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.