#WCChoops Returns for the 2017-18Campaign
Crumpacker: Action Tips off Friday
By John Crumpacker - #WCChoops Columnist
There’s a whole lot of gone in WCC men’s basketball this season, one day away from the start of 2017-18. In fact, an entire all-star team could be assembled from accomplished players around the conference now plying their trades elsewhere or simply getting on with their post-hoops lives.
Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge, the WCC’s career scoring leader? Gone.
Big man Przemek Karnowski, in the pivot for a Gonzaga team that reached the national championship game? Gone, along with 7-foot freshman Zach Collins and do-everything guard Nigel Williams-Goss.
Alex Wintering, Portland’s emotional fulcrum? Gone.
Saint Mary’s stalwarts Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau? Gone.
Lamond Murry Jr., the face of Pepperdine basketball for so long, gone.
Eric Mika, BYU’s 6-foot-10 force to be reckoned with, gone.
But guess what? Life, and basketball, bounces along without them as teams throughout the WCC gird for the coming season with returning players, incoming freshmen, junior college transfers, graduate transfers, players returning from injuries and, in the case of BYU, players returning from two-year missions looking to knock the rust off and contribute once again.
“I think Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are obviously coming off tremendous seasons,’’ BYU coach Dave Rose said. “The expectation for them is going to continue on the same level. For us, we’re trying to improve our team. It’s the first time in 12 years we’ve gone back-to-back seasons without qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. We’re trying to improve and get back.
“This is a very, very good league that not a lot of people know about.’’
BYU and San Diego are the only WCC schools that field football teams. For the other eight institutions, basketball sits atop the athletic department’s food chain.
“For the majority of the league, it’s their top priority athletically,’’ Rose said. “You don’t have the distraction of a football program. The quality of men’s basketball is a high priority at all the institutions.’’
Rose’s Cougars finished third in the conference last season with an overall mark of 22-12 and were picked to finish third again by the WCC’s coaches. Bolstering BYU will be the return of 6-foot-10 forward Luke Worthington, who spent the last two years in Santiago, Chile, on his mission. He joins returning players Nick Emery and T.J. Haws in the backcourt and forward Yoeli Childs.
Worthington, who said he picked up a basketball “very rarely’’ while in Chile, noted, “It’s pretty incredible, muscle memory. After a couple shots, it starts to feel normal. It’s been different for sure. Getting to know them has been a fun experience, meshing with them. I’m just ready to go.’’
So, too, is Pepperdine’s Amadi Udenyi, returning after missing most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, his second such miserable injury. The fifth-year senior now has a matching set of repaired Achilles, left and right.
“The injury aspect wasn’t as bad because I had it before,’’ Udenyi said, almost matter-of-factly. “I got to sit back, watch a lot of film and learn. I actually think it was more of a learning experience. … I go into everything with a positive attitude.’’
The Waves lost another key player expected to contribute greatly in 2016-17, sophomore forward Kameron Edwards. He missed the entire season with a broken jaw. At least he gave Udenyi some company. They were joined by Eric Cooper Jr., a guard sitting out the year after transferring from Nevada.
Without those three, Pepperdine finished 9-22 overall, eighth in the WCC. With all three back and healthy, coach Marty Wilson sees better days ahead for the Waves.
“I think we’re going to be a be a better team than most people think,’’ said Wilson, about to begin his seventh full season in Malibu. “I’m excited. I expect this to be our best team since we’ve been here. I had to learn, or learned. I became more patient, had to be more understanding of the young guys. We had a lot of freshmen that got thrown in the deep end.’’
Gonzaga (37-2) and Saint Mary’s (29-5) waged a tremendous battle for the WCC’s regular season and conference tournament titles in 2016-17. The Zags finished 17-1 and defeated the Gaels (16-2) twice during the regular season and again in the WCC’s championship game. Expect more of the same this season, the only difference being Saint Mary’s was picked to win the conference this time with Gonzaga second.
“What’s next? Great question,’’ Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “What’s next is to try to repeat the same scenario. Easy to say, hard to do. The expectation thing, the preseason poll – which doesn’t matter – we knew something like that would happen. We were not going to sneak under the radar. I think we’re very similar to last year. We have a lot of ways to score. Guys are more experienced, confident.’’
Senior center Jock Landale is an example of a player who improved in each of his first three seasons in Moraga. Last season he averaged 16.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game. Blue Ribbon magazine listed the 6-11 Aussie as a first team preseason All-American.
“He’s pretty excited for the challenge,’’ Bennett said of Landale. “It’s (a matter of) wanting and believing. Jock has high self-esteem. He expects a lot out of himself. He picks up things quickly and has a good sense of not getting carried away with himself.’’
That phrase fairly defines Gonzaga coach Mark Few. He coached the Zags to their 19th straight NCAA Tournament appearance and led them all the way to the NCAA title game, where two inexplicable dead spots, at the ends of both halves, proved too much to overcome as North Carolina won the championship.
All Few expects this time around is more of the same.
“It’s the nature of the beast,’’ he said. “We’re just like last year at this time. We’re in the process of finding that we have some nice returning pieces familiar with our culture. At the same time, you’re cautious and leery of what lies ahead.’’
Returning players such as forwards Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie, guards Silas Melson and Josh Perkins and redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. are some of those “nice pieces’’ Few mentioned. He’ll find out a lot about this year’s team when the Zags play in the heavyweight PK80 Tournament in Portland Thanksgiving week.
While Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU performed as expected last season, USF, under first-year coach Kyle Smith, surprised people around the WCC by finishing fourth with an overall mark of 20-13, bolstered not by a star player or two but by a group of interchangeable and competitive players.
“We didn’t pack a lot of expectations,’’ Smith said. “We wanted to get our program down. We had a great work ethic. Guys were proud to be at USF. They were appreciative. They developed a sense of pride. They got to meet Bill Cartwright (now a university employee) every day. I inherited some sharp kids. I like to work with those types. Our team GPA was 3.2. Columbia (the Ivy League team he previously coached) was not as good. They like the idea of being responsible.’’
Those responsible for the Dons’ fortunes this season include the likes of Charles Minlend, Chase Foster, Frankie Ferrari, Matt McCarthy and the wonderfully named Jimbo Lull, a 7-foot center who is not one of those interchangeable players.
Santa Clara is one of those teams trying to play its way into the upper tier of the conference after finishing tied for fifth at 10-8 in coach Herb Sendek’s first season. With 430 career victories, Sendek is a man to be reckoned with. He’ll rely on all-WCC guard K.J. Feagin (15.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and center Emmanuel Ndumanya in year two.
Loyola Marymount has made great strides under coach, and alum, Mike Dunlap. The Lions finished 15-15 overall and 8-10 in conference last season. Dunlap will look to senior guard Steven Haney for production after he made 59 3-point shots a year ago.
San Diego is continuing to rebuild under another coach-alum, Lamont Smith. Four starters return from last season’s 13-18/6-12 team, including senior sharpshooter Cameron Neubauer, who knows he will have to improve on his 11.0 scoring average in 2016-17.
At the bottom looking up are Pacific (11-22, 4-14) and Portland (11-22, 2-16), both of whom have second-year coaches – Terry Porter for the Pilots and Damon Stoudamire for the Tigers. Porter has a 7-foot center in senior Philipp Hartwich and two young players named Porter – sons Franklin and Malcolm. Stoudamire’s best returning player is junior forward Anthony Townes (10.3, 7.1). The Tigers have a tough opener on Sunday at Stanford.
The quality of players on WCC rosters this season will go a long way toward lessening the impact of those now gone.