Will there ever be another streak like Gonzaga's in the WCC?
Now that Gonzaga's streak of 11 consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season titles has been snapped (congratulations, Saint Mary's), it seems like a good time to ask whether Mark Few's Bulldogs or anyone else can ever record such a streak again.
Step one: Win the WCC this season. The Zags should be in good shape there. With Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and Sam Dower leading the way, Gonzaga figures to be not only the class of the WCC but also a legitimate threat to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. I wrote about the Zags just a few weeks ago, so I'll be brief on this subject. Bottom line: Few has the pieces in place to start a new streak of WCC titles.
Not that Saint Mary's and Brigham Young are going to roll over and play dead. The Gaels are, after all, the defending champs, and Matthew Dellavedova is still, well, Matthew Dellavedova. Nor is the cupboard exactly bare at BYU: Brandon Davies made 52 percent of his twos while carrying a featured scorer's load on offense, Matt Carlino had a freshman season that screamed "potential" for a point guard, and Brock Zylstra has the not to be underrated ability to get the ball into the basket (albeit in a limited role). The teams you see in Moraga and Provo this season will be very good, but "very good" likely won't cut it against Gonzaga in 2012-13.
So that's the good news for fans in Spokane. A new streak of Gonzaga West Coast Conference titles is likely to start up at "one in a row" in 2013. The bad news? At the risk of being overly specific, there is absolutely no way the Zags or anyone else will ever win 11 titles in a row again in this league. Or five, or even four, for that matter. The WCC front office saw to that when they brought BYU into the league last season.
The Cougars were a clear third-place team last season, both in the standings and in terms of per-possession performance. But what we saw in 2011-12 was actually a little misleading. BYU surely wanted to make a good impression on their new conference, but, coincidentally enough, that was arguably the weakest team we've seen come out of Provo in the last four years. Over the long haul, however, this BYU program projects to be in the mix more or less year in and year out, for the Cougars have actually rated out as stronger, on average, than Saint Mary's over the past 10 years.
Gonzaga's incredible streak was a function of their performance and of the level of competition they faced. The Zags' performance is staying as strong as ever, but the competition became much tougher with the addition of BYU. The days of 11-season streaks are over.
Who will win player of the year?
Start with the defending champ. Reigning West Coast POY Matthew Dellavedova is still alive and well and hooping it up at Saint Mary's. Where the subject is "scoring point guards," you can watch a lot of basketball before you'll see what Dellavedova was able to do on offense last season. But, other things being equal, WCC voters don't seem to like choosing the same guy two seasons in a row. (Last player to win back-to-back WCC POYs? Steve Nash.) Mindful of that history, I'm going with Elias Harris at Gonzaga.
Harris has disappointed some observers simply by still being in college. After a sensational dunk-filled freshman season, it was widely thought he'd be at the next level by now. But the 6-8 senior has used his time on campus well. Harris has always been able to make shots from both sides of the arc, but now he helps the Zags on D as well with his outstanding defensive rebounding. That combination will win him this season's WCC POY award.
Which team could surprise?
Everybody's going to say "San Diego" in answer to this question. The Toreros have all five starters back. (Though that's actually misleading. Darian Norris made 15 starts as a senior last season, and ranked third on the team in minutes.) And Bill Grier's team is clearly on an upward trajectory. But I'm picking Santa Clara as my surprise team.
Yes, Santa Clara, the same bunch that went 0-16 in WCC play last season. (You have to admit, the potential for surprise here is huge.) Coach Kerry Keating was missing two key pieces last season. Marc Trasolini was out the whole year with a torn ACL, and Kevin Foster was suspended after five games. Both players are back, and they'll join Evan Rocquemore to form a Broncos team that will surprise people by being competitive. You heard it here first.
Who's the league's top newcomer?
Define "newcomer." We've seen Tyler Haws before, we've even seen Tyler Haws in a BYU uniform before, but we've never seen Tyler Haws in the West Coast Conference before. Haws is back in Provo after serving a two-year LDS mission. As a freshman in 2009-10, he put together the kind of shooting percentages that don't happen in real life, much less in a freshman's real life. Playing a supporting role alongside a guy named Jimmer, the 6-5 Haws hit 37 percent of his threes. That's merely "good," of course, but it was the worst number we saw from a guy who also hit 54 percent of his twos and an incredible 92 percent of his free throws. That suggests to me that Haws will be one impressive quote-unquote "newcomer" this season as a quote-unquote "sophomore."
How many NCAA tournament bids will the conference secure?
Three: Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, and BYU. This is a safe bet for the foreseeable future. There are six teams in the WCC besides the Bulldogs, Gaels, and Cougars. Those six teams have combined to play 60 seasons of basketball over the past 10 years. And in those 60 seasons those teams have finished in the top 100 of the Pomeroy ratings a total of three times: San Diego in 2003 (No. 81), Santa Clara in 2007 (No. 80), and Portland in 2010 (No. 90). In other words, on average those teams will produce a top-100 year one out of every 20 seasons they combine to play. There are no certainties in college hoops, but "number of bids given to the WCC" comes pretty close.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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