After a thrilling and impressive non-conference season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will set their sights on bringing home an unprecedented 10th consecutive WCC title. Even with the improvement we have seen from many of the other WCC teams, there is no doubt that Gonzaga has the talent and experience to roll through this conference. However, we also know that the other seven teams look at beating Gonzaga as an opportunity to make ESPN and put a signature win on their resume. Last season, I predicted Gonzaga to go 14-0 in conference, which is precisely what they did. With that said, every Gonzaga fan must admit that the WCC could have been much different if Patty Mills doesn't break his hand during the thrilling encounter in Spokane. This season, I feel we have a clear cut #1 team in the conference, and then lots of competition for spots #2-#5. So without further adieu, I present my WCC predictions (note: I will list the teams in predicted order, followed by current record, followed by projected conference record).
1) Gonzaga (11-3; 13-1)
One of the things that makes me so optimistic about this team is the fact that I don't think it is anywhere close to achieving its ultimate potential. Over the past few years, we have seen Gonzaga teams that have peaked in November and December. With Coach Few still attempting to piece together the rotation and figure out where to go in crunch time, I expect this team to reach their potential in February and hopefully really be peaking in March when it really matters. I was incredibly tempted to predict another 14-0 season, but I just feel that there is such a better balance of talent and consistency throughout the upper echelon of the conference. However, in Matt Bouldin and Elias Harris, Gonzaga has the WCC POY and the WCC Newcomer of the year, and one of the most athletic teams that Mark Few has ever had at his disposal.2) LMU (9-7; 10-4)
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog since the beginning of the season. I believe LMU is the second most talented team in the conference, and after some initial growing pains, they are now playing and winning consistently. LMU will enter WCC play on a six-game winning streak, and will have the luxury of opening conference play with Pepperdine, USF, and Santa Clara. Drew Viney and Vernon Teel form one of the most potent duos on the entire West Coast (yes, this includes the pathetic Pac 10), and there is a nice amount of depth on this team.
3) St. Mary's (13-2; 10-4)
As was the case last season, St.Mary's has put together an impressive win/loss record by playing a fairly pathetic non-conference schedule. The win over Oregon looks much more impressive now that the Ducks have started Pac 10 play so well, but the fact that they couldn't pull out potential key wins over Vandy and USC is alarming. I also worry that the lack of Wayne Hunter throughout conference play will prove to be more of an issue then it was during the final games of the non-conference season. Both Omar Samhan and Matthew Dellavedova are great talents, but I just don't think Mickey McConnell or Ben Allen will do enough in the supporting cast to help this team compete for the conference championship.
4) Portland (9-5; 8-6)
While the Pilots entered the season as the team considered most likely to challenge Gonzaga for the WCC title, I don't think this team has improved or taken the next step since last season. In no way do I mean to discredit what Eric Reveno and his staff have done, but I think this group just lacks the athleticism and depth to compete at the highest level over the course of the WCC season. This team will use its toughness and fundamentals to beat up on the bottom half of the conference, but I just don't think it can consistently win against the top teams in the WCC.
5) USD (7-9; 7-7)
In all honesty, I think the 7-9 record in the non-conference schedule isn't as bad as it appears at face value. USD played a very difficult non-conference schedule, and it came really close to pulling off impressive victories against teams like New Mexico, Southern Illinois, Mississippi St., and San Diego St. Brandon Johnson is slowly returning to his All-WCC form, and Roberto Mafra has emerged as a nice post threat for this team. However, if De'Jon Jackson continues to be hampered by the foot injury that sidelined him in the win over Florida A&M, then USD might lack the fire power on the offensive end to finish this high.
6) Santa Clara (8-9; 5-9)
I know this has kind of been the trend since Kerry Keating arrived at Santa Clara, but I really think the Broncos are one year away from competing for a top spot in the conference. The loss of Kevin Foster is potentially devastating since I don't think there is anyone that can replace his 19.8 points per game. There is a lot of young talent with guys like Marc Trasolini and Robert Smith playing big roles, but I just don't see there being enough depth in the rotation for Santa Clara to consistently compete with and beat the teams ahead of them in the WCC.
7) USF (5-10; 2-12)
There wasn't much of a difference between Pepperdine and USF for this last spot, but I went with the Dons because I think that Dior Lowhorn deserves better then a last place finish in the conference. However, USF lacks anything remotely close to a signature or impressive win so far this season, and has been borderline dismantled by every quality opponent they have played. It's important to remember how bad of a program this was before Rex Walters took over, so it's important that the fans and administration stays patient and allows Walters to bring in his own talent and culture to the program.
8) Pepperdine (4-12; 1-13)
It pains met to put Pepperdine in this spot since I think Keion Bell is one of the most exciting guys in the WCC. Bell can literally do everything on the court, as he leads the Waves in points and assists, while he is tied for second in boards. However, Mychel Thompson has never made the jump that I thought he would after an impressive freshman season and I don't think Dane Suttle Jr. is capable of putting up big stats in the WCC. I think there is a realistic chance that Keion Bell could somehow elevate this team to more wins then expected, but there is no doubt that every team will have its defense geared towards slowing him down and forcing his teammates to win the game.