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WCC preview: It’s still Gonzaga’s league, but can BYU ascend in the pecking order?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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BYU guard Tyler Haws (AP)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 11 league, the West Coast Conference.

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If the consensus when BYU entered the WCC was Gonzaga's status as the WCC's premier program was in jeopardy, then the past two seasons have suggested the Cougars' impact may have been a tad overstated.

Not only is BYU 1-4 against Gonzaga with three double-digit losses, the Cougars so far haven't even managed to overtake Saint Mary's as the Zags' top foil.

BYU has reason to be cautiously optimistic about its chances of ascending the WCC pecking order this season thanks to a backcourt as potent as any in the league. WCC player of the year candidate Tyler Haws averaged an efficient 21.7 points per game last season. Six-foot-6 Kyle Collinsworth started on the 32-win 2010-11 team before his Mormon mission and is versatile enough to play anywhere from point guard to power forward. And talented-but-erratic point guard Matt Carlino should benefit from another year of maturity to improve his decision-making with the ball in his hands.

Questions about BYU stem mostly from its inexperience in the front court now that all-league big man Brandon Davies has graduated. Stretch forward Nate Austin will inherit one starting spot, but the player most capable of replacing Davies' low-post scoring and rebounding is 6-foot-9 freshman Erik Mika, who has impressed with his athleticism and footwork during workouts.

If Mika makes an immediate impact, Collinsworth shakes the rust off quickly and Carlino cuts down his turnovers and improves his shot selection, this could easily be BYU's best team of its brief WCC tenure. The uptick comes at a good time too since both Gonzaga and Saint Mary's lost key players from last year and will need new faces to step up.

Gonzaga's backcourt trio of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Gerard Coleman promises to be excellent offensively, but the Zags' hopes of maintaining a stranglehold on the league and making an impact nationally rest on their ability to find a perimeter defensive stopper to replace Mike Hart and some semblance of a front court attack. With WCC player of the year Kelly Olynyk and all-league forward Elias Harris in the NBA, big men Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski must assume larger roles.

Saint Mary's has seamlessly replaced Patty Mills, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell, but the challenge of not taking a step backward without Matthew Dellavedova may be the most daunting yet. Worse yet, the Gaels won't have guard Jorden Page as a result of the knee injury he suffered last March and they lost highly touted shooting guard Cullen Neal to New Mexico after his dad became head coach of the Lobos.

All is not lost in Moraga, though, because Stephen Holt is set to become the Gaels' new go-to perimeter threat. Plus, the trio of rugged 6-foot-9 Brad Waldow, USC transfer Garrett Jackson and stretch forward Beau Levesque form the league's deepest frontcourt, giving Saint Mary's the chance to potentially return to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in seven years.

It's unlikely anyone besides the Zags, Cougars and Gaels will crack the top three in the league, but the teams with the best chance to surprise are probably San Francisco and San Diego. The Dons return all-league forward Cole Dickerson and standout point guard Cody Doolin, while the Torreros boast undersized but high-scoring guards Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson and shot-blocking specialist Jito Kok.

MAKING A LIST

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Christopher Anderson and Stephen Holt (Getty Images)

Best shooter: Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga. Since opposing teams frequently had to double Kelly Olynyk in the post last season, that often freed up Gonzaga's perimeter shooters for open looks. The player who benefited most was Pangos, whose 41.7 percent 3-point shooting paced the WCC. Open looks might not be so abundant for Pangos this upcoming season with Olynyk and forward Elias Harris in the NBA, but he's still an elite shooter opposing teams cannot afford to leave free.
Best playmaker: Christopher Anderson, San Diego. In a league loaded with quality point guards, the best playmaker may be a 5-foot-7, 150-pound junior who only had two scholarship offers in high school. The short but speedy Anderson excels at beating bigger guards off the dribble and creating opportunities for his teammates. Not only were his 5.7 assists per game last season second only to now-graduated Saint Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova, he also posted a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Best defender: Jito Kok, San Diego. For a guy who averaged a modest 3.2 points and logged just 18 minutes per game last season, San Diego's Jito Kok impacted games in numerous ways. The sophomore center was an imposing force in the paint, blocking 1.6 shots per game and dominating the glass. He'll have an opportunity to play more minutes for San Diego this season, but foul trouble could curtail that as Kok committed four or more fouls in a game six times last season.
Top NBA prospect: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. Believe it or not, the WCC's best NBA prospect logged barely 10 minutes per game last season. Karnowski was buried behind Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Sam Dower in the Gonzaga frontcourt rotation as a freshman, but the 7-foot-1 Poland native still managed to produce 5.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in limited minutes. Extrapolate those stats to 25-30 minutes per game and factor in some potential improvement, and Karnowski figures to intrigue NBA scouts sooner than later at his size.
Best backcourt: Choosing between Gonzaga, BYU and San Diego isn't easy, but the slight edge goes to the Zags. Pangos is one of the league's best shooters and steadiest playmakers, Gary Bell Jr. can score off the dribble or from the perimeter and Providence transfer Gerard Coleman is a high-scoring slasher. The only concern is who will defend elite high-major wings the way Mike Hart did last season. If Coleman grows into that role, this is a formidable group.
Best frontcourt: The debate here is between the talent of Gonzaga's starters and the frontcourt depth Saint Mary's possesses. Karnowski and Dower both are capable of breakout seasons after coming off the bench last season, but the Zags have nobody proven behind them, especially until Louisville transfer Angel Nunez gets eligible. Saint Mary's, on the other hand, has three proven frontcourt options to choose from, with rugged 6-foot-9 Brad Waldow, USC transfer Garrett Jackson and stretch forward Beau Levesque.
Best recruiting class: BYU signed the WCC's best 2013 class, but the Cougars may not reap the benefits of that for a couple years. Three players -- Nick Emery, Jakob Hartsock and Braiden Shaw -- are leaving for LDS missions before they play their first college games. One of the freshmen who will be available this season, however, is Eric Mika, an athletic 6-foot-9 big man likely to contribute right away. Mika is the most likely candidate to replace departed star Brandon Davies in BYU's starting lineup.
Coach on the rise: Rex Walters, San Francisco. Six transfers should have wiped out all San Francisco's momentum from a 20-win 2011-12 season, but quietly the Dons put together a surprisingly respectable 15-16 season last year. Now, with most of their key players back including all-league forward Cole Dickerson and standout point guard Cody Doolin, San Francisco has as good a chance of any of the WCCs mid-tier programs of cracking the league's top three.
Coach on the hot seat: Max Good, Loyola Marymount. Good's LMU tenure has been nothing but peaks and valleys. A 3-27 record during the 2008-09 season gave way to a 15-win improvement the following year. The good feelings didn't last long as LMU went 2-12 in WCC play in 2011, but the Lions emerged as a surprise team the following year, winning 21 games and going 11-5 in league play. Once again, however, the momentum didn't last as the underachieving Lions slipped to 1-15 in the WCC last season. What does this mean for Good? He might need another peak this season to avoid LMU deciding he's had one too many valleys.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Ron Verlin (Pacific)
Regular-season winner last season: Gonzaga
Tourney winner last season: Gonzaga
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 10th, 2011-12: 11th ; 2010-11: 14th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 6 (Gonzaga (3), Saint Mary's (2), BYU)

More from The Dagger's College Hoops Countdown:

No. 12: Conference USA
Energetic, ambitious Michael White has built Louisiana Tech into an NCAA tournament contender
Conference USA Capsule Preview: Can a new flagship program emerge now that Memphis is gone?

No. 11: West Coast Conference
A breakout season from Przemek Karnowski would ease concerns about Gonzaga's frontcourt. Can he deliver one?
WCC Capsule Preview: It's still Gonzaga's league, but can BYU ascend in the pecking order?

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