Welcome back to part two of the WCC preview. Now that we finished with the bottom feeders, now lets focus on the top half of the league. This is where you start to see the conference getting better as a whole. Since BYU and Pacific entered the league, only once has the league sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. I'm not saying that it will happen again this season, but with the Mountain West a one bid league the past couple of years, now's the time to make a move.
While the team does lose their leading scoring and sixth man Ronnie Boyce, basically everyone returns. They were supposed to be the worst team in the league last time around, but former Columbia University coach Kyle Smith led them to a surprising top half finish. They have some good guards in Charles Minlend, Matt McCarthy and Chase Foster.
The Dons went 0-6 against the top three, so there may be a ceiling to the talent of this team. The small lineups used by San Francisco made them particularly vulnerable to bigger teams. That's why frontcourt players Eric Paulsen, Remu Raitanen and Jimbo Lull need to become a threat down low to balance things out. Considering how well they play at home, these guys shouldn't be taken likely.
This might sound crazy, but even without all-time Broncos scorer Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara could have a backcourt as good as the top three. As great of a scorer he was, his deficiencies in other places like defense and rebounding limited what Brownridge can do. That's why the return of point guard KJ Feagin is huge. Who missed almost half the season with a concussion is a high major caliber player who's the best non-top three player in the WCC.
Joining him are returning perimeter players Matt Hauser, Kai Healy and grad transfer Henry Caruso. The 6'4 guard comes from Princeton, who went undefeated in the Ivy League last season with him providing major contributions. Jarvis Pugh also returns, a double figures player in his own right. Santa Clara has is one of the better shooting teams in the conference and plays solid defense as well. If senior center Emmanuel Ndumanya can just provide a bit more on offense and stay out of foul trouble, Herb Sendek and the Broncos are a legitimate threat to Gonzaga and the others. And Feagin will be a contender for conference player of the year.
There's not much to say about this team from the physical standpoint. Sophomores Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws are first team all-conference caliber players. Zac Selijaas returns early from his LDS mission after shooting 50% from deep his freshman year. Three more role players have completed their missions and will be returning, as well as a couple of Junior College guards looking to provide some athleticism to the group. And although Nick Emery was very inconsistent last season, he has the capabilities of being a solid two-way player.
But really this isn't about BYU's "talent", as they've had plenty since they've arrived in the WCC. With the exception of one season, BYU as and Gonzaga have split their regular season meetings, so there's been opportunities to win the league. The problem is the losses to the bad teams that eliminate them from championship contention. If you watch them play outside of Gonzaga, the level of urgency and effort drops dramatically, even against Saint Mary's.
The Cougars gave up 99 points at Pepperdine, 85 at San Diego and 116 at home to Utah Valley, whose two best players are BYU transfers. There's a mentality of entitlement and arrogance the program has about playing in "high school gyms" and constantly brings up the 20,000 fans as a way to belittle fellow WCC teams. They've always felt that they should just walk in and win all the titles, and it's killing them that it hasn't happened. There are no seniors on this team and they have a four star forward set to come back next year, so there's optimism coming from Provo. But the "Dream Team" could play in Provo and they'll still lose at Pepperdine if they're mentality doesn't change. They could very well beat the Zags again, but honestly Santa Clara and San Francisco have a better shot at winning the regular season title than the Cougars.
Saint Mary's Gaels
We might like to admit it, but Saint Mary's being a top 25 program was great for Gonzaga too. It gave three high profile games and atmospheres that the other games didn't. Even BYU doesn't matter as much since they're always underachieving each year. There was even evidence that the Gaels were good when they took Arizona to the wire in the sweet sixteen. Of course, they were only a seven seed in that game since the non-conference schedule was awful as ways.
It appears that they still haven't learned their lesson, as this year's non conference is just as putrid as all the other years. Regardless of what they do in the regular season, a top four seed is all but out of the question. But that's their problem, not ours. Our problem will be containing an offense that will be even better than last year's.
The Gaels lose two major contributors in forward Dane Pineau and guard Joe Rahon. While those two weren't great scorers, they were the best defenders on the team and guarded the opposing team's best players. Rahon also complemented point guard Emmett Naar well in the offense having two quality ball handlers on the court. They will be replaced in the starting lineup with seniors Evan Fitzner and two-time grad transfer Cullen Neal.
Off the bench Fitzner was a three point sharpshooter and a forward who could stretch the floor and space the offense. Neal is an intriguing player, as he averaged nearly 20 his first two years with New Mexico. But when he played in the SEC at Ole Miss, he couldn't hit double figures. With the WCC more comparable to the Mountain West, his average should go back up.
The key of course is the three returning starters, with Naar, wing three point shooter Calvin Hermanson, and All-American contender and front-runner for WCC player of the year in Jock Landale. He primarily operates in the post but was shooting more threes later in the year to space out the offense.
They have some young players coming off the bench in wing Elijah Thomas and guard Jordan Ford and another Australian center named Jock in 7'1 Jock Perry. Still, expect Bennett to rely more on the seniors and use a shorter rotation.
The Gaels will look more different this time around, with even more shooting and one ball distributor on the court. In the matchup with the Zags, Saint Mary's still doesn't have someone to guard Johnatan Williams straight up. But Gonzaga doesn't have Karnowski or Collins to take on Landale. The Gaels have more experience than the Zags, but Gonzaga has superior athleticism.
One interesting note about Saint Mary's that might mean something, the Gaels perform incredibly well against inexperienced point guards. Josh Perkins was a freshman when the Gaels swept the Zags in the regular season, and TJ Haws was a freshman during the three blowouts last year. The guards who beat Saint Mary's last year were junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright from Arizona, senior Eric Neal from Texas Arlington and of course All-American stud Nigel Williams Goss. With the extremely slow style of pace, point guards who like to play fast can get frustrated and make mistakes running the offense. Whereas veteran guards aren't affected and can slice up the Gaels defense. At this point Perkins is used to how Saint Mary's plays, and that might be an underrated advantage for the Zags.
So that's the entire preview of the WCC. Who's gonna be the surprise or the disappointment of the league. Will this be the year BYU wins the league? Or does another team make a move? We'll have to find out and see this upcoming winter.