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2019 West Coast Conference Preview

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Gonzaga is #1 but what about the rest? Your guess is as good as mine

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 West Coast Conference season begins tonight for eight of the 10 teams. After a fairly impressive non-conference performance, the WCC is garnering a lot more national attention than normal. People are intrigued by the hot starts of San Francisco, LMU and San Diego. The WCC went 10-7 against the Pac-12 the last two months and only one team (Portland) has a losing record heading into conference play. They have three teams in the Top 45 in KenPom and five teams in the top 100, both conference records if they were to hold. We wrote about the teams last month and figured now would be a good time to revisit them and make some predictions.

Gonzaga (13-2, KenPom 3)

The Bulldogs have the best offense in the country by pretty much every analytic measure. Their offensive efficiency is three points higher than second-ranked Duke according to KenPom. Three players average 16+ ppg. Their current 2pt FG% of 62.5 is the second highest mark of ANY team in at least 20 years. Josh Perkins leads the country in assists. Brandon Clarke is fourth in the nation in FG percentage. Rui Hachimura has the 10th most made shots of any player in the country. There is no team in the WCC that will match up with them physically. When Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall come back, their defense will get even better. They will be favored in every game the rest of the season, a majority of them by double digits. KenPom gives them a 14 percent chance of going unbeaten in conference.

Opener: Jan 5 vs Santa Clara

Key Games: Jan 12 at USF, Jan 30 at BYU, Mar 2 at SMC (senior night)

Saint Mary’s (9-6, KenPom 43)

The Gaels have been a maddeningly inconsistent team, which I suppose is expected with how much talent they lost. They began the season 3-0 with a nice road win at New Mexico State. Then they lost four straight games and everyone wrote them off. Since then, they’ve won six of eight, with a couple close losses to a good LSU team and a solid Western Kentucky team on the road. Their defense is not great, and they have basically no rim protection, but it has been getting better throughout the season. Offensively, they still score very efficiently, but they are lacking a consistent third option. Jordan Ford is a first-team talent. The junior averages 22.7 ppg and is eighth in the country in made FGs. Malik Fitts, the 6’8” sophomore transfer from South Florida, is averaging 14.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. After that, they have Jordan Hunter and Tanner Krebs, but you have no idea what you’ll get from either of them on a given night. Hunter has four games with 15+ points and five games with five or fewer points. Krebs was supposed to take a step up from last season, but has scored more than 15 just once. It’s hard not to trust Randy Bennett in conference play, as his team has finished no worse than second in 10 of the last 11 years.

Opener: Jan 3 at USF

Key Games: Feb 9 at Gonzaga, Feb 23 at USD

San Francisco (12-2, KenPom 44)

Kyle Smith has the Dons playing legitimately good basketball. It’s probably not enough to get an at-large bid unless they beat Gonzaga once and go 13-3 in conference, but it’s still a nice start. They are a top 20 defense in terms of points, a top 10 defensive rebounding team, and in the top 25 in both steals and 3pt FG% defense. Offensively, they never lose the ball, with a turnover percentage in the top 10. In other words, they do the little things and they do them really well. Frankie Ferrari, Charles Minlend, Matt McCarthy and Jordan Ratinho all average double figures. Nate Renfro is the ultimate stat-stuffing glue guy. Jimbo Lull is a seven-foot rebounding machine. And don’t sleep on Jamaree Bouyea, who is an incredibly good defender off the bench. The biggest problem that USF has is they don’t shoot the three well at all and they are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. They also are 2-2 against teams in the top 150 of KenPom, so it’s hard to say they’re a legit threat to win the conference. But they should absolutely finish in the top 4 and can definitely finish second in the WCC for just the second time ever.

Opener: Jan 3 vs SMC

Key Games: Jan 19 vs BYU, Jan 26 at USD

BYU (8-7, KenPom 87)

Remember how BYU used to play at one of the fastest tempos in the nation, but played no defense? And then remember how they slowed it all down last season and had their best defensive team in eight years? Well, they decided to go back to playing up-tempo and playing no defense again, and I’m not quite sure why. Offensively, they shoot a bunch of threes and miss an alarming number of them. Defensively, they’ve given up double digit threes in six of their last nine games. They already have three losses to sub-150 KenPom teams. They really only have two guys playing at a high level. Nick Emery came back midway through non-conference play, but hasn’t done anything yet. I have a hard time believing in Jashire Hardnett as a valuable weapon. His 11 ppg seem inflated because of their pace. But the two guys they do have are good enough to keep them in the race for a top three finish. Yoeli Childs leads the entire country in made field goals. He’s scored in double figures every game this season and already has eight double-doubles. If Gonzaga didn’t exist, he would win conference player of the year. He still could. TJ Haws is averaging a career best 17.3 ppg and is the only player shooting better than 34% from deep. He’s also averaging five assists a game as their lead guard most of the time.

Opener: Jan 3 at Pacific

Key Games: Feb 16 at LMU, Feb 23 at Gonzaga

San Diego (11-4, KenPom 88)

If you have an image in your head of last year’s San Diego team, just add more offense and you’ve got this year’s San Diego team. It’s basically the same exact roster as last season with another year of experience. Isaiah Pineiro, Olin Carter, and Isaiah Wright are all seniors now and the three of them combine for 50 points a game. Wright is a great distributer, Carter is a great shooter, and Pineiro is a bruising finisher. The three of them are as good a trio as any in the league. They will grind you out offensively and their physicality matches up well with almost anyone. They were a possession away from beating Washington in Seattle, they competed with Ole Miss despite their starting center Yauhen Massalski being injured, and they battled at Oregon before falling in the final few minutes. The biggest issue with the Toreros is their lack of depth. They only go six deep in important games and the aforementioned trio plus Tyler Williams all average 34+ minutes a game.

Opener: Jan 3 at Santa Clara

Key Games: Jan 19 at SMC, Feb 16 vs Gonzaga

LMU (12-2, KenPom 121)

The Lions are probably the feel-good story of the non-conference season. A year after suffering a tragic death before the season and fighting through a rough few months, Mike Dunlap has his team playing at a high level. Their 12 wins already surpasses last season’s total of 11. They started this year with wins at UNLV and over Georgetown. They also beat Boise State at home at the buzzer (check the video below, complete with Titanic music!) James Batemon is incredibly good. We saw him explode on the scene last year and he’s gotten even better this season. He averages 19.2 points and gets fouled A LOT. A week ago, he led the nation in made free throws. 7’1” Mattias Markusson puts up 11 and 7 for the Lions and usually stays out of foul trouble. As a team, the Lions are 9th in the nation in 3pt defense, allowing teams to shoot just 27 percent beyond the arc. While their start has been a fun story, I still feel their talent level is a step behind a few other teams. But they have a chance to finish in the top half of the conference for the first time since 2012.

Opener: Jan 3 at Pepperdine

Key Games: Feb 14 vs Gonzaga, Feb 16 vs BYU

Pacific (10-5, KenPom 161)

I talked about this last month, but the Tigers are probably a big man away from being a true top four team. They have three really good guards in Roberto Gallinat, who you probably remember, Lafayette Dorsey, who came off the bench last season, and Ajare Sanni, a freshman who is going to tear up this league next season. Upperclassmen Anthony Townes (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Jahlil Tripp (10.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) are both back and give the Tigers a little bit of size, but nothing overpowering. They only play one guy taller than 6’7” in Zach Cameron and he gets spot minutes. Those first five, though, are enough to battle every team in the league. A finish anywhere between 3-8 would not be shocking. The talent is there, but the lack of size is so glaring.

Opener: Jan 3 vs BYU

Key Games: Jan 17 vs USF, Feb 28 vs Gonzaga

Santa Clara (8-6, KenPom 212)

The Broncos lost five of six to start the season. They also lost star guard KJ Feagin for the year. Matt Hauser is sitting out all year recovering from a heel injury. And senior forward Henrik Jadersten has been battling back from a stress fracture in his foot. If you thought Gonzaga caught the injury bug, they have nothing on Santa Clara. Despite all that, Herb Sendek has righted the ship by winning seven of their last eight games, including wins over USC and Washington State. He’s done it by relying on underclassmen. Sophomore Tahj Eaddy and freshman Trey Wertz have become a lethal backcourt pairing, averaging close to 30 points and nine assists. Eaddy is shooting it at 41 percent from deep. Sophomore forward Josip Vrankic is back and he’s joined by freshman Keshawn Justice, who is averaging 10 points a game off the bench and has played a huge role in their success the last four weeks. Keep an eye on freshman forward Guglielmo Caruso from Italy, who has come on strong the last four games, too. What looked like the worst team in the league is now possibly a sleeper, and with all the experience these young guys are getting, they could make a decent jump next season.

Opener: Jan 3 vs USD

Key Games: Jan 24 vs Gonzaga, Feb 14 vs SMC

Pepperdine (7-7, KenPom 215)

The Waves have already surpassed their win total of six from last season’s disaster. That doesn’t mean they are very good, but at least they’re heading in the right direction under Lorenzo Romar. It’s going to be hard to judge this team for the next year or two until Romar can work some of his recruiting magic. They only have two seniors on the entire roster. Eric Cooper and Darnell Dunn both average in double figures, as does freshman Kessler Edwards. But their star is sophomore guard Colbey Ross. After a tremendous freshman campaign, Ross is averaging a touch under 20 a game this year, along with 7.2 assists, the best mark in the conference. Pepperdine is probably going to stay in the bottom three all season, but the rebuilding project has just begun and we’ll see what happens the next couple of years.

Opener: Jan 3 vs LMU

Key Games: Jan 17 vs BYU, Jan 26 vs SMC

Portland (7-8, KenPom 288)

The Pilots enter year three of Terry Porter’s reign as the only WCC team with a losing record in non-conference play. Their biggest jump has come on the defensive end. Their 2pt FG% defense is actually top 40 nationally after being ranked 249 last season. Teams are shooting just 45 percent inside the arc. For reference, Gonzaga is shooting 62.5 percent, best in the nation, so that will be a match-up of strengths when they get together. This is one of the youngest rosters in the country, with zero seniors on the team. They are led by a pair of sophomore guards in Marcus Shaver (14.7 ppg) and JoJo Walker (13.1 ppg), along with versatile swingman Josh McSwiggan (13.4 ppg). The new guy to get familiar with is freshman big man Theo Akwuba. The 6’10” big man already has six games with at least three blocks and trails only Brandon Clarke in that category.

Opener: Jan 5 at LMU

Key Games: Jan 31 vs Pepperdine, Mar 2 vs Santa Clara

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Predictions

1. Gonzaga (16-0)

2. Saint Mary’s (12-4)

3. San Francisco (11-5)

4. San Diego (10-6)

5. BYU (10-6)

6. Pacific (7-9)

7. LMU (7-9)

8. Santa Clara (4-12)

9. Pepperdine (2-14)

10. Portland (1-15)

Player of the Year: Rui Hachimura (Honorable mention: Yoeli Childs and Jordan Ford)

Feel free to blast me in the comments, but I’m still going to take Saint Mary’s over San Francisco to finish second in the league. The lack of three-point shooting and poor foul shooting is going to cost the Dons at least one league game this season. I’m also a huge believer in Jordan Ford. Neither team will beat Gonzaga. Nobody will. They have too much talent. If I had to guess, I would say the game in San Diego will end up being their closest game of the season. Just a hunch. There is a clear bottom three this season with Santa Clara, Pepperdine, and Portland. But from 2-7, there is a lot of parity. I’m not super high on LMU, but if they finished in the top half, it wouldn’t shock me. I still think BYU has enough talent on the roster to finish second, but their lack of defense and propensity to lose awful games at least once a year will probably drop them down a couple spots.

The main takeaway: There likely won’t be a second bid to the NCAA tournament unless USF goes 13-3 and beats Gonzaga. But the fact that spots 2-7 are all up for grabs shows how deep this conference is for the first time in seemingly forever. I expect a ton of very close games throughout the year.

How do you see the final standings? Sound off your thoughts in the comments. Enjoy the season!