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2020 WCC Preview

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Is a 3-bid WCC possible?

120 Sports, LLC

The 2020 West Coast Conference season tips off on Thursday with eight teams beginning their 16-game schedule. On a whole, it was a fairly successful non-conference slate from the league. Only San Diego and LMU have losing records heading into the new year. It’s not rated as highly as it was a year ago because the middle of the league isn’t quite as good, but it’s still ranked 9th overall out of 32 conferences in America. Last year, it finished 8th with a rating of 5.06. As of Tuesday, the WCC sits at 3.87, which is still far better than the three down years of 2016-18.

The WCC has four of the top 30 offenses in the country according to KenPom, but just three defenses ranked in the top 100, which means we should see plenty of points all season long. The question at this point is if the conference can sneak three teams into the NCAA Tournament. The easiest way to do that would be Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s getting an at-large and someone else winning the WCC Tournament. But after BYU weathered the storm of Yoeli Childs’ suspension, they have built a case for their own at-large bid, with two wins over top 50 KenPom teams, both away from home. With the general lack of good power conference teams, perhaps it’s possible three WCC teams could get into the Big Dance as long as BYU and SMC don’t take a couple bad losses in league play.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (14-1, KenPom 6, Offense 1, Defense 49)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: +0.83

We know plenty about Gonzaga at this juncture, considering this is a Gonzaga website. Ryan Woolridge has exceeded everyone’s expectations at the point, Joel Ayayi has played so well that he forced himself into the starting lineup, Corey Kispert has taken the needed step up into a prominent role, and the front court is dominant once again. Six different players average double figure scoring and Drew Timme is at 9.9 points a game. The eighth man in the rotation, Anton Watson, might be their most versatile defender. If this team can stay healthy and improve defensively over the next two months, they have as good a shot as anyone to win a national title.

Saint Mary’s Gaels (13-2, KenPom 25, Offense 6, Defense 105)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -0.28

Randy Bennett’s team has been through a lot in the first two months of the season. They started the year with a strong overtime win over Wisconsin and then immediately dropped a home game to Winthrop that took the Gaels off everyone’s radar. Since then, they have won a bunch. Saint Mary’s has beaten Fresno State, Cal, Nevada, and Arizona State all away from Moraga, plus a big home win over Utah State. Their only other loss came on a neutral court to a Dayton team that looks like a legit top 10 program this season. They are doing it the same way they did it at the end of last season: Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts. Ford is averaging 21 points and has more steals than turnovers. Fitts and Tanner Krebs join Ford in shooting over 40 percent from deep. As a team, the Gaels are shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc, the best mark in the country. However, their interior play took a huge hit last week when Matthias Tass tore his ACL. With Jordan Hunter gone to graduation, Tass had been starting at the “5” and playing extremely well. With him gone, they turn to Dan Fotu, who scored 17 points in his first start of the year, but is only 6’7. With Aaron Menzies not playing many minutes, Randy Bennett may go full steam ahead with an uncharacteristic small ball lineup the rest of the season.

BYU Cougars (11-4, KenPom 38, Offense 11, Defense 84)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: +4.67

As mentioned at the top, BYU was surprisingly good without Yoeli Childs for nine games. They beat Houston on the road with a TJ Haws buzzer beater and then beat Virginia Tech in Maui. Their losses to Kansas and undefeated San Diego State are understandable, and their two road losses to Boise State and Utah, both in overtime, are somewhat forgivable. BYU’s offense is extremely dangerous because all eight players in their rotation can step out and hit threes. We’ve all seen Haws play for seemingly 10 years now, so we know what he is about. But transfers Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello, who flank Haws on the wings, both shoot 43 percent from deep. Childs is 7-for-11 from beyond the arc since returning. Zac Seljaas, Conor Harding, and Dalton Nixon are a combined 49-for-121 (40.4%). As a team, BYU scores 40 percent of their points from distance, 17th most in the country. The problem with them is still their lack of size. Beyond Kolby Lee, their 6’9 starting center, Mark Pope has been relying on Childs to play the “5” and a combination of Nixon, Seljaas, Toolson and Harding to fill in the other forward spot. All of them are under 6’8. They don’t rebound very well and they give up the 5th most points on two-pointers of any team in the country.

San Francisco Dons (11-4, KenPom 99, Offense 30, Defense 203)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: +4.57

If anyone thought USF would take a huge step back after losing their head coach and starting point guard, think again. Kyle Smith is now at Washington State, leaving the reigns to his assistant, the babyface Todd Golden. He’s led USF to wins over Yale and Cal along with a road win over Fresno State. Their losses have come in OT to Harvard, on the road to Stanford and Hawaii, and a one-possession game to Arizona State. Frankie Ferrari has graduated and left his “coolest name in the WCC” title to their sixth man Khalil Shabazz. Shabazz has been a revelation this season, averaging 10.1 points and 1.7 steals in just 18 minutes a game. The 6’1 sophomore from Seattle has the best defensive rating on the team and the sixth highest steal percentage in the country. The rest of the squad is full of familiar faces. Jamaree Bouyea has taken over the starting guard spot left by Ferrari and he’s playing with Charles Minlend and Jordan Ratinho. Bouyea and Minlend both average a touch over 14 a game, but Ratinho hasn’t shot the ball as well as he’s been the last two years. Seven-footer Jimbo Lull anchors the middle, bringing in 7.5 rebounds to go with his 12 points a game. The offense can score it, they rebound really well, but they are struggling to defend consistently. They rank in the bottom third in most categories, which makes their home opener against Saint Mary’s on Thursday night really interesting to watch.

Santa Clara Broncos (13-2, KenPom 147, Offense 153, Defense 154)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -1.95

You may be asking yourself, “How can Santa Clara go 13-2 and move DOWN two points in efficiency?!” Well, the answer is that they have played, quite literally, the softest schedule in America. They have played eight teams ranked 275 or worse in KenPom. All 13 wins have come at home. Their two road games, the only two games against teams ranked in the top 100, were blowout losses to Stanford and Nevada. Of course, this doesn’t mean Santa Clara isn’t good. Remember, last year Santa Clara finished 8-8 in the league and beat USC.

I really like their roster, maybe more so next year when they return everyone again, but their youthful group is still solid this season. They have zero seniors. Seven players average at least eight points a game and nine players average double digit minutes. Sophomore guard Trey Wertz leads all scorers with 12.5 points, followed by fellow sophomore big man Willy Caruso, who is shooting 70 percent inside the arc and blocking almost 1.5 shots a game. 6’8 Wake Forest transfer DJ Mitchell has moved into a sixth man role and is scoring 10.5 points a game. Tahj Eaddy hasn’t shot the ball well yet, but will be very dangerous whenever he finds that stroke. Forwards Keshawn Justice and Josip Vrankic are contributing good minutes just like a year ago. They’ve added two solid freshmen in wing Jalen Williams, who has started the last five games and is shooting 38 percent from deep, and big man Jaden Bediako, who played for Canada in the U19 FIBA World Cup this past summer.

Pepperdine Waves (7-7, KenPom 168, Offense 59, Defense 306)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -6.10

No WCC team had more hype coming into the year than Pepperdine. Multiple national writers had the Waves as their breakout team of the season. Little did they know that Lorenzo Romar’s squad would forget about the defensive side of the basketball. Their FG% defense is 314th, their 3pt% defense is 348th, their 331 free throws given up is 12th most in the nation, they are 286th in defensive rebounding percentage, and, worst of all, they lost to San Jose State. San Jose State had won eight games against D1 opponents since Brandon Clarke left the school. They beat Pepperdine 83-68 and hit 13 threes in a game for the first time since January 2014.

The Waves have one win over a team inside the top 200 and it was at home against UC Irvine. They got smoked by Cal and Central Florida, gave up 91 in a loss to USC, gave up 93 in a last second loss to Arizona, and lost at home to Sacramento State. Their roster feels too talented to be this bad, but if they can’t play defense, it doesn’t really matter how gifted they are offensively. Colbey Ross is still a stud point guard and the Edwards brothers complement each other perfectly. The loss of Eric Cooper and Darnell Dunn to graduation, two reliable shooters, is taking a much bigger toll than outsiders expected. JC transfer Skylar Chavez can shoot, but Darryl Polk isn’t a scorer, freshman Sedrick Altman has struggled, and Oregon transfer Keith Smith had to be carried off the floor with a knee injury in the fourth game of the season. In short, the Waves have four extremely talented offensive players, no interior size, no defensive consistency, and depth concerns. Despite those last three problems, it would shock nobody to see the Waves beat any of the top three on a given night. It would also shock nobody if they lost to Portland.

Pacific Tigers (12-4, KenPom 172, Offense 190, Defense 160)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: +3.54

Damon Stoudamire’s group is probably the surprise of the non-conference season. They haven’t really beaten anyone outside of UNLV, but to be 12-4 after losing a majority of their roster from last year is impressive. If you want to talk about depth, Pacific has it. The Tigers have a whopping TWELVE PLAYERS averaging double digit minutes. Known returner Jahlil Tripp and Georgia Tech transfer Justin Moore are the only two guys averaging 20+ minutes, and not coincidentally are the two guys in double figure scoring. Like normal, Pacific plays incredibly tough and rebounds the ball better than most teams in the country, despite their lack of height. The third consistent starter, 6’9 Amari McCray, plays 50 percent of the minutes at the “5”. The rest of the time is typically split between 6’8 Shaquillo Fritz, an Arkansas State grad transfer, and 7’1 JC transfer James Hamsphire. Of the 12 guys in the rotation, six of them are transfers, two of them are freshmen, and four are returners from last season. For this patchwork roster to be 12-4, even with a softer schedule, is a pretty remarkable feat.

San Diego Torreros (7-8, KenPom 173, Offense 277, Defense 95)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -0.92

Make no mistake, this is a rebuilding year in San Diego. It’s only natural to take a step back after losing four incredibly talented senior starters. But the kids that have needed to take a step up have done so. Joey Calcaterra and Youngstown State transfer Braun Hartfield both average 13 points a game. They just got big man Yauhen Massalski back and he’s averaging 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in six games. The team as a whole still plays really solid defense, which has been a staple of theirs the last couple of seasons. However, they are in the bottom half of the country in most offensive categories, including 298th in turnovers (15 a game). Their 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc is by far the worst in the conference.

LMU Lions (6-8, KenPom 217, Offense 193, Defense 245)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -3.22

Mike Dunlap’s team was put behind the eight-ball a bit when 7’2 center Mattias Markusson took the year off to understandably deal with a death in the family. Without his anchor in the middle and the graduation of James Batemon, LMU has taken a big step back from their 22-12 finish a year ago. Eli Scott has taken a strong leap forward, averaging 16.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5 assists. The only other scorer in double figures is 6’7 forward Ivan Alipiev, who went from 1.9 points a year ago to 11.6 this season. No team in the conference buys into “positionless basketball” more than the Lions. Outside of the point guard, they often have lineups with four players at 6’6 or 6’7. Obviously, this causes some interior defensive and rebounding problems, but it also causes mismatches on offense, allowing LMU to have the 52nd best effective FG% in the country.

Portland Pilots (8-7, KenPom 278, Offense 297, Defense 218)

KenPom efficiency change since opening day: -1.15

The Pilots started the season 8-3 before dropping each of their last four. The start is at least a little encouraging after coming off a winless WCC season last year and losing several rotation players. This year, Terry Porter’s squad is led by Isaiah White, a Maine grad transfer. The 6’4 guard is averaging 13.3 points and is the only senior in the rotation. 10 players average double digit minutes as Porter tries to figure out who is most reliable. JoJo Walker is the only other double figure scorer, but was suspended for two games. With only one senior, perhaps this can be a growing season for Portland, and if all goes well, they can keep their roster in tact to make a leap next year.