WCC Preview 2017-18

-Matt Cox

Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Jock Landale, Sr., Saint Mary's
Coach of the Year: Mark Few, Gonzaga
Newcomer of the Year: Henry Caruso, R Sr., Santa Clara
Freshman of the Year: Jade Smith, Pepperdine


Team Previews

1. Gonzaga

See full preview here: #20 in our Top-40 countdown

2. Saint Mary's

See full preview here: #19 in our Top-40 countdown

3. BYU

Key Returners: TJ Haws, Nick Emery, Elijah Bryant, Yoeli Childs
Key Losses: Eric Mika, LJ Rose
Key Newcomers: Jashir Hardnet (JUCO), Kajon Brown (JUCO)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: NIT

Outlook: With the three-headed monster of Eric Mika, Nick Emery and TJ Haws finally reunited for the first time since their high-school glory days, BYU seemed poised to get back to the NCAA tournament last year after missing the dance in 2015-16. The Cougars teased us with scattered episodes of brilliant basketball - headlined by their spoiler role in ruining Gonzaga's flawless record on the final game of the season - but inconsistency lingered throughout the year, leaving the boys from Provo on the outside looking when Selection Sunday rolled around...

Getting snubbed from the dance in back-to-back years is an unfamiliar feeling for Dave Rose - from 2007 until 2015 the Cougars missed the tournament just one time, so this two year hiatus [and counting] must feel like an eternity to the BYU faithful.

If the Cougars want to end this mini-drought, the high-powered offensive attack needs to be firing on all cylinders more consistently. The individual playmaking creativity of both Haws and Emery should take centerstage this year, especially with the possessions that so often ran through Mika last season now up for grabs. LJ Rose was technically the "point guard" last year, but his collegiate career was cut short when he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in early February. This created an opportunity for Haws to get some reps running the point, which should pay dividends this year with Rose no longer in the mix. 

The combination of Haws, Emery and Elijah Bryant will each take turns leading the Cougars blazing fast transition game. While Haws was sizzling hot from downtown all season long, both Emery and Bryant each went through minor shooting slumps - at least by their standards. But those who follow the WCC closely know both are capable of catching fire at any time. The Cougars also get wing Zac Seljaas back from his mission, who torched the nets as a freshman two years ago (he connected on 49% of his triples). When Haws, Emery, Bryant and Seljaas are all locked in, the Cougars can shoot their opponents right out of the gym in a blink of an eye.

So we all know this team can light it up - but we've also witnessed plenty of teams light them up right back. Please refer to last year's debacle in late November when Utah Valley came into the Marriott Center and hung 114 on the Cougars (114 points!).

Per an offseason interview with Dave Rose earlier this summer, he is fully aware that something must be done in order to get more consistent stops on the defensive end:

While "changes" is a vague description of how Rose might recalibrate the defense, it's worth calling out a stylistic trend that transpired over the past four seasons. 

Rose has slowly, but surely shifted the emphasis away from zone and towards straight-up man-to-man, which has been problematic at times - particularly when going toe-to-toe with elite perimeter athletes. This is precisely where Rose is looking for JUCO newcomer Jashir Hardnet to provide a jolt of quickness to the returning backcourt and assert himself as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.

Yoeli Childs covered up a lot of the defensive lapses by the BYU guards with his help side rim protection last year, but his value add was somewhat cancelled out by the departures of a pair of stout forward defenders in Kyle Collinsworth and Kyle Davis. Both Payton Dastrup and Luke Worthington are big bodies with high upside given their recruiting pedigree coming out of high-school, but neither has translated those tools into consistent on-court production. Given Rose's track record of constructing dominant defensive rebounding units, the frontline core of Dastrup, Worthington, along with Ryan Andrus and Braiden Shaw should have no issue getting the job done down low.

The lone outstanding question mark is the health of Elijah Bryant and whether or not he will return to peak form. The former Elon transfer is continuing to rehab a knee injury suffered last March, but all signs indicate he should be ready to go when the season tips off.

Bottom Line: The defensive side of the ball is where Rose and his staff will focus their attention this offseason, but the advanced metrics tell us the Cougars were actually a perfectly balanced basketball team last year - BYU ranked 87th nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. So while tightening up the defensive screws is what most feel is the pressing order for this year's BYU squad, the offensively gifted guards will need to score the basketball more efficiently and take care of the rock if they want to be in the conversation for an at-large bid next March.

 

4. San Francisco

Key Returners: Charles Minlend, Jordan Ratinho, Frankie Ferrari, Nate Renfro, Chase Foster, Matt McCarthy
Key Losses: Ronnie Boyce
Key Newcomers: Souley Bourn, Taavi Jurkatamm

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT

Outlook: The first year of the Kyle Smith era in San Francisco was a smashing success. The Dons hit the jackpot last summer when they lured him away from Columbia where he was starting to build the Lions into an consistent Ivy league contender. Smith wasted no time installing his 3-point centric offense in his first year at his new employer, but outside shooting slumps from heavily utilized players - particularly Ronnie Boyce - prevented the Dons from reaching their offensive efficiency potential. For as talented as a scorer as Broce was he simply couldn't correct his broken jump shot, finishing the year with a sub-30 3-point shooting percentage. When you compound that with the fact that Boyce shot the ball on two out of every five Dons' possessions last season, it's clear why the 'addition-by-subtraction' theory might apply here.

The transition to life without Boyce should actually be relatively seamless, especially with Frankie Ferrari - who we think may double as a porn star - fully healed and back to run the point this season. As minutes and possessions are reallocated back to Ferrari this year, the Dons outside shooting should get a much needed boost, which is critical in Davis' continuous motion offense that thrives on spacing the floor. USF has plenty of capable shooters, but the consistency just wasn't there last season - the Dons finished with the WCC's 2nd worst 3-point shooting percentage, which must improve given how highly leveraged Davis' offense is on the trey ball.

In addition to Ferrari, the entirety of USF's perimeter core returns with Charles Mineland, Jordan Ratinho and Chase Foster back for the 2017-18 campaign. Despite being the Dons' leading returning scorer, Foster adapted nicely to an overqualified 6th man role late in the season, which allowed Davis to play two defensive-focused forwards in Nate Renfro and Matt McCarthy alongside each other. The advanced plus/minus statistics at hooplens.com reveals the drastic tradeoff Smith makes when he plays both together on the floor at the same time.

The McCarthy/Renfro duo were a big reason for the Dons' sustained success on the defensive end last season, but they struggled adapting to their newfound freedom to shoot from the outside - McCarthy & Renfro shot a combined 20% from downtown. On the flip side, Ratinho and Foster both excelled instantly in Davis' system, each posting an O-Rating above 110 for the year.

While the aforementioned pieces are the core top-6 players on this year's roster, Davis will consistently go deep into his rotation. Mladen Djordjevic and Remu Raitanen headline the bench mob for the Dons, but expect 10-11 guys to see the floor on any given night.

Bottom Line: As year two of the Kyle Smith era approaches, the long-term prognosis of USF basketball is already looking bright. Davis has close to two decades of assistant coaching experience in the WCC (San Diego from '92-'00 and Saint Mary's from '01-'10), so he's well versed in how to prepare for the two perennial WCC powers. So while Gonzaga and Saint Mary's will likely rest on their perch for the foreseeable future, the Dons should take a major leap in closing the gap this year.

 

5. Santa Clara

Key Returners: KJ Feagin, Matt Hauser, Jarvis Pugh
Key Losses: Jared Brownridge
Key Newcomers: Henry Caruso (Princeton grad transfer), Matt Turner, Shaquille Walters, Josip Vrankic

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT - None

Outlook: After a brief hiatus from college basketball in 2015-16, Herb Sendek didn't lose a step in his first season back on the sidelines. The former head honcho of N.C State and Arizona State led the Broncos to a 6-game improvement last year, even with two critical players - KJ Feagin and Jarvis Pugh - missing significant chunks of the season. The question is will a fully healthy season from both Feagin and Pugh, along with the return of Matt Hauser and the addition of Princeton grad transfer Henry Caruso offset the crushing loss of Jared Brownridge. The shot-making ability of Brownridge will be impossible to replace, but Sendek is hoping a more balanced approach will manifest itself in a more efficient offense.

Adjusting to life without Brownridge starts with the dual point guard attack led by Feagin and Hauser. The duo posted the highest and 2nd highest assist rates, respectively, in the WCC last year, which illustrates just how dependent Santa Clara is on their distribution of the basketball. But this season, they'll need to create more for themselves and less for others with the gargantuan scoring void left behind by Brownridge. This is where the ex-Ivy League star Caruso enters the equation.

Unlike Brownridge, whose scoring outbursts often featured a flurry of 3s, Caruso typically gets his buckets in and around the paint area. At 6'4 200 pounds, he uses a strong upper body and a crafty array of moves to consistently create high percentage shots for himself off-the-bounce. His ability to score inside will add a whole new dimension to a Broncos team that may have been somewhat over-reliant on the 3-point shot last season. Sendek is certainly a strong proponent of the deep ball, so knowing the fact that Caruso has always been a low-volume, highly-efficient 3-point shooter, I'd wager on Sendek pushing him to let it fly even more from downtown this season. Caruso's accolades from his time at Princeton speak for themselves - he should thrive this year in his newfound home on the west coast.

The question is can Pugh finally escape the injury demons that have haunted him over the past two seasons. As a redshirt freshman in 2014-15 - the last time he was fully healthy - Pugh started 15 of 32 games and ranked inside the top-20 in the WCC in offensive and defensive rebounding, as well as blocks and steals on a per possession basis. He'll be asked to play some 4 with Nate Kratch departing, but the combination of Pugh and Emmanuel Ndumanya should clean up the defensive glass with ease.

Bottom Line: Assuming the Broncos get full mileage from both Feagin and Pugh this season, they'll have no problem securing a spot in the top-5 of the WCC standings - right where they left off last year. Caruso was an enormous transfer wire acquisition and should act as a scoring safety valve in both late shot-lock and late game situations.

 

6. San Diego

Key Returners: Olin Carter III, Cameron Neubauer, Juwan Gray, Tyler Williams
Key Losses: Brett Bailey
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Wright (Utah transfer), Isaiah Pineiro (Portland St. transfer)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Live by the 3... Die by the 3 - that's been the calling card of San Diego basketball since Lamont Smith took over at his alma back in 2015. Unfortunately, San Diego's feast or famine offensive strategy has come up short over the past two years - the Toreros are 10-26 in WCC action over that span. Perhaps Smith arrived at his first D1 head coaching job a season too late as the summer of 2015 marked the graduation of two all-time great San Diego guards - and two lights out 3-point shooters - Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson. Since that dynamic duo moved on to greener pastures, Smith has been unsuccessful in finding the next wave of long range shooting threats that so often took San Diego to another level offensively during the Bill Grier era.

The Toreros are coming off back-to-back horrendous shooting seasons in which they ranked dead last and 8th, respectively, in the WCC in 3-point shooting percentage, despite jacking up triples at the third highest rate in the conference. We don't need Einstein to break down this equation: High-volume + low-percentage = suboptimal results. The crazy part is that the Toreros may actually be almost more reliant on the long ball this year with their only consistent interior scoring threat (Brett Bailey) graduating this offseason. That leaves Smith with a projected core lineup that will have willing shooters at all five positions on the floor.

The key to Smith's motion-heavy offense is utilizing forwards who are legitimate pick-n-pop threats, which helps maximize the half-court offensive spacing. Cameron Neubauer and Juwan Gray are the two key cogs that assume this role - while Gray connected on a team leading 42% of his 3s last year, Neubauer had trouble honing in his long range accuracy (33% on 143 attempts). The pair of inverted forwards combined for over 200 attempts from behind the arc last season, which exemplifies just how green of a light every player has to let it go from deep. On the perimeter, the guards who will be gunning from distance this year are a pair of incumbent starters in Olin Carter III and Tyler Williams. With Bailey swallowing up the majority of minutes at the 3 spot last year, Carter and Williams collectively shared the facilitating roles and took the lead on initiating the motion offense.

So while having a "pure point guard" may not necessarily be critical in San Diego's balanced passing system, the arrival of a dynamic playmaker - Isaiah Wright - will bring a whole new dimension to a relatively limited offense. For those of you who have played basketball at any level, you can appreciate how refreshing it is to play with a guy on your team who can break down the defense by himself without having to rely on continuous pass and screen action - well, assuming he also finds you for an open shot occasionally. This ingredient is precisely what Wright should add this year, along with a reputation as being a lockdown defender at the point of attack - something Smith values highly in his extended man-to-man defensive scheme.

In addition to a plethora of big bodies arriving in La Jolla this offseason, the potential X-factor is former Portland St. transfer Isaiah Pineiro. The long, bouncy Pineiro is just what the doctor ordered for the Toreros - a top-flight athlete and multi-positional defender who also has ability to score efficiently down low. Depending upon how loyal Smith is to his incumbent starter Tyler Williams, Pineiro may get dropped right into the starting 5 from day 1.

Bottom Line: Two impact transfers, along with one more year of grooming under Lamont Smith's system, should propel San Diego at least one spot higher in the standings than their 7th place finish last year. Unfortunately, the top-5 teams should have a solid grip on the upper half of the standings, which somewhat caps any further climb for the Toreros this season.

 

7. Portland

Key Returners: Rashad Jackson, Gabe Taylor
Key Losses: Alec Wintering, Jazz Johnson (transfer), Gabe Taylor (transfer)
Key Newcomers: JoJo Walker, Marcus Shaver, Malcolm Porter, Franklin Porter

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Terry Porter decided to take his talents from the NBA to the college ranks last summer in hopes of resurrecting his hometown's flagship D1 program (apologies to Portland St.) into a WCC contender. And after a cool 9-5 start to his collegiate coaching career - including a 2-0 start in conference play - everything was hunky-dory for Porter and the Pilots as the calendar flipped to the new year. But much like LeBron after he announced his decision, Porter quickly realized his new gig would be nowhere near a walk in the park...

I hope one of Porter's assistants cast a Memory Charm on him for the months of January and February - the Pilots only win over that span was against... yup, you guessed it: NAIA powerhouse Walla Walla. The inexperienced and injury-ridden Pilots did muster up one semi-inspiring win against San Diego in the WCC tournament before getting waxed by Saint Mary's for a 3rd time, putting the final touch on a disastrous inaugural season for Porter.

Now it's time for Porter to hit the reset button by replenishing the roster with "his guys". He got off to a fast start on the recruiting trail by picking up a pair of promising guards right from the comfort of his own home. Porter's two sons who now join the squad after redshirting last season. Franklin Porter comes over from conference foe Saint Mary's where he rode the pine as a freshman sitting behind a stout Gaels backcourt. He and his brother Malcolm [Porter], impressed their father during Portland's foreign exhibition tour to England this summer. Each tallied 10 points a game over the three game span and stuffed the box score in other stat columns as well. Determining who will start on this year's roster is a complete crapshoot, but both Porters should be in-line for major minutes right off the bat, regardless of whether they start or come off the bench.

To find the rest of this new crop of talent, Porter started his journey on the west coast where he stumbled upon JoJo Walker and Marcus Shaver, before heading abroad to locate four more prospects who hail from all over the globe: Tahirou Diabate (Japan), Taki Fahrensohn (New Zealand), Hugh Hogland (Hawaii) and Josh McSwiggan (England). According to the 'The Beacon', the local school paper at Portland, hoopscoop.com actually ranked Fahrensohn and Diabate inside the top-100 nationally, but that may need to be taken with a grain of salt given the more prominent recruiting sites (specifically verbalcommits.com) have them both as 2-stars. So while any of the lesser known international prospects could explode onto the WCC scene, I'd bet on Shaver and Walker playing the biggest roles this season. While Shaver's 3-star recruiting pedigree is the primary reason to be high on him, Walker projects as more of a pure point guard - precisely the role that needs to be filled this year with the longtime WCC great Alec Wintering graduating and dynamic combo guard Jazz Johnson transferring.

Of the incumbent Pilots, D'Marques Tyson and Philipp Hartwich demonstrated they can play a key role on this team going forward, but the inefficient Rashad Jackson and unproven Joseph Smoyer will have to fend off the newcomers for playing time in Porter's 2nd year at the helm.

Bottom Line: No team in the WCC has a more uncertain outlook than the Pilots do this year - but an exciting young backcourt unit, along with some legit size and beef up-front, should help Portland catapult themselves out of the WCC gutter this season.

 

8. LMU

Key Returners: Steven Haney, Petr Herman
Key Losses: Brandon Brown, Buay Tuach, Stefan Jovanovic, Shamar Johnson
Key Newcomers: Cameron Allen (JUCO), James Batemon (JUCO)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Now entering his 4th season at his alma mater in Los Angeles, Mike Dunlap has steadily improved each year since taking over in 2014. The Lions were simply a train wreck when Dunlap first arrived but have now crawled their way back up to the belly of the WCC standings. Last year's upperclassman-dominant roster was starting to get acclimated with Dunlap's distinct defensive pressing scheme, which typically applies pressure to ball handlers well beyond the half-court line. The Lions transformed from a block of swiss cheese in 2014-15, when WCC foes routinely formed lay up lines against their zone press, to a cohesive, disruptive defensive unit last season - one that turned over WCC opponents at the highest rate in the conference. The question is with all that experience now graduating, can the returning core and new arrivals seamlessly step into the spotlight and keep LMU on an upward trajectory?

Dunlap will have a tough time filling in the blank space of production left behind by Buay Tuach. He was an inside-out, multi-skilled offensive weapon, but was equally as pivotal to the Lions' team defense. Tuach, Brandon Brown and Kelvin Amayo were the primary ball hawks last year and all three will be MIA this season. A pair of JUCO newcomers in Cameron Allen and James Bateman will likely be thrust into core backcourt rotation right away, simply due to the fact that they'll have minimal competition at the 1 and 2 positions. Jeffrey McClendon gets love for his defensive prowess, but he was an absolute disaster on the offensive end of the floor last season. Unless he learns how to shoot the basketball this offseason, expect plenty of opportunities for 3-star freshman Eli Scott - former high-school teammate of the Big Baller Brand Ball brothers (alliteration, anyone?) - along with Joe Quintana and Donald Gipson to rise to the occasion.

The real strength of the Lions should be on the wing where Dunlap welcomes a beast in Zafir Williams to join leading returning scorer Steven Haney and sophomore 3-point shooting specialist Erik Johansson. Zafir is a good athlete and with a well-rounded offensive game who should present a tricky matchup problem for opposing forwards.

Bottom Line: Given the emotional toll that's been riding on this team since early this summer, wins and losses just don't mean all that much in the grand scheme. For those of you that aren't aware of the tragic story that transpired earlier this summer, please read here - my two sentence synopsis below does not do this story justice.  LMU was supposed to have one more member in their incoming freshman class this season, but that all changed in the blink of an eye with the sudden passing of LMU signee Ryse Williams, who died of cancer a day before his high-school graduation. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends and we here at 3MW will be undoubtedly be pulling for the Lions all year long.

 

9. Pacific

Key Returners: Anthony Townes, Jack Williams
Key Losses: Ray Bowles (transfer), TJ Wallace
Key Newcomers: Kendall Small (Oregon transfer), Miles Reynolds (SLU transfer), Jahlil Tripp (JUCO), Roberto Gallinat (JUCO)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Much like their in-conference competitor Portland, Pacific went out and snagged an ex NBA star turned NBA coaching journeymen, Damon Stoudamire, to run the show prior to last season. And just like any new coach who has yet to lay a foundation with his own recruits, Stoudamire has patched up the 2016-17 roster with some talent from superior conferences - a proven recipe for success at the mid and low major levels.

Stoudamire will have to replace two critical veterans from last year's squad (Ray Bowles and TJ Wallace) with a pair of transfers in Kendall Small (Oregon) and Miles Reynolds (SLU). As a former top-100 recruit before choosing to attend Oregon back in 2015, Small presents a world of upside for the Tigers as a potential game breaking lead guard who also gets the luxury of being groomed under a great PG in Stoudamire himself. The combination of Small and Reynolds, who led his team in steals two seasons ago at SLU, should be a fierce defensive duo out on the perimeter. Compounding the high defensive potential for the Tigers is the return of two reliable glass cleaners in Anthony Townes and Jack Williams. This frontline tandem gobbled up almost every opposing miss last year during the super soft nonconference stretch of the season, but struggled to control the boards at the same rate when they faced relatively bigger WCC frontlines. Both Townes and Williams are critical on the other end of the floor as well, with Williams assuming a stretch-4, floor spacing role while Townes' never-ending motor makes him one of the more productive scorers in the league.

Stoudamire's recruiting trail also took him down south to Texas, where he snagged two starters from the top JUCO team in the land - Jahlil Tripp and Robert Gallinat. Each bring a much needed dimension to this Tigers team - Tripp can fill a vacancy on the wing created by Ray Bowles' departure, while the sharpshooting Gallinat will fit like a glove playing next to Small and Reynolds.

Bottom Line: As the revolving door of player movement continues to re-shape the core of this roster, Stoudamire has found a few competent assets that can be built around over the next 2-3 years. The challenge for Stoudamire will be adjusting to a roster that is starved for depth, which means every player in the above roster picture should get ample opportunities to make an impact this season.

 

10. Pepperdine

Key Returners: Kameron Edwards, Amadi Udenyi
Key Losses: Lamond Murray, Jeremy Major, Chris Reyes
Key Newcomers: Eric Cooper Jr. (Nevada transfer), Matthew Atewe (Washington grad transfer)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: After going 10-8 in the WCC in back to back seasons, the Waves ran into a series of unfortunate events last year. Not only was head coach Marty Wilson forced to tinker with lineup combinations to cover up the void of two crucial perimeter pieces in Kameron Edwards and Amadi Udenyi (both of whom were sidelined with season ending injuries), but he also had to sit back and watch while opposing teams took turns impersonating the Golden State Warriors all season long. Pepperdine's opponents absolutely scorched the nets from 3-point land last year, shooting a ridiculous 42% for the entire season against the Waves - the highest defensive 3-point % defense of any team in the country. Perhaps some of the less fortunate geographically located schools would chalk that up to karma, given this is the view a student at Pepperdine experiences on a daily basis:

Despite the fact that the Waves lose their three leading scorers from last year, including the highly decorated Lamond Murray, Pepperdine should avoid a cataclysmic tumble in the WCC standings with the return of Udenyi and Edwards. Udenyi's veteran leadership at the point guard spot should provide a calming presence offensively after posting the WCC's 2nd highest assist to turnover rate in his last injury-free season in 2015-16. Wilson knows what he's getting with Udenyi - but he's only witnessed a one year sample size with Edwards, who missed all of the 2016-17 campaign with a fractured jaw (ouch).

Edwards was a key component of the 2015-16 Pepperdine squad that finished 4th in the WCC. He's a lock to resume his starting role, but will now need make the leap in efficiency typically seen during the freshman to sophomore year transition. Edwards' length and athleticism make him a versatile asset on the defensive end and his craftiness scoring in the paint area should make him the go-to option whenever the Waves need a bucket in crunchtime.

The real upside for the Waves comes in the form of one the WCC's top recruiting classes, headlined by fringe 4-star prospect Jade Smith, two-time Colorado high-school player of the year, Colbey Ross and a pure scorer in Trae Berhow. Add in a proven long range shooter in Nevada transfer Eric Cooper and Smith suddenly has formidable perimeter core to build around this season.

Bottom Line: It's no mystery where the Waves need to get better and get better fast: DE-FENSE. A ton of this improvement will need to come with a new paint presence in high-major transfer Matthew Atewe. Atewe will be tasked with single-handedly carrying the Waves defensive rim protection and rebounding this season. Outside of Atewe and another big body in Nolan Taylor (6'7 250 pounds), it's hard to find another capable interior defender anywhere else on the roster. Wilson has shown a willingness to play zone in recent years, so look for the Waves to mix and match defenses this year, especially whenever Atewe takes a breather. Even with the looming concerns on the defensive end, a new "wave" of talent at the guard and wing positions are plenty of reasons to be at least marginally optimistic for the fine folks of Malibu.