The challenge to West Coast Conference teams presented by the Big Three — Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU — remains the dominant theme as the 2016-17 season approaches. It is not merely a question of ranking the remaining seven in order behind the Big Three, it has become a test of which of them will react most effectively to the prospect of becoming permanent also-rans.
Make no mistake about it, the coming WCC season will see Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU fighting not only for conference honors and NCAA Tournament seeding, but also for national ranking. The Gaels and Zags have been included in just about every early-preseason Top 25 calculation, with the Gaels picked as high as 14th (CBS Sports).
BYU under the radar
BYU hasn’t appeared on the national radar as yet, probably because of the typical roster changes experienced by the Cougs because of players leaving and returning from two-year missions. BYU is in “receive” mode next year, however, with both former players such as outstanding center Eric Mica, and newcomers such as TJ Haws and Payton Dastrup joining the team after completing missions.
Mica was a force for BYU as a freshman center in 2013-14 (11.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG), giving them a big, athletic post player to rival Brandon Davies. They have struggled without such a player for the past two seasons, and Dave Rose may have had flowers waiting for Mica when he returned to the BYU campus this summer.
Haws and Dastrup have yet to suit up for the Cougs, but the expectations for them are as high as for Mica. Haws, WCC fans can probably figure out, is the younger brother of former star Tyler Haws, BYU’s all-time leading scorer. He comes from the same high school as Tyler, Lone Peak in Highland, UT, and like his brother was voted Mt. Utah in his senior year. The 6-4 guard is described as a pure shooter.
Dastrup, a 6-10 power forward from Mesa, AZ, originally committed to Ohio State, but changed his mind and chose BYU. He is a 4-star, Top 100 recruit.
In addition to players coming off missions, BYU will also welcome true freshman Yoeli Childs of South Jordan, UT, a 6-7 forward who is not of the LDS faith and won’t be leaving on a mission. Childs is another 4-star recruit rated no. 50 in the country.
Together with returning point guard Nick Emery, who averaged 16.3 PPG and was named to the WCC all-Freshman Team, Rose can envision a lineup of Emery and Haws in the back court, with a front court of Mica, Dastrup and Childs. Returning front court players Kyle Davis and Corbin Kaufusi will add depth. That is a strong lineup.
Zags get Karnowski back
Gonzaga was already receiving kudos for replacing departing stars Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer with an outstanding recruiting class before the fate of mammoth center Przemek Karnowski was resolved. Now that Karnowski has decided to return to the Zags for his senior season after missing most of last year with a back injury, Zag fans are officially in a state of bliss.
Assuming Karnowski bounces back from the back injury, he could allow Mark Few to bring along prized recruit Zach Collins of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas more slowly, and not have to depend on junior Josh Edwards to improve upon journeyman status. Penciled in to replace Wiltjer is Jonathan Williams III, a transfer from Missouri, where he was the leading scorer in his freshman season.
The Zags are also anxious to see how guards Nigel Williams-Goss, a two-year starter for Washington before transferring, and true freshman Zach Norvell from Chicago, mesh with holdovers Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. A late wild card in the Zags’ guard rotation is former Cal star Jordan Matthews, who went the fifth-year transfer route to bring an additional scorer to Spokane. Few has a lot of options in his back court.
Almost an afterthought are three foreign recruits who could become impact players: Killian Tillie of France, Jacob Larsen of Denmark and Rui Hachimura of Japan. ESPN’s international player guru Fran Fraschilla has termed Tillie and Larsen “projects” for Few to develop, while comparing Hachimura to former Zag star Elias Harris. Although perhaps not ready to contribute immediately, Hachimura, Fraschilla said, is a “man-child” with “unlimited potential.”
Gaels should be better
Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s is in the unusual position, for him, of having an abundance of talent to bring improvement to a 29-6 team that exceeded everyone’s expectations in 2015-16. Bennett is praised for getting more out of less each year than perhaps any coach in the country, but now he has some horses to try and ride back into the NCAA tournament after three straight NIT appearances.
Nothing is certain about the Gaels under Bennett’s iron-fisted control, but based on whispers in the breeze and occasional observations from insiders one can speculate on a few improvements for Saint Mary’s in the coming season. True freshman point guard Jordan Ford of Folsom High outside Sacramento has, observers note, blended seamlessly into the excellent back court of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon.
While both Naar and Rahon were skilled at utilizing switches to beat big men off the dribble, Ford brings the ability to break down guards without a screen and get to the rim on his own. Gael fans can expect to see Ford share duties with Naar and Rahon, which should improve the Gaels’ attack and provide rest for the iron-man duo that rarely came off the court last year.
Bennett is also uncharacteristically praising the game of redshirt freshman guard Tanner Krebs, the 6-6 Aussie who sat out a year because of questions about transferability of high school courses. Some feel Krebs could challenge small forward Calvin Hermanson for minutes at the wing, which would give the Gaels an excellent tandem of three-point-shooters
Additionally, room may have to be made in the front court for sophomore Jordan Hunter. The Gaels one-two punch of Dane Pineau (11.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG in 27 minutes) and Jock Landale (8.7 PPG and 3.9 RPG in 14.5 minutes) was extremely productive last year, leaving Hunter only 71 minutes playing time. But Hunter starred for an Emerging Boomers team from Australia that went 6-0 in international competition this summer, and his athleticism may make it impossible to keep him off the floor. Just as Bennett may have to do with Ford in the back court, he may have to find ways to squeeze Hunter in along with Pineau and Landale. That says nothing about the role of true freshman Jock Perry, a 7-2 recruit who towers over all the Gael post players. It’s anyone’s guess what use Bennett makes of Perry.
Early handicapping: Gaels out front
Because he has the luxury of returning his entire lineup from last year, I would give Bennett’s Gaels a leg up on BYU and Gonzaga heading into the 2016-17 season. Bennett produced an efficient offense and stalwart defense last year seemingly out of nothing, and has all those pieces back buttressed with the confidence that comes from success. He can be expected to improve on their performance by tapping that confidence and selectively introducing new players. Gonzaga and BYU, by contrast, have to incorporate numerous new faces, and may face some adjustment issues early on.
If, however, Few settles on a lineup of Perkins, Norvell, Williams-Goss and Matthews in the back court and wing, with Karnowski and Williams III in the front court, plus reserves Collins, Melson, Hachimura and who knows else, he will have, on paper, a team to match or exceed last year’s 28-8 squad that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
The same can be foretold for Rose’s BYU team, which may not even miss the excellent graduated back court of Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer. With a bevy of four-and-five star, Top 100 recruits, further development of the sometimes-sensational Emery and the return of Mica to the post, BYU could turn into a juggernaut.
Next time: what about the rest?
Senior Joe Rahon will lead the Gaels next year, but will get some help from freshman Jordan Ford along with fellow returning starter Emmett Naar. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.