The favorite: Gonzaga, winner of 11 straight regular-season titles, was the favorite in the preseason and nothing has changed heading into conference play. The Zags have rebounded well from consecutive losses to Big Ten teams (at Illinois, vs. Michigan State) with a solid stretch that includes wins against Arizona and Butler. And a 20-point win over Notre Dame in November now looks even more impressive after the Irish took apart Pitt earlier this week.
The Zags still have the most experienced big man in Robert Sacre and one of the toughest matchups in Elias Harris on the wing. The guard play is erratic, but freshman Kevin Pangos has the potential to go off with a flurry of made shots. The league schedule is loaded at the front with road games at Saint Mary's and BYU in the first half of the schedule. But that means Gonzaga will be able to finish strong with both contenders at home.
Other contenders: BYU has the talent to win the WCC, but coach Dave Rose is concerned that none of his players have played in any of the league's unique gyms. Then again, none of the WCC players have experienced the raucous Marriott Center, either.
Fact is, the Cougars are a different team now with UCLA transfer Matt Carlino as the do-everything guard. He is a playmaker and is averaging 17.3 points and 4.8 assists in the first four games of his college career. If Carlino had been eligible from the start, BYU would've likely won its opener at Utah State and at least come closer against Wisconsin.
The Cougars have enough size inside to be disruptive with Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies and wing Charles Abouo has had his moments. Gonzaga is the favorite but if BYU were to win the WCC in its first season, no one should be stunned.
Saint Mary's isn't as balanced and doesn't have the imposing force (Omar Samhan) it did during the Sweet 16 run of 2010, but the Gaels do have two blowout wins over Missouri Valley contenders Northern Iowa and Missouri State. This team can't be dismissed.
For SMC to pull it off, it will need an exceptionally consistent season from Rob Jones inside and Matthew Dellavedova on the perimeter. Kenton Walker II has been a solid complement to Jones as well, but guards Clint Steindl, Stephen Holt and Jorden Page must have their moments for the Gaels to be a true contender.
Player of the year (so far): This is a tough one. The race is wide open. You could make a case for sharpshooting freshman Kevin Pangos, but ultimately Elias Harris is the Zags' star and has the most potential to post a double-double every game. The sleeper MVP pick could be Carlino. The early returns are strong, as he's already made a significant impact in Provo. If BYU wins the WCC, Carlino will likely be in the mix. Same goes for Rob Jones if Saint Mary's can end the Gonzaga hex.
Freshman of the year (so far): OK, this award can definitely be reserved for Pangos. The Canadian came in highly touted and hasn't disappointed one bit, leading Gonzaga with 14.9 points per game and 43 percent 3-point shooting. No other player in the league can go off in stretches the way Pangos has so far this season.
Wins to brag about: LMU over Saint Louis and UCLA; Gonzaga over Arizona; Santa Clara over New Mexico and Villanova; Saint Mary's over Northern Iowa and Missouri State; BYU over Oregon.
Losses that sting: Pepperdine to Cal State-Bakersfield; BYU to rival Utah State; Santa Clara to Houston Baptist and by 38 to Washington State; San Francisco to Holy Cross.
Pleasant surprises: LMU and Santa Clara had erratic but solid starts to the season that proved both schools could be tough outs throughout the conference season. BYU doesn't appear to be headed for a down cycle despite the loss of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery. The WCC continues to schedule up and get quality nonconference games, many of which its teams are winning (see above).
Biggest disappointments: Portland coach Eric Reveno is one of the most solid individuals in the coaching business, but the Pilots have lost their core group of guys and are really struggling. They've lost 11 of their past 12 against a tough slate. Loyola Marymount wins at UCLA and beats Saint Louis yet can't find any consistency. There's no shame in losing to Middle Tennessee or Harvard this season, but one would think the Lions could've taken out North Texas and Morgan State. Santa Clara's Marc Trasolini suffered a season-ending injury in September, which has really kept the Broncos from reaching their full potential.
Will Gonzaga finally reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999?
The Zags have had a few Sweet 16s, but haven't reached a regional final since that initial magical run nearly 13 years ago. Gonzaga has a shot this season if Sacre can be the strong man in the post every night. There are decent rotation players to complement him, but he has to raise his game to be a more dominant player in March.
Which team not named Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary's could crack the top three?
LMU hasn't shown the consistency needed to be a real contender, so the team that might have the goods is Santa Clara. The Broncos' Kevin Foster is talented enough to carry this team to some big wins and coach Kerry Keating has now been in this league long enough to understand the nuances of winning on the road.
Why should BYU be looked at as a possible favorite to win the conference tournament?
The Cougars' core is tourney-tested and that'll help, but maybe a hidden reason will be the crowd. The Brigham Young faithful have a history of traveling well to Las Vegas and there is also a strong Cougar alumni base in the area. Don't be shocked if BYU matches or surpasses the famed Gonzaga travel party at the Orleans Arena, making BYU the de facto home team.
1. Gonzaga: The Zags may be just too deep for everyone else in the league.
2. BYU: The Cougars can win the title, but it might come down to three straight road games down the stretch (USF, SCU, GU).
3. Saint Mary's: The Gaels have been here before. They aren't expected to win the title, yet they'll be pushing the favorite at the end.
4. Santa Clara: Kevin Foster is a star for the Broncos and they've developed a legit home-court presence.
5. Loyola Marymount: The Lions have top-three potential, but lack the overall depth to get it done.
6. San Francisco: The Dons have been a bit of a disappointment so far, so finishing in sixth is probably just right for this crew.
7. Pepperdine: This is a complete rebuilding situation for the Waves under first-year coach Marty Wilson.
8. San Diego: Meanwhile, the rebuilding project continues for embattled coach Bill Grier.
9. Portland: The Pilots could easily climb a few spots eventually, but it's hard to put them any higher during this 1-11 stretch.
• Bill Grier had a clause in his contract to succeed Mark Few at Gonzaga. It was an agreement that the two and athletic director Mike Roth had agreed to years ago, but once it became clear Few wasn't going anywhere, Grier got his own gig at the University of San Diego.
Grier is one of the most well-liked coaches I've come across and has a slew of friends in the business. I've never heard an ill word about him from anyone.
That's why it's difficult for so many to witness what has happened at USD over the last few seasons. The bad run that has befallen Grier since the Toreros upset Connecticut in the 2008 NCAA tournament -- Grier's first season on the job -- is hard to fathom.
His teams have fallen off the map on the court, following that NCAA tourney momentum with a disappointing 16-16 season, then 11-21, then a horrific 6-24 this past season. The Toreros did have one highlight this season, beating Saint Mary's at home when the Gaels were atop the WCC. But there have been costly defections, notably losing the team's top rebounder and inside presence in Rob Jones to the rival Gaels.
There is no way anyone could have guessed that this quaint Catholic school up on the hill in a scenic part of San Diego would be a part of such a sordid scandal.
This is a crushing blow for the West Coast Conference, which had been on a roll as of late. BYU joined the league and just locked up coach Dave Rose with a lucrative new deal. Gonzaga continues to roll along. Saint Mary's survived another coaching carousel and kept Randy Bennett. And now USD, the worst team in the league, is embroiled in a scandal.
Grier wasn't named in the charges, nor is there any indication that he had any knowledge of the schemes. But Toledo coach Stan Joplin wasn't involved in a point-shaving scandal at that school, either. He was fired there because of a losing season, not the point-shaving scandal. But he's also still trying to find a job.
So the emotional stress on Grier has to be daunting. He was trying to rebuild the program in anonymity and now that's not possible. The point-shaving scandal will keep the spotlight on the Toreros -- and it's not a spotlight any program wants to be under.
• BYU really had no choice but to re-sign Rose. Athletic director Tom Holmoe couldn't afford to lose his successful head coach at a time when the Cougars are entering unchartered waters in the move to the WCC.
• If Reggie Theus can't get the head-coaching job at his alma mater, UNLV, where exactly is he going to get one? Theus was a successful coach at New Mexico State, making that program relevant again. He had a tough situation with the Sacramento Kings. The former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville should be applauded for working his way up, instead of expecting a free pass to a head-coaching job. He's an NBA assistant now and desperately wants back in college, but can't seem to get a serious sniff outside being considered by UNLV and USC.
• Miami's Reggie Johnson declared for the NBA draft but didn't sign with an agent. If the Hurricanes have a chance to move up the ACC standings under their new head coach, Johnson has to return.
• Archie Miller's decision to hire Kevin Kuwik as an assistant at Dayton will go down as one of his best during his career as a head coach with the Flyers. Kuwik was the video coordinator for Ohio State the past two seasons under Thad Matta. I have documented many times what Kuwik has done in his career, from serving two tours in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard while an assistant at Ohio to his best work, helping change commuter airline legislation after the tragic death of his girlfriend Lorin Maurer and the other victims on Continental Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo two years ago. Matta's decision to have the Buckeyes wear 3407 patches the past two years to honor the victims was one of the best gestures I've seen in my two decades of covering the sport. It was all class. Ohio State will miss Kuwik, but he deserved a chance to be a full-time assistant. Few will work harder. Dayton got better the moment Kuwik got the job.
• Baylor will almost certainly be in the preseason top 25 now with the surprising return of Perry Jones III. But let's not dismiss the importance of losing LaceDarius Dunn. The Bears had some leadership issues on last season's team and really didn't beat anyone of significance all season. There is still more work to be done, but getting Jones back was huge.
• I'm not sure you'll find a state without a major league baseball team that has more of a divide than Connecticut does with the Red Sox and Yankees. And that's why it was fitting that the national champs decided to split the first-pitch offers from the Red Sox and Yankees. Die-hard Sox fan and Boston-area native Jim Calhoun was in his element throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park. Kemba Walker and the players will do so at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Calhoun won't be in the Bronx and the UConn players weren't at Fenway. The majority of the players, save Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier, are Yankees fans.
• In case you didn't notice, BYU's Jimmer Fredette won every player of the year award. Seems like that went by quietly as Fredette took home the Wooden, Naismith, Oscar Robertson, Rupp and AP national player of the year honors. I thought at some point there would be one that would go to Walker, but Fredette swept all of them. Both Fredette and Walker should be applauded for how hard they worked to get to the top of their sport this season.
• America East coaches privately doubted that Binghamton coach Kevin Broadus would even make it to Friday for the opening of practice. Clearly, they were correct in their prediction.
Wednesday's announcement that Broadus has been put on an indefinite paid leave of absence shouldn't be a shock. Assistant coach Mark Macon, a former NBA player and Temple great, is getting his chance to be a head coach. Broadus will likely search for a settlement at this juncture, since his contract was extended to 2013-14. The odds of Broadus' returning to Binghamton are practically nil, especially after he last week admitted to violating NCAA regulations by contacting two recruits during an evaluation period.
The consensus is that whoever fills the Binghamton slot on a full-time basis in 2010-11 will likely find the standards even more stringent, making it a tougher job than it already was in the America East.
• Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon is wondering why the Bulls didn't push harder to get a return game from Purdue. The Bulls have been extremely successful in playing hardball in scheduling the past four seasons, getting a Big East team to come to Buffalo after holding out a game to the last minute.
Buffalo helped Purdue fill a spot in its schedule after the Boilermakers moved their game against Ball State from Dec. 5 at Mackey Arena to Dec. 19 at Conseco Fieldhouse for the Wooden Tradition. Buffalo took $80,000 for the date but didn't get a return game in 2010-11. There's no guarantee Purdue would have agreed, but there is a chance, considering it's October and the Boilermakers are still looking for a game.
• Marquette coach Buzz Williams said former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie is expected to come up to observe the Golden Eagles practice in the coming weeks. Williams worked for Gillispie at Texas A&M. Williams said he's glad Gillispie's lawsuit with Kentucky is over so that Gillispie can move toward finding a full-time head coaching job.
Gillispie wanted $6 million from Kentucky but got a shade under $3 million. There's no way Kentucky fired him in the spring thinking they had to pay him the full $6 million. Gillispie's settlement means Kentucky basketball is paying out more than $6 million in coaching salaries when combined with John Calipari and his staff. If Gillispie can get his life in order after a DUI arrest and reported rehab stint, the settlement should help him land at least an assistant job in the coming years. Athletic directors would likely run away from a coach who is involved in litigation against his former employer.
• Dino Gaudio's contract extension with Wake Forest through 2013-14, announced Wednesday, is much deserved. Gaudio guided the Demon Deacons through their most difficult period after the tragic death of former coach Skip Prosser. Gaudio has had a bit of a staff shakeup, but not for anything but personal advancement and proximity for those who have departed. Gaudio is well respected in the ACC, and there is no reason to believe the Demon Deacons won't continue to be a player in the conference.
• Florida's Billy Donovan received the John Wooden Legends of Coaching honor Wednesday, joining quite an impressive list of names. The previous winners are: Rick Barnes (Texas), Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Gene Keady (Purdue), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut), Mike Montgomery (Stanford), Roy Williams (Kansas), Denny Crum (Louisville), Lute Olson (Arizona), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Dean Smith (North Carolina). Donovan's two consecutive national titles could prove to be a tough feat for other coaches to match. On this list, only Summitt, Calhoun, Crum, Williams, Krzyzewski and Smith have even won multiple national titles.
The one obvious name not on this list who should be next year's honoree is Tom Izzo of Michigan State. Izzo has been to five Final Fours and won one national title.
• If Dallas Lauderdale (broken bone in right hand) is out for Ohio State when the Buckeyes play North Carolina at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19, the Buckeyes will be at a decided disadvantage against the Tar Heels' towering front line. Ohio State would likely have to go small with the inability to match Ed Davis, Deon Thompson, John Henson and friends in the post.
• Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt can't catch a break with injuries lately. Point guard Moe Miller is still recovering from a concussion after a car accident. Miller is expected to be with Iman Shumpert in the backcourt, helping feed a loaded frontcourt of Gani Lawal, Derrick Favors and Zach Peacock. The Yellow Jackets, when healthy, are deeper, more talented and experienced from the two-win ACC team last season.
Hewitt told the Associated Press that Miller needs time to rest and heal after his head hit the car window during the accident. Miller had two concussions last year and missed seven games after suffering a broken nose in one of the incidents.