2014-15 Season Preview: Who is Gonzaga’s biggest threat in the WCC?

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Gonzaga’s looking to win yet another WCC title (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

After seeing their streak of 11 straight WCC regular season titles (shared or outright) come to an end in 2011-12, Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs have won the last two conference titles. And given the talent that’s in Spokane, the expectation in the WCC is that the Bulldogs will extend their new streak to three in 2014-15. But to think that Gonzaga won’t be challenged at all in the WCC would be a mistake, with there being multiple teams capable of running with Bulldogs, including BYU, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. In recent years the WCC has developed into a conference that will receive multiple NCAA tournament bids, and that should once again be the case in 2014-15.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Just one coaching change in the WCC: Only one program changed coaches at the end of last season, with alumnus and experienced coach Mike Dunlap replacing Max Good at Loyola Marymount. Dunlap has experience as a head coach at both the Division I, filling in for Steve Lavin at St. John’s, and NBA levels. But this job sets up to be a difficult one, with Anthony Ireland out of eligibility and WCC All-Freshman Team selection Gabe Levin deciding to transfer.

2. Kyle Collinsworth returns from a torn ACL: One of the biggest pre-NCAA tournament storylines in March was BYU’s loss of Collinsworth, who suffered a torn ACL in the WCC title game against Gonzaga. BYU was still in the field of 68 but they were without their best playmaker in the loss to Oregon. How close to 100 percent is Collinsworth? That’s the key question entering this season as BYU looks to dethrone Gonzaga, even with this potentially being Dave Rose’s deepest teams.

3. Gonzaga returns three starters, and they add some very good pieces as well: The Bulldogs’ most important personnel loss was center Sam Dower, but they’ve got more than enough talent to account for his graduation. Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. return for their senior season, and they’ll be joined by newcomers such as USC transfer Byron Wesley, Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan (eligible in January) and freshmen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. As for the front court, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis pair up with starting big man Przemek Karnowski. Depth, talent, experience…Gonzaga has it all.

4. Nine of the league’s top ten scorers return: The only loss in this area is Loyola Marymount PG Anthony Ireland, who finished the season second in the WCC in scoring. Tyler Haws leads the way amongst WCC returning scorers, as he averaged 23.2 ppg last season, and Santa Clara guards Jared Brownridge (17.2 ppg) and Brandon Clark (16.9) were the highest-scoring tandem in the conference.

5. Transfers will have an significant impact on the conference title race: Given Gonzaga’s stature this goes without saying, with Wesley and Wiltjer both factoring into the rotation for Mark Few. But they aren’t the only contender looking to transfers for production. BYU will have Chase Fischer (Wake Forest) competing for minutes in a deep backcourt, and Saint Mary’s will expect significant contributions from Joe Coleman (Minnesota), Aaron Bright (Stanford) and Desmond Simmons (Washington).

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Haws, BYU

In the two seasons since he’s returned from his LDS mission, Haws has established himself as one of the nation’s best shooters (and scorers). Last season Haws accounted for 23.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, shooting 46.3% from the field, 40.4% from three and 88.1% from the foul line. Having won WCC Player of the Year honors last season, it would come as no surprise if Haws repeated that feat as a senior.

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BYU’s Tyler Haws (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-WCC FIRST TEAM:

  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: One of the nation’s best shooters, Pangos averaged 14.4 points, 3.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game as a junior.
  • Stacy Davis, Pepperdine: Davis averaged 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in WCC play, earning first team All-WCC honors.
  • Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s: Waldow’s been a mainstay in Moraga the last couple of years, and as a junior he shot 56.5% from the field and posted eight double-doubles.
  • Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: Brownridge was one of the most productive freshmen in the nation in 2013-14, averaging 17.2 points per game and winning WCC Newcomer of the Year honors.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
  • Kruize Pinkins, San Francisco
  • Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
  • Jeremy Major, Pepperdine
  • Johnny Dee, San Diego

BREAKOUT STAR: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

The name is well-known based upon his time at Kentucky, but Wiltjer’s role will be far different in his first season as a Bulldog. Wiltjer will be a primary scoring option for Gonzaga, and that season spent on the sidelines should benefit him greatly. Wiltjer wasn’t placed on the WCC preseason all-conference team which is understandable given the fact that he didn’t play last year, but that won’t be the case in March.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Eric Reveno, Portland

After winning 19 games or more in three straight seasons (2008-11) the Pilots have finished below .500 in each of the last three campaigns. The good news for Portland is that their top two scorers, preseason All-WCC selection Thomas Van Der Mars and guard Kevin Bailey, return from last year’s group that finished 15-16 (7-11 WCC). Another piece of good news for the Pilots: they won’t play more than three straight road games in league play. Last season, Reveno’s Pilots played their last four regular season games on the road.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Gonzaga looks poised to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The depth at the guard positions in this league. There are a lot of talented perimeter players in the WCC this season, which will make for some fun nights in conference play.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 6, Gonzaga at Arizona
  • November 24, BYU vs. San Diego State (Maui Invitational)
  • November 23, UC Irvine at Saint Mary’s
  • November 17, SMU at Gonzaga
  • December 3, San Francisco at Colorado

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WestCoastConvo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are loaded with offensive weapons, but how far the go in March will depend upon the progress made defensively.
2. BYU: Tyler Haws is one of the best players in the country, and Dave Rose has what could be his deepest team at BYU.
3. Saint Mary’s: Graduate transfers Aaron Bright (Stanford) and Desmond Simmons (Washington) bring additional experience, as does former Minnesota guard Joe Coleman.
4. San Francisco: Rex Walters lost his two most productive players in Cole Dickerson and Avry Holmes, but the Dons won’t lack for talent.
5. Portland: The tandem of Van Der Mars and Bailey could potentially push Portland into the top half of the WCC.
6. San Diego: The Toreros have one of the better backcourt duos on the west coast in Christopher Anderson and Johnny Dee, but they need Jito Kok to bounce back from an underwhelming sophomore campaign.
7. Pepperdine: Stacy Davis receives a lot of the pub when it comes to the Waves, but guard Jeremy Major can play as well.
8. Santa Clara: Guards Jared Brownridge and Brandon Clark are the leaders for a young team that could still be one year away from a major jump in the standings.
9. Pacific: The Tigers were a senior-laden group in their WCC debut. That won’t be the case this season, with sophomore guard T.J. Wallace among those expected to step forward. 
10. Loyola Marymount: Given the personnel losses and the transition to a new system, this could be a tough year for the Lions in Mike Dunlap’s first season at his alma mater.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.