On a weekend in which the college basketball world mourns the passing of Dave Gavitt, a visionary and leader whose career as a coach at Providence and first-ever Big East commissioner provided a legacy that will never be rivaled or replicated; not to mention the impending defection of Big East pillars Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference, (more on that in a future piece) the conference preview series rolls on with a look at one of the more entertaining leagues to watch, the West Coast Conference, which now expands its membership to nine with the arrival of Brigham Young from the Mountain West.
1) Saint Mary's - The West Coast will be a three-horse race from start to finish this season, but the slight edge at the beginning of the year will go to Randy Bennett and the Gaels by virtue of their four returning starters. It won't be easy to replace a guard and West Coast great the likes of Mickey McConnell, yet Bennett will try with junior point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who now takes over as the team leader on a squad that features three other Australians; including senior swingman Clint Steindl, whose 22-point effort last November against St. John's established him as a force to be reckoned with. Senior forward Rob Jones returns after leading the Gaels in rebounding last year, and picks up some help up front with Tim Williams and Mitchell Young also coming back. Stephen Holt, a 6-4 sophomore guard, will be the frontrunner to move into the shooting guard position vacated by McConnell on a team that will almost certainly make the WCC a multiple-bid league again this season after just missing out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
2) Gonzaga - Mark Few and the Bulldogs lose do-it-all guard Steven Gray going into this season, but the core of their team is back to fight Saint Mary's and newcomer Brigham Young tooth and nail for a WCC championship. Seven-foot center Robert Sacre is back for his senior year; and if his numbers last season were any indication of how good the Canadian import is, he should be one of the finalists for West Coast Player of the Year. However, his main competition could come alongside him in the form of junior forward Elias Harris, whose productivity should improve with Gray no longer fighting him for shots. Marquise Carter returns to anchor the Zags' backcourt, and burgeoning big man Sam Dower enters his sophomore season off an impressive rookie campaign that will likely reward him with a spot in the starting lineup.
3) Brigham Young - Life after Jimmer Fredette begins in a new conference for the Cougars as they make the jump from the Mountain West; but Dave Rose is breathing a sigh of relief as he looks at his roster for year one of BYU basketball without The Jimmer, especially after Brandon Davies was reinstated to the roster following his much-publicized honor code violation that led to his suspension late last season. The junior rebounding threat will join senior forwards Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo to give the Cougars a different look than in years past, one that will give BYU a decided advantage inside. Kyle Collinsworth will be the Cougars' backcourt anchor this season; and also the player with the most pressure, as he attempts to replace not just Jimmer; but Jackson Emery as well.
4) San Francisco - The Dons won ten games in conference play last season, and return all five starters from a 19-win season overall. Junior guards Michael Williams and Manhattan College transfer Rashad Green will ignite the offense in the Bay Area, while forwards Perris Blackwell and Angelo Caloiaro could be double-double per night players for coach and former NBA reserve Rex Walters. Cody Doolin also returns to run the point for his sophomore season, allowing Williams and Green to make more of an impact off the ball.
5) Santa Clara - Steve Nash's alma mater enters this season as the reigning College Insider tournament champions, but the Broncos were dealt a huge blow when senior forward Marc Trasolini, the team's leading rebounder last season, tore his ACL and will miss the entire season. Despite the crushing absence of Trasolini up front, junior guard Kevin Foster returns to defend his conference scoring title, and his opportunities to put points on the board will remain constant with sophomore Evan Roquemore coming back to facilitate things at the point.
6) Portland - Canadian sharpshooter Nemanja Mitrovic, arguably the Pilots' most important player last season, returns for his final campaign on a team that loses three of its starters from a season ago. Senior point guard Eric Waterford is also back to team with Mitrovic in the backcourt, but the Portland frontline will be in need of an extreme makeover considering the relatively undersized youth presence it currently possesses.
7) Loyola Marymount - The Lions, infused with a blend of youth and experience, bring back senior swingman and leading scorer Drew Viney to start their uphill climb to the top of the WCC standings after finishing tied for last a season ago. Joining Viney will be 5-10 sophomore guard Anthony Ireland and junior forward Ashley Hamilton, the latter of whom will most likely be a full-time starter after only starting nineteen games a year ago. Guard Jarred DuBois is also back after a medical redshirt last season limited him to just six contests.
8) Pepperdine - The Waves pick up a familiar face as their new head coach, as former Pepperdine assistant Marty Wilson comes back to run the show for a team that loses both of their leading scorers from last season; but will be paced by the backcourt tandem of combo guards Lorne Jackson and Joshua Lowery, a senior and junior, respectively. Senior forward Taylor Darby will be the big man Pepperdine will count on to keep games manageable in the post, and his 6-8, 230-pound frame will be an upside in a largely undersized conference.
9) San Diego - The Toreros round out the WCC preview with just one double-figure scorer from last season; but that one player, senior guard Darian Norris, is back for one more year. The post presence of junior big men Chris Gabriel and leading rebounder Chris Manresa gives San Diego solid pieces to continue the rebuilding effort following their 2008 NCAA Tournament appearance, one that included a first-round upset of Jim Calhoun and UConn.