WCC 2019-20 Preview

- 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: Jordan Ford, Saint Mary’s
Coach of the Year: Mark Few, Gonzaga
Newcomer of the Year: Jake Toolson, BYU
Freshman of the Year: Drew Timme, Gonzaga


Team Previews

Tier 1

1. Gonzaga

See full preview here: #8 in our Top 40 countdown

2. Saint Mary’s

See full preview here: #21 in our Top 40 countdown


Tier 2

3. BYU

Key Returners: Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Connor Harding, Zac Seljaas
Key Losses: Nick Emery, Jahshire Hardnett
Key Newcomers: Jake Toolson, Jesse Wade

Lineup:

Note: Yoeli Childs will miss the season’s first nine games thanks to a paperwork snafu (yes, paperwork). He’ll return for the Holy War game against Utah in Salt Lake City on December 4th.

Outlook: For nearly a decade and a half, Dave Rose was synonymous with BYU basketball (technically longer if you count his 8 years as an assistant). After taking over the reins in 2005, Rose amassed 348 wins, claimed four Mountain West Conference Championships and took home Coach of the Year honors three different times. Rose’s retirement marks the end of an illustrious chapter in BYU basketball history. 

The impact Rose left on the program reverberates everytime you walk through the turnstile at the Marriott Center, which has been ‘elevated’ to one of the strongest home court advantages in all of college basketball. His retirement was inevitable, as was the task of identifying his successor, but the BYU athletic department knocked it out of the park with the Mark Pope selection, a man who will need no help finding his way around Provo. 

Pope spent five years as an assistant to Rose from 2011-2015 before reinvigorating nearby Utah Valley into a mid-major contender. Pope’s intimate knowledge of the region and familiarity with the BYU program will go along way towards sustaining the standards set forth by Rose over the long run, but let’s hone our focus on what to watch for next season.

Pope’s preferred brand of basketball is quite odd when you consider his first mentor at the college level was Mark Fox. While Fox preaches a methodical and deliberate approach to offense, Pope’s style jives more closely with that of his former NBA coach George Karl, as detailed in an article from April 2018 at winnersutah.com:

“Coach Karl always wanted to turn (the game) upside down, turn it on it’s head,” Pope said. “He wanted to do what everyone thought was the dumbest thing in the world, and the craziest thing is: It worked. He was going to break every convention of the game. I’d love to create chaos like that [here at Utah Valley]. I would love to grow this program into a team that was really comfortable playing run and jump, all game long, getting the game a little more helter-skelter. We’re just not quite probably there, yet.”

In Pope’s first two seasons at Utah Valley (2015-16 and 2016-17), his teams fully embraced that theme of ‘chaos’, routinely pushing the pace with reckless abandon. But, once Pope started to boost the talent supply (much of which was imported through the transfer wire), he slowly began to ease off the gas pedal and settled into a more controlled, less frenetic tempo.

From an outside view, it seemed that once Pope raised the talent level, he moved the dial away from the radical end of the spectrum. 

With that in mind, Pope now inherits a roster infested with talent at BYU.  While he certainly has the horses to play at NASCAR speed for 40 minutes, he doesn’t necessarily  need to go zero-to-60 in 2.4 seconds every time down the floor. In fact, I bet he opts to push the pace selectively - not at the expense of wasting precious offensive possessions.

On slower trips down the floor, Pope will revert to his free-flowing half-court action, which is predicated on getting guards and wings in positions to attack downhill with momentum. Often times, a big will catch the ball at the top of the key, immediately looking for a quick hand off to a blazing cutter, who’s either peeling around behind or darting to the rim. Often times, the guard will utilize the big as a pseudo-screener off the exchange.

Synergy’s play-by-play data confirms what my eyes saw when I watched the Wolverines last season. Pope loved this type of offensive sequencing, as Utah Valley’s possessions ended with the ‘pick-n-roll ball handler’ or ‘off a handoff’ (play categories defined by Synergy) over 25% of the time last season.

If I’m Tyler Haws, I am salivating at the notion of getting to play in this type of structure. Haws is a hard-nosed slasher who welcomes any and all contact with open arms, but it’s his uncanny ability to pull-up on a dime from anywhere on the floor that makes him so deadly. Pope’s pick-n-roll and perimeter handoff action will unlock every ounce of Haws’ offensive potential, just as it did for Jake Toolson - the reigning WAC Player of the Year -  last season. 

Rising sophomore Connor Harding (a fungible 6’6 asset) has a similar physical makeup as Toolson (a lanky 6’5 / 6’6 wing and natural born bucket getter), as well as long range sniper Zac Seljaas (a 6’7 tweener who slides back and forth between the 3 and 4 spots). Seljaas broke his foot in BYU’s summer tour to Italy, so former Utah high school standout Jesse Wade or 6’5 freshman Trevin Knell could be thrust into the starting lineup. Seljaas is expected to be back by the season opener, so when he’s healthy, the perimeter quartet of Haws, Toolson, Harding and Seljaas is likely the crunch time lineup at the 1-4 positions.

Rising sophomore Gavin Baxter played his way into the starting-5 late last year, who will likely platoon at the 4 with Dalton Nixon. Now coming into his own as a sophomore, Baxter’s nowhere near the peak of his potential, but until he morphs into that next stage in his evolution, Yoeli Childs will be right by his side patrolling the paint for support.

One of the most accomplished players in program history, Childs has risen his game a notch in each of the past three seasons. Last year, Childs became the fulcrum of the offense after sharing the offensive burden with Elijah Bryant as a sophomore. He also expanded his shooting touch out beyond 3-point range, an added element of his game sparingly shown in prior seasons. Childs connected on 36% of his triples in conference play (20/55) last year, which could make him unguardable if he consistently knocks down face-up jumpers from 18-plus feet.

Bottom Line: The lone knock on Childs’ game, which was corroborated by some NBA draft evaluators this summer, is his defensively versatility. Make no mistake about it - Childs is a human ‘Hungry Hippo’ on the boards. But, when it comes to protecting the rim and sliding his feet against quicker drivers out on the perimeter, Childs still has room for growth. His ability to shield opposing slashers away from the rim and alter near-proximity shots is critical, as there are few other options capable of holding down the fort inside. 

If Baxter’s development proceeds as scheduled, he could wind up being a difference maker for the Cougars interior defense. Without any top-flight athletes on the perimeter - losing Jahshire Hardnett was a big blow in this regard - BYU’s frontline may have to act as a safety net, in order to solidify some soft spots in the outer shell of the defense. Remember, the defense just needs to be average by Mountain West Conference standards because when the offense is firing on all cylinders, this team is At-Large good - the question is can the defense hold up its end of the bargain.

4. San Francisco

Key Returners: Charles Minlend, Jordan Ratinho, Jimbo Lull, Jamaree Bouyea, Dzmitry Ryuny
Key Losses: Frankie Ferrari, Nate Renfro, Matt McCarthy
Key Newcomers: Khalil Shabazz, Josh Kunen, Isaiah Hawthorne

Lineup:

Special shouts to Jonathan Safir, the Dons’ Director of Basketball Operations, for accepting the challenge as our official WCC scouting expert.

Outlook: For the first two to three months of the season last year, the Dons played like an NCAA tournament caliber team. With an established band of close-knit veterans, Kyle Smith saw a narrow window of opportunity to go all-in and drew a line in the sand at ‘NCAA Tournament or bust’ before the season commenced. The veteran-laden Dons’ responded by steamrolling through the non-conference slate with the conviction of a legitimate at-large contender. As Safir noted during his recap of the 2018-19 season, there was an explicit emphasis on keeping the pedal to the medal, as the uncertainty surrounding the NET ranking tool left no margin for error. 

The Dons skyrocketed up the rankings over the first two months of the year, putting themselves within striking distance of a legitimate at-large case as the WCC portion of the schedule commenced. After a predictable 2-0 start in league play, the Dons had the big bad Gonzaga Bulldogs on the ropes in San Francisco, up by a bucket at the under 4-minute timeout. 

When the final buzzer sounded, the Dons were left scratching their heads as to how a 2-point lead spiraled into a double-digit loss. This untimely collapse was a bad omen for what would become a series of unfortunate events, exemplified during a brutal 3-game stretch at San Diego, at Saint Mary’s and at Gonzaga. 

Even after the Dons’ banner season all came unraveled in the form of a 4-game losing skid to close out the year, Kyle Smith was already a household name amongst the coaching carousel hot stove discussions. Washington State made the savvy move by claiming Smith before another prominent program could get their hands on him. This move prompted the promotion 34-year old Todd Golden, who spent the last three seasons as Smith’s assistant, as the Dons’ head coach successor.

I’m typically a fan of sustaining continuity when there’s clear-cut evidence of program excellence, and Smith has slowly built that institutional culture over the last few years. I asked Safir if he envisions any sweeping changes to the Dons’ brand of basketball and he confirmed that Golden doesn’t plan to rock the boat too much. However, he did describe Golden as an innovator and a pioneer, unafraid to shake things up if he has reason to believe it can extract the most out of his players.

One such minor alteration could be more individual freedom bestowed upon players to attack favorable matchups in the half court. The primary beneficiary of this emphasis should be Charles Minlend, a well-balanced scorer at 6’4 who will now become the Dons’ first option on offense. Minlend’s superb at playing within himself and not forcing the action, evidenced by a subzero low turnover rate last season, but his efficiency was hampered by a season-long shooting slump. While I’m almost certain his 3PT% will climb back into the mid 30s (he shot 29% last year on 150 attempts), look for Minlend’s mindset to shift toward a slasher’s mentality and away from a shooter’s mentality. Minlend’s at his best when he attacks the rim, so reallocating some of those midrange pull-ups to hard drives and subsequent fouls should culminate in a bump in his individual efficiency.

As pivotal as Minlend’s scoring output is, the Dons should continue to lean on a balanced scoring attack this year, so Golden must find new sources of offense to replace Matt McCarthy and Frankie Ferrari’s production. While scoring wasn’t McCarthy or Ferrari’s calling card  - McCarthy was a beast on the boards, while Frankie’s passing was second to none in the league - both were reliable complementary scoring options to Minlend. I’m a big fan of Jordan Ratinho, but we’ve yet to see him display a dynamic offensive game in a more featured role - for context, 70% of his shots last year were 3s and 97% of those attempts were assisted.

This is where DII newcomer Khalil Shabazz and rising junior Jamaree Bouyea come in, who will share the offensive initiation and playmaking duties borne by Frankie last season. According to Safir, Bouyea is the odds on favorite to be the primary ball handler this year, but Shabazz will help to initiate the offense as well. Bouyea is still filling into his body at 6’2 160 pounds soaking wet, but he’s got high-end speed and plus length to finish over size at the rim. It will take time for Bouyea’s offensive confidence to catch up with his predecessor Ferrari, but Safir projects him to be a stout on-ball defender at the point of attack. Collectively, Bouyea and Shabazz give the Dons a pair of perimeter pests who can generate some timely steals to spark easy offense in transition. 

Offensively, Shabazz made a living at his prior destination taking and making tough shots. As the video clip below reveals, Shabazz doesn’t need much help getting his own and won’t hesitate to pull from anywhere on the floor. 

He outclassed the competition at Central Washington, earning Freshman of the Year honors after leading CWU in scoring with 15 points a contest in just 28 minutes per game. From my vantage point, Shabazz projects to be a prototypical off-the-bench spark plug, with the ability to change the complexity of a game with a quick scoring outburst.

Far more questions linger in the frontcourt, where the loss of McCarthy and skywalker Nate Renfro will require some creative lineup tinkering from Golden. The behemoth 7-foot Jimbo Lull is back, who will be asked to stretch out his workload entering his senior farewell tour. Safir says 25 minutes is the target per game barometer for Lull, which equates to a 5 minute uptick from last year. Staying out of foul trouble will be key for Lull, as will improving his defensive mobility, given WCC foes will look to exploit him in high ball screen action. 

Belarus native Dzmitry Ryuny is the polar opposite of Renfro, whose shoes he’ll be stepping into this year as the starting 4 man alongside Lull. Ryuny’s a true stretch-4 with a perpetual green light to pull whenever from wherever. Safir said his 3-point volume should spike significantly this year, as Golden plans to weaponize his deadeye shooting stroke in a more prominent role.

The real concern is the depth behind Lull, as the current roster is devoid of a traditional backup 5-man, which may force Golden into some smaller lineups when big Jimbo comes off the floor. Reserve bigs Remu Raitanen and Taavi Jurkatamm are best categorized as 4s, so perhaps they could slide up one notch in the lineup in small doses. 

Bottom Line: Pepperdine and Santa Clara are charging quickly, but I don’t see the Dons relinquishing their spot in the WCC’s top-4. In fact, there’s a scenario where I see the Dons nipping right on the heels of BYU, who most seem to believe sit safely above the rest of the conference at third. Bear in mind that most statistical ranking systems pegged San Fran as the superior team last year, despite finishing two games back in the final conference standings. With how stout Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga shape up to be (again), everyone else is playing for the bronze medal this season - for my money, the Dons are as good of a bet as any to knock BYU off that perch.

5. Pepperdine

Key Returners: Colbey Ross, Kam Edwards, Kessler Edwards, Jade Smith
Key Losses: Eric Cooper, Darnell Dunn
Key Newcomers: Keith Smith (Oregon), Skylar Chavez (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: As someone who recently returned to work at his former employer after a brief 6-month hiatus / quarter life crisis, I’m a devout advocate for all my ‘boomerang bros’ out there.

*Raises glass*

Here’s to you Lorenzo Romar and all the other college coaches out there rekindling an old flame (cc: Dave Leitao, Joe Dooley, etc.).

After doing a whole lot of nothing with a whole lot of, well, a lot, for six straight seasons at Washington, Romar returned to the sunny beaches of Malibu last season, where he spent four years as the program director from 1996 to 1999 (which predates his time at St. Louis and Washington). In his first bite at the apple in the late 90s, Romar quickly revitalized a middling Waves program, a blueprint he plans to follow again now entering his second season at the helm. While the nostalgia of paradise had to be the prevailing factor in Romar’s decision to return to southern California, a robust roster left behind by Marty Wilson was icing on the cake. Last season, Romar walked into a team already armed with two All-Conference caliber players in Colbey Ross and Kam Edwards, and a third double-digit scoring threat in Eric Cooper.

Cooper is now gone, but Ross and Edwards are back to light up the scoreboard. Edwards was expected to be the offensive motor, but an injury-ridden past came back to haunt him, prompting Ross to assert himself as the alpha dog. Ross ascended to a new level during the last few weeks of the season, single-handedly willing the Waves to the WCC title game with a dazzling display of ultra high-level shot-making. I vividly remember watching the semi-final tilt against San Francisco, when Ross took complete control of the game. When he wasn’t willing his way to the rim in transition, he was hitting soul-crushing daggers like this:

And this:

I’ve always criticized Romar for shunning the idea of installing any sort of offensive structure, but when you’re blessed with top-flight individual scorers like Ross, do you really need to run a complex Princeton offense? Per Synergy, the Waves were the 4th most efficient team in the entire country on isolation possessions last year. Granted, Synergy has a strict classification criteria for isolation possessions, so that efficiency clip is a tad bit misleading, but the point still stands. Ross, along with fellow guard Jade Smith, are tough to stay in front of one-on-one in space, while Edwards is a chore to keep away from the rim when he sets up shop in the mid to low post area.

Edwards’ younger brother Kessler Edwards exploded onto the scene as a freshman last season, who possesses his older brother’s bounce in a slightly stretched out frame at 6’8. The younger Edwards’ sneaky soft shooting touch enables him to flex between both forward spots, which allowed Romar to establish rising sophomore Victor Ohia Obioha as a permanent solution at the 5. Ohia Obioha has all the prerequisite shot-blocking tools, but he was just as likely to slap someone’s arm as he was the ball, relegating him to the bench in foul trouble far too often.

Shades of that matador defense Romar played in Washington were spotted in Malibu last year, as the Waves rolled out the red carpet to the rim for their opponents. Despite an army of athletes at his disposal, Romar, as we witnessed for nearly a decade at Washington, couldn’t direct them where to be. Opponents converted a blistering hot 56% of their attempts from inside the arc last season, a figure that’s reflective of the layup line offered by the Waves.

This simple screen-and-roll by San Francisco in the WCC tournament is a microcosm of the defensive lapses that occur far too frequently under Romar’s watch:

Ross casually chases the driver off the initial screen, Ohia Obioha gets caught in no man’s land as the helper (in his defense, he was a freshman) and Cooper gives a half-ass swipe at the ball, which all culminates in an easy And-1.

The addition of Oregon import Keith Smith could help on the defensive end, as the former Duck has the versatility and athleticism cover multiple positions while backing up both Edwards brothers. Still, the interior is vulnerable after another Oregon transfer, MJ Cage, left the program during the offseason.

Bottom Line: If Kam Edwards can stay healthy this season - something he’s failed to do the last two years - I am officially in love with the individual pieces on this roster. Ross is one big game away on the national stage from being a household name across college basketball, Smith and the Edwards bros are proven bucket acquirers, and that’s not even considering the wealth of talent coming off-the-pine (see Skylar Chavez, Andre Ball and Darryl Polk). The defensive deficiencies are the only thing holding me back from considering sliding the Waves right next to BYU in the projected standings, but until I see Romar iron out the kinks on that side of the ball, the ceiling is likely a 4th place WCC finish.

6. Santa Clara

Key Returners: Trey Wertz, Tahj Eaddy, Josip Vrankic, Keshawn Justice, Guglielmo Caruso
Key Losses: Josh Martin
Key Newcomers: DJ Mitchell

Lineup:

Outlook: Reflecting back on the first month of Santa Clara’s season last year is cringeworthy, so I’ll be brief. The Broncos kicked off the 2018-19 campaign by taking a big fat dump on their home court when Prairie View A&M - yes, a SWAC school - came to the Bay Area and smacked the Broncos by 17 points. The very next game against UC Irvine (another loss), two-time All-WCC point guard KJ Feagin went down with a broken thumb and would never see the floor again, after undergoing season-ending surgery on his foot in late December. Bear in mind that by game number two, the Broncos had already lost senior guard Matt Hauser (foot) and freshman forward Juan Ducasse (knee) for the season, and by the time Santa Clara finally tallied its first win of the season (against a putrid San Jose State team), big man Fallou Ndoye had suffered a torn tendon in his foot.

Worry no more Broncos nation. That literal pain is long gone and the 2019-20 prognosis is radiating with optimism. Once all hell broke loose last November, Herb Sendek turned to his youth movement. Per kenpom.com, Santa Clara was the 15th youngest team in the country last season, leaning heavily on freshmen and sophomores at all five positions. The burly Josh Martin is the only notable loss this summer, a full-time starter in the frontcourt, but Sendek had slowly phased out his minutes in favor of the younger Guglielmo Caruso by seasons end.

santa clara lineup.png

It’s worth noting the above graphic is slightly skewed by Martin missing one game late, but the trend is still valid. Martin was the consummate role player, a bruising rebounder who had value in spurts, but he was the null set on offense. Caruso’s advanced offensive skill set began to shine through over the course of the season, but the young Italian will have to shoulder a big burden defensively next season with Martin graduating. He’s got good instincts and excellent timing on his first jump, which helped him rack up the 6th most blocks in the WCC on a per possession basis. He’s likely in line to start at the 5, but Wake Forest import DJ Mitchell and rising sophomore Zeke Richards will make Caruso earn it.

Caruso, Mitchell and Richards are all nice pieces, but the big-4 of Trey Wertz, Tahj Eaddy, Keshawn Justice and Josip Vrankic can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league and there’s miles of headroom for growth in these young guns. Wertz and Eaddy form a dynamic duo in the backcourt as offensive co-pilots, while Vrankic is a crafty scoring big with exceptional footwork and the ability to finish from a variety of angles around the rim. The 6’4 Justice gets the least ink of the bunch, but he’s a long range driller and an underrated passer, while his length enables him to guard multiple positions on the other side of the ball. 

Using hooplens.com’s lineup selector tool to isolate the situations when the projected starting 5 of Justice / Wertz / Vrankic /Eaddy / Guglielmo played as a unit last year, we get a sneak peek at what to expect this season when this group shares the floor together:

Bottom Line: When the Broncos are in lockstep offensively, the ball and player movement is harmonious rhythm, which often leads to wide open layups and uncontested 3s. There’s a reason Sendek’s teams always post one of the highest assist rates in the country, as all five players on the floor are precise and willing passers. With such a young core back to carry the torch from last year’s momentum, the Broncos are primed to take as big of a leap as any team in the WCC this season.

7. Loyola Marymount

Key Returners: Joe Quintana, Erik Johansson, Dameane Douglas, Eli Scott
Key Losses: Mattias Markusson*, James Batemon, Jeffery McClendon
Key Newcomers: Parker Dortch, Keli Leaupepe, Lazar Zivanovic, Lazar Nekic, Seikou Sisoho Jawara, Deovaunta Williams, Jonathan Dos Anjos

Lineup:

*Note: As of late June, Mattias Markusson has chosen to redshirt this season to care for his mother who is battling cancer back home in Sweden

Outlook: The 3-point phenomenon has sent the college basketball universe into a frantic rat race for more pace and more space. This NBA-ification epidemic has infected coaches all across the country, with many setting their old notepads on fire in favor of some watered down version of the Golden State Warriors’ playbook.

Meanwhile, somewhere, this is Mike Dunlap…

LMU’s head honcho, poorly depicted by Kanye West above, has effectively stood and watched while the rest of college basketball has become infatuated with playing at hyper-loop speeds and chucking 3s at a pop-a-shot rate. Dunlap’s conscious decision to go against-the-grain is not because he hates analytics - it’s because he’s had a weapon few other teams in America possess: a skilled 7’3 postman in Mattias Markusson. The Swedish Skyscraper is exceptionally durable for a man of his size, a full-time starter for two years running and he’s averaged 25 minutes a game in each of those seasons, never missing one game over that span. With a unicorn like Markusson, why would Dunlap run him off the floor just to chuck 3s with reckless abandon?

With Markusson camping out in the paint last year, it should come as no surprise that the Lions checked in with the 3rd lowest 3-point attempt rate in the country. Markusson’s (correct and admirable) decision to return home to Sweden will force Dunlap to recalibrate his approach this year, though, and the Lions also lose their primary perimeter weapon to graduation. James Batemon’s absence cannot be understated, the pulse of the Lions’ offense for two straight seasons and the man responsible for feeding Markusson down low. Batemon almost never left the floor, which makes identifying his replacement candidate from the incumbent pool guesswork. 

Joe Quintana could be the solution, a 6’2 combo guard who mostly played off the ball next to Batemon last year, but he’s a sure enough handler to bring the ball up. Quintana isn’t as dangerous off-the-dribble as Batemon, but I’m not sure he has to be to succeed in Dunlap’s system. Much like Herb Sendek at Santa Clara, Dunlap breeds a culture of unselfishness and shot creation is the responsibility of all five players on the floor. Maintaining this balanced attack will be pivotal in 2020 with Batemon out of the picture and I’d expect the Lions to play inside-out through the brawny Eli Scott.

Trying to pigeonhole Scott into a traditional position label discounts the true versatility of his game. At 6’5 240 pounds, Scott is a bowling ball with the rock in his hands, impossible to nudge off his path when he has momentum. He’s not much of a shooter, but his passing precision and explosive first step off-the-dribble allows him to float out to the perimeter and stretch more flat-footed forwards away from the lane. 

On the opposite end of the physical frame spectrum lies Dameane Douglas, a long 6’7 wing who wedged his way into the starting lineup from day 1 as a freshman last season. He’s a silky smooth slasher with a developing outside jumper and has the physical tools to be an elite defender. With Jeffery McClendon gone, who Dunlap called ‘a game-changer defensively’ in an interview with Blue Ribbon last summer, Douglas is primed to morph into the multi-positional defensive stopper role that McClendon played.

Batemon and McClendon’s anticipatory instincts were next level good on this side of the ball, and their ability to steal possessions [literally] provided a boost to an already stout defensive unit. Without the Lions’ two most disruptive perimeter defenders, Dunlap will have to compensate with a much bigger lineup this season. 6’6 3-point sniper Erik Johansson likely seizes the final starting spot (he started 9 games last season), which gives Dunlap two long-armed bodies to slot at opposite wings of his patented zone scheme.

Per Synergy, LMU played zone roughly a quarter of the time last year, which typically takes the form of an extended 1-3-1 scheme. Dunlap was brilliant at constantly mixing up defenses throughout the course of the game to confuse opposing guards, which worked like a charm against Gonzaga and was a big reason why the Lions played the Zags closer than any team in the WCC last season (excluding the Gaels stunning upset win in the WCC title game).

Jonathan Dos Anjos (one of the top ranked players in the state of Florida) headlines a global recruiting class with imports from all over the world. In addition to the Brazilian Dos Anjos, Dunlap signed  two Serbians in Lazar Zivanovic and Lazar Nekic, along with Australia's Keli Leaupepe. Parker Dortch is another notable addition, who earned recognition on JUCOrecruiting.com’s top-100 honorable mention list. At 6’7,  Dortch is a pure wing prototype who poured in 15 PPG at a hyper-efficient clip (he knocked down 47% from behind the stripe last year at Kaskaskia). Dunlap had no hesitation handing over the offensive keys to Batemon two years ago, a former JUCO superstar himself, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dortch carve out a spot in the rotation right away.

Bottom Line: Dunlap led the Lions to their first .500 record in conference play since he first arrived in Los Angeles back in 2014, finally breaking through after spending his first few seasons near the bottom of the WCC pack. With the loss of Batemon and, more importantly, Markusson’s absence as the fulcrum in the paint, LMU runs the risk of returning towards those depths. With the towering Swede, a 7th place finish might have seemed bearish, but competing with the likes of USF, Santa Clara and Pepperdine will be a much “taller” task now.

As dynamic as Batemon was, a season long shooting slump and an inability to get separation from and finish over superior defenders hampered the Lions’ offensive efficiency at times. Removing Markusson from that equation as well robs the offense of a safety net in the paint on both ends of the floor.


Tier 3

8. Pacific

Key Returners: Jahlil Tripp, Jeremiah Bailey, Amari McCray, Jahbril Price-Noel
Key Losses: Roberto Gallinat, Anthony Townes, Lafayette Dorsey, Ajare Sanni
Key Newcomers: Gary Chivichyan, Justin Moore, Austin Vereen*, Daniss Jenkins, Jonathan Salazar, James Hampshire, Broc Finstuen

Lineup:

*Note: VMI grad transfer Austin Vereen was a late addition to the roster this summer. Vereen could potentially crack the starting lineup right away - he’s a knockdown shooter and versatile wing defender.

Outlook: While the rest of the WCC was on a rocket ship to the moon last year, Pacific was stuck in quicksand. In the midst of a league-wide rejuvenation - as detailed by my esteemed colleague Ky McKeon - the Tigers simply couldn’t keep pace, as they watched the likes of LMU, Santa Clara and Pepperdine race ahead in the conference standings. Damon Stoudamire’s bunch started strong, but the season mysteriously unraveled around mid-January.

From the start of the year until late December, Pacific played like a top-150 caliber team, knocking off tournament darling UC Irvine and giving both Fresno State and BYU all they could handle. From there on out, Pacific would muster just four victories, all of which came against the WCC’s bottom-tier (Portland twice and Pepperdine twice).

Damon Stoudamire will have to whip up some voodoo magic to lift the Tigers out of the WCC gutter this season. Of the primary contributors last year, only three return for the 2019-20 campaign: Jahbril Price-Noel, a 6’7 swiss-army knife oozing with talent, along with Jahlil Tripp and Jeremiah Bailey. A north-of-the-border product, Price-Noel’s diverse toolkit enables him to play 1-3 offensively and Stoudamire tinkered with letting him run point in spurts last year. Mid-Major Madness’ Chris McKee did a nice spotlight on Prince-Noel prior to last season, which documents some of the hype he received coming out of prep school. Yet, despite all his ability, Price-Noel couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last year and was shaky taking care of the rock, which ultimately culminated in Stoudamire phasing him out of the rotation down the stretch.

Tripp found himself drifting toward the de-facto point guard spot last season as the Price-Noel and Kendall Small experiments never panned out. He makes his pay on the defensive side of the ball, where he’s an elite rebounder at his position and stingy on-ball defender at the point of attack. Bailey stands one inch taller than Tripp, more of a traditional wing who skews towards the catch-and-shoot mold, relative to the penetration-focused Tripp. 

Outside of that trio, your guess is as good as mine as to how Stoudamire is going to juggle the lineup rotations. He’ll have to put all his chips in the newcomer basket, none of which are heralded recruits - though, there are a few promising prospects to build on:

  • Justin Moore returns back to the West Coast after a short-lived residency at Georgia Tech in 2017-18. The former 3-star recruit has Power-6 pedigree and could be thrust into the starting lineup from Day 1. His departure from Georgia Tech was based more on him being ‘homesick’, rather than poor performance on the floor.

  • Jonathan Salazar, another 3-star recruit and top-15 homegrown prospect in California, could carve out a role in the rotation as a freshman. Salazar chose Pacific over some other sexy suitors, including Colorado, Oregon State and Utah State.

  • Daniss Jenkins is a big time scorer out of Dallas, who stuffed the statsheet to the tune of 25 points, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks per game during his final high school season.

  • Gary Chivichyan, a grad transfer from Idaho State, is a one-trick-pony in the form of a 3-point aficionado. The others above may present more upside in terms of ‘best case’ outcome, but Chivichyan’s ‘mean’ or ‘most likely’ outcome is probably the highest. He’s an established scorer and lights out shooter, but he offers little else outside of that.

  • Amari McCray is technically not a ‘newcomer’, but a torn ACL last year delayed his Pacific debut. McCray is brickhouse in the paint, a skilled lefty big with soft hands and steady feet who often commands double teams. Before arriving at Pacific, he earned Western Junior College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors and was named to the WJCAC First Team and the NJCAA Region 5 All-West Region Team as well. Local reports (shouts to the Pacific hoops forum at TapaTalk.com) cite the fact that he’s dropped significant weight this offseason, which bodes well for his conditioning and season-long durability.

  • Pierre Crockrell received the highest praise of the incoming freshmen in Blue Ribbon’s freshly released 2019-20 preview, as Stoudamire cited his advanced maturity and cerebral offensive feel for the game.

Bottom Line: Damon Stoudamire isn’t doing any favors for the former NBA player contingent trying to shake the reputation that they aren’t equipped for the duress of a Division-1 head coaching gig. Unlike some of the other better coached teams in the conference, Pacific hasn’t reeled in the talent to compensate for that lack of structure. A telling sign is this eye-sore of a metric, Shot Quality, courtesy of dribblehandoff.com, which grades average shot-quality for every team in America based on a myriad of factors. Pacific checked in with the 337th *best* shot-quality in the country last year, as sporadic ball movement and head-scratching shot-selection doomed the Tigers’ offense. 

Still, the crop of talent here is still decent and should be enough to lift Pacific above the desolate rosters of San Diego and Portland.

9. San Diego

Key Returners: Alex Floresca, Yauhen Massalski, Joey Calcaterra, Finn Sullivan
Key Losses: Isaiah Pineiro, Isaiah Wright, Olin Carter, Tyler Williams
Key Newcomers: Braun Hartfield

Lineup:

Outlook: Sam Scholl has his work cut out for him this season, now faced with the daunting task of replacing three program pillars in Isaiah Pineiro, Isaiah Wright and Olin Carter. Pineiro was a top-flight athlete and versatile scorer, Carter was a perfect combo guard and perfect 3rd banana and Wright may have been the most valuable of them all - he was a one-man-wrecking-crew in the WCC tournament last year.

Behind the decorated senior class, there appears to be a gargantuan drop off in talent as we look ahead to the 2019-20 campaign. My colleague Jim Root was courtside covering last year’s game against Jackson State and confirmed the glaring chasm between the heavy hitters and the rotational guys. Scholl was reluctant to go any deeper than a 7-man rotation on any given night, which placed a heavy workload on the Pineiro, Wright and Carter triage. Per kenpom.com, San Diego’s starters played 82% of all available minutes last year, the 24th highest rate in the nation. There was a scary stretch in the middle of the season when the Toreros were without Wright or Carter for 9 games in a row - luckily, none of those overlapped, as Wright missed four consecutive contests from December 29th to January 12th, which was immediately followed by Carter’s 5-game absence that ran through February 2nd. Scholl deserves a ton of credit for his lineup adjustments during that stretch and San Diego came out the other side with a 4-4 record to start WCC play, which included two road losses at Saint Mary’s and at Gonzaga.

I hone in on that portion of the season because it gives the closest proxy to what we can expect this season, since much of the returners are relative unknowns at this juncture. Joey Calcaterra was a prolific scorer in high school, but defensive limitations forced him to redshirt as a freshman. He had moments last season, but he never logged more than 8 minutes in any one game from February 7th onward, which coincided with Wright and Carter returning to action. Finn Sullivan was a bigger piece of the puzzle last year and played close to starter minutes over the final two months of the season, but that was in a cushioned off-guard role with Wright orchestrating the offense and Pineiro and Carter both consuming 99% of the defensive scouting report’s attention.

Alex Floresca and Yauhen Massalski are back to anchor the frontline after platooning for one another last season at the 5 (alongside Pineiro). This tag team only played 90 possessions together last year, but that will surely spike this season with few other viable options up front for Scholl to turn to. Both are highly foul prone, so Scholl may choose to lean on a smaller, quicker, more guard-centric lineup with Youngstown State transfer Braun Hartfield as the nominal 4.

Hartfield is the make-or-break guy for Scholl this season. He’s got the quickness and hops to hold his own against bigger forwards defensively, but his offensive reporiotre is reminiscent of lead guard or point forward. He can lead the break in transition and initiate offense out of the pick-n-roll in half-court situations, so Scholl may be wise to experiment with him at point for a trial period early in the season. 

Bottom Line: Part of me is skeptical to believe the 2nd or 3rd best player on an 8-24 Youngstown team back in 2018 is equipped to be a focal point on a competitive WCC team, but local reports are already raving about Hartfield as a potential difference maker:

Regression is inevitable this season for the Toreros, but Hartfield is the variable that will determine just how pronounced that regressions is. If he can assert himself as an effective number 1 option offensively, San Diego could hang near the middle of the pack. If the step up in both role and competition proves to be too overwhelming, it could be a long second season for Scholl and the Toreros.

10. Portland

Key Returners: JoJo Walker, Theo Akwuba, Tahirou Diabete
Key Losses: Marcus Shaver, Josh McSwiggan, Franklin Porter, Crisshawn Clark
Key Newcomers: Chase Adams, Isaiah White, Quincy Ferebee, Lavar Harewood

Lineup:

Outlook: I wish I could take the temperature of the Portland fan base after Jon Rothstein dropped this bomb earlier this spring:

For context, this was released just four days after the Pilots etched their names in the WCC recordbooks as the second team to go winless in conference in over two decades.

Unsurprisingly, the floodgates opened soon after and seemingly every Portland player not named JoJo Walker scrambled for the nearest exit. Hell, even Porter’s oldest son Franklin snuck out the back door. All that’s left is Walker, Theo Akwuba and Tahirou Diabete, the lone three wolves who started more than three games last season.

A million things went wrong last year, but in the interest of moving along to my next conference, I’ll just pick on the offense. From what little I witnessed, Walker and Marcus Shaver (yup, he gone too) were actually fairly effective in pick-n-roll, able to bend the initial defensive structure and draw help side defenders upon attacking, but Porter was hellbent on running his repetitive dribble weave. This unproductive movement reminds me a lot of what Dana Ford used at Missouri State last year. It often wastes precious seconds off the timer and players are stuck operating in late shot clock situations with no momentum. In the rare instances when Walker and Shaver did actually find a crease to set up some drive-and-kick action, the recipient of those dish outs simply couldn’t cash in. The Pilots checked in with the worst 3PT% in the WCC, as Josh McSwiggan and Franklin Porter could never find their shooting stroke, while Walker went ice cold over the last few months of the season.

There ain’t a lot to look forward to this season in Portland, but 3-star freshman Chase Adams may be worth tuning in for. The 5’8 dynamo played on the infamous Mac Irvin Fire AAU squad and handles the rock like a yo-yo. He’s impossible to stay in front of in the open floor and his slippery shake with the ball allows him to squeeze through narrow seams in the defense. While his height is an obvious concern, I know for a fact he will be appointment television for Pilot fans this season. To compensate for the miniature Adams and Walker backcourt, Porter snagged 6’5 wing Isaiah White off the transfer wire, an electric athlete and serviceable shooter. JUCO import Quincy Ferebee and South Carolina State grad transfer Lavar Harewood will join White this season as two more experienced reinforcements, both of whom will have every opportunity to crack the primary rotation from day 1.

Up front, Porter actually seems to have a fairly deep collection of forwards, with plenty of optionality to work with. Theo Akwuba and Tahirou Diabete each earned a starting job last season, but both were too raw to help much offensively. Jacob Tyron added a subtle boost when he returned to the lineup for conference play and was arguably the Pilots most efficient two-way big on a per minute basis last year. Like Akwuba and Diabete, rising sophomore Hugh Hogland also has room for growth and is far and away the most skilled of the Pilot big men. Hogland’s low-post skill level is superb, and he’s a mystifying cover because of an innate ability to use both hands equally well.

Bottom Line: I’ll be honest - the first move I made when rearranging my conference standing predictions was sliding Portland right to the bottom of the list. The Pilots were atrocious last season and can’t possibly improve that much with such a heavy reliance on C-list transfers and widely unproven returners, save Walker. I’m excited to see what Adams can do, but in the big picture, I’m curious to see how patient the Portland athletic department intends on being with Porter. This is a bottom-line, cutthroat business and the program has enough historical precedents of being competitive not to accept being the WCC’s doormat year over year.