Top WCC storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. Gonzaga or St. Mary’s? St. Mary’s or Gonzaga? This rivalry should be as intense as ever, with the Gaels ready to knock the Zags off their perch, but it’s a toss up as to who takes the crown, and a rubber match culminating in the WCC final seems inevitable.
2. Is BYU closer to contending against Gonzaga and SMC, making the WCC a three bid league? Or are they closer to the middle of the pack? Dave Rose also has some off the court issues hanging over his head, centering around Nick Emery.
3. Kyle Smith has turned the Dons into a contender in short order, and his knowledge of the WCC, and in particular St. Mary’s, makes USF a dangerous team this year.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Gonzaga– Is it possible Gonzaga is the most underrated team in the WCC? I don’t think there’s much question that Mark Few’s squad should continue to dominate the league, even with St. Mary’s returning nearly everyone. There’s just way too much talent for the Zags not to reload this year. Obviously last year’s team was a special one, and there’s a lot to replace, but I don’t think the drop off is going to be as steep as some national observers might think. The first, most glaring question is who replaces Nigel Williams-Goss at the point? NWG lived up to his billing and more last year, and if his ankle wasn’t holding him back late vs UNC, Gonzaga could very have been mounting a national title defense this year. Few will most assuredly move Josh Perkins back on the ball, and he should be improved in that capacity after some mixed results two years ago. He’ll need to shoulder the load at the point until uber talented Jesse Wade (he’s finally in uniform!) and Joel Ayayi have some D1 experience under their belt. Wade could be a lethal scoring point and deadly shooter, while Ayayi has pure distributor written all over him. Their development will be a key for the backcourt this year. Silas Melson returns off the ball after hitting nearly 50 percent of his 3-pointers in WCC play en route to posting the league’s second-highest efficiency rating, and he’s arguably the best overall defender on the team. Few has several options on the wing, all young but with an abundance of upside. Sophomore Rui Hachimura is a 6-foot-8 freakish athlete who could turn opposing 3s and 4s into posters this year. His defensive upside is off the charts as well, but his overall offensive game is still pretty raw. A summer spent with the Japanese national team surely helped his development. Zach Norvell is a sharpshooting volume 3-point threat out of Chicago and is probably the odds-on favorite to start at the 3 for Few. Corey Kispert is yet another four-star recruit that can play inside and out and should see his fair share of minutes, especially if he’s stretching defenses from the perimeter consistently. The frontcourt has a lot of bulk to replace and looks rather thin in depth (which means Hachimura and Kispert will almost certainly see run at the 4), but Johnathan Williams is a lock at the 4 and gives Few the inside/out and mobility aspects at that position he’s been missing the last few years. (Of course Gonzaga’s outstanding interior defense was the trade off for that floor-stretching ability, a defense that was the best in the country last year.) Williams can play all over the floor and will epitomize a new look frontcourt for Few this year, one that will embrace the "small ball" revolution. Killian Tillie will most likely start at the 5. Tillie reminds me of Steven Adams, but with slightly more range offensively. He gets off the floor quickly and seems to have a preternatural sense for where the ball is going off a miss. If Few stays conservative or Tillie and Williams aren’t getting the job done in rim defense (a very real concern for this team), Jacob Larsen is a more traditional 5 if his knee is 100 percent. Depth and interior defense are concerns for the frontcourt, but the talent level and athleticism are extremely high. Gonzaga isn’t likely going to be a national title contender this year, but the WCC title still runs through Spokane.
2. St. Mary’s– There is of course a very distinct chance the Gaels make everything I just wrote about Gonzaga look foolish by year’s end. Randy Bennett’s hyperly efficient motion offense is a well oiled machine with a veteran crew anchored by first-team All-American candidate Jock Landale. Landale’s per minute rates in WCC play last year were laughably absurd: first in usage, second in shot rate, first offensive rebounding and second in defensive rebounding rates, seventh in block rate, third in contact rate – and he shot 61 percent from the field. Landale is the heart and soul of the motion offense, as it’s almost all filtered through him. Landale’s running mate at the 4 will be Evan Fitzner, a lethal 6-foot-10 sharpshooter who puts a ridiculous amount of stress on opposing defenses. Bennett has a bit of dilemma this year, as he played a lot of offense/defense substitutions between Fitzner and Dane Pineau, the team’s best overall defensive player last year. With no obvious replace for Pineau’s defensive production, Bennett will likely rely on Fitzner to improve in that regard, which means the offense could be even more efficient this year, which sounds unfair just typing it. Bennett will try to replicate his dual point guard look, which has been an effective wrinkle in his precise motion offense. Joe Rahon is gone to run alongside hyper-efficient lead guard Emmett Naar, but rising sophomore Jordan Ford could step into the role, allowing Cullen Neal to simply sit back and snipe from deep. Starting 3 Calvin Hermanson benefits the most from Bennett’s offense, as he was the WCC’s most efficient player last year, posting a .655/.423/.800 shooting slash line in league play. Tanner Krebs and Kyle Clark provide seamless depth on the wing. Elijah Thomas and Jordan Hunter round out Bennett’s typically short bench, providing depth in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. Defensively, Bennett’s focus is always to take away the 3-point line. His teams have been in the top 10 nationally in 3-point attempts allowed in 11 of his 16 seasons in Moraga. Another key component of a Bennett-coached defense is a low foul rate, preferring to wall off the paint and help up on penetration rather than gamble defensively for turnovers. Essentially, you have to beat SMC with two-point jumpers, although I’m a touch concerned in that regard with the loss of Pineau. All in all, I could regret not picking the Gaels to win the league this year, as the offense could very well be the most efficient in the country this year.
3. BYU– With the Cougars missing the NCAA Tournament last year, it marked the first time in Dave Rose’s 12-year tenure in Provo that BYU failed to make the dance in back-to-back seasons. This year’s version looks like a bubble team come Selection Sunday. With possession and usage dominator Eric Mika no longer the focal point of the offense, Rose will likely return to a four-out, perimeter-oriented lineup with three playmakers at 1-3, especially with sharpshooting stretch 4 Zac Seljaas back from his mission and Elijah Bryant healthy. Nick Emery and TJ Haws will be the focal points of the perimeter attack as two lethal volume shooters who can certainly fuel Rose’s potent transition attack. A healthy Bryant is a third ball handler who can attack the rim from the 3 position, and Seljaas shot nearly 50 percent from 3-point range his freshman season. Dalton Nixon is another 6-foot-7 shooter back from a mission, and he gives Rose another option at the 3/4 in bigger lineups. JUCO import Jahshire Hardnett adds some penetration ability and pure point guard play that Haws and Emery lack. He’ll be a factor in the backcourt rotation, especially given how Emery and Haws have struggled to handle ball pressure in the past. Yoeli Childs will shift to the 5 as an athletic rim protector and rebounder on both ends. He’s also efficient at the rim on the offensive end, as he doesn’t venture too far outside of his comfort zone of putbacks and monster dunks. Rose has a deep frontcourt at his disposal this year, with Luke Worthington back from his mission and veterans Braiden Shaw, Payton Dastrup, and Corbin Kaufusi returning. With the exception of Kaufusi, all the frontcourt depth was rated at at least three-stars out of high school, and Dastrup particularly brings some floor-stretching ability when he’s on the floor. Defensively, Rose almost completely abandoned his usually reliable zone defense, but with the addition of Heath Schroyer to the coaching staff (his second stint on the BYU sideline), look for the Cougars to utilize a unique defensive scheme. Schroyer is a master of a camouflaged matchup zone, which will really mitigate the perimeter defensive issues that have plagued the Cougar guards over the years. It allows for better ball screen defense out of players with less lateral agility. It really is a perfect scheme for Rose, as it doesn’t hurt his defensive rebounding ability, a key to BYU’s transition attack. Schroyer’s teams have always been elite in terms of defensive rebounding rate, as have Rose’s. With four players back from mission and an explosive offensive backcourt, the Cougars should be on the cusp of returning to the NCAA Tournament. Of course this projection could be for naught if the investigation into Emery receiving improper benefits results in some sort of suspension.
4. San Francisco– Kyle Smith returned to the Bay Area and brought his outstanding motion offense which places a high premium on floor spacing and inverted bigs. Think SMC-lite, which makes sense given that Smith was a Randy Bennett assistant for 10 seasons. The Dons picked up the scheme well, the only problem was that the jump shots created within the offense simply wouldn’t fall. USF shot just 32 percent from 3 in WCC play, which slightly undermined what was an incredibly successful first season from Smith. Smith has to replace talented scorer Ronnie Boyce, but he had trouble picking up the offense at times, and his absence shouldn’t have much of an effect on the offense. What could be a problem is an offseason shoulder injury sustained by Charles Minlend. Minlend had a steep learning curve as a freshman in this offensive scheme, but he’s likely going to be the team’s leading perimeter scorer if he’s healthy coming into the year. Frankie Ferrari should be poised for a breakout junior season at the point, especially if the Dons’ perimeter shooting improves. Ferrari is also Smith’s best perimeter defender, but freshman Souley Boum could steal some minutes on the ball, as he gives Smith an extra penetrating wrinkle offensively, and there are minutes to be had all over the floor. (Smith utilized the second-deepest bench in the country last year.) The wing corps around Ferrari is led by Chase Foster and Jordan Ratinho, who both thrived in Smith’s motion offense as 40 percent volume 3-point shooters. Smith can’t really afford to play them much at the same time, as they’re liabilities defensively, which is why Foster played the Microwave Johnson role last year. Smith’s underrated frontcourt played a significant part in what was a surprisingly solid defense, finishing third in efficiency rating in WCC play, holding opponents to 0.95 points per possession. Matt McCarthy and Nate Renfro didn’t put up huge defensive numbers, but they defended their positions well in Smith’s generally man-to-man defense. However, they struggled offensively, particularly behind the arc, as they weren’t accustomed to an offensive scheme that relied on them playing on the perimeter for significant possessions. Jimbo Lull and Remu Raitanen provide solid depth in the paint, and Raitanen showed promise as the floor stretcher Smith needs in his offense. Estonia freshman Tavvi Jurkatamm could be what Smith is looking for, though, offensively in the frontcourt, as his shooting and passing ability are coveted in Smith’s motion. If the perimeter shooting improves in year two of learning Smith’s offense, the Dons should contend for a top three finish and even an NIT bid.
5. Santa Clara– Replacing Jared Brownridge’s production isn’t possible, but Herb Sendek should have a top-half WCC team if his injury luck turns for the better this year. Both K.J. Feagin and Jarvis Pugh missed extended time with foot injuries, and Feagin reinjured the same foot in the offseason (although he’s reportedly ready to start the season). Feagin and Matt Hauser form the crux of Sendek’s offense in a dual PG look. Hauser led the WCC in assist rate, while Feagin was second. Feagin is the sharpshooter of the two, hitting 49 percent from 3 in WCC play, while Hauser is more of a creator off the dribble, although he hit 40 percent from deep as well. Of course those assist and shooting rates could take a hit without Brownridge commanding so much defensive attention. Sendek will be relying on Princeton grad transfer Henry Caruso to at least try to replace some of Brownridge’s wing production. Caruso is a totally different player than Brownridge, as he’s more reliant on what one could call "YMCA moves" than the jump shot. That’s not to say Caruso isn’t a capable shooter; that just wasn’t his role in the Princeton offense. He’s also a capable defender on the perimeter and a plus passer. Freshman Matt Turner and SEMO transfer Tahj Eddy should see minutes as shooters in an offense that was eighth nationally in 3-point attempt rate, while senior Kai Healy is a 3 and D guy off the bench. A healthy Jarvis Pugh can be penciled in at the 4, as he’s a good enough shooter on the perimeter and an excellent defensive rebounder for his size to pull it off. Emmanuel Ndumanya at the 5 isn’t much of a rim protector or offensive threat, but he can clean up the glass. Henrik Jadersten is a floor-stretching option at the 5 for Sendek. There are some questions facing the interior defense, and while replacing Brownridge seems like a daunting task, the Feagin/Hauser/Caruso trio is a solid offensive nucleus, and they should keep the Broncos in the top half of the league.
6. Pepperdine– It’s tough to even judge Marty Wilson and the Waves on last year’s team, as they lost so much depth to season-ending injuries. It even forced typically staunch man-to-man Wilson to use a zone last year, with horrific results. Forced into a scheme he doesn’t really utilize, the Waves’ defense allowed teams to shoot 42 percent from 3, good for dead last in 3-point percentage defense nationally. Granted, a lot of 3-point percentage defense is luck driven, but playing an unfamiliar scheme certainly doesn’t help your defense. However, Wilson’s track record at Pepperdine and the return of two key players from injury bolstered by one of the WCC’s better recruiting classes should make for a bounceback season in Malibu. Amadi Udenyi missed nearly all of last season with a ruptured achilles, but when healthy, he’s one of the best distributing points in the league and one of the better ball hawks defensively. The importance of his return can’t be overstated. Kam Edwards missed all of last season with a broken jaw, and his return on the wing gives Wilson a much-needed penetrator. Wilson’s teams largely eschew the 3, preferring to utilize a flex-influenced offense that relies on drawing a lot of contact. Edwards led the WCC in FT rate as a freshman two years ago, and the Waves’ FT rate plummeted to 314th nationally without him. Wilson does have to replace his top three scorers from last season, but Nevada transfer Eric Cooper should help immediately. He’s likely to be Wilson’s only perimeter threat as an off-ball sharpshooter, although Knox Hellums showed a solid stroke on the wing as a freshman last year. Two freshmen should make an immediate impact on the wing. Jade Smith is Wilson’s top-rated recruit, and he can do everything from running the point to shutting down opposing wings and ballhandlers defensively. Trae Berhow is a pure scorer, and he will be relied upon for scoring punch ASAP. The frontcourt is a major concern for Wilson, as Washington grad transfer (by way of Auburn) Matthew Atewe is really the only option at the 5. 6-foot-7 Nolan Taylor came to Malibu as a three-star freshman, and his development was accelerated due to all the injuries, and he finished the year with an offensive outburst. Atewe’s arrival can move him to the 4. Wilson has proven to be a good WCC coach, and sleeping on a healthier Pepperdine team after last year’s disaster would be a mistake.
7. Portland– Terry Porter’s first season in Portland has to be graded on a curve, as the loss of Alec Wintering really threw the Pilots’ season under the bus. Few players in the country were as vital to their team as Wintering was to UP, and the Pilots didn’t win another game without him until they upended USD in the WCC tournament (unless you count the Walla Walla victory). This year’s Pilots will be incredibly young, but Porter overhauled the roster with a lot of talent, and the trip to England over the summer was a much-needed opportunity to blend the new faces together. In the backcourt, Porter has a glut of options to replace Wintering, including his sons, Malcolm and Franklin. Both are capable ball handlers at 6-foot-4, but they’ll most likely be playing off two talented freshmen, Marcus Shaver and JoJo Walker. Shaver represents the better shooter of the two, but Walker is a relentless penetrator and should be Porter’s best on-ball defender. With all the talent and athleticism in the backcourt, Porter could easily go with a four-out attack and extend pressure defensively, especially with 6-foot-5 senior sharpshooter D’Marques Tyson still in the mix. Former UTEP stretch 4 Josh McSwiggan has a smooth offensive game, but he’s a liability on the glass and defensively, which means Japanese freshman Tahirou Diabate could be paired with him as an offense for defense rotation at the 4. Diabate brings energy, rebounding and defense to the frontcourt with his athleticism. Philipp Hartwich is serviceable at the 5, and his per 40 block rate was high last year. Portland is the hardest team to slot with all the new, but talented, faces. If the Porters/Shaver/Walker backcourt is as good on the court as it is on paper, the Pilots could be a sleeper for a top-half finish.
8. San Diego– Lamont Smith should have his Toreros in position to hover around .500 in league play in his third season at the helm. Smith is likely to stick with his 3-point reliant motion offense, and he might even utilize a five-out rotation for significant portions. He’ll also stick to his extended man-to-man defense with an upgrade in athleticism at the point and the wing. USD shot the 3 at the 19th-highest rate in the country but only hit at 33 percent in league play. The shooting could improve with the addition of Utah transfer Isaiah Wright, who will move Olin Carter back off the ball, where his 3-point numbers should improve without having ball handling duties. Wright will immediately improve a turnover-prone backcourt that was often too stagnant when the motion offense was shut down. He’s also a plus on-ball defender on the perimeter, an aspect Smith was lacking in his backcourt. On the wing, 6-foot-5 Tyler Williams came to USD as a borderline four-star recruit, but his development has been slow; he could be pushed out of a starting spot by Portland State transfer Isaiah Pinero, who gives Smith more athleticism and versatility, as he’s able to play 2-5 depending on the rotation. Cam Neubauer was an underrated piece of the frontcourt for Smith, as he can stretch out defenses with his shooting, and he’s a plus passer out of the high post. Unfortunately, he doesn’t bring much to the table defensively. Juwan Gray is another stretchy big, and he represents Smith’s best shot at a rim protector defensively. Smith went international to bolster the frontcourt, signing three freshmen: 7=footer Andrew Ferguson from Australia, Akim-Jamal Jonah from Germany and Yauhen Massalski from Belarus, who is the most likely immediate contributor. USD should be slightly more competitive as a potential middle-of-the-pack WCC team with the much-needed athleticism boost from Wright and Pinero.
9. Pacific– Damon Stoudamire has to replace four starters from last year’s team. But starting over with a slew of high-major transfers and JUCOs is probably OK with Stoudamire after last year’s squad was just 4-14. The strength of the Tigers will be two high-major guards Stoudamire brought in: Kendall Small from Oregon and Miles Reynolds from St. Louis University. Small should run the point from game one and probably lead the Tigers in scoring as well. Reynolds is an excellent on-ball defender, and he gives Stoudamire the opportunity to extend some man-to-man press instead of the zone he often fell back into last year. 3 and D JUCO import Roberto Gallinat should play an immediate role on the wing alongside leading returning scorer Anthony Townes. Neither Townes nor returning junior Jack Williams at the 5 provides much interior defense, but both are capable rebounders. With Small being groomed by Stoudamire, Pacific should have more of an NBA "pace and space" feel to them in his second season at the helm.
10. Loyola Marymount– Mike Dunlap is in the unenviable position of having a fourth season rebuild on his hands. LMU returns a solid nucleus of Steven Haney on the wing, Petr Herman at the 5 and Jeff McClendon as arguably the league’s best on-ball defender in Dunlap’s aggressive 3/4 court zones press. After that, however, Dunlap has a lot of question marks. At the point, Dunlap will rely on JUCOs Cam Allen and James Batemon. Haney is a good perimeter shooter and should lead the team in scoring, but he’s a questionable defender at best, and he’s recovering from an offseason knee scope that should see him miss the first week or two of the season. Freshman Eli Scott figures to start immediately. His legal guardian is LaVar Ball, and per Blue Ribbon, Dunlap actually enjoyed his interactions with him during the recruiting process. Scott is a do-everything 2/3/4 and should thrive with his athleticism in Dunlap’s defensive scheme. Herman brings athleticism to the 5, and he closed the year strong on both ends last season. Dunlap will need a pair of sophomore Swedes and some freshmen to step up and provide depth, especially given the system he employs, if LMU wants to avoid the cellar.
FINAL OUTLOOK: Gonzaga and SMC both look to be in the 4-7 range seed wise come March. BYU looks like a bubble team, and USF has NIT upside. Santa Clara is a fringe CBI/CIT invite
WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jock Landale, St. Mary’s
ALL WCC FIRST TEAM:
Jock Landale, St. Mary’s
Emmett Naar, St. Mary’s
Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga
Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
TJ Haws, BYU
ALL WCC SECOND TEAM:
Yoeli Childs, BYU
Calvin Hermanson, St. Mary’s
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
Silas Melson, Gonzaga
Chase Foster, San Francisco