By Kevin Sweeney
Alas, preview season has ended.
It’s time for the real stuff.
My 32×32 series turned into 32×36 thanks to me never posting on Saturdays during college football season (I know, shoot me). That said, I have to thank every single person who has checked out my site during this incredibly fun journey. It has been a ton of fun breaking down every single Division 1 team, and the best part is interacting with fans every day with the latest preview.
We close things where we have each of the past four seasons: with the WCC.
Yep, you guessed it. Gonzaga’s the favorite again.
#1. Gonzaga– It was a fool’s errand attempting to predict the rotation for Gonzaga for much of the offseason, but recent roster movement makes it easier to get a feel for exactly how the Zags will look this season. Grad transfers Ryan Woolridge (North Texas) and Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) should start in the backcourt with French sophomore Joel Ayayi getting plenty of run at both guard spots, Corey Kispert eating minutes at the three, and some combination of Filip Petrusev, Killian Tillie (when healthy), Anton Watson, and Drew Timme manning the four and five spots. That’s an incredibly talented group with some experienced pieces mixed in, but meshing it all together with so many new faces will be a challenge for Mark Few. Watson has jumped out on film and has all the makings of a college star– an athletic, multi-positional forward with a noise for the ball who is great getting downhill. That said, Ayayi may be the key to this team to get to where it wants to go– he appeared to have put it all together while playing for his national team this summer. If he’s the dynamic combo guard who is great in ball screens and the defensive impact player we saw at the FIBA U19 World Cup, watch out for these Zags.
#2. Saint Mary’s– I’ve cooled somewhat on the Gaels in terms of the top 25 love they’ve received from many this preseason, but I do still think this is a pretty clear NCAA Tournament team. The nucleus of last year’s club returns, headlined by the terrific duo of Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts. Ford is as good as they come at the mid-major level, a crafty lead guard wired to score who has ridiculous touch around the rim. He should have more options in the backcourt this season other than the ever-reliable Tommy Kuhse with the additions of Logan Johnson (Cincinnati) and Kristers Zoriks (redshirted due to injury). Both have the ability to play on or off the ball, get to the rim, and hit shots– Johnson is also a very good defender who could end up starting for this Gael club. I will say I think SMC will miss Jordan Hunter more than they most realize– he wasn’t the flashiest player, but he was a terrific rebounder who knew his role and was a competent rim protector. The trio of Aaron Menzies, Jock Perry, and Matthias Tass will look to fill Hunter’s void by committee.
#3. BYU– At one point this offseason, it looked like BYU could be a legit at-large contender in year one under Mark Pope. The path to that seems much harder now than it did several months ago, with star big man Yoeli Childs out suspended during a critical opening stretch that should offer multiple resume-building opportunities and breakout candidate Gavin Baxter out for the year with a shoulder injury. Star point guard TJ Haws gets some help with the additions of elite shooter Jake Toolson at the shooting guard spot and Arizona transfer Alex Barcello at either guard spot– the Cougars may be best-suited going small with four guards on the floor at times given the severe lack of frontcourt depth. Pope did a terrific job at Utah Valley and should do similar work in Provo. With a strong senior core, it wouldn’t surprise me if this team gets some big wins in year one.
#4. Pepperdine– Talent has rarely been a problem with Lorenzo Romar-coached teams, and it shouldn’t be again this season. While the Waves don’t have the pieces to contend for a league title, they do have an athletic roster filled with high-major talents. Colbey Ross is the headliner, an elite floor general and high-level shot-maker who is truly the engine that makes this offense go. Romar has always given his teams freedom to play without much structure on the offensive end, and Ross is the type of guy who allows you to do that by consistently making something from nothing for himself and others. Oregon transfer Keith Smith and breakout candidate Andre Ball should give this team scoring punch and athleticism on the wing that they didn’t have a season ago, and the versatility of Kam and Kessler Edwards up front creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. Finding a way to defend better (especially at the rim) will be critical for this team to live up to its potential, but you have to love the pieces in place.
#5. Santa Clara– The Broncos are the sneaky run-it-back team in the WCC, returning their top five scorers from a team that found a way to go 8-8 in conference play. The team’s top five scorers were freshmen or sophomores a season ago, and the chance to allow a young core to grow up together is not something college coaches get to do very often anymore. The backcourt trio of Tahj Eaddy, Trey Wertz, and Keshawn Justice is worth building around– a big point guard like Wertz is the perfect compliment to an undersized scoring guard in Eaddy, and all three showed all-conference potential in their first years in an SCU uniform. Perhaps more exciting to me though is the frontcourt: Herb Sendek found something late last season by playing more Guglielmo Caruso at the five with Josip Vrankic next to him, and the Broncos also add Wake Forest transfer DJ Mitchell to the mix up front this season. I’ll attribute most of this team’s turnover woes last season to being incredibly young– if they can improve there, watch out for this group.
#6. San Francisco– Things didn’t end the way Dons fans may have hoped a season ago, but USF was all kinds of fun to watch under Kyle Smith last season. Smith’s shrewd, against-the-grain thinking worked to perfection, running an iteration of Randy Bennett’s “Princeton on crack” offense through an elite floor general in Frankie Ferrari en route to having a top 50 KenPom offense. While new head coach Todd Golden may maintain a similar offensive ethos, things will look very different without a guy who can pass and read ball screens like Ferrari running the show. Jamaree Bouyea was a solid glue guy a season ago, and Khalil Shabazz put up huge scoring numbers during his freshman season at D2 Central Washington, but there isn’t a guy on this roster who can replicate anything close to what Ferrari brought to the table. More scoring load can be heaped on outstanding wing Charles Minlend, but I think the loss of Ferrari too much to overcome for this team to get to where it was a season ago.
#7. Pacific– Here begins the more definitive bottom tier, where a wild hodgepodge of JUCOs, transfers, and freshmen come together as Damon Stoudamire looks to get things going after a one-step-forward-two-steps-back season at Pacific. Unique bruising guard Jahlil Tripp gets some help in the creation department with the eligibility of Georgia Tech transfer Justin Moore, who comes home to California after struggling to crack the rotation for the Yellow Jackets. A pair of pure shooters in Austin Vereen (VMI) and Gary Chivichyan (Idaho State) should open up the floor for the two jumbo creators to do work, but better play is needed from this frontcourt. I was excited about Amari McCray before he missed the season with an injury last season. The bruising big fella could provide some much-needed help up front if he can stay on the floor.
#8. Loyola Marymount– A suprising 22-win campaign cooled Mike Dunlap’s seat at LMU in 2018-19, as Dunlap rode dynamic point guard James Batemon (and a favorable schedule, it should be said) to the program’s most wins in a season since 1990. Batemon’s graduation and the expected redshirt of talented center Mattias Markusson makes replicating that type of season in 2019-20 very unlikely. Like San Francisco with Ferrari, there isn’t a clear replacement for Batemon on the roster– it seems like a more natural shooter than creator in Joe Quintana could take the reigns. It seems like that some shot creation will have to go through burly forward Eli Scott, a unique piece at the forward spot who can do some creating for others.
#9. San Diego– Sam Scholl has his work cut out for him in year two at USD with a roster firmly in transition. After leading the Toreros to a top-100 KenPom finish in year one, Scholl has a roster that loses its top four scorers and well over 70% of its “possession minutes” per T-Rank. Someone will have to step up in a major way to keep this team competitive on a night-in, night-out basis: Belarusian big man Yauhen Massalski could have a breakout year, but USD desperately needs some shot-makers on the wing. Youngstown State transfer Braun Hartfield seems like a good bet to step into a big role after averaging almost 14 points per game at YSU, but even a huge year from him may not be enough.
#10. Portland– A quick glance at Portland’s 2018-19 KenPom profile, and it’s difficult to find anything redeeming about the product Tracy Porter’s club put on the floor. Their only positive was getting to the line at a high rate, but they responded by ranking 320th in FT%. It seems fairly obvious that Porter isn’t cut out for this gig– it’s one thing not to show promise through three seasons, it’s another to apparently be getting progressively worse and having the program in a clearly worse place than where it was when you took over. Oh yeah, and the team’s best player in Marcus Shaver transferred to Boise State this offseason. Not great, Bob.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jordan Ford (Saint Mary’s)
- Colbey Ross (Pepperdine)
- TJ Haws (BYU)
- Admon Gilder (Gonzaga)
- Yoeli Childs (BYU)
Player of the Year: Jordan Ford (Saint Mary’s)
As mentioned above, Ford is beyond terrific as mid-major point guards go. He’s an elite-level shooter with the ability to get a bucket on any given moment, but I appreciate his ability to sit back within the constructs of the offense and make the right play. His floater game is elite, and another offseason to fine-tune that finishing package should spell bad news for the rest of the WCC.
Breakout Player: Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga)
I’m bullish on Ayayi’s game and how it fits in with this Gonzaga bunch, if the improvement we saw at the FIBA U19 World Cup is for real. The lanky combo guard showed he can do it all while in Greece this summer, averaging 20.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and over 2 steals per game while shooting 51% from the field. Ayayi may not begin the season in the starting rotation, but there’s a very real chance the team’s best lineups will have Ayayi in them. To me, he’s the key to this team reaching the heights they are striving for.
Newcomer of the Year: Admon Gilder (Gonzaga)
Gilder was a high-level player at Texas A&M before a blood clot wiped away his 2018-19 season in College Station. Given Gonzaga’s track record with transfers, we can expect Gilder to be maximized during his time in Spokane– he’s not much of a playmaker, but he’s a legit scorer at three levels and a rock-solid defender. He was the perfect fit for what the Zags needed this offseason.