By John Crumpacker#WCChoops Columnist
As the West Coast Conference prepares for another compelling basketball season, it’s fair to ask who is the WCC’s Most Valuable Kyle – Wiltjer of GONZAGA or Collinsworth of BYU? With all due respects to Kyle Clark of SAINT MARY’S and even you, Kai Healy of SANTA CLARA.
Wiltjer, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward, helped the Zags to a school- and conference-record 35 victories last season while advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. On a deep and talented team, he averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and shot nearly 47 percent from 3-point range. Wiltjer was named to a number of All-America teams in 2014-15 and was named by Sports Illustrated as its favorite for national player of the year for 2015-16.
Collinsworth, meanwhile, is college basketball’s Swiss army knife. The 6-6 guard can do a little of everything, and do it well. An honorable mention All-America last season, Collinsworth recorded an NCAA single-season record of six triple doubles in 2014-15 and also tied the NCAA career mark for this most versatile of hoops achievements. His first “trip-dub’’ this season will give him the career record outright. Collinsworth last season averaged 13.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
“The ability to fill a stat sheet like that is incredible,’’ Wiltjer said in admiration.
Seniors both, Wiltjer and Collinsworth will be the focal points of their teams this season. With his height, shooting prowess and ability to run the floor, Wiltjer thought about moving on to the NBA after last season but opted to return to what should be another formidable team for coach Mark Few.
“I definitely thought about it,’’ Wiltjer said. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t passing up a big opportunity. At the end of the day, I wanted to come back and get better. I just want to focus on all the times we were successful as a team. When we’re winning, we’re all playing well, not focusing on the numbers.’’
After defeating BYU and Collinsworth for the WCC championship, Gonzaga dispatched North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight, 66-52. By any measure, Gonzaga’s 2014-15 season was an overwhelming success, yet …
“We were really disappointed we lost that (Duke) game,’’ Wiltjer said. “The national championship every year has to be our mindset. … We want to learn from our mistakes. We had a good year but we wanted to make the Final Four. That’s our main goal, really.’’
Wiltjer is part of an imposing front line that includes 7-foot Przemek Karnowski and 6-11 Domantas Sabonis. Graduation claimed the guards, however, and that’s no small matter considering they were floor leader Kevin Pangos along with Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley. But Few doesn’t rebuild, he reloads, and ready to step up in the backcourt are Eric McClellan, Silas Melson and Josh Perkins. And don’t forget about key reserve Kyle Dranginis, of whom Wiltjer said, “He’s one of those guys who’s in the right place at the right time. He hustles around.’’
Gonzaga’s drive for the Final Four begins not in the U.S. but in Okinawa, Japan, for the Armed Forces Classic against Pittsburgh on Friday.
As for BYU, picked to finish second behind Gonzaga in the conference, the Cougars made their third appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the four seasons they have been in the WCC. Coach Dave Rose’s team lost by four points to Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA tourney last season.
Collinsworth will likely to be called on to step up his scoring this season with the loss of Tyler Haws, BYU’s career scoring leader. He’ll be helped in that regard from fellow guard Chase Fischer, a senior who shot 41.5 percent from beyond the arc last season. Former football recruit Corbin Kaufusi, who sprouted to 6-10, is a rebounding and defensive presence for the Cougars who will be joined on the front line by Utah State transfer Kyle Davis. Yes, another Kyle.
BYU opens its season against Utah Valley on Friday, followed by the Tip-Off Marathon at Long Beach State against the host team on Monday.
Around the WCC
It was that late, great American philosopher Yogi Berra who said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.’’
With a nod to Yogi, let me add, “You can learn a lot just by listening.’’
This I did over a period of several hours at the WCC’s recent Tip-Off event in Los Angeles (all right, it was neighboring El Segundo), in which all of the conference’s men’s and women’s coaches and selected players were present to chat about the upcoming season.
In a series of interviews, this is what I gleaned:
New Pacific women’s coach Bradley Davis can find Burkina Faso on the map before you do.
The son of a U.S. diplomat, Davis spent his formative years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), South Africa, Bahrain and Switzerland, where he graduated from high school in Geneva. He also spent some time in Washington D.C.
“I’ve been around a little bit,’’ said Davis, an assistant on Lynn Roberts’ staff for nine years before she took the Utah job. “Every place I’ve been, I’ve been there at the right time in my life.’’
Davis recalled that while living in Zaire from ages 5-9, the family did not have a phone or television and had to boil its drinking water. “We would have to drive into town to phone home,’’ he said. “We lived in a great house and went to an American school on the compound but we didn’t have TV or a phone. I watched ‘Sesame Street’ on cassette tape.’’
San Francisco senior guard Tim Derksen is in better shape than you. And so is his coach, Rex Walters.
Derksen and Walters spent the summer working out on San Francisco beaches and dunes under an enigmatic fitness guru known as “Hell’s Trainer.’’ Along with a variety of other athletes including a couple of NFL players, the two Dons would perform pushups and sit-ups on the sand, lift weights under unstable footing and sprint up sand dunes in the quest for cardio excellence.
“Coach Walters did a lot of the workouts with me,’’ Derksen said. “It was crazy. He did well. You would be surprised. He kept up with the younger guys.’’
Walters said he did the exacting workouts to get in shape for his alumni game at Kansas but admitted, “I ended up getting hurt. I think I over-trained.’’
Dane Pineau is not stingy. He’s just Australian.
Pineau, Saint Mary’s junior forward, is one of six Australian players on the roster as coach Randy Bennett continues his pipeline to players Down Under. When Pineau first came to the U.S., the notion of offering gratuities at restaurants was new to him and his mates.
“We didn’t know we were supposed to do it,’’ he said. “We didn’t know we were supposed to tip. We’re getting the hang of it.’’
If T.J. Wallace does not improve on his shooting percentage of .399, something’s wrong.
The Pacific junior guard spent most of his summer in the gym on campus working on his shot. Make that 1,000 shots. His goal was to make 1,000 shots a day from various vantage points on the court as he mixed strategy with sharpshooting.
“It takes a very long time,’’ he said. “I can’t leave until I do it. It’s a long process. Your legs start getting sore and you miss shots. You don’t just run around and shoot. It’s more strategy. You got to work your brain, too.’’
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Pepperdine stalwart Stacy Davis has a couple of noteworthy goals for the season, one team and one individual. After being on teams that won 12, 15 and 18 games his first three years, Davis said, “Got to crack that 20-win plateau. I did the math. I’m 45-48 in my Pepperdine career, three games under .500.’’ … Malina Hood, standout guard for the San Diego women’s team, will graduate in May of next year with a degree in Industrial & Systems Engineering, a discipline dealing with supply chain logistics. She wants to take her organizational skills to FedEx. “I’m going to try to get a job there,’’ she said. … New San Diego men’s coach Lamont Smith is more excited than most first-year coaches because he’s back at his alma mater. Smith was a Torero from 1994-99. “I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be back,’’ he said. “Very excited to come back to our awesome institution. When you play at a place and it’s your alma mater, it holds a special place in your heart.’’
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.