of the same.

Pacific is hoping see an uptick in wins after an 11-22 campaign in the first year under the guidance of coach Damon Stoudamire. The former NBA standout is rolling the dice on a bevy of JUCO transfers as well as former Portland State center Namdi Okonkwo. This won’t be a pretty season for a once proud mid-major.

San Diego is looking to build off of its 13-18 finish and has a lot of firepower coming back. If Olin Carter III can make a leap like he did last year, when he went from averaging 7.3 points on 33.5 percent shooting to 15.3 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting, there is a good amount of upside for this team. The Toreros ranked 325th nationally in scoring, but freshman Joey Calcaterra should make an immediate impact.

The conference feature two teams that can go deep in March and another in BYU that has a solid chance at making the tournament.

Greg Peterson’s West Coast Conference forecast:
1. St. Mary’s
2. Gonzaga
3. BYU
4. Santa Clara
5. San Francisco
6. San Diego
7. Portland
8. Pacific
9. Pepperdine
10. Loyola Marymount

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