If the first couple of months of the off-season is any indication, the feeling in much of the West Coast Conference is that it appears to be at a crossroads. What was a strong top-to-bottom mid-major conference not all that long ago has turned into a predictable, top-heavy conference dominated by three schools.
There is still plenty of good basketball in the conference, to be sure, but from a competitive standpoint, it appears as though three schools have quite clearly separated from the rest of the pack.
When Brigham Young joined the conference for the 2011-12 season, it looked like a great beginning. Not only did the Cougars finish third and reach the NCAA Tournament, but five teams won more than 20 games. While the Cougars have continued to help, however, the rest of the conference hasn’t followed them and long-time stalwarts Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Since BYU’s entrance, only once has the top three not consisted of those three schools – 2013-14, when San Francisco tied BYU for second, two games ahead of Saint Mary’s.
It’s not a surprise that the Cougars have had success in the conference. Their history and facilities gave every reason to believe it would happen. Their arrival and subsequent success has been good for the conference.
The dominance of those three teams continued in 2015-16, with Pepperdine finishing three games back in fourth place. The end result is a mass exodus of coaches, as four schools changed coaches following the season and three opted to hire coaches who have a good deal of name recognition. If nothing else, people are going to pay attention to the conference a little more because of who is on the bench.
Pacific was the first one, as they had an interim coach for the season in Mike Burns. They opted not to give him the job beyond this season, instead hiring former Memphis assistant Damon Stoudamire. Stoudamire was a great college player at Arizona and starred in the NBA, so there’s plenty of name recognition there. Portland fired Eric Reveno after he had a good 10-year run but had seemingly run out of gas. His replacement is Terry Porter, who starred in the city for the Trail Blazers a couple of decades ago, and Porter later snagged Bob Cantu away from UTEP to be his top assistant. Santa Clara parted with Kerry Keating after some postseason success that never included the NCAA Tournament, and went with former NC State and Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek to take his place.
The one change that was a bit muted by comparison is still noteworthy. San Francisco fired Rex Walters, still remembered for his great college career as a player at Kansas, and replaced him with former Columbia head coach Kyle Smith. Columbia won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament this year – in fact, news of Smith’s departure for San Francisco broke during the CIT championship game – so Smith had a good run in his six years in New York and his hire certainly is a plus for the conference, though he doesn’t have nearly the name recognition his fellow newcomers do.
What that brings us to is a West Coast Conference marked by schools who appear to think it’s gut check time. They are banking on coaching name recognition to help in a conference that is overshadowed to begin with, and where most schools have been overshadowed by the three dominant programs in recent years. Those three programs will be fine going forward; the question is if some others will join them in strengthening the conference.
This also points to something else that happened this season: non-conference success was a little harder to come by. Gonzaga’s run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament helped out, but the final non-conference number – 66-51 – is at least the lowest winning percentage over the last six seasons, and it’s a sizable drop from the 62.2 percent (79-48) mark of 2014-15. In 2015-16, the West Coast Conference ranked 14th in conference RPI, behind the likes of the CAA, Summit League and Missouri Valley. Gonzaga didn’t have the kind of success they have been accustomed to, and likely needed to win the conference tournament to even make the NCAA Tournament.
The conference is hoping some new blood will translate into more success for teams that have had a tough time competing with the conference’s big three. At this point, more success for the conference will most likely come from those teams rather than the three that have done most of the heavy lifting of late.
Orleans Arena in Las Vegas once again played host to both the men’s and women’s tournament on the same weekend. Pacific did not participate due to self-imposed sanctions, so only nine teams were in Las Vegas.
In the first round, Loyola Marymount was just a little better than San Diego in a 64-61 win. This would end up being the closest game of the tournament, and it was a dandy as the final suggests.
Only one quarterfinal game was decided by single digits. BYU knocked off Santa Clara 72-60 in a game that was a sharp contrast of balance as the Cougars had five players score in double figures while Jared Brownridge scored 30 points as the only Bronco in double figures. Next up was the only single-digit game, a 90-86 win by Pepperdine over San Francisco in the 4-5 matchup. Top seed Saint Mary’s dispatched Loyola Marymount 60-48 before Gonzaga closed out the night with a 92-67 romp over Portland.
The semifinals went as expected, though the games were a bit different. Saint Mary’s took care of Pepperdine 81-66, then Gonzaga had another epic clash with BYU, one where the Bulldogs outlasted the Cougars for an 88-84 win to advance.
That set up the championship game, one both teams were widely believed to need to win to reach the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga shot nearly 62 percent from the field and made the most of the Gaels’ eight turnovers with 20 points off them, and broke away late for an 85-75 win over a team that won both regular season meetings between the two. Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Player of the Year: Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
Newcomer of the Year: Joe Rahon, Saint Mary’s
Coach of the Year: Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s
Defensive Player of the Year: Eric McClellan, Gonzaga
All-West Coast Conference Team
Jared Brownridge, Jr. G, Santa Clara
Kyle Collinsworth, Sr. G, BYU
Stacy Davis, Sr. F, Pepperdine
Chase Fischer, Sr. G, BYU
Emmett Naar, So. G, Saint Mary’s
Joe Rahon, Jr. G, Saint Mary’s
Domantas Sabonis, So. F, Gonzaga
Devin Watson, So. G, San Francisco
Kyle Wiltjer, Sr. F, Gonzaga
Alex Winterling, Jr. G, Portland
- The conference had two of the top 11 teams in the country in field goal percentage: Saint Mary’s led the country at 50.4 percent, while Gonzaga came in 11th at 48.6 percent.
- Saint Mary’s also led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, largely a product of turning the ball over less than all but four teams, and was ninth in three-point field goal percentage (40.6).
- Gonzaga was fifth in the country in three-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just under 30 percent from long range.
- BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth concluded his career with an NCAA record 11 triple-doubles.
- Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis was the only player in the conference to average a double-double.
What we expected, and it happened: The title came down to two of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU once again.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Portland made it to the CIT last season and hosted their first-ever postseason game, but struggled to a seventh-place finish this time around. They started WCC play 2-0, then lost four straight and eight of nine and never recovered save for, ironically, winning consecutive road games at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount to end that funk.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Saint Mary’s had not been quite as good as a few years ago during the Matthew Dellavedova days and right before that. So it came as a mild surprise that the Gaels ruled the roost, although from a personnel standpoint Gonzaga was certainly vulnerable with so many good guards gone from last season’s team.
Team(s) on the rise: Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. It’s been a long haul for the fans in Malibu Beach, but the Waves have now had two straight winning seasons after they didn’t have one for ten years. Meanwhile, down the road from there, the Lions had a young roster that appeared to have grown by the end of the season, including with their win in the conference tournament.
Team(s) on the decline: San Diego. Next year is the dreaded year two for Lamont Smith, and the Toreros will lose a couple of key players off a team that struggled. They look like they have to take more steps backward before they take steps forward.
2016-17 WCC Outlook
We can start a look at next season by figuring the usual suspects will be near the top. Saint Mary’s returns just about everyone, while Gonzaga loses Wiltjer, Sabonis and McClellan but gets Przemek Karnowski back and gains Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss to go with a good cast of holdovers. BYU will take a hit with the graduation of Collinsworth, Fischer and Nate Austin, but Kyle Davis, Nick Emery and Zac Seljaas lead a nice cast of holdovers.
Who can challenge them? Pepperdine loses Stacy Davis but returns some backcourt production alongside Lamond Murray, so they might be next in line. San Francisco will again have talent and some experience but will be adjusting to a new coach. Santa Clara has potential but a lot of areas for improvement, while Loyola Marymount may be ready to make a jump after they were young this year.
Portland and Pacific also have new coaches just like the Broncos and Dons, while San Diego looks like they might struggle to move far from the bottom next season as part of their rebuilding process.
The biggest thing to watch might be if there is a noticeable impact on the teams with new coaches in the conference given the name recognition that comes into play with most of them.