WCC Men’s Basketball Preview: Of course, Gonzaga, but league is stronger this season
Gonzaga advanced to the NCAA Finals two seasons ago, and this team looks to be even more talented. The Bulldogs, who earned a win over No. 1 Duke at the Maui Classic, have won the past six WCC titles and won or shared 17 of the past 18. There’s no reason to believe Gonzaga isn’t going to win the regular season championship and the WCC Tournament title on its way to bigger things.
Top to bottom
While the ’Zags are clearly the class of the league, there appears to be much more parity below them in the standings. The combined record of the 10 WCC teams after the preseason is 100-49, the first time the league has netted 100 wins before league play. Saint Mary’s was picked second and BYU third in the preseason poll but San Diego, San Francisco, Loyola Marymount and Pacific look capable creating some havoc in the standings.
The Big Dance
Gonzaga seems a lock but even though the WCC may be stronger overall the league may still only get two teams into the NCAA Tournament. With more parity, the teams below Gonzaga could spend the conference season knocking each other off. Who will emerge?
The MVP race
Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura would seem to be the favorite for MVP as long as the Bulldogs are king of the conference. Jordan Ford of Saint Mary’s and Yoeli Childs of BYU will put up big numbers.
Newcomers stand out
The WCC has a strong transfer game and some of those players became eligible this season. On any other team, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke would be an MVP candidate. Santa Clara’s Taj Eaddy and Saint Mary’s forward Malik Fitts are also playing well in their first seasons after transferring into the league.
Top 5 Players
Rui Hachimura, 6-8 Jr. F, Gonzaga
Hachimura will likely take his game to the next level after this season, but he still has room to grow. He’s averaging 21.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field.
Jordan Ford, 6-1 Jr. G, Saint Mary’s
Ford leads the WCC in scoring (22.7 points per game) and is shooting 46 percent from the 3-point line. Those numbers make him one of the most consistently dangerous scorers around.
Yoeli Childs, 6-8 Jr. F, BYU
Childs is the league’s best big man and can go off for a double-double most nights. He’s second in the league in scoring (22.3 ppg) and first in rebounds (10.1).
Isaiah Pineiro, 6-6 Jr. F, San Diego
Pineiro is pretty much unstoppable with his back to the basket but can drive and score as well. He’s at 20.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and shooting 55 percent from the field.
James Batemon, 6-1 Jr. G, Loyola Marymount
In his second season in LA, Batemon is blossoming into a great offensive player. He’s averaging 19.6 points and 3.8 assists per game, and he’s terrific at the foul line as well (85 percent).
Top 5 Newcomers
Brandon Clarke, 6-8 Jr. F, Gonzaga
Clark’s numbers get overshadowed by Hachimura, but he’s having a terrific season. The former San Jose State star sat out last season, but this year he’s averaging 17.1 points and 8.3 rebounds while converting an astonishing 69 percent from the field.
Tahj Eaddy, 6-1 So. G, Santa Clara
Eaddy sat out last season after transferring from Southeast Missouri and has established himself as Santa Clara’s go-to guy. He’s putting in 15.8 points per game and shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line.
Malik Fitts, 6-8 So. F, Saint Mary’s
Fitts transferred from South Florida and sat out last season. He’s making himself comfortable right away, averaging 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line.
Trey Wertz, 6-5 Fr. G, Santa Clara
A true freshman from Charlotte, Wertz has made an immediate impact with the Broncos. He’s averaging 12.6 points and 4.8 assists per game.
Charles Minlend, 6-4 So. G, San Francisco
OK, so Minlend isn’t exactly a newcomer. He was a member of the WCC All-Freshman team two seasons ago but sat out last year due to injury. He’s made a big splash in his return, averaging 15 points and 5.5 rebounds a game for the Dons.
West Coast Conference Power Rankings
1. Gonzaga (13-2)
College Basketball NET ranking: 7
Trending: The Bulldogs lost two games in a row to Tennessee and North Carolina, the first time they had lost consecutive games since the 2013-14 season.
Best win: An 89-87 victory against No. 1 Duke at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21.
Best player: Rui Hachimura 6-6 Jr. F (21.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
The Word: The scary thing is that Gonzaga isn’t even full strength yet. Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall should return from injury in the next week or two, giving the Bulldogs even more firepower and depth. Gonzaga has the look of a Final Four team again.
2. San Francisco (12-2)
College Basketball NET ranking: 39
Trending: The Dons lost to MAC favorite Buffalo, 85-81, on Dec. 1 and reeled off five more wins before falling to UC Santa Barbara 73-71 on Dec. 29.
Best win: USF has beaten two Pac-12 squads in Cal (79-60 on Dec. 5) and Stanford (74-65 on Dec. 22)
Best player: Charles Minlend 6-4 So. G (15.3 ppg,5.5 rpg)
The Word: “Team” best describes the Dons this season. Minlend, returning after missing all of last season due to injury, is explosive and point guard Frankie Ferrari guns the engine. USF is deep and playing well together entering WCC play.
3. San Diego (11-4)
College Basketball NET ranking: 83
Trending: The Toreros are 5-2 in their past seven games.
Best win: San Diego defeated Colorado for the second year in a row, winning 70-64 on Nov. 20.
Best player: Isaiah Pineiro 6-6 Sr. F (20.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
The Word: The Toreros are the most likely team to move up in the standings after finishing in a three-way tie for fourth last year. Pineiro is having a terrific season and new coach Sam Scholl has his kids playing their best ball in years.
4. Saint Mary’s (9-6)
College Basketball NET ranking: 63
Trending: The Gaels had a four-game losing streak in November and is 6-2 since.
Best win: A 73-58 victory at WAC favorite New Mexico State on Nov. 14.
Best player: Jordan Ford 6-1 Jr. G (22.7 ppg, 46 pct 3-pt FG)
The Word: The Gaels have left the comfy confines of McKeon Pavilion with mixed results, going 1-1 in true road games and 1-3 in neutral site contests. While its record isn’t as impressive as in previous years, Saint Mary’s has been tested more and that should pay off in the long run. Ford is having an MVP type season and newcomer Malik Fitts is getting better every week.
5. Loyola Marymount (12-2)
College Basketball NET ranking: 112
Trending: The Lions rolled to an early 11-1 record, the best start in program history.
Best win: A 65-52 victory against Georgetown in the Jamaica Classic on Nov. 16.
Best player: James Batemon 6-1 Jr. G (19.2 ppg, 3.8 apg)
The Word: Batemon has been a force on the offensive end and has led the Lions in scoring in ten of their 14 games. LMU is doing it on the defensive end and are second in the WCC in points allowed per game (59.2).
6. BYU (8-7)
College Basketball NET ranking: 113
Trending: The Cougars are just 3-6 in their past nine games and lost three in a row to end the preseason.
Best win: A 95-80 victory against Utah State on Dec. 5.
Best player: Yoeli Childs 6-8 Jr. F (22.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg)
The Word: BYU tried to beef up its preseason schedule to attract attention from the NCAA selection committee, but the Cougars are barely keeping their head above water. The biggest culprits are defense (last in the WCC) and 3-point shooting (30 percent), two areas that will determine where BYU finishes in a WCC which is much more competitive below Gonzaga.
7. Pacific (10-5)
College Basketball NET ranking: 165
Trending: The Tigers won four games in a row before losing at Boise State on Dec. 22.
Best win: An 84-75 overtime victory against UC Irvine on Dec. 29
Best player: Roberto Gallinat 6-3 Sr. G (14.6 ppg, 89 pct FT)
The Word: The Tigers are a very athletic team who can be a tough matchup any given night. Gallinat, Layfayette Dorsey and Jahlil Tripp give coach Damon Stoudamire plenty of options.
8. Pepperdine (7-7)
College Basketball NET ranking: 217
Trending: The Waves broke a three-game losing streak with a 100-64 victory against Alabama A&M on Dec. 31.
Best win: An 86-80 victory against Miami (Ohio) on Nov 18.
Best player: Coleby Ross 6-0 So. G (19.4 ppg, 7.2 apg)
The Word: Pepperdine misses Kameron Edwards (17 ppg, 7 rpg), who hasn’t played since mid-November due to an injury. Ross has been really good in making up the difference and is one of the league’s brightest young stars.
9. Santa Clara (8-6)
College Basketball NET ranking: 225
Trending: The Broncos opened the season on a four-game losing streak but have gone 7-3 since.
Best win: A 102-92 double overtime victory against USC on Dec. 18.
Best player: Tahj Eddy 6-1 So. G (15.8 ppg, 4.2 apg)
The Word: Preseason All-WCC selection KJ Feagin has been out since November with a broken bone in his hand, so Eaddy and Josip Vrankic have had to keep Santa Clara competitive. The Broncos are still a dangerous team heading into league play.
10. Portland (7-8)
College Basketball NET ranking: 282
Trending: The Pilots are 2-6 in their past eight games.
Best win: An 80-77 victory against Northridge on Nov. 17.
Best player: Josh McSwiggan 6-7 Jr. G (13.4 ppg, 91 pct FT)
The Word: It’s not been a great start to Terry Porter’s third season in Portland. McSwiggin has had some big games – he scored a career-high 31 in the opener – and Marcus Shaver Jr. has played well on the guard line. But the Pilots are ninth in scoring offense in the WCC (72.1 ppg) and last in field goal percentage (.438).