- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Killian Tillie, Jr., Gonzaga
Coach of the Year: Mark Few, Gonzaga
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Clarke, R Jr., Gonzaga
Freshman of the Year: Kristers Zoriks, R Fr., Saint Mary’s
See full preview here: #1 in our Top 40 countdown
Key Returners: Yoeli Childs, Nick Emery, TJ Haws, Jahshire Hardnett, Zac Seljaas, Luke Worthington, McKay Cannon
Key Losses: Elijah Bryant
Key Newcomers: Connor Harding, Gavin Baxter
Outlook: Record-wise, resumes don’t get more consistent than Dave Rose’s at BYU. In his 13-year tenure at the helm of BYU basketball, Rose has never won less than 20 games in a season, nor less than 10 games in conference play (MWC or WCC). Unfortunately for Rose, it takes more than a gaudy record to get into the NCAA Tournament. The weakening of the WCC and BYU’s tendency to play a soft non-conference schedule has resulted in the Cougars missing out on the past three Tournaments despite going 72-34 (36-18) over that stretch. This season holds plenty of promise, though, as BYU brings back all of its key pieces outside of Elijah Bryant and welcomes two high-ranking class of 2016 recruits back from LDS mission trips.
Bryant is a big loss for the Cougars, and had he stuck around this year, this would be a borderline top 25 squad. Per Hoop Lens, BYU was a net +0.16ppp better when Bryant was on the floor (+0.10ppp on offense), a significant spread from one player:
The good news for Cougar fans is Nick Emery is back from his odd 2017-18 hiatus. He’ll have to miss the first nine contests, but once back, Emery will be a godsend to a lineup looking to improve its offense from a season ago. His presence will also help ease the Bryant loss, as the Cougars were +0.07ppp on offense when Emery played in 2016-17. When on, Emery is as good a scorer as anyone in the WCC, able to stroke it from deep (38% career 3P shooter) and create his own offense off the dribble.
Emery was prone to some inefficiencies in 2016-17, but he was also handed a heavy offensive load while then-freshmen TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs learned the ropes. Now upperclassmen, Haws and Childs will shoulder large responsibility in BYU’s attack, alleviating Emery’s burden, which should make the junior guard more efficient.
Childs’s return after flirting with the NBA Draft is big news. The 6’8” power forward was a 1st Team All-WCC member last season and was a focal point of the Cougars’ revamped offensive scheme. Previously under Rose, BYU was consistently one of the fastest teams in the country, finishing in the top 15 in tempo from 2011 – 2017. Last season, Rose pumped the breaks on his run-and-gun style and instead focused on an offensive attack that emphasized ball movement, post touches, and exploiting mismatches. Childs’s ability to rebound and score in the post made him tough to stop in the WCC. Here’s one of his patented quick-spin-gather-and-hook (trademark pending) post moves:
As he looks to improve his future draft stock, look for Childs to continue expanding his range past the three-point line, a common feedback theme he heard while going through the draft process. If he becomes a reliable outside shooter, Rose could run some pretty unstoppable 4-out, 1-in schemes.
BYU’s backcourt is deep this year with the return of Emery, Haws, junior Zac Seljaas, freshman Connor Harding, and reserve point guards Jahshire Hardnett and McKay Cannon. Haws will run a lot of point in the new-look offense along with Emery and Hardnett, setting the table for BYU’s shooters and Childs. Haws himself is a knock-down shooter, but saw his 3P% plummet last year to 30% after a 40% performance as a freshman. An 83.7% FT clip and 50+% 2PFG% clip has me confident last season was an anomaly – look for Haws to get his stroke back in 2018-19.
Seljaas, like Haws, saw his 3PFG% fall off a cliff in his second season, shooting just 29.5% last year compared to 49.3% as a freshman in 2015-16. Perhaps it was the mission trip break in between seasons, but regardless BYU will need Seljaas’s shooting ability to improve its offense. At 6’7”, Seljaas has potential be a weapon in more ways than one on the perimeter.
Harding is the guy to watch this season and also fills the classic “BYU player everyone forgot about for a few years because he served on a mission trip and now he’s back, old, and scoring 15ppg” mold. The 6’6” guard was a top 100 recruit in the class of 2016 due to his ability to shoot from the outside and attack in transition. He’ll compete with Seljaas for a spot in the starting five alongside Haws and Emery.
Childs will have Luke Worthington and Dalton Nixon back to team with in the frontcourt, but it’s Gavin Baxter, another class of 2016 4-star freshman, that likely earns the lion’s share of PT. Baxter’s athleticism and 7’2” wingspan make him an enticing defensive stopper and versatile asset on offense from the post or wing.
Defense has historically been Rose and BYU’s Achilles Heel, but last year the Cougars stepped up and ranked 54th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. BYU is always a good defensive rebounding team and focuses on not allowing anything near the rim. With Childs and Baxter serving as rim protectors and guys like Haws (4th in the WCC in steal rate) up front, the Cougars should continue to be fairly strong on the defensive end. A slower tempo may also help keep legs fresh and allow fewer transition opportunities for opposing teams.
Bottom Line: With Saint Mary’s potentially a bit down this year, BYU has a shot at its first Big Dance since 2015. If the Cougars take care of business in the non-conference and win the WCC games they should (knocking off Gonzaga once would help), BYU could even be looking at an at-large bid in 2019.
3. Saint Mary’s
Key Returners: Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs
Key Losses: Jock Landale, Emmett Naar, Cullen Neal, Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner
Key Newcomers: Malik Fitts (South Florida), Aaron Menzies (Seattle), Matthias Tass, Quinn Clinton, Alex Mudronja, Daniel Fotu
Outlook: 2017-18 was another good year for Randy Bennett and the Saint Mary’s Gaels. Unfortunately, like so many other recent seasons, it was another good year that resulted in a Big Dance no-show. Despite going 30-6 (16-2) and beating conference foe Gonzaga, the Gaels failed to overcome a putrid schedule and ended up competing in the NIT. This season figures to be one of the more challenging for Bennett in recent years, as the long-time coach must replace All-American and WCC Player of the Year Jock Landale and 4-year starting PG Emmett Naar, among others.
Bennett kept the “down under” pipeline strong this offseason adding another Australian (Alex Mudronja) and two New Zealand natives (Quinn Clinton and Daniel Fotu) to a roster already featuring four Aussies. On top of that, Bennett brought in Aaron Menzies, born in England, and Matthias Tass from Estonia, meaning only five players on the entire Saint Mary’s roster were born in the U.S. Bennett has thrived poaching talent from abroad and hopes his latest crop can give his team a lift as it goes through a brief transition period.
Despite the roster turnover, it would be foolish to assume Bennett’s Gaels won’t be a force to be reckoned with on offense. Saint Mary’s ranked 11th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings last season and have finished in the top 20 seven out of the last nine seasons. The largest driver to this success has been shooting, both from the mid-range and behind the arc; Bennett constantly has three or four guys on the floor at one time that can light it up from all over. He also preaches ball movement, often featuring lineups with two point guards, and patience in the half-court, philosophies that should continue to produce strong results in 2018-19.
Defense is historically where Saint Mary’s has fallen off, and the Gaels were particularly awful without Landale last season. When Jock sat, the Gaels allowed 1.12ppp compared to just 0.97ppp when he played. Bennett’s laser focus on taking away the three-point line at all costs can often lead to openings near the basket.
Only two key 2017-18 team members return for the Gaels this year, but they’ll have plenty of other returning talent and incoming talent to compete in the WCC. Junior guard Jordan Ford, the leading returning scorer, should be ready to take the next step and become the floor leader. He had scoring outbursts last year (27pts. vs. BYU; 26 pts. vs. Washington) that hinted at his potential and he’ll have every opportunity to show it off this season. Aside from being a deadeye long distance shooter (44.3% from 3 last year), Ford is dangerous off ball screen switches, which he takes advantage of by blowing by slower defenders on his way to the cup. Look for Ford to etch his name on an All-Conference Team this season.
Tanner Krebs, one of Bennett’s five Aussies, is the other major returner. He functions primarily as a wing shooting threat on offense, knocking down 39.6% of his 149 attempts last season (45.1% in WCC play). Krebs will be joined on the wing by South Florida transfer Malik Fitts and returning juniors Kyle Clark and Elijah Thomas. Fitts is built like a power forward, but prefers to play out on the wing where he can use his slashing ability to overpower smaller defenders and blow by slower ones. On defense, Fitts will be able to matchup with 3s or 4s giving Bennett some options on lineup composition. Clark played only four games last year due to injury, but he’s another Gael that can shoot the ball and play either the 3 or 4. Thomas should see more minutes this season with the numerous departures; his athleticism is his greatest asset.
Naar left arguably as big of a roster hole as Landale did (well almost), but Bennett has a few options to plug into the departed lead guard’s spot. Ford can handle the ball and create, but he’s better playing off the rock. That leaves freshmen Quinn Clinton and Alex Mudronja and redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks as the candidates for the starting PG spot. Zoriks appears to have the inside track this offseason; he’s a 6’4” athletic guard with a high basketball IQ, excellent passing ability, and knock-down shooting ability. Mudronja, like Zoriks, is a big PG at 6’5” and he’s already proven to be capable of hanging with high-level competition when he participated in the Adidas Nations tournament. Clinton is a calm, controlled presence at the top of the key, a guy that can run an offense, facilitate, and hit open threes. All three guards have promising futures at Saint Mary’s.
Nobody is going to single-handedly be able to replace Landale’s production, so Bennett will turn to a committee of big men to try to piece together some sort of competence on the interior. Seattle grad transfer Aaron Menzies is a huge (literally) get for Bennett and his staff. At 7’3” with an ever-improving game, Menzies should be able to start right away and provide resistance in the paint on defense. At Seattle last season, Menzies ranked 21st in the country in offensive rebounding rate and 44th in block rate, two areas which need patching up without Landale. Behind Menzies will be a combination of freshman Matthias Tass, sophomore Jock Perry, and senior Jordan Hunter. Hunter is really the only semi-proven one of the bunch and he offers the most rim protection and rebounding off the bench, but many peg Tass to be the next great Gael big man.
Bottom Line: Before writing this preview, I assumed Saint Mary’s was destined to take a huge step back in 2018-19, but that may not actually be the case. The Gaels probably won’t win 30 games again, but Bennett’s bunch will absolutely be a tough matchup for anyone on their schedule. Once again, the WCC is a clear three-team race – if the Gaels can find answers at point guard and in the post, BYU and Gonzaga will have a legitimate threat to their WCC title claims.
4. San Diego
Key Returners: Isaiah Pineiro, Isaiah Wright, Olin Carter III, Tyler Williams
Key Losses: Cameron Neubauer, Juwan Gray
Key Newcomers: Emanuel Hylton (redshirt), Akim-Jamal Jonah (redshirt)
Outlook: The Toreros were one of the more surprising teams in the WCC last season, finishing the year 20-14 (9-9), the school’s best performance since 2008. Lamont Smith did an excellent job building the San Diego program back up to conference relevance, but unfortunately won’t be around to see the future fruits of his labor. Smith resigned as head coach before the end of last season following an arrest and handed the team to long-time assistant coach Sam Scholl. Scholl, who played for the Toreros back in 1998-2000, spent seven seasons as an assistant at USD, eight more at Santa Clara, and then the past three back at his alma mater. He’ll try to continue to build on the momentum started by his predecessor with four returning starters headlined by one of the best players in the WCC.
All signs point to Scholl maintaining the style of play Smith instilled on the program over the past three years. On offense, this means we should expect to see a USD squad focused on attacking the rim in hopes of drawing a foul and heading to the line, or finding open shooters outside the arc for three-point opportunities. Defensively, this means in-your-face, lockdown perimeter defense that keys on denying the three-point shot. In 2017-18, the Toreros allowed the 5th least 3PA / FGA per game in the country and ranked 5th in 3P% defense (30.7%). This proficiency was somewhat offset by a tendency to foul and send shooters to the foul line (big men Yauhen Massalski and Alex Floresca were essentially walking fouls). Only one other team in the nation allowed a higher percentage of points from the free throw line. Another aspect of USD’s defense is its ability to defend in transition. Due to its lack of care for chasing offensive rebounds, San Diego is excellent at getting back and stopping transition opportunities – last year USD allowed 0.881ppp in transition, which ranked in the 98th percentile in the country (per Synergy).
The heart and soul of the Toreros is senior forward Isaiah Pineiro, who burst onto the scene last season after transferring from Portland State. Pineiro, a 1st Team All-WCC performer, ranked 1st in the conference in usage, top 15 in both block and steal rates, and 2nd in fouls drawn per 40 minutes while shooting a conference clip of .522/.364/.790 (2P/3P/FT). Very few big men in the country run the floor and push the ball in transition as well as Pineiro does, and the Toreros play through the versatile forward often by way of the high post. He’s a proven scorer driving in isolation, posting on the block, and shooting from deep and should be one of the best players in the WCC in 2018-19.
Scholl has one of the best backcourts in the conference with a trio of seniors in Isaiah Wright, Olin Carter III, and Tyler Williams. Wright, USD’s point guard and a former Utah Ute, ranked 5th in the WCC in assist rate last season and cashed 39% of his long-ball attempts. Scholl will run Williams off ball screens and down screens to take advantage of his driving and shooting ability. Carter moved off the ball last season with Wright’s arrival, which allowed the 6’2” senior to focus more on what he does best: shooting the basketball. Defensively, Carter is one of the better perimeter stoppers on the team. Williams is primarily a three-point shooting threat, but he also showed his penetration chops last year, getting to the line at a high rate.
The four aforementioned players are known commodities and together form a talented and experienced core. Past that, however, USD is pretty thin. Frontcourt duties will be split between returning bigs Massalski, Floresca, and Jose Martinez, as well as redshirt freshman Akim-Jamal Jonah. Australian big Alex Ferguson, a 7-footer, could also carve-out a role. USD’s bigs will be counted on for two simple things: rebounding and rim protection – scoring won’t be a large focus.
Scholl likely won’t dig too far into his bench in the backcourt, but if he does, redshirt freshman Emanuel Hylton seems to be the most likely to earn playing time. Hylton is a strong, crafty playmaker from the point guard spot and should be a competent backup option behind Wright / Carter. Joey Calcaterra, a three-point specialist, and true freshman Finn Sullivan round out the options in the backcourt.
Bottom Line: The WCC has a very competitive second/third tier this season with up to five teams capable of claiming 4th place. San Diego is one of two, maybe three, teams that can challenge BYU and Saint Mary’s for a top three finish, but it’ll take production from its unknown bench and frontcourt to achieve that daunting feat.
5. San Francisco
Key Returners: Frankie Ferrari, Matt McCarthy, Jordan Ratinho, Nate Renfro, Charles Minlend
Key Losses: Souley Boum, Chase Foster
Key Newcomers: Trevante Anderson, Dylan Belquist, Dzmitry Ryuny
Outlook: Kyle Smith enters his third year at the helm of San Francisco, looking to build upon two straight 4th place WCC finishes and trips to the CBI. In just two seasons, Smith has already matched the 20+ win total (2) of the previous four Don head coaches. With the majority of his roster returning, Smith should have USF in a position to make some serous noise near the top of the conference.
The first thing you’ll notice when watching the Dons play is the amount of movement – screening, cutting, passing – on the offensive end. Smith’s motion offense, which features elements of the famed Princeton-style attack, keeps the ball pinging around the perimeter and inside the paint in an effort to find an open look from the outside. With the core of his roster coming back, expect the Dons to exhibit a higher level of mastery of Smith’s scheme, which should result in a major improvement on last year’s 230th ranked offense.
Here’s a small example of that offensive motion - notice the amount of “replacement”occurring between all five guys on the floor:
One major reason USF’s offense was down last year was the absence of Charles Minlend, a member of the WCC All-Freshman Team in 2016-17 and arguably the Dons’ best player. Minlend missed the year with a labrum injury but should be ready to go in 2018-19. His presence brings a whole new dynamic to the motion offense due to his ability to create his own shot off the dribble. There’ll be plenty of people who forget about Minlend heading into the year, but rest assured he’s one to watch in the WCC.
Lining up next to Minlend in the backcourt is the orchestrator and three-time “Best Name in College Basketball” award recipient, Frankie Ferrari. Ferrari really came into his own last season as he was finally given a large uptick in playing time. He ranked 32nd in the country in assist rate, shot over 40% from three in WCC play, and consistently created for his teammates by way of dribble drives and the pick-n-roll. He’ll be backed up by freshman Trevante Anderson and sophomore Jamaree Bouyea. Anderson, a tough playmaker from the lead guard spot, has potential down the road to be a reliable two-way player.
On the wing, Smith brings back Jordan Ratinho, one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. Last season, Ratinho shot 48.7% from deep in conference play (#1) and is a career 42.5% marksman from behind the arc. Per Hoop Lens, Ratinho also made a large impact on defense, able to defend 2s and 3s with his size on the perimeter. Dylan Belquist, a freshman from the SF area, should also provide shooting off the bench.
The frontcourt corps will feature Matt McCarthy and Nate Renfro in the starting lineup, with juniors Jimbo Lull and Remu Raitanen and freshman Dzmitry Ryuny serving as reserves. McCarthy plays the 5 role in Smith’s offense, setting picks for guards at the top of the key, directing the offense from the high post, and finishing off rolls and cuts to the rack. He finished over 60% of his shot attempts in league play last year and is one of the better rebounders and passing bigs in the WCC. Renfro is a little more perimeter-oriented than McCarthy, but the 6’7” senior struggled last year with his outside shot – a stark contrast to his sky-high 2PFG%. Look for Renfro to improve in this area and be a more dynamic offensive threat in his final season. Ryuny could carve out a role immediately with his vast international experience and floor spacing ability.
While Smith’s offense can be fun to watch, USF’s defense has been its calling card the past two seasons. The Dons are a very good defensive rebounding teams and are one of the better teams in the country at defending the three-ball (both in 3PFGA and 3PFG%). Minlend’s return will only help to further improve USF’s defense.
Bottom Line: San Francisco and San Diego are the best WCC candidates to crash the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s-BYU party in 2018-19. Smith’s group is very experienced (they’ll essentially start five upperclassmen including Minlend) and is now accustomed to playing within the motion offense. It’ll also help having a consistent rotation – Smith played the 2nd most bench minutes in the country in 2016-17 and the 76th most in 2017-18, a combination of injuries and figuring out the best lineup synergies. If I were a betting man, which I most definitely am, I’d wager USF will steal a couple games from the big three this season.
Key Returners: Jahlil Tripp, Roberto Gallinat, Anthony Townes, Kendall Small, Lafayette Dorsey
Key Losses: Jack Williams, Miles Reynolds, Namdi Okonkwo
Key Newcomers: Khy Kabellis (North Dakota State), Amari McCray, Zach Cameron, Jeremiah Bailey, Khalil Chatman, Ajare Sanni, Jahbril Price-Noel
Outlook: The Tigers are coming off their best WCC performance ever since joining the league in 2013-14. Third-year head coach Damon Stoudamire appears to be building some momentum in Stockton as he tries to lift the program back to its heyday under Bob Thomason in the 2000s. Defensive Conference Player of the Year Namdi Okonkwo is gone, which is troubling for a Pacific squad that ranked 6th overall in the WCC in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom), but the Tigers have a lot of experience and some solid newcomers to form a deeper, more complete team than in 2017-18.
No team scored a less percentage of its points from behind the arc than Pacific last season, a combination of a low three-point attempt rate (345th) and three-point percentage (32.6%). Stoudamire’s squad relies more so on the pick-n-roll, rim attack, free throws, and post play to put points on the board. Last season, Pacific ranked 28th in free throw rate thanks to the hard-nosed rim attack from its perimeter and block footwork from its bigs. Khy Kabellis, a transfer from North Dakota State, will bring three-point shooting to a roster severely lacking it. Kabellis, a smooth lefty combo guard, shot 37% from downtown his sophomore year at NDSU and should open up the Pacific offensive attack significantly in 2018-19. Lafayette Dorsey, a 6’1” sophomore SG, will also be counted on to provide shooting – he converted only 28.3% of his long balls last season, so he’ll need to improve in order for the Tigers to be a more all-around offensive squad.
Jahlil Tripp will once again be the heart and soul of this team. As a sophomore, the do-it-all point forward ranked 2nd in the WCC in minutes played, 8th in assist rate, 9th in FT rate, 5th in rebounds per game, and shot 39.4% from three in conference play:
This culminated in Tripp being named to the 2nd Team All-WCC, an honor he’ll look to repeat or improve upon in 2018-19. As his stats suggest, Tripp does just about everything for the Tigers – he brings the ball up, keys the offense, plays from the wing at times, and even posts up on the block. Given his 6’5” frame, Pacific is able to get away playing Tripp at the 4, opening up all kinds of dynamics on the offensive end.
When Tripp isn’t running point, ball handling duties will likely fall into the hands of Kendall Small, a former Oregon point guard who has yet to produce an efficient season. Small showed he was capable of running the show in his 19 games played last year, but his shooting numbers and ball security were troublesome. The 6’0” guard is somewhat limited on offense due to his inability to shoot from the outside, so Stoudamire is almost forced to put him on the ball in order to space the floor. Freshman Ajare Sanni is really the only other point guard on the roster outside of Small. Sanni is a much better shooter, but Small is superior in every other aspect, meaning the Tigers will be heavily leveraged on Small as their primary facilitator outside of Tripp.
Joining Kabellis in the wing rotation will be returning leading scorer Roberto Gallinat, a versatile scorer capable of slashing to the rim or knocking down an outside shot. Gallinat falls into the category of “gunner” on offense – he’s never met a shot he didn’t like. This volume shooting mentality was a big driver in Gallinat converting only 32.3% of his 155 three-point attempts and 41.4% of his two-point jumpers, but the senior guard is a great finisher near the rim and he cashes in on his free throw opportunities. Pacific’s wing depth behind Kabellis and Gallinat is thin, so expect Gallinat to play about 80% of the team’s minutes once again this season.
Stoudamire has quite a bit to work with from a frontcourt rotational standpoint – well at least he has a lot of bodies to work with. Anthony Townes returns as an undersized 4-man to provide rebounding, tough defense, and effective post scoring, outside of Townes, though, it’ll be all newcomers. Amari McCray, a 6’9” JUCO import probably had the best shot at cracking the starting five on day one, but a knee injury this summer will keep him on the bench in 2018-19. McCray is pushing 300 lbs., but he’s mobile enough to switch ball screens and stay in front of quicker opponents.
A slew of newcomers, JUCO prospects Zach Cameron and Jeremiah Bailey, and freshman Jahbril Noel-Price will reinforce McCray and Townes up front. Bailey should contribute immediately with his ability to step outside as a stretch four, and Cameron brings value as a rim crasher and athletic shot blocker. Price-Noel is a smart, skilled, versatile 3/4 tweener with a D1-ready body and the potential to make a large splash in year one.
Bottom Line: Pacific will have expectations to compete in the middle of the conference this year, something it hasn’t had during its WCC tenure. The offense should be much improved with the addition of Kabellis, full season of Small, and maturation of Tripp and Gallinat, but the defense still brings down the Tigers’ overall ceiling. Replacing the DPOY is not going to be easy, and Stoudamire will likely mix in a lot of 2-3 zone looks to go along with his man sets in an effort to hide some of his weaker defenders. Pacific’s overall size is at least a positive factor in it being a more competent defensive unit in 2018-19.
7. Santa Clara
Key Returners: KJ Feagin, Josip Vrankic, Matt Hauser
Key Losses: Henry Caruso, Emmauel Ndumanya, Kai Healy, Jarvis Pugh
Key Newcomers: Tahj Eaddy (SEMO), Josh Martin (Cal Poly), Fallou Ndoye (CSU Bakersfield), Zeke Richards, Trey Wertz, Keshawn Justice
Outlook: The loss of program great Jared Brownridge proved to be too much for Santa Clara, as the Broncos failed to live up to expectations in 2017-18, stumbling to an 11-20 (8-10) record. Herb Sendek’s squad was an experienced bunch, but experience doesn’t always equal success. This year, the Broncos will be a younger group overall, but they’ll be led by two backcourt seniors and bolstered by some experienced transfers.
Sendek has been around the block a few times, coaching at NC State and Arizona State previously to coming to Santa Clara. His old ties have allowed him to bring in some promising talent in his first two seasons, and despite the disappointing performance last year, appears to have the Bronco program heading in the right direction.
Style-wise, Sendek’s Santa Clara teams play slow in the half-court, shoot a ton of threes, and get back on defense instead of crashing the glass. Sendek has always been a huge proponent of limiting transition opportunities – last season, Santa Clara’s defense ranked 6th in % of initial FGA in transition (per Hoop-Math). That’s about all SC’s defense did right last season, as the Broncos were routinely torched at the rim, giving up the 6th most shot attempts near the basket in the country. Part of this is due to Sendek’s focus on taking away the three-ball, part of this is due to the weakness of SC’s frontcourt.
As was the case last year, Santa Clara’s offense will revolve around senior point guard KJ Feagin in 2018-19. Usually, Bronco possessions involve Feagin burning clock at the top of the key and using ball screens to drive the lane, either finishing near the hoop or kicking to one of the three shooters dotting the arc. Credit Feagin for stepping up last season in Brownridge’s absence – as a junior, Feagin ranked 4th in the WCC in usage and 3rd in assist rate while shooting high percentages. This season, Feagin will look to stake his claim for a 1st Team All-WCC nod.
Feagin played nearly 90% of Santa Clara’s total minutes last year, so we shouldn’t expect to see him off the floor much in 2018-19. Lining up next to Feagin will be a combination of senior SG Matt Hauser, SEMO transfer Tahj Eaddy, and freshmen Trey Wertz and Keshawn Justice. Hauser is your prototypical three-point specialist, but he doubles as a fairly pesky defender, ranking 7th in the WCC in steal rate last season. Eaddy comes in from SEMO with three years of eligibility left; he’s a talented combo guard that can run the point alongside Feagin or provide knockdown spot-up shooting as an off-guard. The 6’1” sophomore shot 41.9% from deep and 92.5% from the FT line as a freshman at SEMO, but converted only 33% of his 2P attempts due to very poor shot selection and forcing the issue.
One of Wertz or Justice will likely start next to Feagin and Hauser, as Sendek may find starting three 6’1” guys a detriment to his defense. Wertz brings a myriad of talents to the table with his 6’9” wingspan, shooting ability, and ability to run the point. He could be a classic 3-and-D guy throughout his SC career. Justice is a skilled, smooth wing with a good frame for a freshman. Like Wertz, Justice can fill it up from outside the arc, a Santa Clara basketball pre-requisite.
Rim protection is still going to be a problem for the Broncos, but at least this year’s frontcourt can score the ball. Sophomore Josip Vrankic is coming off a great freshman season in which he posted strong foul rates and three-point percentages, and pretty good steal and block rates. Vrankic is primarily a stretch-4 on offense, but he did post-up on occasion in 2017-18 and also proved to be a competent driver against sloppy close-outs. Interestingly, Vrankic shot only 4% of his total shots from the mid-range area last season versus 42% from outside the arc and 54% around the circle.
Cal Poly grad transfer Josh Martin will provide assistance at the 4 spot. Martin ranked #2 in the Big West in defensive rebounding percentage last season, was a fair shot blocker, and started developing a three-point shot. He’ll be an asset on the boards and could allow for possible minutes at the 5 if Sendek wants to go small. Two international prospects, Juan Ducasse (Uruguay) and Guglielmo Caruso (Italy) could also carve out some minutes as frontcourt role players.
The center position is a bit of a mess. Fallou Ndoye comes over from CSU Bakersfield as a grad transfer (also previously played at Mississippi State), but he’s never posted an O-Rating above 80.0, which is absolutely brutal. Henrik Jadersten, a returning senior, probably has the inside track towards starting, but SC’s defense was god awful when he was on the floor last season, giving up 1.24ppp. The greatest hope for the Broncos is that Zeke Richards, a 3-star 6’11” freshman, can develop quickly and be a factor on both ends of the floor.
Bottom Line: We should see a better Santa Clara team in 2018-19. KJ Feagin is the undisputed leader and he’s able to take over games in crunch time. The transfers in of Eaddy and Martin and additions of Wertz and Justice will help an offense that ranked 9th in the WCC, while Martin’s presence should at least help put a little more resistance between opponents and the basket. Santa Clara won’t finish in the top three of the conference, but 4th is an achievable goal.
Key Returners: Colbey Ross, Kameron Edwards, Eric Cooper Jr., Darnell Dunn
Key Losses: Amadi Udenyi, Matthew Atewe, Trae Berhow
Key Newcomers: Darryl Polk Jr., Kessler Edwards, Andre Ball, Jackson Stormo, Victor Ohia Obioha
Outlook: Like the ebb and flow of waves in an ocean, Lorenzo Romar is back on the sandy beaches of Malibu. Few may remember that Romar’s first head coaching gig came back in 1996 when he took over as the captain of Pepperdine’s basketball program. Following Pepperdine, Romar enjoyed a brief stint at SLU before spending 15 years at Washington, his alma mater, and most recently, a one-year tour as an assistant to Sean Miller at Arizona. Romar has become notorious over the years at being a Grade A recruiter but a sub-par game coach, highlighted by leading six 1st Round NBA Draft picks to a grand total of zero NCAA Tournaments from 2012 – 2017.
Despite his recent coaching performance, Pepperdine should be a great fit for Romar, and vice versa. He’ll bring in high-level talent to a school not accustomed to it and will at the very least be able to make the Waves competitive in the WCC again. Last season was the school’s worst result (6-26 (2-16)) since 1965-66 – there’s literally nowhere to go but up.
Pepperdine’s 2017-18 roster is not without talent, and in fact should be able to produce good offense in Romar’s first year. The Waves return three players that averaged in double figures last season, including potential All-League performer Colbey Ross. Ross, a member of the WCC All-Freshman Team, turned in an impressive rookie season in 2017-18 and was one of the bright spots in an otherwise murky year. Aside from leading the conference in assist rate (21st nationally), Ross shot the lights out from deep and did an excellent job attacking the basket from the perimeter. He’s one of those players that has the ability to bail a team out near the end of the shot clock and should emerge as the undisputed leader of the Waves in 2018-19.
Expect Romar to play at a fast pace this season (as he often did at Washington), utilizing transition opportunities to take advantage of his roster’s athleticism and make up for its lack of size. The frontcourt is razor thin and will primarily feature two 6’6” guys, Kameron Edwards and Darnell Dunn, at the 4 and 5. Edwards, the returning leading scorer, is a skilled all-around player that can score down in the post or slash from the perimeter. His big upper body and athleticism makes him freight-train-like in the open floor, perfect for Romar’s up-and-down style. Dunn is an asset on the offensive glass and has shown the ability to get to the foul line consistently where he converts FT opportunities at a 79% clip (very good for a big man).
Just like last year, Pepperdine will have to rely on penetration, post-ups, and offensive rebounding to score the basketball, as the roster simply lacks a plethora of shooters. Ross can definitely shoot, but aside from him only Eric Cooper Jr. attempted more than 30 three-pointers last year. Cooper was limited to 19 games in his junior season, but will be counted on to provide shooting from the outside in 2018-19.
Romar’s recruiting class will give him some interesting choices as far as lineup composition goes. Really the only two viable frontcourt players on the roster aside from Dunn and Edwards are freshmen Jackson Stormo and Victor Ohia Obioha. One or both of these bigs will carve out playing time in their first season in Malibu. Stormo is the better offensive player, able to score in the post with his elite footwork and touch. Ohia Obioha is the better defender and shot blocker, averaging nearly 5 blocks per game as a high school senior.
One of the two freshmen 3-star wing options will likely start right away for the Waves. Kessler Edwards, Kameron’s brother, is long and offensively skilled. Like his brother, Edwards can play either the 3 or 4 on both ends of the floor, but he’s a little more refined shooting-wise. Andre Ball, Lonzo’s cousin, is a superior athlete that could become one of the better defenders on the team in his first season. Like the freshman Edwards, Ball is long and athletic and is able to create his own shot off the bounce. They’ll each compete with sophomore Jade’ Smith for backcourt time. Freshman PG Darryl Polk Jr. will compete with redshirt sophomore Kaijae Yee-Stephens for limited minutes behind Ross.
Bottom Line: Pepperdine was bad last season, but there’s reason for optimism this year and beyond. Marty Wilson’s squad was a bottom-30 defense last season, and while Romar isn’t known as a defensive mastermind, he’s had several elite defensive units in his coaching career. The Waves should be better on that end this year, at least on the perimeter, with the additions of Ball and Edwards and the maturation of Ross and Cooper. Interior defense will be the real question to be answered. If Stormo or Ohia Obioha can provide solid minutes inside, the Waves will be a much improved defensive team. Given the offense could be top five in the WCC, look for Pepperdine to finish closer to the middle of the pack in 2018-19.
9. Loyola Marymount
Key Returners: James Batemon, Eli Scott, Zafir Williams, Mattias Markusson, Jeffery McClendon, Cameron Allen, Erik Johansson, Petr Herman
Key Losses: Steven Haney
Key Newcomers: Jordan Bell (Northwestern State), Dameane Douglas, Ivan Alipiev
Outlook: Mike Dunlap enters his 5th year as the head coach of Loyola Marymount in beautiful Los Angeles, CA. It’s been a forgettable four seasons for the Lions during Dunlap’s tenure consisting of zero winning records and zero finishes within the WCC’s top five. This year, the Lions return nearly everyone from one of the youngest teams in the country, but will it be enough to vault LMU back to conference competitiveness?
LMU’s offense was actually pretty good last season, far better than most 11-20 (5-13) squads. This success was driven primarily by the Lions’ glass crashing tenacity, as LMU ranked 22nd in the country in offensive rebounding rate (KenPom) and used the 18th most possessions via offensive put-back (Synergy). The Lions play a lot through their two bigs on the floor, usually Mattias Markusson (the Big Swede) and Eli Scott. One of the two forwards often initiates offensive sets with a ball screen for catalyst James Batemon, and LMU emphasizes post touches and high-low action. If all else fails, Batemon is there to act as a late clock bailout option.
Defensively, LMU was about as bad as you’d expect from an 11-20 (5-13) squad, finishing 322nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. Dunlap implements a stew of high-pressure, full court man and zone looks along with half-court matchup, trapping zones. The Lions have consistently been one of the best teams in the WCC (and the country) at forcing turnovers via the steal, however, too much gambling on defense often leads to easy buckets and open looks. Unsurprisingly (given the rate at which LMU presses and crashes the offensive glass), the Lions were one of the worst transition defenses in the country in 2017-18, allowing the 4th worst FG% in transition (64.3%) per Hoop-Math.
Personnel-wise, this will be Batemon’s show once again as the 6’1” point guard enters his final collegiate season. Batemon took the WCC by storm last season, earning 2nd Team All-League honors, after spending his first two years in JUCO where he was a two-time All-American. His counting stats and percentages (.517/.394/.811 (2P/3P/FT)) speak for themselves, and he’s deadly in the open floor and in the pick-n-roll. He’ll be counted on not only to score in bunches and run the offense, but also to provide outside shooting – Batemon is the only returning Lion that attempted more than 65 three-pointers last season.
Batemon’s counterparts in the backup consist of a heavy dose of senior Jeffery McClendon and junior Cameron Allen, and a hint of sophomores Joe Quintana and Donald Gipson. McClendon is the defensive specialist, a player that led the WCC and ranked 3rd in the country in steal rate last season. His value is entirely on the defensive end, as he offers very little in the ways of playmaking, shooting, or scoring on offense. Allen is the backup point guard, one who suffered through an inefficient sophomore season full of poor shooting and ball protection. Dunlap will need Allen to be a source of shooting off the pine in 2018-19.
Dunlap has a couple options on the wing in returning junior Erik Johansson and freshmen Dameane Douglas and Ivan Alipiev. Johansson earned several starts near the end of last season, as Dunlap likely grew tired of not having any shooting on the floor. The Swede (yes, just like Mattias) can light it up from the outside, and that’s all he usually tries to do on offense. Douglas is an athletic wing that Dunlap has stated will have an immediate impact in 2018-19. Alipiev hails from Bulgaria where he gained lots of invaluable experience playing against high-level international competition. In the 2017 FIBA U18 European Championships, he put up 20.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. He should fill the gap left behind by Steven Haney.
The frontcourt, a definitive strength of this Lion’s squad, will consist of the aforementioned Markusson and Scott, along with senior Zafir Williams, 5th year big Petr Herman, and Northwestern State transfer Jordan Bell (no relation to the former Duck). Scott should be circled and highlighted as a guy who could breakout in 2018-19 after a successful freshman season in which he earned a spot on the WCC’s All-Freshman squad. One of the best rebounders in the conference, Scott also ranked 16th in the WCC in assist rate, a sign of his ability to pass out of double-teams when the offense runs through him. Markusson, too, is one of the best boarders in the WCC, ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. His efficiency was shown through the conference’s 2nd highest O-Rating, a consequence of superb finishing ability on put-backs and post-ups. Oh, and he’s also 7’3”, so that helps.
Herman should be a major part of the frontcourt rotation after missing all but one game last year due to injury. The 6’10” super senior will provide even more rebounding and shot blocking for the Lion frontline. Williams is an undersized 4-man in the mold of Scott, a hard-nosed rebounder that scores by way of the post and the glass. The 6’6” senior also shot 8/12 from distance last season, so maybe he should start pulling the trigger a bit more this year. Bell may not play a ton, but he does offer a rare mix of outside shooting and post-up ability. The weirdest thing about Bell is that he’s listed at 321 lbs. on LMU’s website, which would be an almost 100 pound increase from his 2016-17 season at Northwestern State.
Bottom Line: I’ve said this once in this conference’s preview article and I’ll say it 100 more times: the WCC is deeeeeeeep this season, probably the deepest it’s been in years. LMU is likely a bottom three team, but the Lions have the talent to pull some upsets in a competitive league.
Key Returners: Marcus Shaver Jr., Franklin Porter, JoJo Walker, Josh McSwiggan, Malcolm Porter, Tahirou Diabate,
Key Losses: Philipp Hartwich, D’Marques Tyson
Key Newcomers: Taki Fahrensohn (redshirt), Hugh Hogland (redshirt), Jacob Tyron (JUCO), Josh Phillips, Theo Akwuba, Crisshawn Clark (Pitt)
Outlook: It’s been a rough first two seasons for Terry Porter up in Portland. The former NBA great has amassed a record of 21-44 (6-30) during his short tenure, but has made strides in building a solid foundation for the future. UP isn’t exactly a storied basketball school, having only made the NCAA Tournament twice in 65 seasons, so Porter isn’t under too much pressure to perform right away. This season could be a turning point for the Pilots, as Porter brings back 6 of his top 8 guys, and one of the youngest rosters in the country in 2017-18 turns one year older.
Offensively, Portland primarily relies on the three-ball to score points, and shooting the three was one of the very few things the 10th-ranked WCC offense did well last season, ranking 39th in the country in 3PFG%. The loss of D’Marques Tyson, the best shooter on last year’s roster, is a big loss, but Porter has plenty of young shooters left on his squad. Something UP did extremely well last season, but not nearly often enough, was run in transition. Per Synergy, only three teams in the nation scored more points per possession in transition than the Pilots’ 1.233ppp. Porter has the depth, particularly in the backcourt, to ramp up the tempo in 2018-19.
Portland’s best transition player last season was Marcus Shaver Jr., who led the team in scoring as a freshman. Shaver came into Portland and immediately took the reins of the offense, proving to be an effective playmaker, creator, and rim attacker via the pick-n-roll and isolation. Shooting was Shaver’s major weakness last season, converting a ghastly 26.4% of his three-point attempts, but an 86.1% clip from the FT line inspires hope for improvement.
Shaver shares ball handling duties with fellow sophomores JoJo Walker and Malcolm Porter. Walker was also pretty good in his rookie season, though unlike Shaver, Walker was extremely efficient from outside the arc and struggled finishing from two. Walker may start alongside Shaver, but he may be better off coming off the pine. When the pair played together last season, UP scored just 0.96ppp, though the Pilots were much better on defense.
Malcolm Porter and his brother Franklin Porter (both Terry’s kids) will be looked upon to take on larger roles in 2018-19. Malcolm is more of a point guard while Franklin is a wing shooter that can create his own shot. Like every guard on the roster, the Porters will need to emphasize better shot selection in their second seasons in Portland – the Pilots were a bottom 50 team in the country last year in 2PFG%.
Josh McSwiggan, a 6’7” junior, returns as the Pilots’ best three-point option, knocking down 43.7% of his attempts last season. Depending on Porter’s lineup appetite, McSwiggan could see time at both the 3 and 4 this year. Porter has historically leaned towards a traditional two-big lineup, preferring to run McSwiggan and his other guards off baseline block screens in order to get open corner looks. Without Hartwich and Joseph Smoyer, though, frontcourt depth could be thin.
Tahirou Diabate, the lone returning frontcourt rotation player, has been pegged by many outlets as a major breakout candidate in 2018-19. Diabate ranked 6th in the WCC block rate and was a solid finisher around the bucket last season. He’ll be counted on to make up Hartwich’s post scoring and rebounding production.
Six newcomers join the Pilots this season, and at least a few of them project to make an impact right away. Crisshawn Clark, a 6’4” wing from Pitt, never saw the floor for the Panthers due to injury but could be an effective two-way player with his athleticism and length. Forward Hugh Hogland should also see time in his redshirt freshman season. Hogland is a former standout volleyball player from Hawaii and brings shot blocking and skilled footwork to the lineup. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by Josh Phillips, a long post player with good rebounding instincts; Jacob Tyron, a rail thin stretch 7-footer; and Theo Akwuba, a very long shot blocking presence. New Zealand wing Taki Fahrensohn will provide shooting depth on the wing.
Bottom Line: Portland likely finishes 10th in a strong WCC, but the Pilots won’t be a pushover. While the final standings may show UP with 3 or 4 conference wins, they have the talent to compete with almost anyone in the WCC on a nightly basis. The offense will almost certainly improve with the increased backcourt experience, and more playing time for Diabate could lead to an uptick in defensive efficiency.