WCC Preview: ‘Zags favorites once more

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WCC.

Since BYU moved into the conference five years ago, just once has a team outside Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and the Cougars finished inside the league’s top three. This year probably won’t be much different with that trio set to be as strong as ever. There’s change elsewhere around the league that could change the landscape, but not likely for some time.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Gonzaga just reloads: The Bulldogs may have lost a lottery pick in Domantas Sabonis and first-team all-conference contributor in Kyle Wiltjer, but it’s not hard to envision Mark Few’s team being better this season. NBCSports.com preseason All-American Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) are eligible after transfers, as is Cal graduate transfer Jordan Mathews. The ‘Zags also add a McDonald’s All-American in freshman 7-footer Zach Collins and have Przmek Karnowski healthy after missing most of last season. This program is a well-oiled, winning machine. They’re talented enough that this could actually be the year they get to the Final Four.

2. Coaching turnover: Forty percent of the 10-team league has a new coach this season. Former NBA point guards Damon Stoudamire and Terry Porter took over at Pacific and Portland, respectively, while former Arizona State and N.C. State coach Herb Sendek replaced Kerry Keating at Santa Clara and Kyle Smith took over for Rex Walters at San Francisco.

That’s an astounding percentage, but in a league that’s being dominated by the same programs year-in and year-out, change is probably a good thing to shake up the status quo. The other problem? It’s virtually impossible to crack the top three in the WCC when it’s dominated by Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, which means that the rest of the league has become filled with dead-end jobs. Can you name the last time a WCC coach left for a better job? Jan Van Breda Kolff left Pepperdine in 2001 for St. Bonaventure.

(AP)
Nigel Williams-Goss (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

3. NBA infusion: Half of those four hires come with incredibly strong NBA credentials. Damon Stoudamire spent time on benches in Memphis (both in the NBA and college) and Arizona following his 13-year NBA career and is now in charge of cleaning up and straightening out Pacific after an academic scandal. Terry Porter spent 17 years in the NBA as a player and had head coaching gigs with the Bucks and Suns, but now returns to the city, Portland, where his retired number hangs in the Moda Center.

4. Can St. Mary’s build its resume: The Gaels won 29 games and defeated Gonzaga twice last year, but a loss in the conference tournament kept them out of the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year due to a poor at-large resume. St. Mary’s returns literally almost every player from that team and has bolstered its non-conference slate with road trips to Dayton and Stanford, plus UAB on a neutral. If the Gaels can’t capture the WCC tournament title, will they have enough to still make the Big Dance? Because talent isn’t the issue with them. Spoiler alert: St. Mary’s will crack our preseason top 25 when it is released.

5. Replacing Collinsworth: Gone is Kyle Collinsworth after posting 12 career triple-doubles and BYU records for rebounds and assists. The Cougars still have plenty of firepower, though, namely Nick Emery, who averaged 16.3 points as a freshman. Back is big man Eric Mika after a two-year mission, and Houston transfer L.J. Rose joins the program as well. That’s a solid core before you factor in the loaded freshmen class of T.J. Haws, Yoeli Childs and Payton Dastrup.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

An NBCSports.com second-team preseason All-American, Williams-Goss sat out last season after transfering from Washington to Spokane, and we’re expecting him to hit the ground rounding after a year away from competition. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds his last season at Washington and will have a huge role in leading a Final Four contending ‘Zags team.

SPOKANE, WA - JANUARY 14:  Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against defender Nick Emery #4 of the BYU Cougars in the first half of the game at McCarthey Athletic Center on January 14, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Josh Perkins drives against Nick Emery (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

THE REST OF THE WCC FIRST TEAM:

  • Przmek Karnowski, Gonzaga: If healthy, Karnowski is a devastating big man.
  • Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: League’s top returning scorer after posting 20.6 ppg last year.
  • Nick Emery, BYU: Known for throwing a punch at a Utah player, but put up big numbers for the Cougars.
  • Emmett Naar, St. Mary’s:Scored 14 points and dished out over 6 assists per game for the 29-win Gaels.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Joe Rahon, St. Mary’s
  • Eric Mika, BYU
  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • Dane Pineau, St. Mary’s
  • Alec Wintering, Portland

BREAKOUT STAR: Jared Brownridge is going to have the latitude to hoist a ton of shots and if he’s making 40 percent of his 3s, he’s got a chance to put up even bigger numbers than last year. A big year from him could help push Santa Clara into relevance under new coach Herb Sendek.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett argues a call, during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga in Moraga, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Randy Bennett isn’t on the hot seat or anything, but his team is coming off a disappointing miss of the NCAA tournament last year (for the third-straight season) and has a massive amount of expectation for this year. And Gonzaga somehow looks stronger than ever. That’s pressure.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : that the WCC is a two-bid league with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Watching the battle for the league championship between the ‘Zags and Gaels.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Dec. 7, Washington vs. Gonzaga
  • Dec. 3, Arizona vs. Gonzaga
  • Nov. 19, St. Mary’s vs. Dayton
  • Dec. 3, BYU vs. USC
  • Dec. 22, Valparaiso vs. Santa Clara

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @slipperstillfit

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Gonzaga: The top-tier talent will be enough to stave off the challengers.
2. St. Mary’s: They won’t knock off Gonzaga, but the Gaels should still be dancing.
3. BYU: Dave Rose has a solid core that will grow into a contender with time. They’re probably a year away from truly contending.
4. Santa Clara: Predicting a big year for Jared Brownridge means Santa Clara will be the best of the rest in the WCC.
5. Pepperdine: A strong core of returnees plus stability on the bench will propel the Waves to the top half of the conference.
6. Portland: Terry Porter will be leaning heavily on senior Alec Wintering to produce in his first year.
7. Loyola Marymount: LMU lost Adom Jacko to the pros but welcomes Stefan Jovanovic (Hawaii) and Trevor Manuel (Oregon) as transfers
8. San Francisco: New coach Kyle Smith inherits a roster without much stability.
9. Pacific: Expect a bumpy ride for first-year head coach Damon Stoudamire.
10. San Diego: After finishing in the basement last year, the Toreros lost their leading scorer and best interior presence, so there’s not a lot of expectation.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 08:  Emmett Naar #3 of the Saint Mary's Gaels brings the ball up the court against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the championship game of the West Coast Conference Basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on March 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gonzaga won 85-75.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Emmett Naar (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.