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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.

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

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Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

(John Weast/Getty Images)

TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.