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This three-part series has finally reached the summit of the West hhoast Conference.
Judging by process of elimination, the BYU Cougars, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Saint Mary’s Gaels and the San Francisco Dons are the only teams left in the 2017-18 preseason preview. All four of these teams could win at least 20 games this year, and all of these teams will likely find themselves in a postseason tournament.
Here’s how the upper echelon will shake up:
4. BYU Cougars
Last season: 22-11 (12-6 WCC)
Full disclosure: For a program that’s notched 12-straight 20-win seasons, BYU is an awfully frustrating team.
BYU has arguably the conference’s best on-court product with their upbeat, high flying offense. The Cougars are one of the perennial attendance leaders on the west coast, one of the country’s most passionate traveling fanbases — which the average BYU fan will be very eager to point out — have a state-of-the-art practice facility and obtained one of the best recruiting classes in school history in the fabled “Lone Peak Three” — the trio of all-conference honorees Eric Mika, Nick Emery and T.J. Haws.
Yet in spite of resources available to their program, the Cougars haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2014-15 season, in which BYU lost a First Four game against Mississippi.
With Eric Mika on the roster, the Cougars had a legitimate shot at breaking that streak this season. Of course, that’s not how everything panned out: To the chagrin of armchair coaches on CougarBoard.com, Mika declared for the NBA Draft and signed with an agent. He is playing professionally in Italy — the same place he and his wife served their LDS missions. Disgruntled BYU fans have to admit: That’s an adorable storybook moment for the Mika family.
The void left by Mika will likely be filled by Graphic all-upside team selection Yoeli Childs, who is poised for a breakout season now that he’s BYU’s first option in the frontcourt. Childs nearly averaged a double-double in his freshman year with 9.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Expect even more from him in 2017-18. He is joined by experienced, high-flying guard Elijah Bryant.
Even with sure-things Bryant and Childs returning, the Cougars’ immediate future is still murky. On Oct. 27, the Salt Lake Tribune broke news stating junior guard Nick Emery is under NCAA investigation for alleged improper benefits from a booster, including receiving a Volkswagen Jetta, a trip to Disneyland and a U2 concert.
LRT: the NCAA is going to suspend your mcm for borrowing a Volkswagen Jetta and going to a U2 concert.
— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) October 27, 2017
Depending on how the NCAA’s investigation pans out, sophomore guard T.J. Haws could be the only one of the fabled “Lone Peak Three” to suit up on opening night. Just like everyone drew it up.
Best case scenario: BYU improves on defense. Say hello to another NIT berth.
Worst-case scenario: BYU still can’t play defense. Say hello to another NIT berth.
Stat of note: The Cougars’ average offensive possession was 14.2 seconds — fifth-shortest in the nation last year, per KenPom.
Player to Watch: Yoeli Childs
3. San Francisco Dons
Last season: 20-13 (10-8 WCC)
The Dons were the feel-good story last year: In their first season with former Columbia coach Kyle Smith at the helm, the Dons won 20 games for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
Last season’s lone senior from the Dons’ resurgent season — bucket-getter Ronnie Boyce III — will be difficult to replace, but there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful on the Hilltop.
Thanks to Coach Smith’s liberal use of substitutions and willingness to give his freshman meaningful minutes, the Dons could have one of the most eclectic, multi-faceted rosters in the conference. If a handful of the Dons from their six-man sophomore class avoid the dreaded second-year slump, then San Francisco will be a handful.
The heir-apparent to San Francisco’s offense will likely be sophomore guard Charles Minlend, who went from an under-the-radar acquisition late in the signing period to one of the WCC Preseason selections in the span of 18 months. The long, rangy guard will have help from fellow long, athletic defender in Nate Renfro, who will be one of the Dons’ three seniors this season. Throw in mobile seven-footer Jimbo Lull, junior college transfer Erik Poulsen and Matthew McCarthy in the post, and the Dons appear to have as much depth in the frontcourt as they do in the backcourt.
If BYU takes a nosedive this season, then look for San Francisco to climb to third in the WCC. Strangely enough, everyone wins if the Dons can keep this momentum going: Having three trendy mid-majors in the conference will benefit the WCC as a whole in the long run. Here’s to hoping the Dons can build on a surprising 2016-17 season.
Best case scenario: By notching consecutive 20-win seasons, San Francisco takes steps in Smith’s second year to be one of the trendy mid-majors on the West Coast. Charles Minlend becomes one of the conference’s best offensive threats and Nate Renfro finally puts it all together as the Dons’ best all-around athlete and two-way player. Frankie Ferrari is the WCC’s Defensive Player of the Year due to his hounding perimeter defense.
Worst-case scenario: San Francisco endures a sophomore slump at the Hilltop: Some of the young Dons regress in their second years, the ultra-soft non-conference schedule makes San Francisco near-impossible to gauge. Boyce’s leadership and fearless bucket-getting is irreplaceable. The Dons slip to fifth in the conference standings and have another unceremonious first-round exit in the WCC Tournament.
Stat of note: Under Smith’s first year at the helm, the Dons’ rotation averaged 10-deep.
Player to Watch: Charles Minlend
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last season: 37-2 (17-1 WCC)
By this time next year, the casual college basketball fan will most likely look at Gonzaga’s 2017-18 season and think, “I knew it all along: That National Championship game run in ’16-17 was a fluke. Gonzaga just got lucky, and now they’re going to be a decent mid-major team from now on.”
Do not be this person. Do not be the first panel in the Expanding Brain meme, even though the next paragraph could tempt you to writing off the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga looks to replace four of their six high-volume players from last season: Bob Cousy Award Finalist Nigel Williams-Goss, who was the catalyst for the Zags’ title run — is playing in Serbia; College basketball’s winningest player Przemek Karnowski is playing in Spain; Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American (!) who came off the bench (!!) for Karnowski, is on the Portland Trailblazers; Cal transfer and recent graduate Jordan Mathews’ most recent stint was on the Atlanta Hawks (he was waived Oct. 6).
Although the Bulldogs were in a similar state of uncertainty this time last season, this year’s squad doesn’t have three Power-5 transfers and a five-star recruit coming off the bench.
This doesn’t mean the current roster is neither intriguing nor promising — in fact, this year’s team has more sleeper potential than last season’s historic squad.
Buying in to the 2017-18 Bulldogs involves making several major mental leaps, but doing so is pretty damn exciting. Now that Karnowski and Collins have departed, the Killian Tille and Rui Hachimura experiment has officially begun in Spokane. Depending on how much weight international competition can (or should) carry, both sophomore forwards put up promising stats in the FIBA U-19 Tournament this past summer.
In the backcourt, junior Josh Perkins and hyper-athletic senior Silas Melson are all but locks in the Bulldogs’ starting five.
This brings an interesting storyline to the ’17-18 Zags: Who will be the primary ball-handler now that Williams-Goss is gone?
Of all the guards on the roster, Perkins has the most experience running the point, but he also thrived playing off-the-ball last season. Head Coach Mark Few could throw in a few wrinkles with ESPN 4-star redshirt freshman Zach Norvell and true freshman Jesse Wade on the roster, but Perkins is the more sure-fire pick.
Yet with all of this said, no player on the roster is a surefire NBA-lock like Zach Collins. Sure, some Gonzaga fans can talk themselves into Hachimura or Tillie going late in the first round, but both players didn’t pass the eye test quite like Collins. Both will need to develop in order to eclipse Collins, and even he was a raw prospect. The bottom line is: If the Bulldogs want to defend their conference title, then someone needs to step up and surprise people.
Despite the question marks, Gonzaga will probably make it back to the NCAA Tournament for their 20th consecutive season. At this point, America shouldn’t doubt Mark Few for a second. This roster has the talent to be at least an eight or nine-seed, plus the coaching staff to make it happen.
But the Bulldogs will definitely be an Elite Eight-level team next season: San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke will be eligible, and ESPN four-star Serbian forward Filip Petrušev will bolster Gonzaga’s rotation as well. And don’t count out Mark Few’s ability to snag high-level transfers. By this time next year, the Bulldogs could have a couple power-five grad transfers to bolster its current young talent.
Best case scenario: A challenging non-conference schedule tests the Bulldogs early, causing them to drop from the nation’s radar for a few weeks in late November. Senior guard Josh Perkins holds a players-only meeting after an embarrassing road loss to a (very good) San Diego State team rights the ship before WCC play.
Freshmen Jesse Wade and Corey Kispert average double-figures in scoring, and one will win the WCC Freshman of the Year Award. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ trials and tribulations will pay off in the end — they do own Vegas, after all.
Worst-case scenario: Johnathan Williams turns out to be a more viable secondary (or tertiary) weapon on offense rather than being a suitable go-to guy. Mark Few and company’s uncharacteristic strikeout in the graduate transfer market leaves the Zags’ with a thin bench; this thrusts at least one of Gonzaga’s freshman into meaningful minutes when, in retrospect, they should have redshirted.
Despite eking into the NCAA Tournament with their non-conference resume, the Bulldogs use the 2017-18 look to be more of a legitimate threat next year — especially with San Jose State guard Brandon Clarke regaining eligibility and Few scoring Power-5 transfers in the offseason.
Stat of note: Senior guard Josh Perkins leads all active WCC players with 71 career starts. The Bulldogs will need his experience to fill the void left by Williams-Goss and Mathews.
Player to Watch: Killian Tillie
1. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Last season: 29-5 (16-2 WCC)
I’ll stick to my guns here, as I’ve been one of maybe ten Gaels supporters in the city of Malibu. Saint Mary’s is legit. They have the pieces to turn 2017-18 into a season to remember.
I will die on this hill: Emmett Naar and Jock Landale are the best pick-and-roll tandem in the nation. https://t.co/lTPPSwjGnB
— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) August 23, 2017
To avoid sounding like a broken record and reiterating everything in this lengthy article about the Gaels’ offense, I’ll be brief: The Gaels run one of the country’s best, most precise and deliberate offenses. Sure, it’s not flashy like BYU’s all-out blitz, but Saint Mary’s is still incredibly fun to watch.
Personnel-wise, the Gaels return four of their five starters from a team that only lost to three teams — Gonzaga, Arizona and a solid UT-Rio Grande Valley team. And one of them is already garnering national preseason awards. Senior center Jock Landale is not only one of the best individual players in the country, but is also one of the best pick-and-roll tandems in the nation alongside fellow senior Emmett Naar. Senior Calvin Hermanson — he of 13.1 points per game and 43.1 percent three-point shooting last season — is one of the most lethal scorers in the WCC.
The Gaels are replacing Joe Rahon with graduate transfer Cullen Neal, which should be a criminal offense given his 37 percent shooting from deep, per his sports-reference.com page. Throw in proven reserves Evan Fitzner and fan-favorite Tanner Krebs, and the Gaels appear to have one of the most solid seven-men rotations in the country.
It’s apparent that Saint Mary’s is a very senior-heavy team. Looking at this roster on paper seems like this season will be now-or-never for the Gaels. On one hand, there doesn’t appear to be clear replacements for the (likely) four seniors in the starting five. Head Coach Randy Bennett’s name is starting to pop up in coaching rumors, which could make some fans uneasy in Moraga.
But on the other hand, what team could replace four seniors — three of whom spearheaded a 79-21 record in their careers with a combined 181 starts? Fitzner and Krebs have been consistent backups, and are more than capable of filling starters’ roles next season. The Australian pipeline is still running smoothly. Plus, the Gaels will have South Florida forward Malik Fitts eligible as their next go-to scorer for 2018-19.
Yet given what Gonzaga’s future roster looks like, the pressure is on Saint Mary’s to bring a conference title (or two) to Moraga for the first time since the Matthew Dellavedova-led 2011-12 season. Thankfully for the Gaels, they are in a good position to achieve something special.
Best case scenario: Saint Mary’s goes undefeated in league play — no seriously, this isn’t as unrealistic as it sounds —and finally get the monkey off their back by winning their first WCC Tournament title since the 2011-2012 season.
Worst-case scenario: Replacing Joe Rahon’s presence on defense turns out to be too tall of a task for the Gaels, and their backup big men aren’t able to pick up the slack for Landale when he’s in foul trouble. A few missteps against fellow mid-majors in their home game-heavy, non-conference slate give the Gaels cause for concern on Selection Sunday.
Stat of note: Naar is No. 13 on the WCC’s career assist leaderboard. He has 531, and needs only 38 to break into the top ten. Naar averaged 5.6 assists per game last season, according to his sports-reference.com page.
Player to Watch: Jock Landale
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kylecajero