First BYU came aboard, providing Gonzaga another worthy foil. Then Saint Mary's swept the regular season and conference tournament titles, serving notice that the Gaels remain a threat and snapping a 15-year run in which the Zags won at least one of those crowns.
Don't expect Gonzaga to cede control of the conference, however, because the Zags are loaded once again next season. They lost center center Robert Sacre to graduation, but they return standout sophomore guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and easily the deepest frontcourt in the league.
The starters will probably be Elias Harris and Sam Dower, the former a versatile scorer and elite rebounder and the latter a potential breakout star who finally will have the chance to blossom now that Sacre is gone. Canadian Kelly Olynyk is a capable third big man off the bench who benefited from a redshirt year last year, while promising 7-foot freshman Przemek Karnowski from Poland also could make an impact.
Neither BYU nor Saint Mary's have the frontline depth Gonzaga does, but they're both definitely worthy conference title contenders.
Question marks abound aside from Brandon Davies in BYU's likely starting lineup, but at least the Cougars don't lack for talent. Point guard Matt Carlino is an all-conference type talent who needs to improve his shot selection and cut down his turnovers, Tyler Haws can provide scoring at wing if he can regain his shooting stroke after a two-year mission and 6-11 Nate Austin will have every chance to inherit Noah Hartsock's spot in the lineup.
Between reigning conference player of the year Matthew Dellavedova, sharp shooter Stephen Holt and a now-healthy Paul McCoy, Saint Mary's may have the best perimeter core in the league. The loss of Rob Jones in the frontcourt will hurt, but breakout candidate Brad Wardlow and a now healthy Mitchell Young should help absorb that blow.
Nobody else in the league appears capable of cracking the top three, but several mid-tier teams will again be capable of an upset or two. A youthful but athletic LMU team led by underrated point guard Anthony Ireland will be dangerous, as will sharp-shooting San Diego if the Torreros can find some semblance of an inside game.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Johnny Dee, San Diego. The most amazing part of Johnny Dee's 42.2 percent 3-point shooting as a freshman? He did it even though opposing defenses could focus their attention on stopping the Torreros from the perimeter. If San Diego can develop more of an interior attack next season, Dee should get even better looks from behind the arc this winter.
Best playmaker: In a league that boasts star point guards Anthony Ireland (LMU), Christopher Anderson (San Diego) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dellavedova is the best of the bunch. The starting point guard on Australia's Olympic team averaged 15.5 points and 6.4 assists per game as a junior at Saint Mary's last seaosn, good enough to earn him WCC player of the year honors.
Best defender: Brandon Davies, BYU. The WCC's best returning post player is as good a rebounder and defender as he is a low-post scorer. His 1.30 blocks per game last season were third-most in the league, behind only departed seniors Robert Sacre of Gonzaga and Noah Hartsock of BYU.
Top NBA prospect: Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's. Hard to believe this isn't Elias Harris, but the 6-foot-7 senior has plateaued since the days when he was considered a surefire first-rounder as an underclassmen. Dellavedova probably lacks the athleticism to go in the first round, but his toughness, craftiness and ability to finish at the rim ought to get him second-round consideration.
Best backcourt: Saint Mary's. Dellavedova is clearly the headliner, but the Gaels have other perimeter weapons. Stephen Holt is among the best 3-point shooters in the league and is big enough to guard opposing small forwards, Paul McCoy was once a double-digit scorer at SMU and junior college transfer James Walker is the most heralded member of the Gaels' recruiting class.
Best frontcourt: Gonzaga. Even with the graduation of Robert Sacre, no other team has the frontcourt depth the Zags possess. Elias Harris is a capable scorer and the league's best rebounder. Sam Dower has all-league potential and should blossom with increased playing time. Kelly Olynyk can be a valuable third big after redshirting last season. And then there's the wildcard, mammoth Polish 7-footer Przemek Karnowski, who some analysts say is McDonald's All-American good.
Best recruiting class: The best class in the conference this year didn't belong to Gonzaga or even BYU or Saint Mary's. Instead it's Loyola Marymount, which landed two Los Angeles products and a gifted junior college point guard. High-scoring freshman forward Nick Stover has a chance to contribute right away, while Chase Flint, the junior college point guard, should spell Anthony Ireland or perhaps play alongside him.
Coach on the rise: Bill Grier, San Diego. The former Gonzaga assistant was a rising star when he led the Torreros to the NCAA tournament in his first season, but Grier appeared to be in danger of being fired after three straight losing seasons and a point shaving scandal. He bounced back behind young guards Dee and Anderson with a 7-9 WCC record last season and could be ready to lead the youthful Torreros to a top-four finish this year.
Coach on the hot seat: Kerry Keating, Santa Clara. Instead of moving up in the league the way most anticipated last year, Santa Clara somehow went winless in WCC play. Big man Marc Trasolini suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason trip, volume shooter Kevin Foster missed the second half of the season after a DUI and the rest of the roster crumbled without its stars. Now with Foster and Trasolini back, the pressure is on Keating to make strides and show his administration made the right choice showing faith in him.
Three must-see games: 1 Gonzaga at Butler, Jan. 19 (Two of the premier non-BCS programs meet in one of college basketball's historic venues); 2. Saint Mary's at Drexel, Nov. 22 (Critical for the Gaels to beat the Dragons, get into the winner's bracket in Anaheim and get a crack at some more good competition); 3. Utah at BYU, Dec. 8 (The Utes are down but it's still a great rivalry)
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Saint Mary's
Tourney winner last season: Saint Mary's
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 11th ; 2010-11: 14th, 2009-10: 13th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 6 (Gonzaga 3, Saint Mary's 2, BYU 1)