Having posited (Challenge to the pack) that there is a significant gap between the WCC’s Big Three — Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU — and the rest of the conference, it is logical to consider which of the remaining seven teams are showing the most signs of promise.
We all know about the coaching changes which brought new faces to San Francisco (Kyle Smith, Santa Clara (Herb Sendek), Portland (Terry Porter) and Pacific (Damon Stoudamire). We’ve seen the glittering new floor installed at Santa Clara’s Leavey Center. But who is taking the big steps and making the hard choices necessary to propel lackluster programs into the conference’s top tier? Here’s my take on that.
Mr. Smith comes to San Francisco
Maybe because it happened in my back yard, or maybe because I’m biased in favor of an ex-Saint Mary’s coach, I think Kyle Smith at San Francisco has made the most auspicious beginning of the four new coaches. Within days of the announcement of his hire, Smith landed two recruits who should greatly strengthen the Dons’ lineup: Charles Minlend, Jr., a 6-4 guard from Concord, NC, who averaged 22 PPG and 3 APG last year at Fork Union Military Academy, and Chance Anderson, a 6-7 forward from Alpharetta, GA, who contributed 13.1 PPG and 9.8 RPG for St. Francis High School. Anderson’s father is former NBA player Willie Anderson, and his mother is sprinter Carla McGhee, who won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. That’s a good bloodline.
For good measure, Smith later announced the signing of 6-9 forward Remu Raitanen from Helsinki, Finland.
Smith also brought two of his assistants from Columbia with him, Derrick Phelps and Kevin Hovde. Phelps was a starting guard on the 1993 national championship North Carolina team, and had two seasons under his belt at Columbia to go with one at Monmouth, where he recruited several of the players who made Monmouth the surprise of last year’s NCAA season. Hovde, a four-year member of the Columbia staff, played college hoops at Richmond.
Filling out his coaching staff — and strengthening the Saint Mary’s imprint on WCC coaching — Smith added former Gael starting guard Todd Golden to handle recruiting and defensive strategy. Golden began his coaching career under Smith at Columbia, then moved to Auburn where he introduced analytics and data mining to Bruce Pearl’s staff.
Acting with such speed to improve his roster and bring in a staff that he knows and trusts indicated that Smith was more than ready to return to the WCC, where he spent nine years as Randy Bennett’s top assistant at Saint Mary’s. Smith is well-organized and laser-focused, traits that will be appreciated on the Hilltop after Rex Walters’ mercurial tenure.
He also has a more-than-decent roster to work with. Walters helped him out by signing two promising recruits before he departed, Jimbo Lull, a seven-foot center from Manhattan Beach, CA, who spent two years at New Hampshire prep factory New Hampton School, and outstanding De La Salle guard Jordan Ratinho, one of the northern California’s top prep players. Returning are the Dons’ third leading scorer, Ronnie Boyce (11.1 PPG in a little more than 20 minutes a game), starting forward Dont’e Reynolds and key reserves Matt McCarthy and Nate Renfro.
In a signal that the days of Walters’ revolving door roster are over, Smith welcomed former recruit Frankie Ferrari back to the Dons’ fold. Ferrari came to San Francisco in 2014 after an outstanding career at Burlingame High School on the San Francisco Peninsula, but withered on the Dons’ bench. He left the school for a year at La Canada College, but didn’t play basketball, giving him three remaining years of eligibility.
Don’t sleep on Dunlap
By some measures, Mike Dunlap hasn’t made much of a difference in the fortunes of Loyola Marymount in his first two seasons there — going a combined 22-40. Moreover, he has squandered existing assets such as Evan Payne and Gabe Levin, who now make up 40 per cent of the Long Beach State starting five. But Dunlap is driven, and was on the threshold of a .500 season last year before losing outstanding center Adom Jacko (since departed to pro ball) to a back injury. If the Lions had finished at 16-15 instead of 14-17, Dunlap would be on the same trajectory as Bennett when he took over a depleted Saint Mary’s program in 2000 — Bennett won nine games in his first year and broke even at 15-15 in his second.
Dunlap moved aggressively in the off-season to snap up transfers Stefan Jovanovic from Hawaii and Trevor Manuel from Oregon. Jovanovic, a 6-11 center, was a valuable back-up at Hawaii, and will be eligible this season because of Hawaii’s NCAA-imposed post-season ban. Manuel was considered a can’t-miss star in high school in Lansing, MI, but found something not to his liking in Eugene. He quit early enough in his first season to become eligible for the second semester of the 2016-17 campaign for LMU.
Put Jovanovic and Manuel beside freshmen recruits Donald Gipson, a 6-3 guard from LA’s Fairfax High School, and Mattias Markusson, a 7-1 center from Sweden, and Dunlap has a strong entering class. Dunlap also signed two outstanding recruits for 2017-18, Ryse Williams, a three-star shooting guard from Redondo Union High School, and Zafir Williams, a three-star forward from Long Beach Poly. Indicating his willingness to court public disfavor, Dunlap also hired Ryse Williams’ high school coach, Reggie Morris, Jr., as an LMU assistant. Such “package deals” are frowned upon by the NCAA but are not, in themselves, violations.
Pepperdine not going away
In many ways, Pepperdine was the bust of the WCC last year. Returning an intact starting lineup built upon senior stars Stacy Davis and Jett Raines, the Waves were picked by many to move Saint Mary’s out of the top four, and maybe threaten Gonzaga or BYU for an even higher finish. Seems the Waves only got part of that memo, as they beat Saint Mary’s twice — probably spoiling any chance the Gaels had for an NCAA invitation — but floundered against the rest of the league. Dropping winnable games down the stretch against Portland, San Francisco and LMU, the Waves matched their 2014-15 record of 18-14, 10-8 in conference, and settled for fourth place in the WCC.
But the Waves are hardly destitute heading into 2016-17. Although Davis and Raines are gone, almost everyone else returns, including excellent guards Amadi Udenyi and Jeremy Major, budding star Kameron Edwards and ace jump-shooter Lamond Murray, Jr. The Waves also picked up a valuable graduate transfer in Chris Reyes, who should step into the starting lineup for his fourth college team — Saint Mary’s (redshirt season only), Citrus College and Utah having been previous stops.
Marty Wilson also signed a slew of recruits, the most intriguing of whom is Kaijae Yee-Stephens, a three-point shooting phenom from Santa Cruz High School. Stephens scored 2,000 points at unheralded Santa Cruz, an average of 19 PPG each season, but was headed for the dreadful Southern Utah Thunderbirds before a coaching change there gave him a second chance and Pepperdine scooped him up.
Will Santa Clara “floor” the WCC?
New coach, new floor, what else does Santa Clara offer in 2016-17? Herb Sendek, the former North Carolina State and Arizona State head man, has been almost the polar opposite of San Francisco’s Smith since being named to replace Kerry Keating: no big player news, quiet assistant coaching hires, low-key media appearances. Indeed, the media star for Santa Clara in the off-season is the Mission-themed new floor at the Leavey Center, which resembles those at Oregon and other institutions. It is really cool.
But Sendek might be quietly honing a squad that could surprise people this season. He has almost everyone back, which is a mixed blessing since the Broncos went 11-20 last year, but there are pieces in Pruneland that a new leader may mold into a winner. Jared Brownridge leads the troops, as he has for all three previous seasons at SCU, and is ably matched with sophomore K.J. Feagin in the back court. Nate Kratch, who seems to have been at Santa Clara almost as long as former coach Dick Davey, is a hard-working but undersized post presence, and it is there that Sendek must do his best work.
Keating seemed to ignore the post, concentrating on a string of hot-shooting guards (Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore, Brandon Clark, Brownridge), but Sendek will probably change that policy. He recruited Julian Roche, a 6-11 center from Canada who played his high school ball at Procter Academy in Andover, NH, and has big bodies in Matt Hubbard, Emmanuel Ndumanya and Henrik Jadersten on his roster. Hubbard and Jadersten can shoot three-pointers, so the possibility remains of fashioning an offense that takes the pressure off Brownridge and Feagin, and gives the Broncos some offensive balance.
Porter family chronicles
Portland not only gained a locally-popular new coach in former Trail Blazers star Terry Porter, it also added to its roster by gaining two of Porter’s sons — Franklin and Malcolm. Franklin is a 6-4 guard whom Bennett was grooming for stardom at Saint Mary’s, and Malcolm is a 6-3 combo guard who starred for Portland’s Jesuit High School. Franklin played in 22 games for Saint Mary’s as a freshman — a sign that Bennett considered him a promising player — and will have to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules, while Malcolm will be eligible immediately.
In a smart coaching move, Porter hired former Pacific head coach Mike Burns as a top assistant. Burns deserves a Medal of Honor, or perhaps a Purple Heart, for his leadership of Pacific during last year’s infraction-plagued season, and it was both heart-warming and strategic for Porter to hire someone who knows the WCC as well as Burns. This will be Porter’s inaugural college coaching assignment after stints at three NBA teams, so a little inside knowledge will come in handy. For what it’s worth, Porter joins LMU’s Dunlap (Charlotte Hornets) as WCC coaches with NBA coaching experience.
Since this post first went up an alert reader notified me that Mike Burns has already moved on from Portland to Boise State. I wanted to leave up the original post and correct it this way because Terry Porter still deserves props for hiring Burns and Burns himself deserves credit for the way he handled the Pacific assignment.
San Diego still struggling
Lamont Smith is entering his second season at San Diego, not his first, but it seems as if he is still struggling to gain his footing. Smith lost one of his prize recruits, guard Ryan Woolridge, before last season even began, and four more players departed at season’s end (little-used guard Khalil Bedart-Ghani, post man Brandon Perry, starting guard Vasa Pusica and another freshman recruit, Marcus Harris). Combined with the graduation of leading scorer Duda Sanadze and shot-blocking star Jito Kok, Smith might as well be starting from scratch.
Not surprisingly, San Diego has eight new faces on the roster for 2016-17, and Smith has to hope some of them pan out to keep the Toreros out of the WCC cellar.
Stoudamire to Pacific
Pacific needed a bolt of lightening to distract fans and alumni from the disastrous results of an NCAA investigation into infractions affecting the basketball team: a self-imposed ban on post-season play, loss of six scholarships over three years and suspension of head coach Ron Verlin and assistant coach Dwight Young. Not surprisingly, the Tigers limped to an 8-20 record under interim coach Burns.
They got the bolt they needed with the announcement that former Arizona and NBA star Damon Stoudamire would be their new head coach. Stoudamire has been honing his coaching skills as an assistant for several years, most recently as head recruiter at Memphis University. He will need all those skills to lift the Tigers from the bottom of the WCC conference.
Santa Clara’s snazzy new basketball floor could be seen as a symbol of resurgence for also-ran WCC programs. The big question is whether the quality of basketball played on that floor, and at others throughout the WCC, will match the aesthetics. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara media relations.