By John Crumpacker
As West Coast Conference teams prepare for the start of the 2016-17 basketball season, the league is pretty much the same as it ever was at the top while everyone below is either brand new or sort of new and hoping to climb a few rungs higher.
It’s a reflection of increased expectations around the WCC that there are four first-year men’s coaches among the 10 conference members, with one starting his second year (San Diego’s Lamont Smith) and another his third (Loyola Marymount’s Mike Dunlap). The newcomers are Santa Clara’s Herb Sendek, San Francisco’s Kyle Smith, Portland’s Terry Porter and Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire.
Along with Pepperdine’s Marty Wilson, now in his sixth season, the newer coaches are all trying to elevate their programs to the level of the WCC’s top three, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU. There is a clear division at the top, as Saint Mary’s won 29 games a year ago, Gonzaga 28 and BYU 26 while teams that finished fourth through eighth won between 11 and 18 games last season in what ended up being a muddle in the middle.
Porter and Stoudamire, both former NBA players, are beginning their first seasons as Division I coaches. Sendek, meanwhile, is about to begin his 22nd season as a head coach after stops at Arizona State, North Carolina State and Miami of Ohio. Smith takes over at USF after winning 101 games in six seasons at Columbia.
It makes for an interesting mix of new coaches, all with their own ideas of how to make their teams competitive.
“I tell them I’m a first-year coach,’’ Stoudamire said of his formidable challenge at Pacific. “I don’t have all the answers. I’m learning on the run. I might not do it right. I’m human.’’
“There’s no doubt you’re trying to crack that ceiling,’’ Porter said. “BYU being a member has taken another team into the top three. The rest of us are trying to get there. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to compete with those guys.’’
Stoudamire, Porter and Sendek will all rely on experienced senior guards to ease the transition to their new jobs. Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge is the WCC’s top returning scorer, having averaged 20.6 points per game last season. At Portland, Alec Wintering averaged 18.3 points and made 43 shots beyond the arc. T.J. Wallace is a complete player looking to assume a bigger leadership role in his final season at Pacific.
It took Sendek about a minute to realize he has a special player, and person, in Brownridge.
“He’s the consummate student-athlete,’’ Sendek said. “He’s an outstanding student. He’s immersed in the campus community and obviously he distinguishes himself as an athlete. He’s one of the best performers in all of college basketball.’’
At Pacific and Portland, players were aware of their new coaches’ NBA pedigrees but are too young to have seen them play. Thus, YouTube, the social media historian of the digital age.
“I went back and watched some YouTube video,’’ Wallace said. “He was really good. For his (small) stature, he was tough and aggressive. The biggest thing that comes with a coach who’s played on such a high level is respect. Coach saw it on the highest level. When he tells you something, you have total respect for him. There’s trust that comes along with it.’’
At USF, new coach Smith said his situation on the Hilltop is “is similar to Columbia, on a grander scale. We’re trying to recover that tradition of (Bill) Cartwright, (Bill) Russell, Winfred Boynes. It’s trying to get our guys to understand the legacy and what it can be. We’re fortunate to have Bill Cartwright back on campus.’’
On a more practical level, Smith said, “Short term is getting competitive every day. We’re picked ninth. We have 10 freshmen and sophomores. We have a very young team. I look at it as a challenge and not a burden.’’
With the season set to start on Friday, fans around the WCC will have to adjust to not seeing such stalwarts as Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga, both now in the NBA), Stacy Davis (Pepperdine) and Kyle Collinsworth (BYU) on the court as they move on with their post-college lives.
Not the same, apparently
It turns out I was not the only one to note the similarity in appearance, hairstyle and haberdashery in Sendek and Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett, going so far as to suggest they were actually the same person. Alas, they were both spotted in the same room for the recent WCC Tip-off in Los Angeles and will oppose each other twice this season.
Let’s play three
Get ready for some binge-watching on Monday night when ESPN2 will roll out three games in succession involving WCC teams, starting with Princeton at BYU at 7 p.m., continuing with San Diego State at Gonzaga at 9 and wrapping up with Wisconsin-Green Bay at Pacific at 11. The orgy of hoops is officially called the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
Gonzaga (Utah Valley) and Pacific (at UCLA) open their seasons on Friday, with BYU waiting until Monday to test its high-scoring style against a more structured Princeton team in a game of contrasts. San Diego State-Gonzaga at 9 is on paper the best game of the tripleheader as both schools boast nationally prominent programs.
466 – Career wins for Gonzaga’s Mark Few
413 – Career wins for Santa Clara’s Herb Sendek
319 – Career wins for Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett
236 – Number of 3-point attempts in 2015-16 for Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge
0-0 – Career records for Portland’s Terry Porter & Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire
Follow the three dots...
USF faces a team with one of the better mascot names in its opener Friday night against Illinois-Chicago: Flames, a reference to the great Chicago fire of 1871. The Flames have been a Division I program since 1981-82 and were known as the Chikas, short for the Chickasaw Indian nation, prior to the move to Div. I. … At the recent WCC Tip-off in Los Angeles, it was nice to see Brownridge introduce himself to USF legend Bill Cartwright. Brownridge, a Chicagoland native, told Cartwright that some of his earliest memories were seeing Big Bill as a Chicago Bull. … There is life after basketball. Former San Diego coach Brad Holland (1995-2007) is now CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Carlsbad (San Diego County). “I really enjoyed my time in the WCC,’’ said Holland, who played at UCLA post-John Wooden from 1975-79. “Academics were a big part of that. We all took pride in helping them achieve their academic goals. The WCC has a lot of integrity toward the student-athlete experience.’’ … Five WCC alums participated in the basketball competition at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. USF’s John Cox played for Venezuela, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis suited up for Lithuania and Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s), Damian Martin (Loyola Marymount) and Patrick Mills (Saint Mary’s) all played for Australia.
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.