It’s ironic that just as the also-rans in the West Coast Conference take steps to emerge from mediocrity, the Big Three who dominate the conference are poised to put even more distance between themselves and their challengers.
Signaling frustration after years of finishing behind Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU, leaders at Santa Clara, San Francisco, Pacific and Portland made coaching changes following the 2015-16 season. They followed Loyola Marymount by two years and San Diego by one, leaving only the Big Three and Pepperdine — which seems happy with Marty Wilson after five years — standing pat.
Questions arise when so many institutions take drastic action at once, but the most obvious one is, “What took you so long?” No one besides Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has won a WCC championship since 2002, when Gonzaga and Pepperdine tied, and few have even challenged for the top spot in that time. BYU added a national brand to the conference when it entered in 2011, but the Cougars have never upended Gonzaga for the WCC title and have usually trailed Saint Mary’s in the standings.
As welcome as the new coaches are in such places as San Francisco, once the national face of the conference, and Santa Clara, producer of Steve Nash and others, one has to wonder how long it will take to improve their fortunes. Kyle Smith, succeeding Rex Walters at San Francisco, brings a successful tenure at the Ivy League’s Columbia and a WCC pedigree as a long-time assistant to Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s; Herb Sendek, succeeding Kerry Keating at Santa Clara, has big-time experience at Arizona State and North Carolina State. But Pacific hire Damon Stoudamire and Portland hire Terry Porter have no D-1 college experience and seem more like Hail Mary-plays than serious steps toward rebuilding.
On the other hand
While four WCC members were intent on soothing alienated alumni and putting fresh faces on sagging programs, the Big Three were licking their chops over unbridled opportunity. Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU all face the 2016-17 season with eager anticipation based on recent success and/or stellar recruits.
It’s definitely and/or for Saint Mary’s, which is coming off a season with the most wins in program history — 29 — including two in the National Invitational Tournament. Although the Gaels are still peeved about being excluded from the NCAA Tournament despite beating Gonzaga two times in league play, they are comforted by a situation unique in the Bennett era: they lose no one from the previous year’s squad, and will greet four excellent prospects — three freshmen and one redshirt — when practice begins officially in October.
Ever since the Gaels became serious challengers to Gonzaga in 2008, they have lost significant contributors following excellent seasons: the 08-09 squad with Patty Mills in the back court, which might have become Bennett’s best team had Mills not broken his wrist in January of 2009, lost Mills to the NBA, along with his back court mate, Carlin Hughes, and front court stalwarts Ian O’Leary and Diamon Simpson to graduation.
The 09-10 squad which went to the Sweet Sixteen said good-bye to dominating center Omar Samhan, 7-foot forward Ben Allen and back court star Wayne Hunter. The 2011-12 Gael squad which won both the WCC regular season title and the WCC Tournament championship, lost Clint Steindl, Rob Jones and Kenton Walker II to graduation.
But not so for last year’s team. One of its most surprising aspects was the absence of seniors and paucity of upper class-men — only two — in its ranks. Thus, everyone returns, led by the sterling back court of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, an improving post man in Dane Pineau and budding stars at both power forward — Evan Fitzner — and small forward — Calvin Hermanson. The team has size, depth, scoring ability and rebounding/defensive strength. And it will be improved in 2016-17.
Coming off a redshirt season mandated by an NCAA disagreement about grade transferability from Australia is Tanner Krebs, a 6-6 sharpshooter who will add to one of the Gaels’ strengths — scoring punch at the wing position. Krebs inspires visions of posting up smaller guards as well as bombing away from distance along with holdover wing player Stefan Gonzalez.
Sliding into the guard rotation, where Naar and Rahon played almost without relief due to a player shortage stemming from Krebs’ redshirt status, will be Jordan Ford, a heralded recruit from Folsom High School outside Sacramento. Ford said no thanks to scholarship offers from Cal and Gonzaga, among others, in order to play for the team that produced Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.
Boosting Hermanson’s role at small forward will be Elijah Thomas from Sunrise Mountain High School outside Phoenix, considered one of the best sleeper recruits in the West. The 6-6, 210-pound Thomas played point guard for his team, averaging 20 PPG, 6 RPG and 3 APG, but will move to the wing for the Gaels.
Adding to a deep and versatile post position is Aussie freshman Jock Perry, who may be 7-2 or even taller, but who is definitely an eye-opener walking through airports. Perry joins another Jock, the 6-11 Landale, in the post, and with 6-10 rising sophomore Jordan Hunter forms an impressive unit backing up Pineau.
Zags also stacked
Although facing the loss of NBA-capable front court stars Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga is eagerly awaiting what observers are calling its best recruiting class in team history — along with the eligibility of two excellent transfers. Ready to step in for Sabonis if injured big man Przemek Karnowski doesn’t return is 6-10 center Zach Collins from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, a 4-star, top-50-rated center.
Collins will be joined by fellow 4-star recruits Killian Tillie, a 6-10 forward from France, Jacob Larsen, 6-10, from Sweden, and Zach Norvell, a 6-4 guard from Chicago. Another highly-prized front court recruit, Rui Hachimura from Japan, is debating whether to re-classify for 2017.
Along with those newcomers are transfers Nigel Williams-Goss, a two-year starter at point guard from Washington, and Jonathan Williams III, the leading scorer for Missouri in his freshman season. Both have spent a full year in the Zag program and should be ready to play immediately for Mark Few.
BYU didn’t exactly stink it up last year, finishing 26-10 and advancing farther in the NIT than Saint Mary’s, losing 72-70 in the semifinals to the team than ended the Gaels’ season, Valparaiso. But hopes are higher for next year because of an excellent group of recruits and players returning from two-year missions.
Gael fans will have no trouble recognizing center Eric Mica when he returns to the post position he played extremely well as a freshman two years ago. He will have company in 6-10 freshman Payron Dastrup, a Top 100 player according to both Rivals and ESPN, and 6-8 freshman Yoeli Childs, ranked no. 50 in the country by ESPN. Another highly-rated freshman with a familiar name, 6-4 guard TJ Haws, brother of all-time BYU leading scorer Tyler Haws, will join Dave Rose’s squad after a mission as well. All told, the Cougars will have five Top 100 recruits on their roster, a first for the team.
The bottom line is the rest of the WCC may be planning for the future, but Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU feel the future is now.
Even the Gaels’ cheerleading squad returns intact for next season: (L to R) Dan Sheets, Tanner Krebs and Jordan Hunter. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.