By Kevin Sweeney
We have come to the end of our 32 conference preview series! I’d like to thank all of you for following along throughout the last 32 days, and I’ve really enjoyed previewing all 351 Division 1 teams. We wrap things up today with the WCC, a league that has been dominated by two teams in recent history. However, I believe the WCC is trending up as a whole, with the bottom of the league on the long grind to try to catch up to the perennial powers in Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU.
- St. Mary’s- Obviously, Gonzaga deserves plenty of respect coming off their incredible 37-2 season. Still, St. Mary’s is the clear favorite in the WCC this season. Jock Landale is one of the best bigs in the country, and the Gaels bring back 4 starters and add some scoring punch in Cullen Neal, a grad transfer from Ole Miss.
- Gonzaga- The Bulldogs do lose 4 starters from last season’s national runner-up team. However, Mark Few still has a talented roster, with rotation guys in Jonathan Williams, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson returning along with a pair of breakout candidates in Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie. Combine that with some talented newcomers and Gonzaga could be in the top 25 once again.
- San Francisco- Kyle Smith did an excellent job in his first season in charge at USF, and brings back all but one contributor from last season’s club. After a freshman season in which he averaged 10 points per game, Charles Minlend appears to be the next star in the WCC, and I’m a big believer in this Dons team to make some noise this season.
- BYU- The loss of Eric Mika early to pro basketball is crushing for the Cougars, but they still have an excellent backcourt featuring a trio of double-digit scorers in Nick Emery, TJ Haws, and Elijah Bryant and perhaps the biggest breakout candidate in the conference in Yoeli Childs. Plus, the Cougars are always tough to beat in Provo.
- Santa Clara- The Broncos have perhaps the best player in the conference not named Jock Landale in KJ Feagin, an elite shooter and creator who should see an even bigger scoring role with Jared Brownridge graduating. They also add an excellent grad transfer in Henry Caruso, who averaged 15 ppg at Princeton in 2015-16 and should see a big role right away.
- Pacific- This Pacific team has some very interesting newcomers to work with, adding transfer guards Kendall Small (Oregon), Miles Reynolds (St. Louis), as well as Jahlil Tripp and Roberto Gallinat (South Plains JUCO). Combine that talented group with a pair of returnees in the frontcourt in Anthony Townes and Jack Williams, and you get a team that I think could surprise in year 2 of the Damon Stoudamire era.
- San Diego- A pair of double-digit scorers in Olin Carter and Cameron Neubauer return for the Toreros, and a pair of interesting transfers join the fray as well in former Portland State wing Isaiah Pineiro and former Utah guard Isaiah Wright. It’s teams like USD whose improvement will be key to the rise of the entire conference.
- Pepperdine- Pepperdine’s top 3 scorers graduate from last season’s club, but they do bring back a sophomore class that showed promise as freshmen and add back Kameron Edwards, who averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds as a freshman before missing last season due to a jaw injury. Another guy to watch is highly-touted freshman guard Jadé Smith, who earned high-major looks before choosing the Waves.
- Loyola Marymount- Look for Stephen Haney to take on a huge amount of the scoring load with multiple top scorers departing. One interesting piece is Eli Scott, the Chino Hills product who played high school basketball with the Ball brothers, a talented wing who can score the ball.
- Portland- The transfers of Gabe Taylor and Jazz Johnson were crushing for Terry Porter’s club. 3-star recruit Marcus Shaver is an interesting piece, but they’ll need a lot of help from their newcomers in order to stay out of the bottom of the conference.
Champions: St. Mary’s
St. Mary’s looks like a top-20 team in college basketball. Jock Landale is a legitimate All-American candidate, an unstoppable force in the post who excels around the rim. Meanwhile, they have a very solid point guard in Emmett Naar who needs to be a bit more aggressive but is a good distributor and leader, and sharp-shooting wing Calvin Hermanson shouldn’t be forgotten about. We know Randy Bennett’s club will play excellent defense and run efficient offense. Now, can the Gaels get it done in March and return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2009-10 season?
Dark Horse: Santa Clara
The typical “dark horse” tag doesn’t really fit anyone in the WCC, simply because I don’t realistically see anyone topping St. Mary’s or Gonzaga for the conference’s regular season title. However, I will highlight a team I think is being undervalued, and to me, that term applies with Santa Clara. The aforementioned Feagin is a tremendous talent, and Caruso is a perfect fit for what Herb Sendek wants to do offensively. Another newcomer to watch is 3-star guard Matt Turner, a Connecticut native who got offers from many of the major programs in the northeast before choosing Santa Clara.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: KJ Feagin (Santa Clara)
- G: Calvin Hermanson (St. Mary’s)
- F: Yoeli Childs (BYU)
- F: Jonathan Williams (Gonzaga)
- F: Jock Landale (St. Mary’s)
Player of the Year: Jock Landale (St, Mary’s)- Yeah, this one is pretty obvious. Landale is simply a flat-out beast in the paint and dominates the game whenever he’s on the floor. He led the country in win shares per 40 minutes a season ago at .288 per Sports Reference, easily demonstrating just how much of an impact he makes on a day-to-day basis. The Australian big should enjoy a monster senior season for a St. Mary’s team that has a chance to be very good if not great.
Breakout Player of the Year: Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga)- While I’m not quite as far onto the Hachimura hype train that started early this offseason, I do think he has very interesting potential for a reloading team like Gonzaga. He dominated for Japan at the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer, flashing NBA potential to scouts with his combination of size and versatility.
Newcomer of the Year: Cullen Neal (St. Mary’s)- Neal exactly the type of piece St. Mary’s was missing. He provides instant offense with his ability to create his own shot and hit 3’s, and should be a perfect fit for the St. Mary’s offense due to his intelligence. Things come full circle for Neal, who committed to the Gaels out of high school before heading to New Mexico, where his father Craig was the head coach.