WCC Season Preview
You heard it, LMU is back!
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Champion: Saint Mary’s
Defending Regular Season Champion: Gonzaga
2) Saint Mary’s
3) Loyola Marymount
5) Santa Clara
6) San Francisco
7) San Diego
Summary: Last season, Saint Mary’s finally broke through Gonzaga’s decade long stranglehold on the West Coast Conference. Yes, the Zags won the regular-season title, but in what seemed like their 50th try the Gaels beat Gonzaga in the conference final before knocking off Richmond and 2nd-seeded Villanova in the NCAAs. Still, Gonzaga is the team to beat going into the ‘10-11 season. Was Omar Samhan really that crucial to Saint Mary’s breakthrough last season? Yes, but more importantly, Mark Few has once again stockpiled the league’s best talent. Few knows better than anyone that, in the ever-improving WCC, being able to sign recruits the rest of the schools don’t bother talking to doesn’t guarantee anything. But after an overall underwhelming year and the return of most key players (the obvious exception being Matt Bouldin), I can’t see Gonzaga letting anyone else claim the top spot this season.
This prediction hinges on the development of a few players the Zags are counting on to turn into stars, and Randy Bennett’s ability to quickly replace Samhan. Mark Few’s international frontcourt is the deepest and most athletically gifted in the league. German-born Elias Harris is probably the closest to star-status. He should be the most dynamic player in the WCC by the end of the year, and Canadians Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk provide match-up nightmares for opposing coaches. The backcourt of Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson is experienced, but of the two, only Gray is a real offensive threat. Marquise Carter, a 6-4 guard, could be a valuable piece if he can play the versatile point/shooting guard/small forward role 1/10th as well as Matt Bouldin did in his career. Being able to replace Bouldin, who is as close to a natural basketball player as you’ll ever find, will be nearly impossible, so Few will have to hope his stacked frontcourt makes up for his backcourt’s deficiencies.
Saint Mary’s returns its usual fleet of shooters and playmakers, but its mountainous frontcourt of Samhan and Ben Allen is now gone. It really doesn’t matter how many threes Mickey McConnell, Matthew Dellavedova and Clint Steidl make — replacing around 30 points and 18 rebounds a game (the two’s combined statistics) is quite the task (that doesn’t even take into account the incalculable amount of Samhan Swag that must’ve diffused throughout the entire Saint Mary’s squad last season and needs to be replaced). There are high expectations for 6-9 Creighton transfer Kenton Walker, who will be counted on to help fill the void in the paint.
As usual in the WCC, it’s a two horse race, but teams like LMU, Portland and Santa Clara will challenge for post-season berths. Portland was one of the most dangerous teams in the WCC last season (their non-conference success probably hurt them once they hit league…every team seemed fired up to play them), and as long as Eric Reveno is calling the shots, the Pilots will still be tough. They just may have too many new faces in the program to avoid falling off of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s pace.
Team on the Rise: The LMU Lions could be this year’s Portland. After wallowing in the basement of the WCC for years, talent began arriving at a Los Angeles-area university not named UCLA or USC for the first time in years. Through signing under-the-radar freshmen and snagging a few transfers, Loyola Marymount is poised to become Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s biggest threat in the WCC this season. Nearly everyone is back from a team that beat Notre Dame (on the road), won seven league games including a victory over No. 9 Gonzaga, and earned a post-season berth in the College Insider Tournament. Vernon Teel and Jared DuBois form one of the league’s most talented backcourt duos and Oregon transfer Drew Viney should be even better (scary thought for rest of the league) in his second year as a Lion. They are probably one year away from seriously contending for the conference title, but run at a higher-profile post-season tournament is a real possibility.
Team on the Decline: I think last season was Portland’s turn to make a run at the conference elites, and they didn’t disappoint. A solid season that included temporarily impressive wins over Oregon, UCLA, Minnesota ended in a College Insider Tournament berth for Portland. Eric Reveno will lead the Pilots back to the first tier of the league eventually, but losing TJ Campbell (one of the more underrated point guards in the country) and reliable forward Robin Smuelders is a lot to overcome. My feeling is that Portland now has a basketball program that will be fairly competitive every year…they just need to wait for another cycle of players to develop to seriously contend.
Underrated Player: I’m going to give some love to the Waves (and not just because they have the most ridiculously awesome mascot in the country). Pepperdine might be struggling to gain ground in the WCC, but they have one of the league’s most underappreciated players in Keion Bell. The 6-3 junior guard is definitely better known nationally for his ridiculous hops, but the Los Angeles native can play. 18 points, 3 boards, 5 assists, and nearly a little more than one steal a game on a team with few other options is impressive. If the Waves get out of the cellar this season, it is because Bell elevated his game to a new level.
Keep an eye on: Bill Grier and the direction of his program at San Diego. It seems like it was just yesterday that the Toreros stole the WCC’s automatic tourney bid and shocked Connecticut in Grier’s first season, but now Mark Few’s former assistant is entering his fourth season on the job. Since his historic first season, there hasn’t been much else to be excited about at Jenny Craig Pavilion. Unless you’re Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s, the WCC isn’t an easy conference to stay on top of for very long, but the program doesn’t seem to have successfully capitalized on the momentum of an NCAA Tournament upset in recent years. It remains to be seen whether losing four main contributors from a team that went 11-21 last season will be good or bad for Grier’s ‘10-11 squad.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.