October 29, 2020 

West Coast Conference preview: Gonzaga, as usual

A look at the conference, team-by-team, including number of twins on each roster

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Jenn Wirth celebrates during a game at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington. (Photo: Gonzaga Women’s Basketball on Twitter)

I don’t know how many times I’ve started a West Coast Conference piece with something along the lines of “Gonzaga is the team to beat.” But here we are, a month out from a new season, and despite a pandemic wreaking havoc on the world, one thing has remained constant: Gonzaga is — officially — the team to beat, so says the WCC preseason poll, out Tuesday.

After “Gonzaga is the team to beat,” though, comes the “but.” Gonzaga is the team to beat, but will injuries hamper their ascent once again? Gonzaga is the team to beat, but will the lack of a strong non-conference start (if there is one) leave them outside the top 25 and dampen their confidence?

Most assuredly, though: Gonzaga is the team to beat, but so are BYU and Portland. (And who knows who else? But we’ll get to that.)

The Cougars and Pilots followed the Zags in the poll, with Gonzaga picking up seven first-place votes, BYU nabbing two and Portland, the unlikely defending tournament champion, getting the last one. All three schools have multiple representatives on the 11-player All-WCC Preseason Team — BYU has the most, with three — but there’s a stark contrast between what Gonzaga offers and what BYU and Portland offer: star players at the end of their careers, versus star players with time to grow.

Let’s work our way through the preseason poll, team by team, and learn more about what each has to offer.

1. Gonzaga

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Jill Townsend (2020 Player of the Year), Jenn Wirth

Sets of twins: 2

For years, Gonzaga has thrived on its ability to put together a team not necessarily of stars, but of players that fit well together, and younger bench players that can get meaningful minutes so that when they’re called to start, they’ll know exactly what to expect.

Still, they’ll have a senior-heavy starting five this season, with Townsend and both Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, with the potential of adding 2019 transfer Cierra Walker to the mix. Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong, now sophomores, should get some valuable time — Kayleigh started the last eight games last season after the team lost Katie Campbell to injury — as should junior Melody Kempton.

Depth has always been important to the Zags. It’s what got them to the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament — and nearly to the Sweet 16 — in the face of two key injuries, and it’s what allows them to build a powerful team every single season. But will it be enough against the star power that’s coming from below them?

2. BYU

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Sara Hamson (2020 Defensive Player of the Year), Shaylee Gonzales, Paisley Johnson Harding

Sets of twins: 0

Hamson and Johnson Harding are undoubtedly BYU’s top returners — from 2019-20, that is. Because Gonzales, the 2019 Newcomer of the Year who was out with a knee injury all last season, is back, and that’s your headline.

As a freshman, Gonzales averaged 17 points per game (third-best in the conference) and finished in the top 10 in assists and the top 20 in rebounds. It was clear how much she was missed offensively last season, as BYU plunged from sixth in offense to last, from third to eighth in field goal percentage and even from second to fourth in assists. The Cougars finished tied for second in the conference with San Diego (who won the tiebreaker for tournament seeding), but were never truly in a position to challenge for the top spot occupied by the Zags.

With Gonzales back, though, their projected No. 2 finish feels even more doable. She’s already proven her might against the best in the conference, averaging 18.7 points against Gonzaga in BYU’s three-win sweep in 2019. Bring her into the fold of a team that still managed to hang near the top without her help, and the Cougars will no doubt be back challenging for the title.

3. Portland

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Alex Fowler (2020 Newcomer of the Year), Haylee Andrews

Sets of twins: 1

If there’s one WCC team that personifies youthful success, without a doubt it’s Portland.

While four of the five Gonzaga and BYU representatives on the all-conference team are seniors, Fowler is a sophomore and Andrews is a junior. And while that means big things for the Pilots’ future, it also meant big things last season, as the pair finished first and fourth, respectively, in scoring. Portland itself had the best offense in terms of both points per game and field goal percentage, and also led the conference in assists.

The Pilots also have perhaps the most interesting combination of newcomers, including McKelle Meek (head coach Michael Meek’s daughter), New Zealand youth national team member Emme Shearer, twins Jacksen and Tyler McCliment-Call and Rose Pflug, a 2019 transfer from Pepperdine who will have two years of eligibility left. With their base already so solid, adding so much firepower to the backcourt (and a variety of different heights) looks to see the Pilots as immediate contenders, rather than late-season spoilers.

4. San Diego

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Myah Pace

Sets of twins: One-half (Laura Erikstrup’s twin plays for Arizona State)

Although San Diego found itself on the losing end of its second WCC title game in three seasons, there was still a lot to like. Led by 2020 Coach of the Year Cindy Fisher, the Toreros were one of the nation’s top defensive teams, finishing in the top 25 nationally in steals and turnover margin (both topped the WCC). For a conference that thrives on defense, fitting into that mold only makes success come more readily.

The Toreros are down two big starters, but return experience in the form of three full-time starters: Jordyn Edwards, Sydney Hunter and Myah Pace. Pace, a senior who was named to the All-WCC First Team, played the sixth-most minutes in the conference last season and was second in steals per game.

Like Gonzaga, San Diego’s offense is more of a collective effort rather than relying on stars for big numbers — the Toreros’ top four scorers last season all finished between 17th and 28th in the conference, all contributing 9.5 to 11.9 points per game. But with two of those players having graduated, the key to ensuring that lockdown defense can keep producing wins is ensuring that the missing scoring is made up.

5. Saint Mary’s

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Sam Simons

Sets of twins: 0

Before any in-depth discussion about Saint Mary’s can take place, it must be acknowledged that junior Sam Simons, far and away the Gaels’ most reliable player, has indicated she may not play in 2020-21 due to concerns about COVID-19.

With Simons, the Gaels finished first in 3-pointers per game and second in 3-point percentage, and her 22 points (including 5-of-5 from beyond the arc) helped them upset Gonzaga in February. Simons was also the conference’s third-best scorer, solidified by a run to end the season where in four of eight games, she scored 22 or more points.

If the team has to move on without Simons this winter, it’s still not an ideal situation, but it’s a manageable one. Saint Mary’s returns plenty of experience beyond Simons in four players who started 18 or more games, two of whom averaged more than 12 points per game. But as a team, the Gaels (including Simons) were near the bottom of the pack defensively, so a lessened offensive output could spell trouble down the line.

6. Pacific

Players on preseason all-WCC team: Valerie Higgins, Brooklyn McDavid

Sets of twins: 0

Though Pacific lost two starters and a key substitute to graduation, returning three starters — including two preseason standouts who were also All-WCC first teamers — still means having a leg up on some competition.

Like Portland, the Tigers’ two stars also finished in the top 10 in scoring last season, as Higgins was second in the WCC with 16.5 points per game, while McDavid’s 14.5 was good for seventh. The pair also both finished in the top 12 in rebounding and the top 10 in field goal percentage.

So, considering the star power, why sixth place? Well, it was a close sixth place, just two points shy of Saint Mary’s, but perhaps Pacific’s main shortcoming is its inconsistency. Playing to the level of their opponents can be great, like when the team fell at Gonzaga by just one point in January. The Tigers shot 44.4% in one of their best-shooting conference games of the season, but the very next game, at home against BYU, they shot 32% and lost by 10 points. Their 9-9 conference record was, indeed, emblematic of their up-and-down ride through the season.

(Reader, imagine an unofficial section break here. These teams don’t have players on the all-WCC team, so instead, highlighted are areas where they excelled last season.)

7. Pepperdine

Where it performed above its weight: Blocks, steals, turnover margin, offensive rebounds

Sets of twins: 1

Call it another rebuilding year for Pepperdine. After finishing No. 3 in the conference and making the third round of the 2019 WNIT behind star Yasmine Robinson-Bacote’s stellar play, the Waves fell to sixth place after last season. Now, down seven players from last season’s roster and returning just five players who saw regular action, the future (which includes seven new players) could be bright — but it may take a while.

Still, the Waves’ tenacity makes for bright spots on offense and defense, as they landed in the top half of the conference in all the above statistical areas. The good news this season is that they’re getting some height — last season, they had two players over 6’0; now, they’re both welcoming four freshmen and transfers at that height or taller, plus welcoming back the 6’4 Hayley Duren and 6’5 Tara Dusharm from injuries that kept them out of last season.

Whatever Pepperdine looks like this season, it’ll be a lot of getting to know one another as they work toward the top of the table once again.

8. Loyola Marymount

Where it performed above its weight: Blocks, offensive rebounds

Sets of twins: 0

Between returning two senior and two sophomore starters from last season and adding a handful of experienced transfers, LMU is both building for the short term and allowing their younger players to get meaningful experience so they can take over when it’s their time.

But first, potentially, some waiting. With the uncertainty of how COVID-19 will affect the season factoring into whether some teams pursue transfer waivers, it remains to be seen whether two of the Lions’ big transfers, Cassandra Gordon from Georgetown and Ariel Johnson from Florida, will see the court this season.

Aquira DeCosta, who transferred from Baylor in November, is eligible and looks to make an impact right away. She boiled down her decision to leave one of the country’s best teams to a matter of being with a program that needed her, not just one that wanted her. A redshirt sophomore, DeCosta has plenty of room to grow and bring LMU — who finished last in 2019-20 — with her.

9. Santa Clara

Where it performed above its weight: Scoring, assists, 3-pointers

Sets of twins: 0

Similar to Pepperdine, Santa Clara sees a handful of key starters return, not much regular game experience remaining on the bench and many departures — eight, in fact. While those losses will be partially balanced out by the addition of five freshmen (ranging in height from 5’6 to 6’7), they’ll also get the services of UCLA transfer Shayley Harris, who sat out last season.

The Broncos finished among the WCC’s top three in points per game, assists and 3-pointers, but all that offense didn’t help them on the other end of the floor, where they ranked near the bottom in most categories. But a fresh start offers a new perspective on the game, and the addition of two players 6’6 or taller could bolster their play in those areas.

10. San Francisco

Where it performed above its weight: Rebounding

Sets of twins: 1

I referred to the Dons as “Lucky No. 10” in a tweet shortly after the poll came out, referring to the fact that, well, the defending tournament champion was also picked to finish in last place before they made their ascent.

There’s certainly room to grow, the whims of the preseason poll aside. San Francisco returns four starters, but not only that, it welcomes back three players who took redshirt seasons last year: 3-point ace Marta Galic, rising talent Marianna Klavina and hot shooter Lucija Kostic. All three have international experience in their respective home countries, and Galic and Kostic especially seemed sorely missed in 2019-20.

While upperclassmen rule the more recent returners, each of that trio has three seasons of eligibility remaining, preparing the Dons for a future of success — it’s only been four years since it won its last WCC title, after all.

In the end, if there’s one thing to take away from a WCC preseason poll, it’s that not much is for sure. Gonzaga has been picked first in the last seven of them, but while they’ve won the conference every time but once, they’ve won the tournament three times in that span, and not since 2018. Chances are, someone will be ready to stand in their way when the time comes.

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