by Michael Vernetti
There will be no revolution in the WCC in 2017-18. Barring catastrophe, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will dominate the conference, BYU may slip a little and the battle for fourth place should again be lively (San Francisco and Santa Clara tied last year).
But there is activity in the lower ranks, activity that may presage eventual disruption of the established order or, at least, the development of another Top 100 RPI program to boost the conference’s standing. Let’s look at who is breaking the most plates and is seemingly most willing to wage war against the established order.
Ex-NBA great and Portland icon Terry Porter received a rude introduction into the WCC in his first college coaching gig: ace guard Alec Wintering went down with a blown ACL in the Pilots’ sixth league game, effectively ending their season and dooming them to the cellar with a 2-16 record (11-22 overall).
Even before Wintering’s injury, however, Porter was actively recruiting to improve the Pilots’ lot. He signed four players before the early signing deadline in November of 2016, earning a no. 17 national ranking from Hoop Scoop. Okay, you and I have never heard of Hoop Scoop, and neither have Rivals or ESPN, traditional arbiters of college basketball recruiting, but a ranking’s a ranking.
Of the initial crop, JoJo Walker, a two-star guard from St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, CA, was at least traceable, while one of the others was from Japan, one from New Zealand and one from a junior college in Salkehatchie, South Carolina (high school at Loyola in Los Angeles).
Porter’s existing team seemed to cast its judgement on the recruits and the boisterous way in which Porter and the university were publicizing them when four of them, including leading scorer Jazz Johnson, announced they were leaving the program in March. Undeterred, Porter announced three more recruits — one from England, one from Hawaii and one, Crisshawn Clark, a transfer from Pittsburgh of the Atlantic Coast Conference except he never played for Pitt because he tore his ACL for the second time before the season began.
Porter seemed to save the best for last when he landed legit three-star guard Marcus Shaver from Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, AZ, earlier this month. Boise State, facing the defection of point guard Paris Austin to Cal, was anxious to land Shaver, but he chose the Pilots.
The jury will remain out until all of Porter’s far-flung parts come together, but with eight newcomers on its roster, Portland deserves an “A” for effort. In an ironic coda to the recruiting effort, Porter’s best player next season may be his own son, Franklin, who left Saint Mary’s after a tantalizing freshman season to follow his dad to Portland.
Almost matching Portland in activity was Mike Dunlap at Loyola Marymount, but he had little choice. With five players graduating and guard Munis Tutu leaving the program, Dunlap had some recruiting to do. On paper, the LMU recruits are of a higher caliber than the bulk of Portland’s, with a trio of three-stars, forward Zafir Williams and guards Ryse Williams and Elijah Scott, all from established southern California high schools, leading the way. Dunlap also signed two-star guard Joe Quintana and JC transfers James Batemon and Cameron Allen, and has last year’s prized recruit, guard Donald Gipson, back after injuring his foot in the first game of last season.
With Dunlap, however, it always seems to be a case of taking the good with the bad. His ace recruiter, Reggie Morris, Jr., recently left after a year at LMU to return to the high school coaching ranks where he was a bit of a legend, having coached Russell Westbrook, among others. Morris was responsible for recruiting several of LMU’s prized players early in the 2016-17 season.
Another coach under the gun because of departing players was Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire, who lost seven players, including team leaders T.J. Wallace, Tonko Vuko and Ray Bowles. A trio of players with eligibility remaining — forward Jacob Lampkin and guards D.J. Ursery and Maleke Haynes — opted to finish up at Alaska-Anchorage, while Bowles, who averaged 13.4 PPG last year, took his remaining year of eligibility to Fresno State. Stoudamire signed four JC transfers to fill the gaps, but at present has only 10 players on his roster, presumably all scholarship recipients. Because of self-imposed sanctions growing out of an NCAA investigation, Pacific has only 11 scholarships to give through the 2018-19 season.
Facing some urgency because of the quality of players leaving was Pepperdine Coach Marty Wilson, who said goodbye to high-scoring Lamond Murray, Jr., play-making guard Jeremy Major and hard-luck shooting guard Amadyi Udenyi, who missed parts of two seasons because of injuries. In addition, forward Chris Reyes, who became an offensive leader for the Waves as a fifth-year transfer, lost the last part of his final year to an injury.
Wilson was not caught unprepared, signing three guards in the early signing period: Trae Berhow, a 6-6 wing from Watertown, MN, Colbey Ross, a 6-1 shooting guard from Aurora, CO, and Jade Smith, a 6-4 guard from Oakland, CA who fell under the Gaels’ eyes during his career at St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda. Wilson also signed New Zealander Harrison Meads, a 6-7 forward, out of Laramie Community College in Wyoming, and added graduate transfer Matthew Atewe from Washington and JC transfer Darnell Dunn from Miami Dade College.
Those were the most active WCC members. Anther group had fewer holes to fill and was able to enjoy a less frantic off-season:
Lamont Smith lost only one rotation player, forward Cameron Niebauer, as he continues to build the Toreros’ program in his third year. He snapped up a pair of guards, Joey Calcaterra from Marin Catholic in the Bay Area, and Emanuel Hylton from the respected DC high school, St. John’s, and then added an Aussie big man, 7-0 Andrew Ferguson from the Australian Centre of Excellence.
Second-year Coach Herb Sendek, who did not alter the roster he inherited from the outgoing Kerry Keating in 2016-17, made a few moves in this off-season to fill the shoes of departing stars Jared Brownridge and Nate Kratch. Concentrating solely on prep schools, Sendek signed Matt Turner, a 6-3 guard from Blair Academy in New Jersey, Josip Vrankic, a 6-9 Canadian who attended Utah’s Wasatch Academy, and Shaquille Walters, a 6-6 wing from England who attended Lee Academy in Maine. Maybe Sendek felt the Broncos didn’t look mature enough last year.
Kyle Smith, who seemed to hit the ground recruiting when he took over at San Francisco last summer, has added a few more pieces in order to move past Santa Clara and, maybe, BYU in the coming season. Perhaps his prized recruit was Eric Poulsen, a 6-11 center from Santa Rosa JC, who will bolster his undermanned front line. He also picked up a pair of guards, 6-3 Souley Boum from Oakland Tech in the Bay Area, and 6-2 Jamaree Bouyea from Salnias, CA. For good measure, Smith added 6-9 forward Taavi Jurkatamm from Estonia.
Nest time: A look at the conference’s Big Three and a prediction about how the conference race will end up.
Gael Coach Randy Bennett, consulting with his staff in a game from last year, will have new casts of characters on competing WCC teams in the 2017-18 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.