As someone who has played four West Coast Conference teams and defeated two of them while eyeballing a fifth on video, Joe Callero is in as good a position as anyone to assess the league as it begins conference play on Saturday.
The Cal Poly coach led his team to victories over San Francisco (78-71) and Santa Clara (69-58) while losing to Saint Mary's (82-56) and No. 8 Gonzaga (63-50) - all on the road, by the way - so his opinion on the WCC is valid.
With that being said, take it away, Joe:
"I think they've got to see a doctor if there's somebody favored over Gonzaga,'' Callero said of the WCC's prohibitive favorite. "The thing that separates Gonzaga from the pack is not just their starting five. Their 6-7-8-9 guys, over the course of the season, that depth is so critical.''
Gonzaga is 11-1 and lost only to No. 3 Arizona in Tucson by three points in a game it had a good chance to win until the final seconds. The Zags open the conference season with three road games, starting at BYU on Saturday followed by trips to San Diego and Portland.
Coach Mark Few starts a trio of guards in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley that form one of the best backcourts in the country. Przemek Karnowski is a force in the post at 7-foot-1 and 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer can score from the perimeter. Few has the luxury of bringing 6-10 freshman Domantas Sabonis off the bench, along with 6-8 Angel Nunez, the Louisville transfer. And another transfer, guard Eric McClellan, is eligible on Jan. 6.
"Karnowski is as good a 5-man as you're going to find on the West Coast,'' Callero said.
At 10-3, BYU begins conference play with a big question mark concerning the status of prolific scorer Tyler Haws, third nationally at 23.8 points per game. He sprained his left ankle on Dec. 13 and was held to just four points in 27 minutes in his team's 77-71 overtime win over UMass on Tuesday.
With Haws pumping in 23-24 points per game, BYU leads the nation in scoring at 88 points per game. With a hobbled Haws, players such as Anson Winder (25 vs. UMass), Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer have to bear more of the burden of scoring baskets.
"I haven't seen BYU,'' Callero said. "Traditionally, they're always up there.''
Cal Poly had a successful swing through the Bay Area with wins over USF and Santa Clara and a loss to Saint Mary's.
"Saint Mary's, to me, the post play they have, if (Brad Waldow) gets the ball on a consistent basis, they're going to win games anywhere. USF probably did the best job of disturbing us offensively and pushing us out of position. They kept us out of rhythm. Their defense was disruptive. Santa Clara has the quickest guards that can score in multiple ways. Saint Mary's has more of an inside game and Santa Clara has a more consistent outside game.''
The Gaels (7-3) start conference play at home with games against Santa Clara (5-6) and USF (6-6) with the potential to break out to a 2-0 mark if Waldow is scoring well and coach Randy Bennett's team continues its robust rebounding. Waldow is the only player in the WCC averaging double figures in scoring (22.1) and rebounding (10.8).
"I feel really confident. We're starting to jell a lot more as a team,'' Waldow said. "We're a great rebounding team, defense and offense. That's something we're great at. I think that will translate to wins. We're a good shooting team. When our shot starts falling and we continue rebounding, we'll win a lot of games.''
USF and Santa Clara start conference play in less than ideal circumstances as both dropped their final non-conference games, the Dons at Cleveland State and the Broncos at home to Cal Poly. Additionally, USF is the second-worst free throw-shooting team in the country, 350th out of 351 schools. Remarkably, the Dons rank 15th nationally in 3-point field goal accuracy, converting on .408 from deep.
On the bright side, USF's Mark Tollefsen is tied for the conference lead in 3-point shooting percentage at .500 (20 of 40) and teammate Tim Derksen is right behind him at .486 (18 of 37).
"I think we have a lot of work ahead of us,'' USF coach Rex Walters said. "We have things we have to get better at. Guys are getting a better idea of what they need to do. We're difficult to guard. We have three guys in the post who can score (Tollefsen, Kruize Pinkins and Matt Christiansen). Tim Derksen has taken a step up as far as being a third option for us in scoring.''
Portland (9-3), Pepperdine (7-3) and Pacific (8-4) all had solid non-conference results and begin WCC play with confidence. Point guard Alec Wintering (11.8 points, 5.9 assists per game) is Portland's best player, supported by 6-11 Thomas van der Mars (10.9 ppg). Forward Stacy Davis (16.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg) makes Pepperdine potent and for Pacific, 5-9 Dulani Robinson is a dynamic presence off the bench for coach Ron Verlin's Tigers.
"From what I've seen of Pepperdine, their man-to-man full-court defensive pressure is exceptional,'' Cal Poly's Callero said. "They do an excellent job. Loyola Marymount looks to be in a rebuilding stage. I did see San Diego. San Diego's got guards who can shoot. They're primed to rise up.''
San Diego's Johnny Dee is fourth in the conference in scoring at 19.5 per game but his free throw shooting has "slipped'' to .882 after leading the nation at .945 last season. His backcourt mate, Chris Anderson, leads the WCC in assists with 7.6 per game.
Under alum and first-year coach Mike Dunlap, LMU was 4-8 in non-conference games and snapped a six-game losing streak with a win against DePaul on Christmas Day in the Diamond Head Classic. The Lions have their first three WCC games at home when Pepperdine, Pacific and Saint Mary's come to Gersten Pavilion.
"We've played tough people. It can't do anything but help us as long as our morale stays high,'' said Dunlap, whose team faced Arizona State, USC, Stanford, Wichita State and Nebraska. "We can't get down in the mouth. I'm really encouraged by what I've seen.''
Now in his seventh season on the Hilltop, USF coach Walters offered this assessment of the WCC:
"Conference will be a monster. Gonzaga, obviously, is very, very good. Gonzaga is on a different level BYU is very good. Saint Mary's is dangerous again. On any given night, anybody can beat anybody.''
Walters also singled out his fellow coaches in the conference as worthy of acclaim. It's a great coaches' league,'' he said. "Mark Few is a national coach. Dave Rose (BYU) is a national-level coach. Randy Bennett (Saint Mary's) took a program from nothing and made it into a perennial top 25, top 30 program. Kerry (Keating, Santa Clara) has won a post-season tournament. Mike Dunlap has coached in the NBA. Marty (Wilson) has done a good job at Pepperdine. There's not a coach in our league who doesn't have a good idea of what he's doing.''
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.