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.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

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.