2017-18 Major Conference Previews

Mountain West Conference Preview: Can the league get back to being a multi-bid conference?

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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 Mountain West Conference.

Five or six years ago, the Mountain West was one of the most entertaining conferences in college basketball.

Maybe it was Kawhi Leonard leading the upstart San Diego State Aztecs to a top five ranking while competing for a league title with BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who became must-see TV despite never actually playing on TV. Or maybe it was the Steve Alford-led New Mexico teams loaded with Pac-12 talent like Drew Gordon, or Kendall Williams, or Darington Hobson, or Tony Snell. Dave Rice had UNLV rolling, Leon Rice was just starting to build Boise State into something that could match the football program and Larry Eustachy took over from Tim Miles at Colorado State and kept the Rams squarely in the NCAA tournament picture. Fresno State had Paul George. Wyoming had Larry Nance.

The MWC had years where they rated as a top four basketball conference in the sport. There were years that they sent five teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2011, both BYU and SDSU were top three seeds.

And now?

It looks like the league will once again be a one-bid league come March.

So what happened?

Some of it is cyclical. Colorado State and Boise State aren’t always going to be NCAA tournament teams, and Fresno State and Wyoming aren’t always going to find late-bloomers with first round potential that often. Some of it was also luck. San Diego State just so happened to land the best coach they’ve ever had, who happened to land a future top five player in the NBA, at the same time that Alford was mining the Pac-12 for their castoffs and Jimmer, a once-in-a-decade player, was doing Jimmer things at BYU.

And maybe it was just as simple as all ships rising with the tide. Mastery of the RPI combined with an influx of coaching talent, a run of promising recruits outperforming expectations and an impressive amount of home court advantage keeping anyone at the top from running away with league titles meant their were balanced races where the teams in fourth and fifth place were landing themselves wins that looked great on a tournament resume.

The league today is not what it was then, not with three of the most successful programs in the conference over the last decade in the midst of regime changes.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t get back to that level one day.

RELATEDWCC Preview | ACC PreviewPerry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Nevada has it rolling: Things are still rolling for the Wolfpack under Eric Musselman has his ability to attract talented recruits has not slowed down yet. In addition to Jordan Caroline, who may just be the best player in the MWC this season, and Lindsay Drew, the son of NBA head coach Larry Drew, four former high-major transfers will be eligible this fall after redshirting last season in Reno: Kendall Stephens (Purdue), Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Cody and Caleb Martin (N.C. State). That doesn’t include Darien Williams, a grad transfer from St. John’s.

Nevada lost a ton of talent from last season – Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, D.J. Fenner – but with the influx of players that Musselman has coming in combined with a returning star in Caroline and a veteran point guard in Drew, this team will enter the season as the heavy favorite to win the league and a team with the potential to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.

2. San Diego State replacing the man that built the program: When Steve Fisher took over the San Diego State basketball program in 1999, the Aztecs had been to just one NCAA tournament in the modern era (the first one) and three since becoming a Division I program in 1970. Fisher built SDSU into a Mountain West powerhouse with a rabid fanbase that could compete with some of the biggest names out west for recruits. He retired, and longtime assistant Brian Dutcher took over.

Dutcher was not left with the cupboard bare. The Aztecs probably have one of the best back courts in the league, as Trey Kell, Jeremy Helmsly and Montaque Gill-Cesear will be joined by San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, who could end up starting at the point. The enigmatic Malik Pope is back as well, while Max Montana – formerly Max Hoetzel – and Kameron Rooks, a grad transfer from Cal, join him up front.

The question isn’t the talent. It’s Dutcher. Can he right the ship for a program that has missed the last two NCAA tournaments after reaching the dance six years in a row?

Jordan Caroline (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3. Can Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison make up for the loss of key pieces?: Hutchison is a very, very good basketball player, one that looks like he will lead the league in scoring this season. But he is also going to be the focal point for a team that just lost three of their four best players, including starting point guard Paris Austin. If the Broncos want to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Justinian Jacob and Zach Haney to have big years.

4. Can the basketball program survive New Mexico going through a regime change: The carnage runs deep at New Mexico, where scandal after scandal is getting exposed and it’s unclear what decision-makers are actually going to be left by the time the dust settles. Craig Neal already lost his job. In his stead is Paul Weir, who will have to try and find a way to earn back the fanbase’s trust. It might take a while, as a Lobo team with no depth lost their two best players last season. That’s why they had to go out and hire the coach from archrival New Mexico State.

The good news? There is talent transferring in; JaQuan Lyle, Vance Jackson, Antino Jackson. The bad news? That talent will have to sit a year.

5. Marvin Menzies might have something at UNLV: Menzies managed to win four MWC games last season after having to essentially rebuild the entire roster when he took over, and while he lost a number of key pieces from that team, he did get Jovan Mooring, the team’s leading scorer, back. More importantly, he landed a commitment from Brandon McCoy, a top 15 prospect and a potential one-and-done talent at the center spot. Whether or not there are pieces around McCoy to make a run is arguable. But there is McCoy, and he is good.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule
RELATEDScandal is business as usual | Proof players have value | Death Penalty?

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

Boise State got somewhat lucky this offseason, as Hutchison, a 6-foot-7 forward with three-point range that averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 boards, opted not to enter the NBA Draft. He probably was not destined to be a first round pick, but there are plenty of NBA scouts that do believe he has a shot at having a good professional career. Leon Rice’s club lost three of their top four scorers from last year’s team, meaning there are going to be more opportunities for Hutchison this season. If Boise is as good as I expect them to be, it will likely be because Hutchison turns in a phenomenal season.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • Jordan Caroline, Nevada: It’s a toss-up for Player of the Year in the MWC between Hutchison and Caroline. I lean Hutchison personally, mainly because I think that he will put up much bigger numbers for a team that competes for top three in the league, but there’s a valid argument to saying that Caroline is the best basketball player in the conference. Picking him as POY is not the wrong choice.
  • Koby McEwen, Utah State: McEwen had a monster freshman season for the Aggies, and with Jalen Moore and Shane Rector gone, he’ll have that much more on his plate this season.
  • Justin James, Wyoming: James came off the bench for the Pokes last season despite being their best player. This year, Wyoming has a real shot to finish second in the league, and James is a major reason for that.
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV: The 7-foot McCoy is the most talented player in the conference. The talent may not be there around him, but there aren’t any other potential lottery picks in the conference.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Trey Kell, San Diego State
  • Jaron Hopkins, Fresno State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jeremy Helmsly, San Diego State

BREAKOUT STAR: Koby McEwen, Utah State

Down the stretch of the season, McEwen was arguably the best player on the Aggies. Defenses knew how to slow down Jalen Moore after four years in the league. McEwen was a new talent, one that will shine even brighter next season now that Moore and Shane Rector have graduated.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brian Dutcher, San Diego State

Dutcher, by no means, is in danger of losing his job. He literally just got the job. But he is taking over for the greatest coach in the history of the program, a coach in Steve Fisher that built a perennial tournament team where a perennial cellar-dweller had resided. Being the guy to replace The Guy is never going to be easy, particularly when taking over a talented team that has underperformed expectations of late.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Mountain West is a one-bid league once again.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Wyoming can make the push to win a league title. Anyone that’s been to Laramie knows that it is not exactly the easiest place to recruit a player to, not if they visit during the winter.

FOUR NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/13, Rhode Island vs. Nevada
  • 12/1, Boise State at Oregon
  • 12/2, Arizona at UNLV
  • 12/21, Gonzaga at San Diego State

POWER RANKINGS

1. Nevada: The Wolfpack are the reigning champions of the MWC and will once again be the most talented team in the league. That’s a good combination of things.
2. Wyoming: I’m going out on a limb with this one, but with the Pokes returning all but two of their rotation players, including Justin James and the underrated Hayden Dalton, Wyoming is going to sneak up on some people.
3. Boise State: Leon Rice is going to have to replace a lot of scoring and minutes this year, but the good news is that he will be able to do that while relying on Chandler Hutchison to carry the team.
4. San Diego State: The issue for the Aztecs isn’t going to be talent. As we discussed above, they have the pieces. The question is whether or not those pieces come together. The key may be Devin Watson, the San Francisco transfer. SDSU had three “point guards” that wanted to score last season. Can Watson embrace the role of distributor, or is he going to want to be a scorer as well?
5. Fresno State: Rodney Terry returned arguably his two best players with Jaron Hopkins and DeShon Taylor and has a handful of talented redshirts and transfers around them. If New Williams and Nate Grimes can live up to the hype they had in high school, the Bulldogs are a sleeper to push for the league title.
6. Utah State: This may be too high for a USU team that is losing two of their best players, but the Aggies have a pair of really promising sophomore guards in Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill  that played some of their best basketball late last season.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s teams at CSU have been up and down: He’ll contend for the league one year, finish around .500 the next. They contended for the league last season, lost their two best players and now look destined for the middle of the pack as they reload.
8. UNLV: It’s hard to know what to expect from this group. Brandon McCoy should be awesome, but do they have the supporting cast to push for the top half of the league standings? Is there anyone on the team that can actually feed McCoy the ball where he can be effective?
9. New Mexico: The Lobos needed some new blood running the program, and I fully expect Paul Weir to get things turned around. That said, there is more talent redshirting this season than there will be playing.
10. Air Force: The Falcons have 23 players on their roster. They’re also Air Force. They’ll probably win a few games they shouldn’t – and beat UNLV, since they always do – but that’s about it.
11. San Jose State: Their coach left this summer after their best player transferred to Gonzaga, and now there is a lawsuit alleging the former coach verbally abused players on the team.

ACC Preview: Duke’s back, but what do we make of Miami, Louisville and UNC?

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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 ACC.

The ACC is not as loaded this season as it has been in past seasons.

Part of that is just the simple, cyclical nature of these things. North Carolina, coming off of a national title, lost five of their top seven players. Virginia lost London Perrantes and enters something of a rebuilding year. Syracuse is in full-blown rebuilding mode after six of their seven leading scorers departed. Hell, even a team like N.C. State likes the kind of elite talent that always gave us hope, and left Wolfpack nation bitterly disappointed, under Mark Gottfried.

But there won’t be a lack of intrigue this season, not with Duke finding themselves right back in the same position they were in last season or with Louisville in a position to make a run at the league title. Throw Miami and Notre Dame in mix, along with reigning champs UNC, and what the ACC may lack in star power in should make up for with drama.


AP Photo

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Louisville should be fine this season, they just need to find their new Donovan Mitchell: In case you were living under a rock for the last week and haven’t heard by now, the entirety of the college basketball world is imploding and Rick Pitino, along with his prized freshman Brian Bowen, was the first casualty of a scandal that could rock the sport to its core.

OK, maybe there is some hyperbole in there, but the truth is this: The Hall of Fame head coach Louisville had employed for the last 16 seasons was fired three days before the start of practice when it became clear that, at the very least, a member of his staff – and likely Pitino himself – orchestrated a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Bowen to get Bowen to Louisville.

What that means is that the Cardinals will be coached by David Padgett this season while playing under the cloud of more potential NCAA sanctions.

Not good.

RELATED: Scandal is business as usual | Proof players have value | Death Penalty?

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals do have top 15 talent on this roster. Assuming they find a way to maintain Pitino’s principles, this group is going to be very, very good defensively again this season. It seems like they have plus length, plus athleticism and depth at every single position … expect the point. As well as Quentin Snider played for stretches last season, I have yet to be convinced that he is a true Pitino point guard. He’ll have a chance to prove that this season, as Louisville’s success may ultimately hinge on it.

But the real x-factor this year is going to be finding a player to make ‘the leap’. Donovan Mitchell did it last year, going from prospect to producer to lottery pick in the span of what felt like two months. Will that be Deng Adel this season? He finished last year strong. What about V.J. King? Athletic and positionally-versatile wings are something Pitino is excellent at taking advantage, and reports out of Louisville have been bullish on King’s sophomore year. Maybe this is the year that Anas Mahmoud or Ray Spalding finally takes the leap.

In all likelihood, someone is going to for the Cardinals. I’m just not sure who it is yet.

And I’m not sure that they’ll get to February without self-imposing another postseason ban, or if the team will fully gel under an interim coach.

It’s a nightmare scenario, for sure. But Louisville has the talent to make this ending a happy one, at least in the short term.

RELATED: WCC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Marvin Bagley III (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

2. Duke is back: I’ll be taking a much deeper dive on Duke later on this fall, but suffice to say, the Blue Devils are going to be the most fascinating team to watch this season. They are the most talented team in college basketball – seriously, their starting lineup will include the No. 1 point guard in the 2017 recruiting class (Trevon Duval), the No. 2 shooting guard (Gary Trent Jr.), the Nos. 1 and 2 power forwards (Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter) and the 2016-17 Preseason National Player of the Year (Grayson Allen). Allen, himself, is must-watch TV, as his talent has been completely overshadowed by the off-the-court issues that have plagued him the last two years.

Then there are the point guard question marks. And the issues with depth. And the concern about trying to shoe-horn elite talents into smaller roles, and whether or not Marques Bolden will be happy coming off the bench for the second straight season.

And that’s before we get into the bigger picture: this is the exact same thing Duke went through last season.

It may be a soap opera, but just like Gossip Girl and the first two seasons of The O.C., I just can’t stop watching it.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

3. Miami can win the league: I may be higher on Miami than anyone else in the country, but I think that it is justified. Let’s start with the obvious – the Hurricanes are going to have arguably the best back court in the country. Sophomore Bruce Brown is the name to know (more on him below), and he’ll be flanked by veteran JaQuan Newton and five-star freshman and projected lottery pick Lonnie Walker; Walker is dealing with a knee issue but should be healthy by the time the season starts. Those are three big, athletic and talented guards, and if we’ve learned anything about the Larrañaga era in Coral Gables, it is that he thrives with players like that.

The front court will be a bit of a question mark, but Dewan Huell is a former five-star recruit that should have a big year after playing behind Kamari Murphy last season. If the Hurricanes can find a way to adequately replace Davon Reed, we might be looking at the best team in the ACC this season. Even if they don’t, they can win the league.

4. North Carolina is going to have a hard time defending their titles: I love Joel Berry II.

I don’t see any way that he is going to have anything other than a frustrating senior season.

The Tar Heels have had a terrific amount of success the last two years. They’ve gone 66-14, won back-to-back regular season titles, an ACC tournament title and came one Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater away from winning back-to-back national titles. But that came with a typical Roy Williams team, one built around a big, powerful, veteran front line. With Tony Bradley going one-and-done, UNC’s lone veteran presence up front is Luke Maye, who is more of a stretch four than anything, and their freshmen aren’t exactly considered to be game-changing talents this season. Berry is a winner. He’ll keep them competitive, just not at the top of the league.

5. Notre Dame is the most underrated program in college basketball: No one has a better recent track record of developing talent than Mike Brey. He keeps kids in his program, lets them ride the bench for a year or two as they develop and then unleashes them on an unsuspecting ACC that thought it was finally the year the Irish were rebuilding. With Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson already proven, and Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger chomping at the bit to get more minutes, we’re not yet at the Notre Dame rebuild.


Bonzie Colson (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

I can hear you scoffing at this pick from here, but facts are facts. As a sophomore, Allen was a second-team NBC Sports All-American, and we were far from the only outlet to have him slotted there. Prior to last season, he was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, and again, we were far from the only outlet that made that prediction. After battling through injuries and the off-the-court distractions he created for himself, Allen had offseason surgery and, according to Mike Krzyzewski, is finally back to being healthy. That should mean that, this season, we’ll see the Grayson Allen we all expected to see last season.

THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Coming off of a national title, Berry is going to have to shoulder much of the load for the Tar Heels this year.
  • Bruce Brown, Miami: I am the conductor of the Bruce Brown hype train. Get aboard now while there are still seats available.
  • Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson averaged 18 points and 10 boards for the Irish last season as a junior. Expect that, at minimum, to be repeated this season.
  • Marvin Bagley III, Duke: I’m not convinced he’ll be the best player in college basketball off the bat, but he is a big time talent that fills a role Duke badly needed filled.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Matt Farrell, Notre Dame
  • Tyus Battle, Syracuse
  • V.J. King, Louisville
  • Deng Adel, Louisville
  • Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech

Bruce Brown (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Bruce Brown, Miami

There are a couple of other names to like in this league – namely Notre Dame’s Temple Gibbs and Brown’s teammate Dewan Huell – but Brown is the clear-cut favorite for me to be the ACC’s breakout star. The 6-foot-3 combo-guard showed flashes of his potential down the stretch of last season, but he may be the best two-way guard in the country and he plays for a coach that has thrived with lead guards that operate well in ball-screen actions. He’ll have to share the limelight in the back court with JaQuan Newton and Lonnie Walker, but there should be more than enough shine to go around for a team that has a real shot of winning the league.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson

It’s not often that you see a coach at the high-major level go six seasons without getting to the NCAA tournament and keep his job, but that is exactly what has happened with Brownell. He reached the Big Dance in his first season with the program and, since then, has managed just a pair of NIT appearances. The good news for Brownell is that the success of Clemson’s football team might mean that no one has noticed … yet. Seven years without an NCAA tournament would likely be the nail in the coffin.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The only No. 1 seed from the ACC this season is the Miami Hurricanes?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

Watching Duke try to figure it all out. There is an absurd amount of talent on that roster, and while the rest of the country will likely end up with Duke fatigue, the drama that inevitably creates is always going to be interesting.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
  • 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 12/3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS

1. Duke: The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the conference. Does that mean it will translate to the being the best team in the conference? It did in 2015. It didn’t in 2017. However it does turn out, the presence of Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III on this roster will mean that Duke is one of the most talked about teams in the country. So get used to it.
2. Miami: I’m very, very in on Miami this year. I love their back court, I think they have a ton of young talent on the roster, and when you give Jim Larrañaga talented guards and athletic big men, good things usually happen. Remember the name Bruce Brown. He’ll be an all-american and a first round pick by the time April rolls around.
3. Louisville: There are so many question marks surrounding this team, not the least of which is the potential for a self-imposed postseason ban. Given the amount of turmoil this group of kids has gone through in the last two years, I can’t begin to predict what this season will hold.
4. Notre Dame: At this point, we might as well just look at Notre Dame as the new Wisconsin. Regardless of who is on the roster or what the program has lost, just slot them into the top 25 somewhere. The good news for Irish fans is that, this year, both Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson are back, meaning that the Irish look like they will once again be in the mix for the top four in the league. The big question? Will Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Martinas Geben and D.J. Harvey be enough of a supporting cast?
5. North Carolina: Joel Berry II might end up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, but if the Tar Heels are going to have a shot at winning the league title, they’re going to need that kind of season out of him. With three of their top four players gone, this wasn’t unexpected, but the real killer was losing Tony Bradley. For a program that thrives on pounding the ball inside, UNC will have a real lack of experience – and, frankly, talent – up front.
6. Virginia: This will probably come back to bite me, but I think this is the year Virginia takes something of a step back. The Wahoos lost London Perrantes, and while there is quite a bit of promising young talent in the program, those players – Kyle Guy, Ty Jermoe, Jay Huff, De’Andre hunter – seem like they’re a year away.
7. Virginia Tech: Despite losing Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, I still think the Hokies are an NCAA tournament team. They bring back an impressive supporting cast, get Chris Clarke healthy and add a pair of talented and promising freshmen in Wabissa Bede and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
8. N.C. State: I’m actually bullish on this N.C. State team this season. Just like last year, there is enough talent on the roster – Abdul-Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven, Allerik Freeman, Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson, Lavar Batts – to make some noise in the league. It’s almost as if the coaching staff put the talent on the roster to waste. We’ll see if new head coach Kevin Keatts can make a difference.
9. Florida State: The Seminoles are a tough team to project. They lose their three best players off of last year’s team, but they bring in five-star freshman M.J. Walker and return a handful of talented pieces. There is also a ton of size up front, as we’ve come to expect of FSU.
10. Georgia Tech: Somehow, the Yellow Jackets went 8-10 in the ACC last season. Josh Pastner returns a pair of talented pieces in Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie, meaning that, for the first time in a few years, there should actually be some expectation for success for Georgia Tech.
11. Boston College: I think BC is going to sneak up on some people. Between Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, they have one of the best back courts in the league. Throw in Illinois State transfer Deontae Hawkins, and that’s not a bad top three. Depth, clearly, is the issue, but when you’ve won two ACC games in the last two years, almost anything is an improvement.
12. Syracuse: I’m very curious to see how this season plays out for the Orange. After finishing last year 19-15, the Orange lost six of their top seven scorers. Tyus Battle is back and is going to be asked to carry a massive load. There are pieces here – Geno Thorpe is a fifth-year senior at the point, Paschal Chukwu was once a promising prospect, Matthew Moyer has the tools to be good in a 2-3 zone and Jim Boeheim did bring in a promising recruiting class – but this roster looks a lot different than the rosters you expect to see from the Orange.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning has been getting things done on the recruiting trail, but to date that has earned the Demon Deacons a trip to last year’s play-in game thanks to the unexpected emergence of John Collins. He’s gone, as is Dinos Mitoglou. This year’s group will have some back court talent – Bryant Crawford, Brandon Childress, Chaundree Brown – and a four-guard group was how Manning had his most success as a head coach, when at Tulsa.
14. Clemson: The Tigers were better last season than their 6-12 ACC record would indicate. The lost six games by a single possession and three more by less than five points. That would normally be a good sign, except that the Tigers lost Jaron Blossomgame, the best player on their roster the last few years. I’m not sure who on this roster would worry me as an opposing coach, but I also think there are enough quality pieces that, say, finishing eighth would not be an insane prediction.
15. Pitt: The Panthers went 4-14 in the ACC last season then lost their top five scorers, including all-ACC talents like Jamel Artis and Michael Young. They were the easiest team to pick in these power rankings, easier even than picking Duke to win the league.

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.

CBT’s 2017-18 College Basketball Season Preview Schedule

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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Believe it or not, but college basketball season technically begins this week, as programs around the country are allowed to start practicing as early as September 29th, this Friday.

With that in mind, it’s time for us to kick off the process of previewing the 2017-18 season, getting you ready for everything that will happen in our beloved sport for the next five months with a series of predictions that, hopefully, won’t prove to be totally and completely wrong by the end of the year.

Here is a complete schedule of everything you can expect to see from us over the next six weeks.

And be sure to bookmark this page, as we will be updating the schedule with links as each story gets posted. That way, if you miss anything — which is unlikely if you follow @CBTonNBC on twitter and like the College Basketball Talk page on FaceBook — you can go back and find it quite easily.

As always, the easiest way to access the podcasts is to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or any other place that you can listen to podcasts.

AWARDS

Sep. 26: The Enigma of Miles Bridges | Miles Bridges on the CBT Podcast
Sep. 26: NBCSports.com All-American Team | Podcast Breakdown
Sep. 26: Expert Picks and Predictions
Oct. 30-Nov. 3: Preseason Top 25 Countdown
Oct. 30: Mid-Major All-Americans
Oct. 30: Mid-Major Power Rankings

RANKINGS

Oct. 23-27: Top 100 Players Countdown
Oct. 24: Top Backcourts
Oct. 24: Top Frontcourts
Oct. 25: Top Lead Guards
Oct. 25: Top Off-Guards
Oct. 26: Top Wings
Oct. 27: Top Big Men

CONTENDERS SERIES

Oct. 2: Final Four Sleepers
Oct. 9: Final Four Favorites, part 1
Oct. 13: Final Four Favorites, part 2
Oct. 16: Kentucky
Oct. 17: Kansas
Oct. 18: Arizona
Oct. 19: Duke
Oct. 20: Michigan State

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

Sep. 28: WCC
Oct. 2: ACC | Preview Podcast
Oct. 4: Mountain West
Oct. 5: Atlantic 10
Oct. 6: American
Oct. 9: Big Ten | Preview Podcast
Oct. 16: Big 12 | Preview Podcast
Oct. 23: Pac-12 | Preview Podcast
Oct. 31: SEC | Preview Podcast
Nov. 6: Big East | Preview Podcast

Sep. 28: America East
Sep. 29: Atlantic Sun
Oct. 3: Big Sky
Oct. 3: Big South
Oct. 4: Big West
Oct. 5: CAA
Oct. 6: Conference USA
Oct. 10: Horizon
Oct. 10: Ivy
Oct. 11: MAAC
Oct. 11: MAC
Oct. 12: MEAC
Oct. 13: Missouri Valley
Oct. 17: NEC
Oct. 17: Ohio Valley
Oct. 18: Patriot
Oct. 19: SoCon
Oct. 20: Southland
Oct. 24: SWAC
Oct. 25: Summit
Oct. 26: Sun Belt
Oct. 27: WAC

LISTS

Sep. 25: Best Non-Conference Games
Sep. 27: Programs on the Rise and Decline
Sep. 27: Impact Transfers
Sep. 29: Perry Ellis All-Stars
Oct. 31: Top Dunkers
Nov. 1: Coaches on the Hot Seat
Nov. 1: Key Assistant Coaching Hires
Nov. 1: Best, Worst Head Coaching Changes
Nov. 2: Impact Freshmen
Nov. 3: Breakout Stars
Nov. 7: Under-the-Radar Stars
Nov. 7: X-Factors
Nov. 8: Potential Cinderellas
Nov. 9: Most Important Players
Nov. 10: 68 Things To Watch For
Nov. 10: BOLD PREDICTIONS