The addition of Brigham Young in 2011-12 was supposed to spark a drastic change at the top of the West Coast Conference. It did, just not in the fashion that many had expected.
It felt like a case of "the more things change" for the better part of the conference season, as Gonzaga and Saint Mary's battled for supremacy at the top of the WCC standings. That changed on Feb. 26 when the Gaels defeated San Francisco to lock up the regular season title and become the first team other than GU to win the league outright since 2000. Saint Mary's then cemented its supremacy by knocking off the 'Zags by four in the WCC title game to claim both league championships as well as the season series with its arch-rivals.
The conference success proved to be little help to Saint Mary's in the NCAA Tournament, however, as they were the only one of the three WCC teams in the field of 68 to not win a game (granted, BYU's win came in the "First Four"). Reigning WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova is back and hoping to avenge that disappointment in his senior season.
Despite the mega recruiting classes pulled in by the Pac-12's Arizona and UCLA, the WCC again figures to be about as lethal at the top as any conference on the West Coast. A second straight season where the league sends three teams to the NCAA Tournament seems probable. The only issue is whether or not one of those teams can play their way into the second weekend of the big dance this time.
FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION
(1) Saint Mary's defeated (2) Gonzaga (78-74)
NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS
(14) BYU defeated (14) Iona (78-72)
Round of 64
(3) Marquette defeated (14) BYU (88-68)
(10) Purdue defeated (7) Saint Mary's (72-69)
(7) Gonzaga defeated (10) West Virginia (77-54)
Round of 32
(2) Ohio State defeated (7) Gonzaga (73-66)
THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Gonzaga/Saint Mary's Rivalry Hits its Peak
Because of the sustained success of each program, Saint Mary's/Gonzaga has gone from arguably the best rivalry in mid-major basketball to one of the best rivalries in college basketball, period. The intensity between the two programs is at an all-time high after the Gaels broke what had been known around the WCC as simply "the streak" by wining the regular season title outright, and then claimed the season series with the 'Zags by beating them in the conference tournament championship game.
Not only are the programs two of the best on the left coast, and both teams figure to have top 25 potential again this season, but they both really, really do not like one another. That should make for at least two must-see showdowns in 2012-13.
2. No More Double Bye
Since 2003, the WCC has been one of the mid-major leagues which has protected its top two seeds by giving them a bye directly into the semifinals of the conference tournament. That will only be the case for one more season, however, as the league voted this summer to switch to a more standard tournament where the top eight teams begin play in the quarterfinals. That format will take over in 2014, when Pacific joins the WCC and the conference expands to 10 teams.
The feeling amongst the league leaders is that programs like Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are now so established as national powers that they don't need to be protected by the league in order to ensure their inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. The new format gives the rest of the conference a more equal shot at the conference's auto-bid and also betters the odds of more than two WCC teams making it to the big dance.
3. Mass Exodus At San Francisco
It's been the year (or offseason) of the transfer in college basketball, and no program has been affected more than San Francisco, which has lost six players to unexpected defection. The list includes: Perris Blackwell (Washington), Charles Standifer (Cal State Fullerton), Michael Williams (Cal State Fullerton), Avery Johnson (UC-Davis), Khalil Murphy (Undecided) and Justin Raffington (Florida Atlantic).
Blackwell and Williams were expected to be the leading returning scorers for the Dons, who were already losing All-WCC standout Angelo Coloiaro to graduation. In all, nine members of last year's 20-win team will not be returning to play for Rex Walters.
EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Elias Harris was one of the biggest recruits ever to sign with Gonzaga, so it's a little bit of a surprise to see him back for his fourth season in Spokane. But the surprise is a good one for Mark Few, whose Buldogs displayed a frontcourt toughness in both their NCAA Tournament blowout of West Virginia and loss to Ohio State that had been noticeably absent in recent postseason appearances. The loss of Robert Sacre is a blow, but junior center Sam Dower has the potential to be a star, and if Polish 7-footer Przemek Karnowski is half as good as certain recruiting specialists say he is, then the 'Zags shouldn't miss a beat in the post.
Kevin Pangos is also back after a freshman season where he surprisingly led the 'Zags in scoring at 13.6 ppg. Classmate Gary Bell, Jr. (10.4 ppg) and backup point guard David Stockton also return to comprise perhaps the West Coast's most formidable backcourt.
Gonzaga has now won a game in the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive seasons, but the team hasn't advanced past the first weekend of the tournament since '09 and hasn't played in a regional final since the Bulldogs first burst onto the national scene in 1999. This team should reclaim its spot atop the WCC standings and has the potential -- barring injuries or an unfavorable draw -- to make a deep run in the big dance.
2. Saint Mary's
There's no question that reigning WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova is one of the better guards in the country, but replacing Rob Jones and his averages of 15 points and 11 rebounds will still likely result in some restless nights this offseason for Randy Bennett.
The loss of Jones puts considerable pressure on big Brad Waldow to build off of a promising freshman season. The 6'9, 250-pound rising sophomore scored in double figures nine times after the turn of the calendar last season, including a breakout 17-point, 10-rebound performance in SMC's 83-62 blowout of Gonzaga on Jan. 12.
Jorden Page (8.1 ppg) and Stephen Holt (10.1 ppg), who should be back to 100 percent after suffering a partially torn MCL late last season, return to join Dellavedova as major backcourt scoring threats.
The Cougars lose leading scorer Noah Hartsock to graduation, but the versatile Brandon Davies (15.0 ppg/7.3 rpg) is back for his senior season after earning All-WCC honors in 2011-12. Dave Rose also has the benefit of having point guard Matt Carlino for an entire season. The UCLA transfer improved the team dramatically when he became eligible during the second half of last season. If that weren't enough, Tyler Haws, who averaged 11.3 points per game in 2009-10, returns after spending two years in the Philippines on a mission trip.
The Cougars now have a feel for the WCC, and despite the loss of Hartsock, they're probably bringing back a more complete team than the one which won a game in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. These factors considered, it's safe to say BYU has a better chance to finish this season first or second in the conference than it did in its debut campaign.
4. San Diego
The young Torreros were led in scoring by a pair of freshmen in 2011-12, and as is generally the case in such situations, played much better as the season went along. Bill Grier returns his top four scorers, including electric guard Johnny Dee, who dropped 30 on Pepperdine in San Diego's lone WCC tournament win.
5. Loyola Marymount
Few teams in college basketball were more difficult to figure out last season than the Lions, who counteracted wins over UCLA, Saint Louis and Saint Mary's with losses to the likes of Columbia, North Texas (by 13) and Morgan State (by 24). They became a trendy sleeper pick to win the WCC tournament before promptly being bounced by San Francisco in their postseason opener.
The graduation of Drew Viney (15.2 ppg) was an expected blow, but the transfer of rising senior guard Jarred DuBois (10.1 ppg) to Utah was not. Still, point guard Anthony Ireland (16.1 ppg/4.9 apg) is one of the best players in the league, and he'll receive considerable support from senior Ashley Hamilton (11.0 ppg).
6. Santa Clara
Leading scorer Kevin Foster (17.8 ppg) is back after being suspended for the final 12 games of 2011-12, as is Marc Trasolini who missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Double figure scorers Evan Roquemore (13.8 ppg), Niyi Harrison (10.7 ppg) and Raymond Cowels III (10.1 ppg) also return for a Broncos team that figures to be much improved. They'll have to be after going 0-16 in league play last season.
9. San Francisco
The loss of leading scorer Angelo Caloiaro to graduation was expected, but no team in Division-I had more unexpected departures than the Dons, who saw six players transfer during the offseason. Among those six were leading returning scorers Perris Blackwell (12.7 ppg) and Michael Williams (11.1 ppg). It's hard to see USF coming anywhere close to the 20 wins it posted in 2011-12.
EARLY PREDICTED ALL-WCC TEAM
G Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's
G Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
G Anthony Ireland, Loyola Marymount
F Brandon Davies, BYU
F Elias Harris, Gonzaga
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Nick Stover, Loyola Marymount
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Elias Harris, Gonzaga