We made it, folks.
The college basketball season starts tomorrow, and we’ve completed our conference preview series for a fifth straight year. This one means a lot to me: it means that I’ve somehow found time to write a preview for every conference during every year of my college experience. This is always a lot of work and a lot of fun, and I appreciate all the support from everyone. Let’s dive into a league that might have the nation’s best team:
- Gonzaga – My preseason #1 team in America, the Zags are certainly a cut above the rest in the WCC as they have been for much of the last decade. Mark Few has built a machine where he can recruit virtually any player in America and have a legit shot, and he cashed in big-time this season with the addition of 5-star guard Jalen Suggs. Suggs could provide another dimension to this Bulldog attack, a dynamic athlete who can play on or off the ball and create shots for himself and others. Pairing him with the terrific Joel Ayayi creates a backcourt that won’t just be great on the offensive end, but also should be one of the best in America at locking down opposing guards and getting easy buckets in transition. Look for Ayayi to continue his develop as a big guard who can play in pick and roll, establishing himself as a legit NBA prospect. Then there’s Corey Kispert, the versatile 4-year contributor who has blossomed into one of the nation’s best shooters and could lead this group in scoring. I also can’t wait to watch Drew Timme’s growth as a sophomore: he flashed confidence in his midrange game during the team’s televised scrimmage earlier this month, and he was one of the more productive players in the nation last season on a per-minute basis. One interesting thing I’ll be watching is how Few approaches the power forward position: he can go bigger with a Timme/Oumar Ballo duo up front, go with likely starter Anton Watson with Timme in a more traditional 4/5 look, or play smaller with Kispert as the 4th guard around a true big man in a lineup that would create tons of spacing. This season for the Bulldogs will be defined not by what they do in the WCC, but how they fare in their many high-profile non-conference games. Win a few of those in November and December and the nation will officially be put on notice.
- BYU – This is a very different BYU team than last year’s terrific 24-8 team that Mark Pope had on track to go dancing in March, but Pope has this program trending positively and made some high-profile additions this offseason to give the Cougars the “best of the rest” title in the WCC. The biggest addition without a doubt is that of Matt Haarms, the 7-3 Purdue transfer who brings high-level rim protecting ability combined with a relatively skilled offensive game that should be accentuated by Pope’s spacing-heavy offense. Haarms should have a huge year diving to the rim on the roll in ball screens, and his ability to maneuver on the perimeter will be huge for the flow if this hard-to-guard offense. Meanwhile, well-traveled guard Brandon Averette finally gets his chance to play for Pope after originally committing to him at Utah Valley, and while he isn’t the sharpshooter this BYU backcourt featured last season he’s dangerous enough with the ball in his hands that he should be an impact guy for the Cougs. A bigger role will almost certainly be required of Alex Barcello, who shot a blistering 49% from deep last season and almost always made the right play. One more name to watch: JUCO import Gideon George. George came over from Nigeria to play JUCO ball at New Mexico JC and oozes upside in his athletic 6-6 frame. He has a chance to be an impact defender capable of running the floor and making corner threes. It’s not realistic to expect this team to be as good on offense as last season’s top-10 squad nationally, but Pope is one of the sharpest young coaches in America and should have this team competitive once again.
- San Francisco – Todd Golden kept the momentum going at USF after Kyle Smith left for Washington State, leading the Dons to another top-75 KenPom finish and 22 wins. While the departures of Charles Minlend (Louisville), Jordan Ratinho, and Jimbo Lull loom large, the Dons bring in some key talent and should be in good shape for a potential top-3 finish in the WCC. It starts in the backcourt: Golden’s system requires guards who can handle the ball and create offense, and the Dons have three guys who can do just that in Jamaree Bouyea, Khalil Shabazz, and Damari Milstead. Bouyea made huge strides last season, turning into one of the better two-way guards out west with his ability create in ball screens and lock down opposing guards, while Shabazz was always capable of giving the Dons a jolt of energy off the bench. I could see Shabazz exploding this season after another season of development, with the Grand Canyon transfer Milstead filling in that 6th man spot – Milstead was up and down for the Lopes, but certainly fits the mold of guys like Bouyea and Shabazz as a shifty creator. Meanwhile, watch out for a potential breakout year for Josh Kunen – the athletic big man was thrown into the fire as a freshman but flashed considerable upside and hung in with some of the best bigs in the conference on the glass. If he takes steps forward, the Dons could be as good as anyone not named Gonzaga in the WCC.
- St. Mary’s – This is definitely an unproven St. Mary’s team, but sometimes some blind trust in one of the most consistent coaches in college basketball in Randy Bennett is necessary. The main question mark for the Gaels: who is scoring the ball? This was a team that for the last two seasons was completely optimized around two stars in Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, with the rest of the roster rarely asked to create any offense but filled roles admirably. Can any of those role players step into starring roles? I love Tommy Kuhse, but he’s certainly more of a glue guy that a shot-maker. Logan Johnson has been a defensive force for both the Gaels and at Cincinnati and seems like a potential option to be freed up to get buckets, but he has really struggled shooting the ball in his career. My pick is freshman Jabe Mullins, a highly-regarded recruit who SCREAMS 4-year pain-in-the-neck for the rest of the WCC. He may not lead this team in scoring, but I’d expect a significant role right away for the Washington native. Expect lots of offense to go through the post: Matthias Tass is the team’s leading returning scorer, and 7-4 big man Matthew Van Komen joins the fray from Utah and could make an impact up front. It’s hard to imagine this team continuing Bennett’s streak of having five straight top-25 KenPom offenses, but I think they’ll be good enough to remain as competitive as anyone in this conference.
- Pepperdine – The breakthrough year two for Lorenzo Romar in Malibu didn’t quite happen, with the Waves winning the same number of games (16) as they did a season ago. Things start with one of the most dynamic point guards in mid-major basketball in Colbey Ross, a smooth operator in ball screens with near-limitless range and great feel as a passer who should easily top 2,000 career points at some point this season. Ross is about as good a piece to build around as possible, and it’s a testament to him that he elected to stay for one more year this offseason when so many would have tried to jump a level and try to prove themselves at the highest level. Ross has a pretty darn good Robin to his Batman in Kessler Edwards, an incredibly skilled forward who at 6-8 shot 44% from 3 and blocked almost 2 shots per game. Edwards certainly benefits from playing with a point guard like Ross, but he’d be more of a household name if he wasn’t overshadowed on his own team by a guy as good as Ross. Meanwhile, Romar reinforced the frontcourt with the addition of Pitt transfer Kene Chukwuka, who played a lot of minutes up front on some pretty bad Pitt teams in recent years. While not quite an ACC-caliber big, Chukwuka should be more than steady up front for the Waves and could thrive catching lobs and finishing on dishes from Ross. Losing veteran wing Skylar Chavez to a COVID opt-out isn’t ideal, but does create room more room in the rotation for a guy like freshman combo forward Kendall Munson, who oozes upside at 6-8. Pepperdine will have to fix a defense that was one of the worst in the nation at defending the three last season, though some of that can be chalked up to tough luck. If that swings back in their favor this season, this group will be dangerous.
- Loyola Marymount – One of the relatively few coaching changes of the offseason was made at LMU, where Mike Dunlap departs and former Marquette assistant Stan Johnson takes over. Johnson is well-connected in west coast recruiting circles and has already laid the groundwork to land high-level talent to LMU since taking the job. But the other big thing Johnson did in his first few months on the job was keep together a roster that certainly wasn’t barren of talent – critically, he convinced talented center Mattias Markusson to take his name out of the portal and return for one more season in Los Angeles. Between Markusson, do-it-all wing/forward/point guard/basketball player Eli Scott, and now-healthy Joe Quintana and Dameane Douglas, Johnson inherits a legitimately solid core to work with. I’m particularly excited to see Scott in an offense that figures to play a lot faster than Dunlap’s teams did – he’s one of the most versatile and fun-to-watch players in the country thanks to his ability to pass and attack the basket despite his linebacker-sized frame. Markusson was impressive as a shot-blocker and finisher before spending last season back home overseas, and Douglas oozes upside as a slashing wing at 6-7. Add in a pair of upside plays in transfers Kodye Pugh (Stanford) and Quentin Jackson (Temple) and you have a team that I think certainly has the talent to compete with the rest of this league’s middle tier. Building a new program culture in a disjointed offseason may hold this group back, but I like the program direction here.
- Pacific – 2019-20 was a breakthrough year for Damon Stoudamire, winning 23 games after inheriting a difficult situation at one of the league’s tougher jobs. He leveraged the versatility of Jahlil Tripp and roster of guys willing to play a role to an impressive 11-5 WCC finish that was capped by an 8-2 finish to the season. Tripp and several other key cogs depart, but I still think this program is on the right track. A waiver for Nebraska transfer Jervay Green was critical: Green dealt with some disciplinary issues with the Huskers, but looked like one of Fred Hoiberg’s better players when on the floor and should bring some major scoring pop for the Tigers this season. Improvement from a pair of young players around Green in the backcourt will be critical: both Pierre Crockrell and Daniss Jenkins were key rotation players last season despite their flaws, with Jenkins ignoring efficiency woes to provide another shot-maker and Crockrell providing some key ballhandling despite offering nothing as a shooter. If each can round out their all-around games as sophomores, this team’s upside changes. Meanwhile, watch out for a pair of gifted JUCO talents in Jalen Brown and Marial Mading. Mading’s upside as a skilled 6-11 big is hard to ignore, and there’s a reason he earned plenty of high-major offers before seeing his recruitment fall off and surfacing at Pacific. Meanwhile, Brown should be another guy who can put the ball in the basket for the Tigers after averaging close to 18 points per game at Eastern Arizona CC.
- San Diego – Sam Scholl and staff have went transfer-heavy to retool the Torero program after a disappointing second season at USD. That decision certainly helped bring in talent, and the waiver gods have been kind to get Ben Pyle (Western Illinois) and Yavuz Gultekin (Texas A&M) eligible. There’s plenty of excitement about Gultekin in particular, a big and skilled playmaking wing who was never likely to make an immediate impact at TAMU but seemed to have a bright future. I believe Gultekin will be an all-conference player in this league moving forward. Adding a shooter like Pyle, a shot-maker like Frankie Hughes (Duquesne), and an experienced scoring option like Joey Calcaterra gives this team plenty of firepower, but questions at the point guard spot linger. Minnesota transfer Bryan Greenlee originally committed to the program but wound up at FAU, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to see him start for the Toreros at PG and beat out Marion Humphrey. Instead, the Alabama native will need to step up after being quite inefficient during his freshman campaign. USD was one of the nation’s worst offenses last season, and not getting more from Humphrey would really cap their upside despite the jolt that Gultekin, Pyle, and Hughes should bring.
- Santa Clara – After a 14-2 start, the Broncos really faltered in WCC play, finishing 6-10 in the conference in a year that included six-game late-season losing skid. That, combined with the departure of a pair of key guards in Trey Wertz (Notre Dame) and Tahj Eaddy (USC) leaves the Santa Clara program in a weird spot in the WCC. Veterans like Josip Vrankic, Keshawn Justice, and Guglielmo Caruso form a solid core, but this team’s success or failure will be defined by a pair of young talents in Jaden Bediako and Jalen Williams. Williams is certainly on the skinnier side, but he was efficient as a freshman and flashed the upside to be a high-level player in this league for a long time, while Bediako is a bruising post player who needs to continue to improve his efficiency but competed as a freshman against the rigors of this league down low. The Broncos really picked up the pace last season, producing what was by far the fastest team in Herb Sendek’s long career. Will that pace continue? We’ll have to see, but freeing up guys like Williams to get out and push could help ensure the offense keeps running smoothly.
- Portland – The Terry Porter era has been a disaster at UP, with a disastrous 37-92 record in four years and little signs that things are getting any better. There might be some life in the backcourt, where diminutive PG Chase Adams will share the floor with another ballhandler in Ahmed Ali (Washington State). Add in some JUCO imports like Latrell Jones, Isiah Dasher, and Clythus Griffith, and there might be enough firepower for some improvement on that front. However, the frontcourt duo of Tahirou Diabete and Takiula Fahrensohn simply isn’t on-par with the rest of the league, and the Pilots just got bludgeoned time after time on the glass. It simply seems unlikely that the Pilots can turn it around under Porter, and the question becomes when a move might be made. Per HoopDirt, Porter only has one season left on his deal, which makes it seem VERY unlikely to me he’ll be the head coach here come April. With plenty of excellent young coaches in the region, Portland should have plenty of good choices.
All-Conference First Team:
- Colbey Ross (Pepperdine)
- Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga)
- Corey Kispert (Gonzaga)
- Drew Timme (Gonzaga)
- Matt Haarms (BYU)
Player of the Year: Corey Kispert (Gonzaga) – The choice was between the three Bulldogs I selected, and I decided in the end that Kispert was the choice. He’ll never be the flashiest player in the world, but Kispert is such a high-level shooter and continues to improve his all-around game every single season. He looked excellent in the Zags’ scrimmage earlier this month and seems poised to have a big-time senior campaign in Spokane.
Breakout Player: Drew Timme (Gonzaga) – Timme’s talents are certainly well-known among WCC coaches, but he is definitely one of the bigger breakout candidates nationally in the country with All-American potential. Timme is such an impressive player thanks to his ability to finish around the basket and his great touch. He also looks to be in great shape and is moving extremely well. Expect a massive year for Timme as he steps out of Filip Petrusev’s shadow.
Newcomer of the Year: Matt Haarms (BYU) – I couldn’t quite give the Zags the awards sweep with Jalen Suggs here, as I’m super excited to watch Haarms in Mark Pope’s offensive system. A former big man himself, Pope loves to develop forwards, and Haarms is as talented a big man as he has ever coached. He’s unlikely to be quite the weapon Yoeli Childs was on offense, but Haarms should have a massive impact in his senior season playing as a versatile big in this system.