The season is upon us! With Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s ranked, a pair of aspirational programs welcoming new head coaches and the bulk of the league looking strong once again, we’re primed for another solid season of West Coast Conference basketball.
As I’ve done for years now, this season I’ll be putting out weekly power rankings. This season they’ve found their way onto Medium, for now at least. Anyway, let’s get into it!
1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Previous: N/A; AP №8 (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Alabama State, Nov. 9 vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff
Mark Few lost his program’s all-time assist leader (Josh Perkins), an ice-cold sophomore shooting guard (Zach Norvell Jr.), and a pair of First Round picks in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. And those were just the four guys who signed contracts with NBA teams. He also lost critical reserves in Geno Crandall and Jeremy Jones.
Still, I refuse to put Gonzaga anywhere other than atop my preseason rankings. I did it once, in a year that saw Gonzaga go through massive turnover and Saint Mary’s bring back an absolutely loaded team. Saint Mary’s was good that year, but the Zags opened the season with 29 consecutive wins.
Until Mark Few falters, his program gets the benefit of the doubt. So, let’s talk about why that is in this specific season. Here are two critical reasons that stick out to me.
Corey Kispert is being referred to as a glue-guy by some around the nation. Which, is accurate, right? Because he’s basically the prototypical Zag, right? An in-state kid who understands the history and trajectory of this program and figures to be an integral part of it for four years. Fair enough, but don’t sell him short. Kispert turned down offers from the ACC to be a day-one starter as a freshman at Gonzaga. Sure, he’s been a glue guy. He’s been a really damn good one, too. If you’ve got a glue guy with all-conference potential, you’re probably head and shoulders above the rest of the West Coast Conference.
Now consider sophomore Joel Ayayi, who last season was stuck to the bench. Then he went out and landed on the FIBA U-19 World Cup all-Tournament Team after putting up 20.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game for France over the summer. As was the case last season, it’s easy to say Gonzaga lacks depth at guard. The Zags will be starting a grad transfer point guard (Ryan Woolridge) and a grad transfer shooting guard (Admon Gilder). They’re both known commodities at this level, just not in this system. But Ayayi is the latter, if not the former just yet. Woolridge and Gilder enter their first season in Spokane; Ayayi enters his third.
I’ve said all of this without even mentioning the best recruting class in Gonzaga history. According to 247Sports, the Zags landed the third (Drew Timme), fourth (Anton Watson) and seventh (Pavel Zakharov) highest rated prospects in program history. Damn.
2) Saint Mary’s Gaels
Previous: N/A; AP №20 (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Wisconsin (neutral)
Last season was supposed to be the rebuild. Randy Bennett had to make up for the loss of his best four-year class ever. Emmett Naar, Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson were gone. Early on, it showed.
Jordan Ford (21.1 points per game) had to do it all. Well, Malik Fitts (15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds per game) did a lot, too. It just wasn’t enough and the Gaels found themselves precariously sitting two games above .500 on January 4.
But they figured it out. Tommy Khuse developed into a fine point guard, allowing Ford to focus on scoring. By March, they had worked their way back onto the bubble. Which ended up not mattering because they won the auto-bid.
Now, with basically everyone back from an NCAA Tournament team, the Gaels are poised to make back-to-back trips to the dance for the first time since Matthew Dellavedova’s mouth guard made that happen in 2012 and 2013.
Plus, they’ve added some legit pieces to compliment what’s already there. Aaron Menzies is a 7-foot-3 space eater. Technically, he’s not new, either. A grad-transfer last season he was granted an extra year of eligibility due to injury. The new face to know is Logan Johnson, an immediately-eligible point guard from Cincinnati.
Don’t try to make fun of the schedule either, because it’s legit. Opening night sees Saint Mary’s travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota (WTF) to play Wisconsin. The Champions Classic will dominate the day, but this is the third best game on a massive slate.
3) Pepperdine Waves
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 at Cal, Nov. 9 vs. UC Irvine
Is it wise or foolish to expect a massive jump year-over-year just because a team returns a ton of players? With the Waves, who finished 16–18 last season, it probably is unwise. I don’t care.
Last season was year one of the Lorenzo Romar Era (Part II) in Malibu. He had to balance a roster of old guys with his new guys. This year, he’s in a much better position. According to Bart Torvik, the Waves bring back just over three-quarters of their minutes from last season.
Sure, the Waves weren’t great last year overall but they showed flashes. The team swept San Diego and split with both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco during the regular season. In Vegas, the Waves rattled off three straight wins, with a very exciting style of play, before falling to Gonzaga in the semifinals.
Colbey Ross (19.4 points, 7 assists per game) isn’t just one of the best point guards out west, as a junior he’s going to be one of the best in the country. He’s surrounded by young talent like forward Kessler Edwards, who was strong from the start, and Victor Ohia-Obioha, who came on down the stretch. They’re both sophomores now.
Then there’s the elder Edwards brother, redshirt senior Kameron, who spent much of last season sidelined with injury. Fully recovered from foot surgery entering this season, Kameron is as strong and athletic as any forward in this league.
4) BYU Cougars
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Cal State Fullerton, Nov. 9 vs. San Diego State
When this program joined the WCC, riding high from Jimmermania, I was not yet a sportswriter. Simply a fan of Gonzaga, and I was terrified. More honestly, I hated it.
So how on Earth did we get to this point where more often than not the Cougars feel like they could finish anywhere from fifth to second, but never first? I don’t have an answer.
What I do have is cautious optimism. Will that mean a fifth place finish but improvement over last season (making the NIT)? Or a surge back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015? Who knows, and I’m starting out by betting on something firmly in the middle.
Another thing I have is faith that Mark Pope is the man for this job. He’s an NBA guy with experience at BYU and experience leading a turnaround as a head coach. His results at Utah Valley were outstanding. As was the player he brought with him, Jake Toolson (who also has experience at BYU). Last season, behind 15.7 points and 45% shooting from three, Toolson was named Western Athletic Conference player of the year.
One thing I don’t have is faith in everything else. Because, simply put, BYU hasn’t been able to live up to its talent level for years now.
Nick Emery retired in the offseason before firing off some idiotic tweets which hinted at a culture problem within the program. He’s gone, and that’s a good thing. TJ Haws has been great, but what have the Cougars got to show for it? And Yoeli Childs, savior back from the NBA Draft, has to sit out for nine games because the NCAA sucks.
Zac Seljaas and TJ Haws were both held out of the Cougars’ exhibition with injury, though they appear good-to-go now. Jesse Wade underwent surgery and could be out for a few weeks or the whole season. Gavin Baxter, a bright spot last season, is out for the year with injury.
No matter how much talent this team has, and believe me it has as much as any team in the conference south of Spokane, there’s a lot going on off the court in Provo. It’s a lot for a first year man to handle, even if he is the right man for the job going forward.
5) Santa Clara Broncos
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. UC Santa Cruz, Nov. 8 vs. Cal Poly
This one is going to come back to bite me in the ass and I know it.
Santa Clara finished fifth in the WCC last season and by all accounts did nothing but get better since.
The Broncos’ five leading scorers were underclassmen. Sophomore guard Tahj Eaddy (15 points per game) led the way and earned second-team all WCC honors. Sophomore forward Josip Vrankic (13.7 points, 6.2 rebounds) wasn’t far behind.
Trey Wertz, a freshman, was probably the best player on the team. Wertz was named all-freshman after averaging 12.2 points and 4.7 assists per game. Fellow frosh Keyshawn Justice (9.7 points per game) and Guglielmo Caruso (6.4 points, 4.2 rebounds) really developed into solid starting-level players over the course of the season.
They’re all back, as is fourth year head coach Herb Sendek. The only guy missing is star guard KJ Feagin, but he missed all but two games last year anyway. If this group, without Feagin, could weather a disastrous 0–4 start and wind up in fifth place… imagine what they could do this year. Fifth place is the floor for this team, by my eye. Third place is the ceiling. What sits above them now has more potential, but also more room to stumble.
6) San Diego Toreros
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. UC Irvine, Nov. 9 at Long Beach State
Last year, and to a lesser extent the season before, I loved the San Diego Toreros. The fan in me rooted for them with more pure joy than I rooted for any other team in this league. They were good for the past two years. And that unexpected NIT berth in March was the cherry on top.
The core group of guys I rooted for, though, are gone. Only Pacific and Gonzaga return fewer minutes than San Diego among WCC teams. The Toreros return roughly one third of their minutes, but lose all of their go-to guys.
Isaiah Wright, Isaiah Pineiro, Olin Carter and Tyler Williams have all graduated and left campus.
This team now belongs to Yauhen Massalski (6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) and Alex Floresca (5.3 points and 3.2 rebounds). Those two bigs, both upperclassmen, were solid rotation players last season. To begin the year Massalski was the starting five. He got injured, Floresca stepped in, then Massalski returned before Floresca won the job back. Which is to say, this year, the two best players play the same position. That’s not ideal.
But second-ish year head coach Sam Scholl has a gem in sophomore Finn Sullivan. And Scholl is a young coach with a ton of promise. It’s a rebuilding year in San Diego, for sure, but I don’t expect this group to drop off all that much before bouncing back in the upcoming seasons.
7) San Francisco Dons
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Sonoma State, Nov. 9 vs. Princeton
Kyle Smith left to take the top job at Washington State and the Dons tabbed Todd Golden as the next man up. Golden, like Smith, is an analytical mind. Basically everybody else on the staff is a nerd, too. So, despite the coaching change, there’s continuity.
On the roster, there’s about as much turnover as any team in the country could expect. Except, I have a feeling we’re going to realize this season just how good and just how important Frankie Ferrari was to this team last season. Without him, they’ve lost their motor.
Charles Minlend (14.5 points per game, 4.7 rebounds) has been as talented a player as the WCC has seen in ages. He was second-team all-WCC last season. Let’s say he’s just as good this season. Well, that’s why I have the Dons starting off in seventh place. There’s a lot of teams with a lot of guys who will finish above second-team all-conference. Minlend might be the Dons only one.
There’s a quality starting five in San Francisco. But I can’t see its ceiling being much higher than its floor. Now though, since I’ve been saying stuff based purely off what I see with my eyes, the coaching staff is going to math this into bad takes exposed territory a few months down the line. Which I would absolutely love to see. This program has far too much prestige, even if the people old enough to remember it are starting to forget, to be opening the year sitting in seventh.
8) Loyola Marymount Lions
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Westcliff, Nov. 9 at Nevada
Since Mike Dunlap took over six years ago the Lions have been the biggest enigma in the West Coast Conference. That might be starting to change this season, as the roster is no longer a hodge-podge of junior college transfers. That’s not to say there’s much roster continuity here, though.
The Lions return less than half of their minutes from last season. James Batemon (16.4 points per game, 3.6 assists) graduated after two seasons as the Lions’ best player. Mattias Markusson (10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds) was the team’s second leading scorer as a junior last year, but he’s redshirting this season.
That means Dunlap is going to need guys like versatile junior Eli Scott, who can play one through four and sophomore Dameane Douglas (8.3 points, 4.9 rebounds) to step into leading roles this year. They’ll be surrounded largely by freshmen, of which there are seven on the roster.
9) Pacific Tigers
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Cal State Stanislaus, Nov. 8 vs. South Dakota, Nov. 10 vs. Florida A&M
Damon Stoudamire is entering his fourth season in Stockton. After a successful turnaround from years one to two the program fell back into the bottom rung of the WCC last season. Unfortunately for fans of this program that once ran roughshod over the Big West, things aren’t looking bright this year either.
Nine of the 15 players on the roster, every single one of the upperclassmen, played college basketball somewhere else before finding their way to Pacific. Jahlil Tripp (10.6 points per game, 5.7 rebounds) has been on campus for the past two seasons. Last year he was named all-WCC honorable mention. Tripp looks to be the go-to guy this season with the departures of top scorers Roberto Gallinat (to graduation) and Lafayette Dorsey (transfer).
10) Portland Pilots
Previous: N/A; (0–0)
This week: Nov. 5 vs. Willamette, Nov. 8 at USC, Nov. 10 at San Jose State
Coming off the worst statistical season from a WCC team in recent memory, Pilots fans are presented with a chance to be optimistic if they so choose.
Want to view the glass as half full? This team was terrible last season. Roughly half of the minutes from last season need to be replaced. Can’t replace those minutes with worse minutes, right? Okay, cool. This year has to be a step forward.
Well, those minutes include the Pilots’ leading scorer Marcus Shaver, who transferred to Boise State. They also include the third leading scorer, Josh McSwiggan, who was listed as a redshirt junior last season. The NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, decried he had exhausted his eligibility. Poof, college career over.
It can’t get any worse, right?