WCC preview: Can Saint Mary's -- or anyone else -- stop Gonzaga?

Mark Few led Gonzaga all the way to the national championship game last season. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The last time a conference ranked as low as the West Coast Conference placed a team in the national championship game was 2010, when Butler completed its back-to-back NCAA finals appearances out of the Horizon League. Butler's Bulldogs leveraged that run into an eventual invite to the Big East in 2013. Meanwhile, Gonzaga's Bulldogs, who lost to North Carolina in this past season's final, continue to dominate the West Coast Conference so thoroughly that the rest of the league can only hope for the Zags to disappear.

The WCC is a solid mid-major conference living in the shadow of perhaps the greatest anomaly in college basketball history: Gonzaga isn't just winning, but blocking the sun over Saint Mary's (10-year winning percentage of .778), BYU (three NCAA bids in six WCC seasons) and anyone else achieving a modicum of success. That's ultimately a good problem.

The bad is that only Santa Clara (2013) and San Francisco (2014, 2017) have joined the Gonzaga/BYU/Saint Mary's triumvirate with 20-win seasons in the past five years. Conversely, Portland, Loyola Marymount, Pacific, San Diego and Santa Clara have managed 20-loss seasons in that span. Only San Francisco (2014) sniffed even the NIT. Until that changes -- and Gonzaga spawns more than one or two followers -- the WCC "haves" will continue to eclipse its "have-nots."

Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament: Two
BYU's arrival was supposed to make the WCC a three-bid league more often than not. But that has only happened once in six seasons, and it's not going to happen in 2018 without an upset winner of the conference tournament.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, in whichever order you prefer, are NCAA locks. The unexpected loss of 6-foot-10 Eric Mika likely limits BYU to another NIT. With no one else in the conference ready to take the proverbial next step, the WCC's Selection Sunday forecast has very little mystery.

The player that will own the league: Jock Landale, Saint Mary's Gaels
Forget the raw numbers (16.9 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game), which are impressive enough. Landale is far and away the most efficient returning player in college basketball. Consider that the 6-foot-10 senior posted those averages -- along with 41 blocks, an underappreciated 58 assists and .630 2-point shooting percentage -- for a team playing the second fewest possessions in the country.

The Aussie also knows he needs a monster season to put himself on NBA draft boards. Expect him to do exactly that, carrying the Gaels with him to what could be the best season in school history.

Freshman you will want to see every time he plays: Zach Norvell, Gonzaga Bulldogs
It's a weak year for true freshmen in the WCC. But Norvell, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard sat out last season behind Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. But Norvell is in excellent position to assume some of the Zags' whopping 779 field goal attempts from a year ago.

Norvell will most likely be the first guard off Gonzaga's bench behind junior point Josh Perkins and former sixth man Silas Melson, a solid senior. The minutes are there for the streak-shooting lefty to provide instant offense for a Zags team that is losing over 50 points per game.

Coach with the toughest job: Terry Porter, Portland Pilots
Since the conference expanded prior to the 2011-12 season, the University of Portland has won a WCC-worst 29 league games (.279 winning percentage). A year ago, the Pilots turned to local hero Porter, whose 10 NBA seasons with the Trail Blazers resulted in a retired jersey -- and a 16-game conference losing streak in his new job.

That's right, the Pilots opened Porter's first WCC season with a pair of late December wins before dropping every league game once the calendar turned. Portland couldn't score (No. 279 in points per possession) or defend (No. 254 in points allowed), so Porter's rebuilding begins in earnest this winter.

The team that will surprise: San Francisco Dons
Coach Kyle Smith worked wonders at Columbia, turning the downtrodden Lions into a 25-win team and CIT champions in six seasons. His good work paid off much more quickly at San Francisco, where the Dons won 20 games in his debut and earned a spot in the CBI postseason event.

Smith returns all but one of his top 10 scorers this season and should challenge BYU for third in the conference, behind the nationally ranked pair of Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. A repeat of USF's last NIT bid (2014) isn't out of the question.

The team that will disappoint: BYU Cougars
Until last season, BYU under Dave Rose had never missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons. The school hasn't had a three-year drought since the late 1990s, so it's fair to wonder what another miss in 2018 would mean for the program.

The Cougars should continue to score with guards T.J. Haws (13.8 PPG), Nick Emery (13.1 PPG) and Elijah Bryant (11.7 PPG), but the loss of All-WCC center Eric Mika (20.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG) is crushing. Without him, the Cougars are more likely to slide out of the league's top three than they are to contend with Gonzaga or Saint Mary's.

The league title will come down to: Saint Mary's and Gonzaga, again
Before being swept in three meetings last season, it was Saint Mary's which had swept a pair from Gonzaga in 2016. The question heading into this season is which team can take two out of three, as the likelihood of both reaching another WCC championship game seems high.

That scenario already has happened nine times in the Mark Few/Randy Bennett era, with Few and Gonzaga prevailing on seven occasions. But this is arguably Bennett's best team at Saint Mary's -- with realistic talk of matching the school's 2010 Sweet 16 appearance -- and our money is on the Gaels.