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Conference Countdown: No. 10 WCC

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Elias Harris, Gonzaga, So.

This is as easy of a pick as you will come across. Best player on the best team? Check. Most talented player? Check. Best NBA prospect? Check. At 6'8", Harris is strong enough to score on the block, athletic enough to finish above the rim, and skilled enough to knock down a three or square his defender up and use the dribble to get to the rim. He was a beast as a freshman, and with another year of development, there is no reason to think that he won’t continue that trend as he becomes the focal point of Mark Few’s attack. Harris will likely be a first round pick, possibly even a lottery pick, by the time he decides to leave Gonzaga.

And a close second goes too: Vernon Teel, Loyola Marymount, Sr.

Teel was a first-team all-conference performer in the WCC last season, and rightfully so. He led Loyola to a surprisingly good season last year, stuffing the stat sheet with 15 points, 5 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 40% shooting from deep. Teel is about more than just numbers, however. He is a floor leader, and a guy with some experience that knows how to run this team. Loyola showed a great deal of improvement this season, and they could have been even more successful had the club not been dealing with injuries throughout the year. But as they got healthy down the stretch of the season, Loyola started to win games. They won five of the last seven, and two in the WCC Tournament, a number of which were close games. A lot of that credit has to go to Teel. Drew Viney may be the team’s leading scorer, but Teel is the most important player for a Loyola team that should make a run at the conference title.

Breakout Star: Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s, So.

Dellavedova came into the St. Mary’s program with a bit of hype, but with the Gaels relying so heavily on Omar Samhan inside last year, he became a third option offensively. This year, St. Mary’s is going to have a much more perimeter oriented attack as their back court is deep and talented, and Dellavedova should be one of the focal points. Dellavedova’s game is centered around his ability to knock down a jumper, but he is so much more than just a shooter. He’s looks awkward and uncoordinated when he puts the ball on the floor, but he is more-than-capable at getting by his man and into the paint. He’s not a great athlete, but he is a tough, strong kid that has a nice array of floaters and pull-ups. He’s also an excellent creator, as his 4.5 apg would lead you to believe (although, many of those assists came running the pick-and-roll with Samhan). With the paint open this season, and a full summer to work on his game, I expect Dellavedova to be more aggressive to the rim as the No. 1 option offensively for Randy Bennett. Don’t be surprised if Dellavedova follows the footsteps of Samhan and Patty Mills, becoming a nationally known name at St. Mary’s.

Newcomer of the Year: Kenton Walker, St. Mary’s, Jr.

With Omar Samhan and Ben Allen graduating, there is going to be a gaping hole in the middle for the Gaels. Walker may be just the guy to fill that void. The Creighton transfer, who averaged 5.1 ppg and 3.8 rpg, is a big-bodied 6'9" forward that showed the ability to protect the rim with the Bluejays. And when you consider the minutes he played (15 per game) and the type of talent that he was playing behind, including Kenny Lawson inside, Walker was actually fairly productive. Seeing as he will be the Gaels No. 1 option inside, and given that he has spent the past season going up against Samhan and Allen in practice, Walker could end up having a very good season for Randy Bennett’s club.

All-Conference First Team

  • POY - Elias Harris, Gonzaga, So.
  • G - Steven Gray, Gonzaga, Sr.
  • G - Vernon Teel, Loyola Marymount, Sr.
  • G - Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s, So.
  • F - Drew Viney, Loyola Marymount, Jr.
  • F - Marc Trasolini, Santa Clara, Jr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G - Mickey McConnell, St. Mary’s, Sr.
  • G - Keion Bell, Pepperdine, Jr.
  • G - Kevin Foster, Santa Clara, So.
  • F - Luke Sikma, Portland, Sr.
  • C - Robert Sacre, Gonzaga, Jr.

What Happened?:

  • BYU? BYU... BYU!: Yup, the Cougars are headed to the WCC for basketball. More on this in a bit.
  • The Foreign Influx: We all know about the pipeline that Randy Bennett has established between Moraga, CA, and Australia. This season, Bennett has four Aussies, including star guard Matthew Dellavedova, on his roster. But Bennett isn’t alone in tapping the foreign markets for basketball talent. Gonzaga will likely have three starters from abroad -- star sophomore Elias Harris (Germany), center Robert Sacre (Canada), and guard Mangisto Arop (Canada) -- as well as a key sub in Kelly Olynyk (Canada) and two freshmen -- Mathis Keita (France) and Mathis Monninghoff (Germany). Loyola has two players from Nigeria, a player from England (potential starter Ashley Hamilton), and a kid from Finland. Santa Clara and San Francisco have four imports apiece, while Portland (three) and Pepperdine (two) both have a bit of worldwide flavor on their roster.
  • Bye-bye Bol: Perhaps Gonzaga’s most well-known international recruit was Bol Kong, a Sudanese national that had been living in Canada. There was a lot of hype for Kong, who had a lengthy legal process before enrolling at Gonzaga, prior to his arrival, and while he had a mediocre season, he had a couple of offensive outbursts that led many to believe he had the potential to be a very good player at this level. Unfortunately, Kong will not be returning to Spokane.

    Kong isn’t the only player that is not returning to the Zags. Andy Poling, Grant Gibbs, and GJ Villarino (a former Kentucky commit) all decided to ply their trade elsewhere.

  • Rob Jones: Kong is no where near the most interesting transfer in this league. That award would go to Rob Jones, who left San Diego and transferred within conference to St. Mary’s. Jones happens to be the grandson of Jim Jones, the founder of Jonestown. I strongly suggest you read this ESPN article from 2008 on Rob.
  • Kwame Vaughn transfers too: Perhaps the most surprising transfer was Vaughn. Vaughn, a sophomore guard, was going to have a chance to be San Francisco’s go to player with Dior Lawhorn graduating.

What’s Next?:

  • BYU’s addition: Clearly, adding a basketball program like BYU’s is a good thing for this league. With Gonzaga, it gives the WCC two teams that are always going to be in and around the NCAA Tournament. With programs like St. Mary’s, Loyola Marymount, and even Portland, on the rise, the WCC is looking up. The question is, however, does BYU help bring up the WCC’s profile, or does the smaller conference hurt BYU’s program? The argument is there on both sides. For starters, adding the Salt Lake City market to one that includes most of the big markets on the West Coast can only aid the deal the WCC has with ESPN. It broadens the area that some of the lesser teams in the league can recruit (i.e. San Francisco can go after a kid in Ogden, UT, because he will get a homecoming game each season) and provides a recruiting tool. But is BYU willing to schedule like Gonzaga does in the non-conference, meaning they go anywhere to play anyone in November and December? If the Cougars aren’t willing to play a tough non-conference schedule, are they going to have the profile to be a tournament team?
  • Coaches staying home: There are obviously programs on the rise in the WCC. Loyola Marymount may contend for the league title this year with St. Mary’s and Gonzaga. Portland played their way into the national rankings last season. That’s good for the league, but what is better news is that the conference is keeping their best coaching talent at home. Eric Reveno is still at Portland. Randy Bennett seems to be taking Mark Few’s approach at St. Mary’s. Bill Bayno took a medical leave two years ago, but his replacement Max Good has kept the program moving in the right direction. For a league of the WCC’s stature, this continuity is important.
  • Will anyone ever unseat Gonzaga?: Last season might have been the best chance, with St. Mary’s being, arguably, the league’s best team. Hey, they won a conference championship (the tournament, but they beat the Zags in the final) and made the Sweet 16, right? Loyola Marymount and St. Mary’s will be the teams to do have a chance this season.

Power Rankings:

  1. Gonzaga: The Zags are the ideal program when it comes to basketball outside of the Big Six conferences. They are well into their second decade of WCC dominance, they are a nationally recognized name, they routinely schedule one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, and every year they are a top 25 team, if not higher. This year will be no different. Losing Matt Bouldin is going to hurt, more due to his playmaking ability than his scoring. But with Steven Gray, who is one of the more underappreciated players on the West Coast, back for his senior season and Demetri Goodson, a talented guard who has struggled at times but will be more of a point guard this season, returning for his junior year, Gonzaga still is plenty talented in the back court. On the front line, this team looks to be loaded. The first name that will come to mind is Elias Harris, who is the hands down favorite for conference player of the year. He’s a strong, athletic forward that can play in the post and on the perimeter, and has a very good shot at being a first round pick whenever he leaves school. Seven-footer Robert Sacre will be starting alongside him. Sacre was inconsistent last season as he was coming off of a serious foot injury. I expect an improvement this year. They also have Kelly Olynyk, who showed flashes as a freshman and played well at the World Basketball Championships, while redshirt freshman Sam Dower should also see time.

    The way I see it, there are going to be two question marks for the Zags. The first is filling Matt Bouldin’s spot on the floor. Mangisto Arop seems like the natural choice, as he seemed to be a solid spot up shooter in his limited minutes as a freshman. JuCo transfer Marquise Carter, whose game is similar to Bouldin, is another possibility as well. The second issue is a different team make-up. Gonzaga is a team with a loaded front court and without a real knock-down shooter on the perimeter. Can the Zags win as a team that pounds the ball inside and plays aggressive perimeter defense? The Zags, once again, will be the favorite for the WCC title and should get another top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

  2. St. Mary’s: The Gaels will be a much different team this season than the one that had the school’s most successful season in history -- which included a run to the Sweet 16 -- mostly due to the fact that they lose their starting front court, particularly Omar Samham. The strength on this year’s team will be on the perimeter. Scrappy sophomore Matthew Dellevadova, who came into Moraga with a lot of hype and didn’t disappoint, has a chance to develop into a star this season. Sharpshooting point guard Mickey McConnell is back as well, and will once again be relied upon quite heavily to orchestrate Randy Bennett’s offense. Redshirt freshman Tim Harris, whose season was cut to one game with a hamstring tear, will see heavy minutes, as will Stephen Holt, a freshman point guard that is one of Bennett’s most heralded recruits. 6' sophomore Jorden Page and 6'7" junior Clint Steindl will also play heavily into Bennett’s perimeter rotation, and Beau Levesque could see minutes as well. The front court is a different story. Rob Jones, a tough, rugged 6'6" forward and transfer from San Diego, will likely see time at both forward spots. He should be a key contributor for this team after averaging 9 points and 6 boards in two seasons at San Diego. 6'9" Creighton transfer Kenton Walker may end up starting for the Gaels at center this season. Three bigs return -- Mitchell Young, Phil Benson, and Tim Williams. Young was the only one that got consistent minutes last season for the Gaels, but with the void left by Samhan and Ben Allen, all three of these players will be counted on to produce inside. The Gaels are not as good as last year’s team, but this is still a squad that will compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament and, if things break right, could give Gonzaga a run for the league title.
  3. Loyola Marymount: Just two years ago, this Loyola Marymount program was in shambles. Prior to the 2009-2010 season, they had won just eight games the previous two seasons. But thanks to the addition of some talented transfers and the development of a couple of their own players, the Lions won 18 games and went 7-7 in the league. Those two records could have been much better had Loyola not been battling injuries all season. The best news? Essentially everyone is back (the notable exception is 6'8" Kevin Young, who transferred). Loyola may be one of the few teams in the WCC that can actually match up with Gonzaga inside. 6'8" Oregon transfer Drew Viney, who averaged 16.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg, is back. His perimeter ability makes Viney a tough matchup in the WCC, and he also is a solid defender. Edgar Garibay, who was granted a medical redshirt due to a torn acl he suffered, is a 6'10" center that started four games before his injury. All-freshman team member Ashley Hamilton, an athletic 6'7" forward that averaged 8.6 ppg and 4.5 rpg, will also return and could turn into a real threat inside. On the perimeter, the Lions are led by all-conference performer Vernon Teel, a stat-sheet stuffing combo-guard (he averaged 15 points, 5 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals, and shot 40% from three) that could blossom into one of the best players on the west coast this season. Jared DuBois, who is a solid spot-up shooter, will be a nice complement to Teel on the perimeter, while Larry Davis, a Seton Hall transfer that has been plagued by injuries (he didn’t travel with the team to Europe this summer), will provide a shot of athleticism on the perimeter when healthy. Also expect point guard Anthony Ireland to see some time in the back court as well. This is a very good basketball team, the question will be whether or not they can handle being marked this season. The Lions won’t be sneaking up on anybody.
  4. Santa Clara: The Broncos had a tough season last year, but a lot of that was a result of their inability to score after the loss of Kevin Foster six games in. With Foster, who was averaging close to 20 ppg when he was hurt, and sophomore point guard Robert Smith, who had a very good freshman season, both returning, the Broncos have their back court of the future, especially if Foster can get into better shape. Throw in 6'9" forward Marc Trasolini, who was one of the better big men in the conference, back for his junior year, and Santa Clara has a solid core. Sophomores Ray Cowels, Niyi Harrison, and Chris Cunningham all had solid freshmen campaigns, while senior Michael Santos should also see some time in the rotation again. The issue for the Broncos last season was rebounding and perimeter shooting. The physical Ben Dowdell returning will help their rebounding, as will the addition of John McArthur and Yannick Atanga, and unless a couple of the wings turn into knock down shooters, Santa Clara doesn’t look like a good bet to improve their 29.9% three point shooting. This is a team that likes to slash to the rim and relies on Trasolini’s ability in the post, but without that shooting, there won’t be much space for them to operate.
  5. Portland: After a successful 2008-2009 season, the Pilots had sky-high expectations last season. They were legitimately thought to be a contender for the conference title in the preseason -- even moreso after wins over UCLA and Minnesota early on -- but the Pilots came back to earth after that. While the good news is that head coach Eric Reveno, who turned this team into a contender in the league, didn’t leave for a bigger school, the Pilots did lose three starters from last season, including their two most important players in Nik Raivio and TJ Campbell. Returning is Jared Stohl, who may very well be the best shooter in the country, and Luke Sikma, Jack’s son and one of the better big men in the WCC. Also back are guard Nemanja Mitrovic and big man Kramer Knutson, who will be counted on for significant increases in production. But beyond that, most of the rest of the Pilot’s minutes are going to be played by their seven freshmen. If Reveno can find a point guard to replace Campbell, whose value to last year’s team cannot be understated, and develop some kind of bench, Portland has a chance to be competitive. Reveno’s recruiting class deserves to be noted, but this looks like it will be a rebuilding year for the Pilots, one where a third straight trip to a postseason tournament seems unlikely.
  6. San Francisco: The Dons had a fantastic end to what amounted to a disappointing season. They won five of their last eight games, and the three losses were competitive losses to the top three teams in the league on the road. But carrying that success over to this season will be difficult. Star Dior Lawhorn graduated, and second leading scorer Kwame Vaughn transferred out of the school. The good news is that the Dons three leading returning scorers are all young. Junior Angelo Caloiaro is a 6'7" forward and a knock down shooter. Sophomore Perris Blackwell is a big-bodied presence in the paint. Junior Rashad Green, as well as sophomore Michael Williams, both showed flashes of some promise with big scoring outputs, but were inconsistent. That said, with more minutes and more opportunities, a bump in their production should be expected. With 6'10" Moustapha Diarra returning as well, there is potential on this team to maintain some of that success, especially considering the praise that the team received from head coach Rex Walters for coming together as a group late in the season. With the trapping zone they played down the stretch, cohesiveness is quite important for this group. Depth and inexperience is going to be an issue on the bench, as Walters has brought in nine freshman this season including 6'5" Charles Standifer. The Dons have some potential, but a best case scenario seems to be more of the same -- middle of the pack in the conference.
  7. Pepperdine: The good news for the Waves is that they return their entire team, a group that has now played together for two full seasons. The bad news is that in those two seasons, Pepperdine has won a grand total of eight league games, going just 7-24 (3-11) on the season in 2009-2010 and losing their last eleven in conference play. The one bright spot for Pepperdine the past few seasons has been Keion Bell, who is more than just a dunker. Bell put up tremendous numbers last season (18.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.2 apg), but he also took a lot of shots and played some selfish basketball. Part of that is who he is, but part of it is the fact that Pepperdine needs him to be selfish. This is not a team loaded with talent. Outside of Bell, the only other real scoring threat is Mychal Thompson, a 6'7" forward with range, but he is inconsistent as a shooter. Jonathon Dupre’ and Taylor Darby are the two bigs, while Dane Sutter should be recovered from the injury that cost him the last seven games by the time the season roles around. The biggest question mark is at the point Lorne Jackson, who is probably the Waves third best player, and Bell both spent time there during the season, but by the end of the year freshman Caleb Willis was starting. To get an idea of how dire the straits were, Willis went literally 20 games -- two whole months -- without scoring, getting seven DNP-CD’s along the way. This is the third year this team has been together, and while they have looked competitive at times -- in 2008-2009, they won five league games, and last season they won their first three followed by a seven point loss at Gonzaga -- they have a long way to go.
  8. San Diego: San Diego went from a team that won a game in the 2008 NCAA Tournament to one that won just three WCC games last year. And now, they lose their top four scorers, which is not a good thing for a team that struggled offensively at times last season. In all likelihood, it is going to be a long season for the Toreros. The leading returning scorer is shooter Matt Door, a 6'4" senior that has started much of the last two seasons. He has shown signs of potentially being one of the better shooters in the league. Devan Ginty also is returns in the back court to provide some experience, but much of the production is going to be a result of the younger guys. Sophomores Patrick McCollum and Cameron Miles got some time at the end of the year, with Ken Rancifer showed the potential to be a very good player in the league, ending the year with a 20 point outburst against Portland. Also expect freshman Ben Vozzola and transfer Darian Norris to see a lot of minutes. Inside, the addition of New Mexico State transfer Chris Gabriel will help, as will the development of Chris Manresa. Beyond that, however, three freshmen bigs will be competing for time. It is going to be a down year once again in San Diego.