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PROVO — In 12 years in the Mountain West Conference BYU produced six league regular-season championships, one tournament title, and another four appearances in the tournament final.
Two seasons and 14 games into their West Coast Conference affiliation, the Cougars are still looking to establish themselves as consistent contenders.
Seeking to boost its at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament in March, BYU loaded its non-conference portion of the 2013-14 schedule with contests against three undefeated and currently top 13 teams in the country — one of which made the 2013 Final Four — and added another versus No. 24 UMass.
The result of the so-called preseason was an 8-5 mark, which isn’t shabby considering the Cougars lost all four games against ranked adversaries by an average of seven points.
An unexpected loss to open conference play at Loyola Marymount has fans uneasy, but the depth of the WCC as a whole still suggests that BYU is likely to secure one of the top seeds in the league tournament.
BYU still has the top scorer in the conference in Tyler Haws (22.2 points per game) and score and assist on more baskets than any other WCC team, but is dead last in scoring defense and second to last in free-throw shooting.
The conference is better than it was last year, and the Cougars’ difficulties away from home could make this the most interesting round of WCC play yet for Dave Rose’s bunch.
Team (First Place Votes) Points
1. Gonzaga (8) 802. BYU (1) 72
3. Saint Mary's (1) 66
4. San Francisco 51
5. San Diego 50
6. Loyola Marymount 44
7. Pacific 28
8. Santa Clara 25
9. Portland 24
10. Pepperdine 10
2013-14 Preseason All-WCC Team
Gary Bell, Jr Gonzaga Jr. G
Stacy Davis Pepperdine So. F
Johnny Dee San Diego Jr. G
Cole Dickerson San Francisco Sr. F
Cody Doolin San Francisco Sr. G
Tyler Haws BYU Jr. G
Stephen Holt Saint Mary's Sr. G
Anthony Ireland Loyola Marymount Sr. G
Kevin Pangos Gonzaga Jr. G
Brad Waldow Saint Mary's Jr. F
The BestIf you asked someone outside of the western United States to identify one WCC team, it would probably be Gonzaga. Over the course of his 14 seasons at the helm in Spokane, Wash., Mark Few has led the school to 11 tournament championships.
The No. 24 Zags picked up wins of note over Washington State, New Mexico State and West Virginia prior to moving into their usual spot atop the league with a 74-60 home win against Santa Clara.
Junior Kevin Pangos leads the team with 18.2 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting and an even scarier 47.7 percent from three. It was reported Monday that third-leading scorer Gary Bell Jr. broke his hand and will be out indefinitely. Adding to the list of ailing Zags is Sam Dower, who will miss Monday’s game against San Francisco with a nagging back injury.
If Bell and/or Dower can’t go when BYU visits The New Kennel Jan. 25 it will certainly give the Cougars a greater likelihood to improve their 1-4 record against Gonzaga since joining the WCC, however, NBA scouts are salivating over 7-foot-1 sophomore Przemek Karnowski, who is more than capable of picking up the slack in their absences.
Another 30-win season isn’t out of reach for the class of the WCC.
St. Mary’s was expected to drop out of contention for the automatic berth this season, and after starting 9-0 the Gaels have mirrored the Cougars’ three-game losing streak with setbacks against South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason.
Powered by the robust 6-9, 260-pound junior Brad Waldow and his 17.1 points per game, St. Mary’s features a balanced scoring attack that consists of four additional players at or just below 40 percent shooting and double-digit scoring.
The Gaels come to Provo Feb. 1.
San Diego, the only school aside from Gonzaga and St. Mary’s to win the WCC tournament in the last 15 years, always seems to be on the cusp of challenging the traditional superpowers. This year the Toreros have struggled out of the gate to a 9-5 record while competing against mediocre competition.
Junior point guard Christopher Anderson might be the best playmaker, and fellow junior Johnny Dee and his 18.3 points a night give San Diego a fighting chance, as demonstrated when he torched the Cougars for 19 in a Toreros home win last February, but the sparse options outside of the starting five raise questions about USD’s prospects.
Middle of the Pack
BYU fans got a glimpse of the various talents Loyola Marymount senior point guard Anthony Ireland possesses, and if Evan Payne can maintain his 15.1 points per game and give the Lions range on the perimeter – like he did by hitting five 3-pointers in his 27-point performance Saturday – LMU may move from fringe challenger into one of the top four seeds in Las Vegas.
The other team to capture a home win over the Cougars last year that doesn’t have multiple WCC championships to its name is San Francisco. Head coach Rex Walters has done a remarkable job of keeping the Dons competitive despite losing six players via transfer just two seasons ago.
Monday’s game against the injury-riddled Zags will say a lot about the Dons’ potential to move into the upper echelon of the conference. It will also likely require big nights from the USF frontcourt, which, led by senior Cole Dickerson’s 14 points per game, has relied on three players that combine for 39 points. The surprise departure of point guard Cody Doolin in November likely hurts the Dons’ chances to make serious noise.
Santa Clara stuck with Gonzaga in the Broncos' conference opener, trailing by just five with seven-and-a-half minutes remaining, but, like a number of WCC schools, likely lack the depth needed to make a run at qualifying for March. Junior guard Brandon Clark often carries the offensive output at 16.3 points per game, and his promising backcourt companion – freshman Jared Brownridge – helps him shoulder the load at 14.5 points.
Newcomer Pacific is a team in transition having hired Ron Verlin to help ease the move, and the Tigers have already picked up impressive wins over Fresno State and at Utah State. A veteran group that focuses on creating efficient shots near the basket could pull off more upsets in its inaugural WCC season if its underestimated by its foes.
Portland might be one of the most difficult teams to predict where it will finish. The Pilots have been in every game this season, including a six-point loss at Oregon State and a 15-point setback at No. 5 Michigan State, though they did lose by five at home to North Texas, which BYU had no problem with.
Don’t be shocked to see junior guard Kevin Bailey (17.6 points) and the WCC’s best rebounder, senior Ryan Nicholas (13.2 points, 10.1 rebounds) keep the Pilots in games and even take some of the top dogs down to the wire.
Finally, with the Cougars hoping for a crucial bounce-back victory Monday over Pepperdine, we arrive at the team that finished with just four conference wins in each of the past two seasons. The Waves did already overcome San Diego to put themselves in position to better that total, but they’ll have their work cut out for them.
Sophomore Stacy Davis is becoming a go-to guy on the block by boasting averages of 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, and he has a qualified mentor in senior Brendan Lane, who is just behind Davis with 15.2 points. Freshman guard Jeremy Major has folks in Malibu, Calif., believing the NCAA Tournament drought since 2002 may soon be coming to an end.
The Cougars will need to be disciplined, especially in the paint, to beat the blossoming Waves. Kyle Spencer is a writer and content manager for ksl.com. You can follow him on twitter @kyledspencer.