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The WCC Contenders

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Here’s a look at the top half of the conference

Tod Fierner | SMC

Keith did a nice breakdown of the back half of the West Coast Conference, as voted on by the coaches. Today, we take a look at the top half, which can be described as “The Contenders.” All five of these teams have postseason hopes of some kind, and all are talented enough to reach those goals. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s should be shoe-ins for the NCAA Tournament, while BYU and Pepperdine believe they have outside shots of getting in. Santa Clara is looking to build on their encouraging season a year ago and perhaps finish in the top four and grab an NIT bid.

5. Santa Clara Broncos (Last Season: 8-8 in WCC)

Herb Sendek put together one of his best coaching jobs last season and nobody really talked about it. He started the season with just eight healthy scholarship players. Before the year even began, he lost senior wing Matt Hauser to a foot injury and freshman big man Juan Ducasse to knee surgery. In the second game of the year, star point guard KJ Feagin broke his hand and then missed the entire season after foot surgery. Senior big guy Fallou Ndoye tore a tendon in his foot during the second week of the season. Before they could blink, Santa Clara lost two starters and two rotation players and owned a 1-5 record.

After that, they won eight of nine games, including a double OT win over USC. They did it by throwing their youngsters straight into the fire. Five of their seven rotation players were underclassmen, led by their stud freshman guard Trey Wertz, who averaged 12.2 points and 4.7 assists alongside his backcourt mate Tahj Eaddy, who led the team with 15 points and was named a pre-season All-WCC selection this year. The team finished 8-8 in WCC play, and went 8-3 against teams not named Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s.

The Broncos return their top five scorers (Eaddy, Wertz, Vrankic, Justice, Caruso), and add much needed size inside. DJ Mitchell, a 6’8 transfer from Wake Forest, should slot into the starting lineup. David Thompson is a community college transfer guard, who shot 47 percent from deep. Big men Ducasse and Ezekial Richards are back from injury and freshman Jaden Bediako played for Canada in the U-19 FIBA World Cup this summer. They have a grand total of zero seniors on this roster. They should continue to build on what they accomplished last year, and very well could threaten the top three in 2021.

4. Pepperdine Waves (Last season: 6-10 in WCC)

The hype is real in Malibu this year. After a spirited run to the WCC semi-finals in last year’s tournament, the Waves return a lot of what made them dangerous. Colbey Ross is back for his junior year, and he can do it all. He had the sixth highest assist rate in the country a year ago, got to the foul line the fifth most times of anyone in the country, and shot 40 percent from deep. The Edwards brothers are back and both are healthy. Kessler, the sophomore brother, averaged 10 points a game as a freshman. Kameron, now a senior, battled injuries and missed several games, but averaged 14.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Jade Smith, Darryl Polk, and Andre Ball are back to provide quality guard and wing minutes. The biggest addition should be Keith Smith, a guard/wing hybrid transfer from Oregon. Smith was a four-star recruit out of high school, but could never really find a consistent role at Oregon in his two years there. Now, he should be a big cog in the machine for Lorenzo Romar.

The biggest question for Pepperdine will be size. Victor Obioha came on at the end of last season, but he and true freshman Jan Zidek are the only players taller than 6’8 on the roster. Last year, Pepperdine was 331st of 353 D1 teams in 2-point FG defense. They were also in the bottom third in rebounding. We know they will run, we know they will hoist up a ton of threes, and we know they are as athletic as any team in the conference. But it’s yet to be seen if they can guard well enough and rebound well enough to truly jump into to top three.

3. BYU Cougars (Last Season: 11-5 in WCC)

If this preview were written two months ago, the outlook on BYU would have been a lot more positive. It has been a very weird summer in Provo. Most know about Yoeli Childs’ suspension. He’ll miss the first nine games of the season over a paperwork snafu in regard to his testing the NBA waters. After that, Nick Emery quit the program. A few weeks later, he tweeted about how the program and new coaching is a little shady.

Then the injuries came. Zac Seljaas has a foot injury that will sideline him to start the year. It’s been rumored that TJ Haws is dealing with knee problems. And then the death blow came last month when big man Gavin Baxter suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

All of this means BYU will have seven healthy scholarship players (including Haws) when the season begins. They will start Haws with Utah Valley grad transfer Jake Toolson, who is a phenomenal scorer and will be asked to shoulder an even larger load with Childs, Seljaas, and Baxter out. Dalton Nixon and Kolby Lee will probably end up starting, and it’s possible that Jesse Wade takes the fifth starting spot over Connor Harding.

Whatever the starting lineup is, BYU has zero depth inside. Even when Childs returns, their only front court players are him and Lee. Everyone else that will end up playing the “4” and “5” will be wings that play inside by necessity. BYU has two transfer forwards and Arizona transfer guard Alex Barcello who will all sit out this season.

When Childs returns, the trio of Haws-Toolson-Childs will win plenty of games by themselves. It’s as dangerous a trio as there is in the conference. The rest of the players around them will need to step up big time if they are to hold off the rest of the teams nipping at their tail for that third spot in the standings. New head coach Mark Pope will have his hands full trying to figure out the solution.

2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (Last season: 11-5 in WCC)

Last year, many people thought the Gaels would take a step back. Some people put them as low as fourth in the conference, behind BYU and San Francisco. When you looked up at the end of the year, there they were sitting in second place just like usual. And of course, they pulled off the enormous upset over number one Gonzaga in the WCC Title game to send them to the NCAA Tournament.

This year, they return most of what made them successful last season. The only piece missing is WCC Tournament MVP Jordan Hunter, who owned the Bulldogs in that championship game. Seattle transfer Aaron Menzies, a legit seven footer, will fill that role, assuming his back is healthy to start the year. He missed all of last season due to injury.

Tommy Kuhse is back. Tanner Krebs is back. And of course, Malik Fitts and Jordan Ford are back. Want to know something interesting about Ford? Last year, the Gaels were DEAD LAST in the nation in assist rate. They only assisted on 37.9 percent of their baskets. After watching a plethora of great guards run through Moraga and knowing how many ball screens they run, that stat seems impossible. They were top 25 three of the prior four years. Instead, it shows how much of a score-first guard that Ford is. It also shows he didn’t have a ton of ball handling help most of the season. That help may come in the form of Kristers Zoriks. After missing the last two years with knee surgeries, Zoriks is slowly working his way back and could be ready for the start of conference play. He was going to start alongside Ford last season and plays a lot like Emmett Naar. His ability to use ball screens will allow Ford to play more off the ball.

Also, Mickey McConnell is back as a coach. Try not to think of bad memories.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (Last season: 16-0 in WCC)

We know enough about the make-up of the team at this point. This article was a primer for the rest of the conference. If you thought maybe Gonzaga would take a step back, they just beat up the pre-season number one team in the country in a scrimmage. Of course, we always have to take these scrimmages with a grain of salt, but it’s an encouraging sign that this team is going to be just fine and their ceiling will be incredibly high when March rolls around. Killian Tillie speaks for us all.