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Previewing the 2009-10 West Coast Conference

Brandon Johnson may have been the most exciting player in the WCC two years ago.  Can he return to form after a terrible Achilles injury?
Brandon Johnson may have been the most exciting player in the WCC two years ago. Can he return to form after a terrible Achilles injury?

As the lone West Coast Conference blog on SB Nation, we've taken it upon ourselves to do our best to publicize the WCC as much as we can. If you read the site last year, you know that we love to cover the conference as much as we can without alienating the Gonzaga faithful. Schools like St. Mary's and San Diego have had national success in recent years and the University of Portland appears to be destined for a breakout season. All these teams make the conference fun to watch especially when you combine that with the fact that all the schools in the bottom half of the conference at least appear to be headed in the right direction. San Francisco and Santa Clara are both proud programs that seem to be on the rise. Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount have really struggled the past few years but are still getting decent talent and should be able to compete in the conference.

The West Coast Conference has often been ridiculed by the national media for being a weak conference and that definitely holds some water. Gonzaga feels compelled to play, and travel to, a bunch of big time schools just to boost their RPI because once conference play hits, the odds are that Gonzaga's RPI will fall off a bit. This season, however, Gonzaga will probably get its greatest challenge for the regular season conference crown in recent memory. The Pilots of Portland under head coach Eric Reveno return 12 players from last season's team and are everyone's choice to give Gonzaga the most trouble. St. Mary's is always a challenging foe for the Zags and a great rivalry has kicked up between the two schools in the past few years. San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Diego are also all fully capable of putting together nice seasons as they each have some very exciting, veteran players leading their teams into 2009-10.

After the jump we'll take a more detailed look at each of the teams in the conference (except Gonzaga) and outline where we think they are headed this season.

Portland Pilots

Last Season:
The Pilots had an outstanding season a year ago under Eric Reveno. They went 19-13 and made their first post season tournament since 1996 when they were selected to play in the Tournament. Portland was bolstered by a group of veterans led by Nik Raivio but the biggest key may have been transfer T.J. Campbell. Campbell arrived at Portland and made an immediate impact at point guard, averaging 11 points and 5 assists a game.

Player to Watch: Everyone knows the talent that Portland brings back this season. The big question is whether all of that talent has enough upside to show great improvement from last season to this season. For this reason, the key player for the Pilots is T.J. Campbell. Campbell brought so much to the team in his first season that expectations are very high for this final year in Portland. He's a very heady guard with great penetration abilities who will be the key if UP hopes to knock off Gonzaga in 2009-10.

Season Outlook: The Pilots kick off their season with Eastern Washington on the 14th of this month and face a pretty tough nonconference schedule. Games against Oregon, at UCLA, and at Washington will test Eric Reveno's team and will give them great preparation for WCC play. Fittingly, Gonzaga and Portland open up the West Coast Conference schedule against one another in Portland on January 9th. Overall, Coach Reveno did an outstanding creating a schedule not full of insane traveling that should give his team good rest while playing a respectable batch of games. I wouldn't be surprised if the Pilots took 2/3 from their Pac-10 foes.

St. Mary's Gaels

Last Season: It was a banner year in Moraga a season ago as the Gaels brought home a school record 28 wins in 2008-09. Led by the now departed Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson, St. Mary's was selected to participate in the NIT Tournament and they were a game away from heading off to New York for the semifinals before San Diego State upended them. A weak nonconference schedule and being routed by Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship gave away any hope for the Gaels being an NCAA Tournament team.

Player to Watch: St. Mary's is sort of going through a Gonzaga-lite experience this season. The Gaels have seven freshmen this season, five true and two redshirt. With all this youth for St. Mary's, a veteran has to be looked upon to pick up the slack and that guy is Mickey McConnell. Mickey was very inconsistent a season ago but returns for his junior year with some great experience after filling in for Patty Mills when he was hurt. The show is McConnell's now and he'll have to step up his output if St. Mary's is going to stay in the West Coast Conference race.

Season Outlook: St. Mary's will get two outstanding early season tests at the McKeon Pavilion in Moraga. San Diego State and Vanderbilt will make the trip to take on the Gaels on their homecourt and it will give St. Mary's a great idea of where they are at. Vanderbilt is a popular pick to be a top tier SEC team and San Diego State will challenge in the Mountain West. St. Mary's will also take on Oregon in Eugene and Utah State in Ogden to give them two nice road tests. Their hardest stretch of WCC games will be in mid-February as they take on Gonzaga, Portland, and San Diego all on the road in a seven day stretch.

San Francisco Dons

Last Season: It was a difficult year a season ago for the Dons. After not really playing anyone of note in their nonconference slate, San Francisco was greeted with some harsh reality and lost their first six games in conference play. The finally got off the hook with a win over Loyola Marymount but the season didn't really look up from their. The Dons would go on to win two more games in WCC play and were eliminated from the conference tournament by Pepperdine in their first game. The final tally for the Dons was an 11-19 record with three of them coming in conference.

Player to Watch: When I think about San Francisco, I actually feel happy that I won't have to watch Gonzaga take them on in person anymore. Not because it was such an awful game, but because I always feel terrible for Dior Lowhorn. Lowhorn is a combination of size and ability that even Gonzaga has trouble defending. He's been the leading scorer in the conference twice and averaged a little over 20 points a game last season. He has outstanding NBA potential and it is really hard to say where San Francisco would be without him on their roster...I'd wager somewhere near LMU.

Season Outlook: USF will be challenging itself this season with three very difficult road test in nonconfernece play. The Dons will face off with Arizona State, BYU, and Washington this season all away from their home court. They'll also make a trip to the Mountain time zone to take on Colorado and Colorado State. It's clear that Rex Walters is hoping to test his new, young nucleus of players with some road game that are winnable but will take a nice effort.

Santa Clara Broncos

Last Season:
Santa Clara went 8-9 in their nonconference schedule a year ago with games against Georgia, FAU, UAB, Arizona, UNLV, Pacific, Stanford, Harvard, and New Hampshire all resulting in losses. They were able to defeat UTEP in a thrilling effort but aside from that, there wasn't a whole lot of quality wins on the schedule. A 7-7 record in the conference is what head coach Kerry Keating led his team to. Their only real surprising victory last season was their last game of the year when they took down Portland. They were led by John Bryant who is now graduated from the university and his shoes will be tough to fill.

Player to Watch: This is probably the easiest player to watch in the conference, save maybe for Pepperdine. Kevin Foster returns to Santa Clara for his sophomore season and will be expected to make a big jump from a season ago. The WCC's co-newcomer of the year with T.J. Campbell, Foster was also a Freshman All-American having averaged 15 points per game. The guard from Katy, Texas is an outstanding outside shooting threat as he broke Steve Nash's single season SCU record for three-pointers made. If SCU is going to be able to cope with the loss of John Bryant, it'll have to be Foster that puts in most of the work.

Season Outlook: Not a whole lot of beef in the nonconference schedule for the Broncos. San Diego State and UNLV will be two tough Mountain West opponents and Santa Clara will also be looking to avenge losses against New Hampshire and Harvard from last year.

San Diego Toreros

Last Season: San Diego's magical run a few years ago when the defeated Gonzaga in the conference championship and beat Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament feels like an eternity ago after a disappointing year last season. It got off to an awful start as senior Brandon Johnson tore his Achilles tendon after eight games. The Toreros wound up finishing with a 16-16 record and losing in the second round of the WCC Tournament to Santa Clara.

Player to Watch: Brandon Johnson was granted a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA after his horrific injury. His return to the Toreros is enormous because without him, they might have challenge LMU for the spot in the cellar. Having also lost Gyno Pomare (graduation) and Rob Jones (transfer), Johnson will have to return to his old form and guide this team. There is a little experience with Johnson in the backcourt but the frontcourt will have sever growing pains for Bill Grier's squad.

Season Outlook: Games against Stanford, Oklahoma, San Diego State, and Mississippi State will give Bill Grier and the Toreros all they can handle in the nonconference slate. It appears that San Diego State has decided to schedule nearly ever WCC game, Oklahoma is a power in the Big 12, and Mississippi State could be a dangerous squad in the SEC. Stanford's basketball program is probably still a few years away but they still are Stanford and it will be a nice Pac-10 test right off the bat.

Pepperdine Waves

Last Season: Tom Asbury's return to coaching came with some mixed results in Malibu. They dropped 13 of their first 16 games including losses to Arizona State, USC, and Georgia Tech. Their only wins out of conference came against Western Oregon, Cal State-Monterey Bay, and Coppin State. They added five regular season conference wins and actually played inspired basketball. Wins over Santa Clara and San Diego were nice for Pepperdine but they were never able to challenge the heavy hitters and finished with a 9-23 record.

Player to Watch: Easily my favorite player not in a Gonzaga uniform is Keion Bell. The high-flying sophomore guard was one of the lone bright spots on the Pepperdine roster. Bell average about 13 points a game last year and brought some flare to the program. Keion is a very reckless player on the court however. He averaged about four turnovers a game last year and only dished out two assists. That will have to change in a big way for the Waves to show any signs of improvement.

Season Outlook: UCLA, Utah, Georgia, and Miami will all test Pepperdine in their nonconference schedule. The good thing is that they get Utah and Miami on their home court in Malibu. The rest of the schedule is anyone's best guess. Pepperdine will suffer some head-scratching losses but the key is for their veteran core to show some improvement and get some quality wins.

Loyola Marymount Lions

Last Season: You kind of have to give LMU a pass for their play a season ago. All summer and fall leading up to the season, we talked about LMU being the next program to challenge the top dogs. Bill Bayno was in charge and recruiting well but that all changed when Bayno took a leave of absence and eventually left the program. Max Good stepped in at the embattled program and led them to a historic 3-28 record. Wins over Bakersfield, San Diego, and San Francisco were all this team could muster.

Player to Watch: Believe it or not, the Lions do have some talent. They have two outstanding transfers who will be making an impact this season and one of them is former Oregon Duck Drew Viney. A 6'5'' sophomore forward, Viney left the Ducks after a short stint there due to injuries. He was a Scout top 100 recruit when he came out and will be called on to not only start immediately but be a leader on the team.

Season Outlook: In all honesty, every game for LMU will test them this season. With such a rough past few seasons, the program is still searching for an identity to build upon. Hopefully the new young players and transfers can build this program back into a proud on. Games against USC and Notre Dame stand out on the schedule for the Lions this season

ZB's Preseason Power Rankings
2. Portland
3. St. Mary's
4. Santa Clara
5. Pepperdine
6. San Francisco
7. San Diego
8. LMU

Top 10 Players Not in Gonzaga uniforms:
Dior Lowhorn, USF
Kevin Foster, SCU
Keion Bell, Pepp
Mark Trasolini, SCU
Omar Samhan, SMC
TJ Campbell, Port
Nik Raivio, Port
Jared DuBois, LMU
Drew Viney, LMU
Brandon Johnson, USD