Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the West Coast Conference this season:
Gonzaga’s unfamiliar role
For more than a decade, Gonzaga ruled the WCC by winning the regular-season crown and/or the conference tournament title. That’s why last season’s failure to achieve either was such a shock to the league. Saint Mary’s won both championships, placing the Bulldogs in a foreign space: pursuing, not defending, a WCC championship in 2012-13.
The Bulldogs are once again blessed with the perennial crop of talent that led them to the NCAA tourney last season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. anchor one of nation’s best backcourts. Elias Harris should be a contender for WCC player of the year honors. Sam Dower could blossom into one of the nation’s top forwards. And newcomer Przemek Karnowski, a 7-footer from Poland, is expected to fortify the post.
But, for the first time in years, Gonzaga will be chasing the title. And that’s sure to add even more oomph to what should be another three-team race between Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU. The Bulldogs haven’t been in this position under Mark Few. Let’s see how they respond to the situation.
Dellavedova, the Olympian, fighting for a repeat
Saint Mary’s ability to repeat as tourney/regular-season champs was hindered by the departure of Rob Jones, who averaged 15.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg for the Gaels. They don’t have one guy who will step in for Jones. Multiple players will have to share the burden inside.
But the return of Matthew Dellavedova (15.5 ppg, 6.4 apg) -- who played in the Olympics with Australia’s national team this summer -- makes anything seem possible for Saint Mary’s. With the savvy point guard running the show, the Gaels were ranked 26th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings in 2011-12. The Gaels’ 47.3 percent clip from the field was good for the No. 1 slot in the WCC.
Dellavedova won’t have to do it alone. Stephen Holt, Southern Utah transfer Matt Hodgson, Brad Waldow and juco transfer James Walker III will carry some of the load, too. Will that be enough to overcome a Gonzaga team that’s nationally ranked in the preseason polls? Maybe. Due to a soft nonconference schedule, we won’t know much about this Saint Mary’s squad until WCC play begins. Once it starts, however, Dellavedova will do everything possible to will the Gaels to another conference title(s).
Matt Carlino’s impact on BYU’s finish
The Cougars introduced themselves to the WCC by going 12-4 in league play and earning a slot in the NCAA tournament last season. But their 1-4 mark against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s squashed any chance they had of claiming a slice of the regular-season or conference tournament titles. This year, BYU is in a similar position.
But it’s equipped to add to last season’s solid debut by making a serious push toward the top of the standings. Noah Hartsock (16.8 ppg) is gone. But Brandon Davies is back, and he’s arguably the top big man in the conference. Plus, Tyler Haws (11.3 ppg in 2009-10) returns from a Mormon mission.
One key question, however, could determine BYU’s fate: Will Matt Carlino offer consistent contributions? The former UCLA signee averaged 12.2 ppg for the Cougars a season ago. But his play was defined by his on-again, off-again efforts throughout the season. Carlino went 22-for-73 in the last seven games of the 2011-12 season, a stretch that included a 2-for-10 outing against Marquette in the second round of the NCAA tournament. BYU will likely position itself a notch below Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s if Carlino’s erratic play continues.
Loyola Marymount’s push to crash the three-team party
The Lions pose the greatest threat to the league’s triumvirate after an 11-5 finish in the WCC last season. Anthony Ireland (16.1 ppg) should earn legit consideration in the league’s player of the year race. They’re not big, a trait that significantly diminishes their chances of expanding the WCC race. Plus, they’ve lost former standouts Drew Viney and Jarred DuBois.
But the Lions toppled St. Louis, Saint Mary’s and BYU during a 20-win campaign in 2011-12. And if a couple of newcomers and role players from a year ago can make an impact, Loyola Marymount and Ireland could lead the Lions to a surprising finish in the WCC.
The uncertainty within the WCC’s basement
The WCC’s top tier is easy to identify. The bottom of the league, however, is much murkier. Last year, Pepperdine couldn’t score. Portland turned the ball over too often. San Diego’s strong finish couldn’t rectify a troublesome start. San Francisco won 20 games but lost six players who anchored that team in the offseason. Santa Clara went 0-16 in WCC play. But the Broncos -- banking on the return of Marc Trasolini (12.8 ppg) -- could climb out of the cellar this season.
It’s hard to predict anything with this group. But it matters. Not because one of these teams will shock the country and vie for an NCAA tournament slot. Not likely. These teams, however, are relevant because of the competition at the top of the conference. One slip-up against one of these motivated squads could turn the race for the league’s crown.