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2017-18 WCC Preview: Can St. Mary’s overtake Gonzaga?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.

The WCC nearly got its first national championship last season since Bill Russell was running with San Francisco in the 1950s, but Gonzaga came up just short in the title game against North Carolina. The Bulldogs are turning over their roster this year with St. Mary’s nipping – and maybe more – at their heels.

Is this the year that St. Mary’s finally surpasses Gonzaga as the best team in the WCC?

Can BYU rebound from a couple of disappointing finishes and the loss of a key big man?

And how long will it be before the nation realizes just how good Gonzaga’s “other dudes” are?

Randy Bennett (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Bulldog reload: Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews are gone to graduation while fellow starter and WCC player of the year Nigel Williams-Goss left a year early for the NBA Draft. Williams-Goss wasn’t alone as Zach Collins went from from sixth man to NBA lottery pick after one year in Spokane. Still, Mark Few has plenty of talent, with Jonathan Williams and Josh Perkins ready to step into bigger roles along with sophomore big man Killian Tillie.

One of the biggest challenges for the ‘Zags will be replicating last year’s suffocating defense. Gonzaga was among – if not the – best on that end of the floor last season, due in no small part to their positional size at every position. They simply didn’t have a weakness. They were good in the paint, at the arc and kept opponents off the free-throw line. Will that change without Karnowski and Collins, who anchored the defense as two of the country’s best rim protectors? Williams has shown glimpses of being a capable shot-blocker, but rebuilding the defense without an eraser on the back end will be Few’s paramount task this season.

2. Gaels re-up: After winning 29 games a year ago, Randy Bennett’s program returns four starters and looks to be the class of the WCC. Jock Landale is a stud while Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson are all-league players. Which is to say nothing of New Mexico/Ole Miss transfer Cullen Neal joining the ranks. Everything is setup for the Gaels to have a monster season.

The biggest key for St. Mary’s is to insure that the continuity breeds growth rather than stagnation. There really isn’t an area or two that the Gaels can take massive steps forward – they were really good last year. What they need is continued – if incremental – improvement that is the thin line between “really good” and “Final Four contender.”  Can they generate just a few more turnovers defensively? Can Naar rediscover his 2015-16 form? It’s all about refinement for St. Mary’s. Do what they already do very well, just a little better. And the rewards could be anything but small.

3. The man, the myth, the Landale: After being a bit player as a sophomore, Jock Landale exploded on to the scene last year, becoming an All-American after posting 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. Is his growth curve still pointing up, and if so, how good can he be this year? If the Gaels can put up gaudy win numbers, knock Gonzaga and its WCC perch and he logs big stats, could Landale be a national player of the year candidate?

The odds on Landale being able to repeat last year’s breakout performance – and maybe even improve upon it – seem high given his skillset. There’s no Hack-A-Jock option with him shooting 72.2 percent from the line, and double-teams are only marginally effective given his passing ability and the Gaels’ above-average 3-point shooting. Defenses will continue to key on him, no doubt, but slowing a 6-foot-11 center and 61-percent shooter who can pass over the top is especially difficult, particularly for WCC teams not named Gonzaga or BYU.

4. Cougars lingering: Eric Mika’s decision to forego his final two years of eligibility was a major loss for BYU, which looked to be returning a talented core. Instead, TJ Haws and Nick Emery will likely be asked to carry a major burden in the backcourt. BYU is solidly third in the league, but it’s hard to see them challenging either the Gaels or Bulldogs.

5. …and the rest: St. Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU should all be interesting, to varying degrees, this season. The rest of the league? It’s pretty hard to get excited about that. The remaining seven schools are a tier or two below, with the majority having second-year coaches in rebuilding mode. It’s going to be hard for any of them to catch up to the league’s top three hoops programs, but they’re further behind right now than the league could like. San Francisco has the best chance to break through and change the narrative.

Jock Landale (William Mancebo/Getty Images)
MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jock Landale, St. Mary’s

The 6-foot-11 center went from bit player as a sophomore to All-American caliber as a junior, averaging 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. This season, Landale is the undisputed top player in the WCC and could help the Gaels end Gonzaga’s five-year run atop the league.

THE REST OF THE WCC FIRST TEAM

  • Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga: The Missouri transfer made a big impact for Gonzaga last year and will have a bigger role now.
  • Cullen Neal, St. Mary’s: A change of scenery will likely do him well after a disappointing year at Ole MIss following his transfer from New Mexico.
  • TJ Haws, BYU: A productive freshman year sets the bar pretty high for the BYU legacy.
  • Emmett Naar: Here’s betting on a big bounceback season after rough junior campaign.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Calvin Hermanson, St. Mary’s
  • KJ Feagin, Santa Clara
  • Olin Carter, San Diego
  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
Rui Hachimura, FIBA

BREAKOUT STAR: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

Gonzaga always seems to have a player made for this category, and this year is no different after Hachimura had a huge showing over the summer at the U19 World Cup. The 6-foot-9 forward from Japan averaged 19.5 points and 11.8 rebounds during the competition, exhibiting a high skill level and tons of promise. He should be able to slide into the ‘Zags frontcourt along Williams and Tillie and make an immediate impact.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Marty Wilson, Pepperdine

Marty Wilson won 18 games in back-to-back years at Pepperdine but dropped to nine last year, his sixth at Pepperdine. He’s the only coach who could even be considered here as there were four first-year coaches in 2016-17, and Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU are as stable as stable gets.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

It’s the same as it ever was, with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the Big Dance.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT:

Can Jock Landale become a national star from Moraga?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 23-26, Gonzaga in the PK80
  • Dec. 5, Gonzaga vs. Villanova
  • Dec. 2, St. Mary’s vs. Cal
  • Dec. 10, Gonzaga vs. Washington
  • Dec. 16, BYU vs. Utah

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @slipperstillfit

POWER RANKINGS

1. St. Mary’s: Jock Landale is the best player in the league, and the Gaels have the best roster.
2. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have to reload, but Mark Few’s squad will be no slouches.
3. BYU: TJ Haws has big shoes to fill after his brother Tyler became a star at BYU, but he looked capable of doing so last year as a freshman.
4. San Francisco: The Dons won 20 games a year ago despite playing just one senior and one junior. Things are looking up in the bay.
5. Santa Clara: KJ Feagin makes the Broncos dangerous any night out.
6. San Diego: The Toreros return a bunch from last year’s group that went 13-18. Things should improve this year.
7. Pacific: The Tigers endured a seven-game losing streak and went just 4-14 in conference, but a more veteran group could lead to a higher win total this season.
8. Portland: The Pilots have nearly an entirely new roster this season after a last-place finish in Terry Porter’s first year.
9. Pepperdine: Nevada transfer Eric Cooper, Jr. should help, but the Waves aren’t looking at a lot of improvement from last year’s 9-22 team.
10.Loyola Marymount: The Lions are rebooting the roster amid a rebuild, and it could be tough sledding this winter.

No. 17 Michigan beats Maryland 85-61 for 5th straight win

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the decisive first half, and No. 17 Michigan easily defeated Maryland 85-61 Saturday for its fifth straight victory.

Using runs of 9-0 and 16-3, the Wolverines built a 54-24 halftime lead and cruised to the finish. Michigan went 17 for 28 from the floor in the first half, including 11 for 19 from 3-point range.

The Wolverines (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten) have clinched the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, but can earn a No. 4 seed and a double bye if Nebraska loses to Penn State on Sunday.

Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 17 for Maryland, which suffered its most lopsided home loss since a 104-72 defeat against Duke on Jan 3, 1998.

The Terrapins (19-12, 8-10) were 15-2 at home and lost to Michigan on the road by just one point on Jan. 15, which made the blowout that much more surprising.

Abdur-Rahkman made six 3-pointers in the first half and also led the Wolverines with five rebounds and four assists. The senior guard cooled off in the second half, but nevertheless surpassed his previous career best of 26 points.

After Michigan rattled off 10 straight points to take a 20-12 lead, Kevin Huerter hit a 3 for Maryland before Jaaron Simmons launched the pivotal 16-3 run with a long-range jumper. Jordan Poole chipped in with a pair of 3-pointers and another by Abdur-Rahkman made it 34-18.

The Wolverines had three turnovers in their opening four possessions, but added only one more before halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: The Wolverines have plenty of momentum to bring into the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan won it all last year, and again appears ready to take on the big boys in the conference.

Maryland: A flat performance at home means the Terrapins have to win the Big Ten Tournament to extend their run of appearances in the NCAA Tournament to four.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Former Maryland WR Torrey Smith, who earned his second career Super Bowl ring this season, returned to his alma mater to promote a charity basketball tournament next month in Baltimore. Also, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the brother of Michigan football Jim Harbaugh, sat courtside.

UP NEXT

Michigan: Big Ten Tournament in New York.

Maryland: Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Mark Emmert hints at changes coming to rules regulating agents in college basketball

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Whatever changes Mark Emmert has planned, they’re going to happen quickly.

In an interview with CBS Sports prior to the start of Saturday’s college hoops action, Emmert said that the “systemic changes” that he is hoping to implement will, ideally, be in place for the start of the 2018-2019 season.

“They’re going to be putting forth their recommendations and bringing them forward during the month of April, and then the boards are going to act on them and act on them quickly,” Emmert said. “We need to act and have changes in place before tipoff of next season. Failure to do that will really erode everyone’s confidence in what this wonderful game is truly all about.”

What are the changes going to be?

Emmert didn’t spill the beans there, but it does seems like the NCAA will consider changing the rules involving agents and college basketball players. When asked why there’s a difference between the way the NCAA views hockey/baseball players and basketball players with regards to agents, Emmert said, “It makes perfect sense to me that it ought to be very different than it is now.”

This would be the smart move to make. Of Friday, I wrote a long column about how the only way to clean up college basketball is to allow players to have agents and to eliminate amateurism. This would not entirely solve the problem, but it would be a major step in the right direction.

Emmert also said that he hopes that the eligibility concerns involving the players that are mentioned in these reports will be figured out by the start of the NCAA tournament. The process for determining this is simple: Right now, the onus falls on the school. They essentially have three options:

  1. They can provisionally suspend the player, keeping them out of competition until they can determine whether or not a violation took place. This is why Collin Sexton and Jeffery Carroll missed time earlier this season.
  2. They can self-report a violation, announce that the player is ineligible and immediately apply for reinstatement with the NCAA. The player would have to make restitution for the impermissible benefits and, depending on the value of those benefits, they’d face some kind of suspension. This is like what happened with the Georgia Tech players earlier this season.
  3. They can announce that they do not believe any violations occurred, play out the rest of the season and hope that no evidence pops up that proves the guys that played were ineligible at the time.

At this time, we are still waiting to hear from Alabama on Collin Sexton, Michigan State on Miles Bridges and Arizona on Deandre Ayton and Sean Miller.

Chimezie Metu cleared to play by USC

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USC has cleared junior forward Chimezie Metu as he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday against Utah, the school announced.

The 6-foot-11 Metu is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Trojans this season as he was one of the players named in the Friday reports that linked him to NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins.

The Trojans are the latest school to allow their player to play after the reports as they follow schools like Duke and Kentucky, as they also did the same with allowing Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Knox Jr. to play.

It’s also noted in the release that USC is reviewing Bennie Boatwright’s eligibility as well even though he’s out for the season with a knee injury.

On Friday, Yahoo Sports reported a wide-scale payment operation from Miller and Dawkins in order to recruit players for Miller’s agency. The records allege that Bennie Boatwright Sr. received about $2,000. The records also allege that Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, also got $2,000.

Although the allegations look serious, Dawkins has also proven to be untrustworthy in many instances and it’s hard to tell what might be real and what might be a cover for another expense. It’s hard to prove a lot of these things presented in a business expenses spreadsheet. USC is backing Metu by saying he never received anything that would harm his eligibility as they try to make a final push at Arizona before the postseason.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

YET TO PLAY

LOUISVILLE
VIRGINIA TECH
SMU
MIAMI
LSU
TEXAS
USC
UTAH
MISSISSIPPI STATE
TEXAS A&M
WASHINGTON
ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

Marvin Bagley III returning to Duke lineup against Syracuse after knee injury

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Duke star freshman Marvin Bagley III will be available for the Blue Devils on Saturday when they play Syracuse in an ACC home game.

Bagley missed the past four games due to a knee strain that he suffered in the Feb. 8 game against North Carolina. During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils went 4-0 as their defense looked very good and senior Grayson Allen became an aggressive scorer.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of changes Duke makes with Bagley’s return. Watching Bagley’s health and seeing how many minutes he plays will be another subplot to watch against the Orange.