The theme of the 2009-10 season in the West Coast Conference's is rebuilding. While Gonzaga ended 2008-09 in the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to North Carolina, and St. Mary's ended a season that began with so much promise in the NIT quarterfinals, both these teams suffered significant losses that will result in tempered expectations this time around. And the changes aren't limited to the teams who finished at the top of the standings, as Loyola Marymount begins their first full season under Max Good, their fifth coach in this century.
With just about everyone going through some changes, the WCC race should be more competitive than last year's, when the Bulldogs ran the table and swept through the league tournament. The big question is how will a more even, and potentially bruising, league race impact the conference's chances at multiple bids. Las Vegas will serve as the neutral host for the conference tournament for the second straight year. With the Zags dominance last season, this will really be the first year we get to see if a neutral-site event will impact the conference's postseason fortunes, if at all. More on the eight WCC members after the jump.
Let's first take a look at last season's WCC standings.
West Coast Conference Standings
Now, here are my WCC picks for 2009-10, presented in reverse order.
Loyola Marymount (last NCAA: 1990) This March, 20 years will have passed since the Lions made their electrifying, emotional run to the Elite Eight. To me, it seems like only yesterday that Bo Kimble shot his free throws left-handed to honor his late friend Hank Gathers. For fans of LMU, the story of Alexander the Great must seem more recent. In those two decades, the Lions have become the WCC's perennial bottom feeders, averaging 20 losses a season during the new millenium. Head coach Max Good will attempt to improve on last year's 28-loss campaign with the help of five freshmen, Seton Hall transfer Larry Davis, a 6-4 guard, and Oregon transfer Drew Viney, a 6-7 forward.
San Francisco (last NCAA: 1998) The Dons are another program that's fallen on hard times. (Remember the dismissal of Jessie Evans and ill-fated interim tenure of Eddie Sutton back in '07-'08?) Rex Walters begins his second season by the Bay looking to climb up the standings. He'll get a lot of help from Dior Lawhorn (20.1 ppg), who's somehow managed to win the WCC's scoring title twice despite the presence of the high-flying Zags, and Manhattan transfer Rashad Green, brother of Danny, who just won a national title in Chapel Hill. USF will also feature an international frontcourt, as Walters secured the services of three European players, 7-foot C Tomas Bruha, 6-10 C Moustapha Diarra, and 6-8 F Nikola Stojiljkovic. The big question for Walters is who will run the offense now that Manny Quezada has graduated.
Santa Clara (last NCAA: 1996) Kerry Keating's third season at the helm of the Broncos could be a rough one. Santa Clara finished just under .500 at 16-17, and that was with WCC Player of the Year John Bryant on the roster. Keating will have to find a way to replace his 18 points and 14 boards a game. Sophomore forward Marc Trasolini will really have to step up to match those numbers, though he did average 6.8 points and 4.8 boards in limited action last season. Expect the Broncos to be more guard oriented this season, with 6-2 sophomore Kevin Foster (14.9 ppg, 2.5 apg) taking a bigger role in the offense.
Pepperdine (last NCAA: 2002) Tom Asbury begins the second year of his second stint on the sidelines in Malibu with a lot of hope. In a league where just about everyone is going through significant changes, the Waves actually return all five starters and most of their bench contributors. However, these returnees will have to, well, play A LOT better to move up the standings. The Waves simply didn't take good enough care of the ball or score enough to be very competitive. Point guard Keion Bell was the only player on the team to average in double figures (12.9 ppg), but he turned the ball over nearly 4 times a game. Comparatively, he dished out just a bit more than 2 assists per contest. The Waves will need more from their frontcourt this season to be a force. Mychel Thompson can improve on his scoring average of just under 10 points per game and Taylor Darby needs to make sure his scoring and rebounding averages aren't mirror images of one another (6.1 of each per game).
San Diego (last NCAA: 2008) The biggest moment for the Toreros in a 16-16 campaign was their upset win over Mississippi State in Starkville late last December. Point guard Brandon Johnson, who lost most of last season to a ruptured Achilles, was granted a fifth year of eligibility and will be back running the offense. The importance of Johnson's return can't be understated, as he averaged almost 17 points and 3.5 assists per game during his junior season. San Diego will have some frontcourt issues as F/C Gyno Pomare, who averaged almost 14 points and 6 boards a game, graduated, and Rob Jones, who averaged nearly 10 points and 5.5 boards left the program. Coach Bill Grier hopes 6-9 Brazilian junior college transfer Rafael Crescensio and 6-9 holdover Roberto Mafra (5.0 ppg. 2.5 rpg) can make an impact inside.
Saint Mary's (last NCAA: 2008) Everyone knows that the Gaels lost Patty Mills to the NBA Draft, but he wasn't the only significant player to leave Moraga after a 28-win campaign. Saint Mary's lost three other starters, most notably F Diamon Simpson (13.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg). Center Omar Samhan (14.1 ppg, 9.4 pg) is back, however, as is Mickey McConnell, who gained valuable experience running Randy Bennett's offense when Mills was out with a broken hand. Wayne Hunter will also see some time at the point, and watch for 6-1 Jorden Page, who played on Australia's team at the U19 Worlds this summer. He's seen by many as the natural successor to Mills. Bennett will need more from players like F Clint Steindl (2.7 ppg) and C Ben Allen (2.2 ppg) for the Gaels to stay high in the standings.
Portland (last NCAA: 1996) The Pilots won 19 games in 2008-09 and nearly pipped St. Mary's to second, falling a game short in the standings. Now, Portland, boasting five returning starters (four of them seniors) has rebuilding Gonzaga in its sights. The backcourt is a dangerous one. T.J, Campbell runs the offense efficiently (11.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 53.1% 3 point shooting), while Nik Raivio (16 ppg) and Jared Stohl (11.2 ppg, 45.6 % from beyond the arc) can really score. The forward corps, featuring the 6-10 Robin Smeulders (10.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg), 6-9 Kramer Knutson (6.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg), and 6-8 Luke Sikma (6.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) should do pretty well against most of the teams they meet in conference play. If the Pilots can do some damage in the non-conference portion of their schedule, which features three games at the loaded 76 Classic in Anaheim, a home game against Oregon, and trips to Nevada and Washington, an at-large bid is a definite possibility.
Gonzaga (last NCAA: 2009) Sure the Bulldogs lost a lot after last season, but write them off at your peril. Mark Few simply doesn't rebuild, even after losing four starters. While Gonzaga lost Austin Daye, Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt, and Jeremy Pargo, who combined to average 47-plus points per game last season, there are plenty of players who are able to step up. Matt Bouldin (13.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) is the only returning starter, but he'll be joined in the backcourt by the talented Steven Gray (9.1 ppg) and Demetri Goodson (3.8 ppg, 1.6 apg). If Goodson can consistently play like he did against Western Kentucky in the 2nd round of the NCAAs last season, the Zags offense will be in good hands. The Bulldogs' two BIG men, 7-footer Robert Sacre and 7-5 Will Foster, will have to produce more than the average of 4 points and 5 boards they combined to contribute last year. The real inside scoring will probably have to come from a crop of newcomers that includes 6-9 Sam Dower, 6-7 Elias Harris, 6-10 Kelly Olynyk, 6-11 Andy Poling and most intriguing of all, 6-7 Bol Kong. Kong, born in the Sudan, comes to Spokane after a stay in Vancouver. This looks like a lot of question marks for a team picked to finish first in its conference, but it's Gonzaga. They seem to provide good answers consistently.
So, the Bulldogs are, yet again, the preseason pick for the WCC's auto bid. You'll see them in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket on November 9. To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-WCC team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-WCC Team
Player of the Year: Matt Bouldin, 6-5 G, Sr. (Gonzaga)
Remainder of the Team
T.J. Campbell, 5-9 G, Sr. (Portland)
Dior Lawhorn, 6-7 F, Sr. (San Francisco)
Nik Raivio, 6-4 G, Sr. (Portland)
Omar Samhan, 6-11 C, Sr. (Saint Mary's)