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)