WCC Preview: Gonzaga's grip on the league may tighten once again

WCC Preview: Gonzaga's grip on the league may tighten once again

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 10 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 10 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 10 league, the West Coast Conference.

Any slim chance Gonzaga's peers had of loosening its chokehold on the WCC title probably disappeared this offseason by the time Mark Few finished restocking the Zags' roster.

Few added several potential impact transfers and one of his best recruiting classes in recent memory to a roster that returns three starters from a 29-win season.

The most significant addition is probably former five-star recruit Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-foot-9 Kentucky transfer hoping for a Kelly Olynyk-esque jump after redshirting last season. Wiltjer, an inside-outside threat with a lethal 3-point shot, should start at power forward and provide a perfect complement to physical 7-footer Przemek Karnowski, who does all his damage with his back to the basket in the paint.

The other key transfer is 6-foot-5 wing Byron Wesley, a three-year starter at USC who averaged a team-high 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds this past season. Wesley should start in the backcourt alongside returning standouts Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and potentially shores up a traditional area of weakness for the Zags. Few has developed many skilled big men and quality guards, but Gonzaga has often lacked a small forward with high-major athleticism who is capable of both creating his own shot and defending the opposing team's top perimeter threat.

Though none of Gonzaga's incoming freshmen are likely to start, several could make immediate contributions off the bench.

Slick-passing four-star point guard Josh Perkins likely will spell Pangos or play alongside him, relieving him of ball handling duties the same way David Stockton did in previous years. And 6-foot-11 Domantis Sabonis, the son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis, is a polished, skilled forward with high-level experience, having played in Spain's top division last season.

Assuming the newcomers meet expectations and Pangos and Bell avoid the nagging injuries that have hampered them in the past, Gonzaga has a chance to match its exploits of two years ago when it won 30-plus games and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Of course, that team famously fell to Wichita State in the round of 32, an outcome that added to the Zags' reputation as March underachievers and increased the pressure on future teams to avoid such early-round flame outs.

Of the other upper-echelon teams in the WCC this year, BYU probably has the best chance to capitalize if Gonzaga unexpectedly falters.

Reigning WCC player of the year Tyler Haws highlights an excellent backcourt that also includes versatile Kyle Collinsworth, one of the only players in the nation to lead his team in both rebounds (8.1 per game) and assists (4.6). The question will be whether the Cougars have enough frontcourt talent to replace standout freshman Eric Mika, who left for a two-year Mormon mission. Defensive-minded 7-footer Nate Austin should start at one spot, while the candidates at the other spot include sophomore Luke Worthington, UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes and freshman Isaac Neilson.

The third contender is Saint Mary's, which finished a disappointing 11-7 in league play last season but hopes the combination of all-conference big man Brad Waldow and a few high-major transfers can fuel a bounce-back season. Ex-Minnesota guard Joe Coleman is a 6-4 slashing wing who should start and provide much-needed perimeter scoring, while ex-Stanford point guard Aaron Bright and ex-Washington forward Desmond Simmons also should contribute heavily.

The teams with the best chance to crack the top three in the WCC besides Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's are Portland, San Francisco and San Diego. Portland returns seven of its top eight players from a team that climbed in the standings last year, San Diego has one of the league's best and most exciting backcourts and San Francisco returns three starters from a team that finished tied for second with BYU a year ago. The trouble for the Dons is that the graduation of all-WCC forward Cole Dickerson and the transfer of Avry Holmes could be tough to replace.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Johnny Dee, San Diego. The 6-foot senior led the nation in free throw shooting last season at 93.9 percent and is already the Torereros' all-time leader in made 3-pointers. He hones his textbook shooting stroke every day in practice with shooting competitions against teammate and roommate Nick Kerr, the son of former Chicago Bulls shooter extraordinaire Steve Kerr.

Tyler Haws (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Haws (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Best playmaker:

Christopher Anderson, San Diego. In a league loaded with quality point guards last season, the best playmaker was 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 5.9 assists per game last season the best in the WCC, he also posted a league-best 2.25-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Best defender: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. No WCC big man intimidates opposing players around the rim more than Karnowski. Gonzaga's Polish 7-footer blocked 7 shots in a late-December victory over Saint Mary's last season and smothered all-conference Gaels big man Brad Waldow with his size and length in two of the three matchups between the rivals last year. He also chipped in 7.1 rebounds per game last season. 
Top NBA prospect: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. Buried behind Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Sam Dower in the Gonzaga rotation as a freshman, Karnowski assumed a far bigger role as a sophomore. The 7-foot-1 center averaged 10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and shot 59.3 percent from the floor. He's hardly a lock for the NBA — he's foul-prone, his free throw shooting is an abomination and he can generously be described as "lumbering" rather than "athletic" — but at his size, with the ability to score over either shoulder, he'll get a look.
Best backcourt: BYU. Choosing between San Diego, Gonzaga and BYU isn't easy, but the nod goes to the Cougars assuming Kyle Collinsworth returns from his ACL tear at a similar level to last season. WCC player of the year Tyler Haws averaged the third-most points in the nation last season without sacrificing efficiency, the versatile Collinsworth can defend four positions and was among the WCC's leaders in scoring, rebounding and assists and Anson Winder is a solid defender who finished last season strong. Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer also could contribute because of his outside shooting prowess. 
Best frontcourt: Gonzaga. What's exciting about Gonzaga's frontcourt is not just the talent and skill but how well the pieces fit together. Karnowski is a physical back-to-the-basket center who thrives around the rim. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer is a classic inside-outside threat who's most comfortable shooting from the perimeter but spent much of his redshirt year working on scoring around the rim. And 6-foot-11 freshman Domantas Sabonis, son of former NBA big man Arvydas Sabonis, gives the Zags another promising big man off the bench.
Best recruiting class: It's Gonzaga, and it's not even close. Sabonis is a skilled, polished forward who should have little trouble adjusting to high-level college basketball after playing in Spain's first division for a full season. Josh Perkins is a four-star point guard with excellent court vision and a knack for making sensational passes. Both should receive immediate playing time off the bench, as perhaps could fellow freshman Silas Melson.
Coach on the rise: Rex Walters, San Francisco. In a league with a clear separation between Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's and everyone else over the years, it's difficult for other coaches to keep their jobs, let alone ascend in the industry. Santa Clara's Kerry Keating and Portland's Eric Reveno have enjoyed fleeting success in the past, but the coach that has accomplished the most of late is Walters. The WCC's reigning coach of the year led the Dons to a 13-5 league record last season and to 20-win seasons two of the past three years, though frequent player defections have hurt his perception.
Coach on the hot seat: There's no WCC coach whose job is clearly on the line this season, but San Diego's Bill Grier and Portland's Eric Reveno probably don't want to chance it by back-sliding too far. Grier received a contract extension in June after leading  San Diego to the quarterfinals of the third-tier CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Reveno enjoyed success early in his tenure at Portland but had fallen on hard times before the Pilots overcame injuries to win seven league games last season and offer hope of a return to prominence this season.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Mike Dunlap (LMU)
Regular-season winner last season: Gonzaga
Tourney winner last season: Gonzaga
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2013-14: 9th, 2012-13: 10th, 2011-12: 11th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 7 (Gonzaga 3, Saint Mary's 2, BYU 2)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!