WCC ShootAround: Can anyone dethrone Gonzaga?

Updated: September 3, 2008

AP Photo/Mike Carlson

San Diego's magical postseason included a WCC tourney title and a first-round win over UConn.

WCC finally too close to call?

One team alone has dominated the West Coast Conference for more than a decade. It's a dynastic program whose supremacy has made the conference title an annual foregone conclusion, like Bill Murray waking up to Sonny and Cher in Punxsutawney. And that team is, of course, Loyola Marymount. Just kidding.

It doesn't matter what you call the pride of Spokane -- Gone-zag-uh, Gun-zog-uh, Bulldogs, Dawgs, Zags, etc. -- the end result is always the same. When it comes to WCC basketball, there's Gonzaga and there's Everybody Else.

At least that's been the case for the last 15 years. During that span, Gonzaga has advanced to the postseason 14 times (including 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances) while winning 12 regular-season WCC titles, including the last eight in a row. All the while, skeptics and opponents have waited for a "rebuilding year" that has yet to come.

"It's clear by now that Gonzaga is not going to dip, so the other teams have to rise to their level if they're going to compete," Saint Mary's head coach Randy Bennett said. "I think that's what some teams have done. In the last two or three years, the gap between them and the rest of the league has gotten a lot smaller."

Patrick Mills

AP Photo/Eric Gay

St. Mary's point guard Patrick Mills starred this summer for the Australian national team in the Olympics.

Last season, three WCC teams (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego) made it to the NCAAs for the first time in conference history. In the league's upper echelon, this season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent memory with the top three teams returning 12 of 15 starters and six all-WCC selections (two apiece).

"The strength of our league has improved so much since I've been it, now going on my 18th year," Grier said. "Everyone knows Gonzaga, but to see three teams compete on a really high level and make the NCAA tournament last year shows how strong our conference has become. And I think it's only going to get stronger."

With reigning WCC Player of the Year Jeremy Pargo opting out of the NBA draft, Gonzaga returns at least two potential 2009 draft picks (Pargo and sophomore forward Austin Daye) to one of its deepest rosters in years. Saint Mary's isn't exactly bringing back Kibbles 'n Bits either with sophomore guard (and baby Boomer) Patty Mills -- who dropped 20 points on the Redeem Team in Beijing for Australia -- and senior forward Diamon Simpson pacing the Gaels. Even last season's WCC upset special, San Diego, brings back its entire roster, led by all-WCC seniors Brandon Johnson and Gyno Pomare.

"Gonzaga is still the team to beat, but all three of those teams are bringing a lot of people back," Bennett said. "Last year it was very close between us and Gonzaga, and San Diego was right on the heels of both of us. I wouldn't want to pick which team will be on top at the end of this season. Among those top three teams, it's really too close to call."

Then again, nobody is foolish enough to crown a new king when the reigning monarch is still firmly entrenched on the WCC throne.

"Gonzaga has a chance to be very, very good this year, but I think [Saint Mary's] is going to be right in the thick of it and hopefully so will we," said San Diego head coach Bill Grier, a former long-time Gonzaga assistant. "That said, I think it's still their league until somebody knocks them off."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Vegas, baby
The WCC tournament will be held at a neutral site (Orleans Arena in Las Vegas) for the first time in league history after years of using a host school system that favored programs (like San Diego and Gonzaga) with the largest arenas. The move is intended to both eliminate homecourt advantage and to draw more fans to a host site that offers more enticing amenities than might be found in, say, Spokane. If any team loses from the new arrangement, it's San Diego, as the Toreros earned their last two trips to the Big Dance by winning the auto bid on their home floor.

Baptism by fire
For years, Gonzaga has boosted its reputation (if not its RPI) by scheduling tough nonconference foes (including Memphis, Washington State and Tennessee last season), and now other WCC teams are following suit. Saint Mary's and San Diego had big résumé-boosting wins (Oregon for Saint Mary's and Kentucky for San Diego) that helped pave the way to their NCAA bids. That trend continues this season with Gonzaga (Connecticut, Oklahoma State), Saint Mary's (Oregon, Wooden Classic, Newell Challenge) and San Diego (UNLV, Oregon, Mississippi State, Paradise Jam) all putting themselves to the test early.

What I did on my summer vacation
Gonzaga star Jeremy Pargo's flirtation with the NBA draft notwithstanding, the WCC's biggest wave-maker this offseason was Saint Mary's sophomore guard Patrick Mills. Not only was Mills the only NCAA player to compete in the 2008 Olympics, but he averaged 14.2 points for Australia in Beijing and dropped 20 points on Team USA (admittedly renowned for its olé defense), earning praise from NBA stars like Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. Another big season and it might be Mills pulling a Pargo next summer.

Cha-cha-changes
Three teams (Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount) welcome new coaches, but the league itself is also under new leadership. After more than two decades under the guidance of Michael Gilleran, the WCC has a new commissioner in Jamie Zaninovich. The commish has already implemented a few changes, like moving the conference tournament to Las Vegas and changing the format of league games from Saturday/Monday to Thursday/Saturday. Zaninovich is expected to be aggressive about marketing the league, which should translate to even more national exposure.

Wild cards
Several teams will get a significant boost from transfers this season from both junior colleges and major conferences. Among the more intriguing eligible new faces are Saint Mary's junior center Ben Allen (a transfer from Indiana), San Diego forward Roberto Mafra (junior college), Portland junior guard T.J. Campbell (a junior college all-American last season), Santa Clara junior forward Decensae White (from Texas Tech) and San Francisco junior forwards Blake Wallace and Dontae Bryant.

If I were the WCC commish …

I was a huge proponent of protecting the top teams in the league for years. But that was when Gonzaga was the lone dog in this pack that could stand out. Now, advancing to the semifinals is no longer a necessity for the Zags. The WCC placed three teams in the NCAA tournament last season. That's two at-large berths for the league. Granted, one of them was regular-season champ Gonzaga, but the league is strong enough to handle a full eight-team tournament with everyone playing their way to the final. Losing to a team in the quarterfinals might not cost an at-large bid if the league continues to stay strong. Testing the league tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will be interesting. The homecourt advantage in the WCC -- whether it's in San Diego, Santa Clara or Spokane -- is an issue. While this move proves the league has grown up enough to handle a neutral court, I still want to see how it draws before making a final decision on any permanent site.

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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Nathan Dinsdale
Special to ESPN.com

WCC
GonzagaGonzaga
Jeremy Pargo -- the reigning WCC Player of the Year -- did the Zags (and himself) a solid when he opted out of the NBA draft. Now the senior guard leads a deep Gonzaga team that returns six of its top seven scorers (only all-WCC guard David Pendergraft is gone), including all-WCC junior guard Matt Bouldin, senior forward Josh Heytvelt and senior guard Micah Downs. GU fans held their collective breath earlier this summer when sophomore forward Austin Daye had an ACL scare but catastrophe was averted and now Daye is poised to have a breakout season after a strong freshman campaign.

Loyola MarymountLoyola Marymount
The only direction is up for Loyola Marymount after suffering through a dismal 5-26 season in which the team was outscored by more than 16 points a game on average. LMU loses seven players from the 2007-08 roster (which maybe isn't a bad thing) with the void being filled by freshmen, transfers and redshirts. The biggest addition is new head coach Bill Bayno, who took UNLV to the postseason in four of his five seasons with the Rebels. But Bayno will have more modest goals for a team whose top returning scorer (sophomore forward Tim Diederichs) averaged 8.2 points a game.

PepperdinePepperdine
If Pepperdine has anything, it's the element of surprise. New/old head coach Tom Asbury welcomes six freshmen and one sophomore transfer but lost his top two scorers after Malcolm Thomas (12.5 ppg) and Tyrone Shelley (15.1 ppg) both transferred to San Diego State. With nine underclassmen (including sophomore forward Mychel Thompson, son of former Laker Mychal Thompson), Pepperdine will rely heavily on senior guard Rico Tucker to provide a steady hand for a team looking to improve on an 11-21 record.

PortlandPortland
Portland hasn't seen the sunny side of .500 this century, but hopes are high (relatively speaking) that the Pilots can edge closer to the break-even mark this season. UP returns seven of its top eight scorers and will look for big contributions from junior guard Nik Raivio (brother of former Gonzaga star Derek) and sophomore forward Luke Sikma (son of former NBA big man Jack). What the team lacks in standout talent, it makes up for in size with four players standing 6-foot-9 or taller, including behemoth freshman center John Hegarty (7-1, 365). UP could surprise some teams, but with nine underclassmen and no seniors, the Pilots may still be a year away from making a more serious run.

Saint Mary'sSaint Mary's
Fresh off their first national ranking in nearly two decades, the Gaels won't have to worry about a sophomore slump as they return four of five starters and two all-WCC selections in Patrick Mills and senior forward Diamon Simpson. Mills may get the most ink, but Simpson -- the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year who nearly averaged a double-double last season (13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg) -- is the most critical to the team's success, while junior center Omar Samhan and senior forwards Ian O'Leary and Yusef Smith will also make an impact. With nine upperclassmen (including six seniors) and Mills poised to possibly make an early exit after the season, now is the time to carpe the diem.

san DiegoSan Diego
USD returns its entire roster from a team that made an improbable run through the WCC tournament and into the second round of the NCAA tournament (after a dramatic upset of Connecticut in the first round). But the Toreros still found room to add freshman guard Patrick McCollum and transfers Luciano de Souza and Roberto Mafra. Mafra will help buttress all-WCC senior forward Gyno Pomare in the paint, while all-WCC senior guard Brandon Johnson and junior guard De'Jon Jackson roam the perimeter along with the inside/outside threat of sophomore forward Rob Jones. San Diego's tough nonconference schedule (UNLV, Oregon, Mississippi State and potentially Miami-Fla., UConn or Wisconsin in the Paradise Jam) could also go a long way toward improving their at-large credentials if Gonzaga or Saint Mary's runs away with an automatic bid.

San FranciscoSan Francisco
USF looks to new head coach (and former Kansas star) Rex Walters to provide a stabilizing presence after the Dons limped through last season trying to cobble together enough victories to give legendary fill-in Eddie Sutton (who took over after Jessie Evans stepped down in December) 800 wins. The bad news for Walters? Two players accounted for more than half of USF's scoring last season. The good news? Both of them are back. All-WCC junior forward Dior Lowhorn led the league in scoring (20.5 ppg), while senior guard Manny Quezada chipped in 13.9 points per game. Two transfers -- junior forwards Blake Wallace and Dontae Bryant -- will look to punish teams for doubling up Lowhorn.

Santa ClaraSanta Clara
The Broncos have a shot to be the WCC dark horse after being the only team outside the top three within spitting distance of .500 (with a 15-16) record. Their hopes to improve on that mark rest squarely on the sturdy shoulders of senior center John Bryant, who averaged 18 points and 9.6 boards a game last season and passed the incomparable Kurt Rambis for career blocks at SCU. The frontcourt is shored up by sophomore forward Ben Dowdell and transfer Decensae White, but the biggest hole to fill is the one left in the backcourt by graduated all-WCC guard Brody Angley.

2007-08 West Coast Standings

Overall record WCC record
Gonzaga* 25-8 13-1
Saint Mary's* 25-7 12-2
San Diego* 22-14 11-3
Santa Clara 15-16 6-8
San Francisco 10-21 5-9
Pepperdine 11-21 4-10
Portland 9-22 3-11
Loyola Marymount 5-26 2-12
*NCAA tournament

For all the West Coast news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Dior Lowhorn, San Francisco, Jr. 20.5
John Bryant, Santa Clara, Sr. 18.0
Brandon Johnson, San Diego, Sr. 16.9
Tyrone Shelley, Pepperdine, Soph. 15.1
Patty Mills, Saint Mary's, Soph. 14.8

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
John Bryant, Santa Clara, Sr. 9.6
Diamon Simpson, Saint Mary's, Sr. 9.6
Malcolm Thomas, Pepperdine, Soph. 8.8
Dior Lowhorn, San Francisco, Jr. 7.4
Gyno Pomare, San Diego, Sr. 7.4

Top Returning Assist Leaders

Player APG
Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga, Sr. 6.0
Manny Quezada, San Francisco, Sr. 4.6
Brandon Johnson, San Diego, Sr. 3.5
Patty Mills, Saint Mary's, Soph. 3.5
Rico Tucker, Pepperdine, Sr. 3.2

Final Shots

• Gonzaga's recent rise has been quite remarkable, but has it been enough to be get the Bulldogs into the Top 50 of all college basketball programs since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• With San Diego's WCC tourney championship and the strong regular seasons from Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, the conference got three teams into the Dance last season. Will it get three again? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.