O26 Power 13: WCC Teams Reign Supreme

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 8th, 2016

With the start of the regular season now just a few days away, it’s time to examine the O26 programs we think will shine in 2016-17. The school atop this list should come as no surprise.

1. Gonzaga  West Coast. No Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 PPG) or Domantas Sabonis (17.6 PPG, 11.8 RPG) this year? No problem. Like a true power program, Gonzaga simply reloads, adding three high-major transfers — guard Jordan Mathews (California), forward Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) — along with several elite recruits to an already-talented lineup. Williams-Goss, a second team All-Pac-12 performer in 2014-15, should be a legitimate contender for WCC Player of the Year, while Mathews (41.6% 3FG in 2015-16), Williams (7.1 RPG in 2014-15), and McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins add scoring pop and defensive strength to the roster. With guard Josh Perkins (4.1 APG), rim-protector Przemek Karnowski (now healthy) and several other contributors back in the fold, Gonzaga’s ceiling appears higher than ever.

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary's meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

2. Saint Mary’s — West Coast. Based purely on returning production, Saint Mary’s should probably top this list. The Gaels welcome back everyone from a unit that ranked 17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, including All-WCC point guard Emmett Naar (121.6 Offensive Rating) and forward Dane Pineau (126.2 Offensive Rating), arguably the league’s two most effective players at their positions. But really, the offense is everywhere. Forwards Even Fitzner (8.7 PPG) and Calvin Hermanson (10.9 PPG) each shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc on 130-plus attempts. Joe Rahon (10.7 PPG, 4.5 PPG, 5.4 APG) is among the most versatile guards in the conference. Center Jock Landale — one of five Aussies on the roster — scored 8.0 PPG in just 14.5 minutes per game last season, and should see more of the court this year. This might be Randy Bennett’s best team yet in Moraga.

3. Rhode Island — Atlantic 10. Scoring was an issue last season largely because of the absence of shooting guard E.C. Matthews (16.9 PPG), who tore his ACL is last year’s season opener.  He’s now back, along with guards Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett (26.1 PPG combined in 2015-16), and frontcourt stalwarts Hassan Martin (2.5 BPG) and Kuran Iverson (7.1 RPG). The powerful, athletic Martin has ranked among the top 25 nationally in block percentage in each of the last two seasons. His presence — along with Terrell and Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson on the perimeter — should keep Rhode Island’s defense among the Atlantic 10’s best. Expect Matthews to help the offense catch up, and look for the Rams to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 1999. Rhode Island’s ranking in the AP Top 25 is well-deserved.

4. San Diego State — Mountain West. Like Rhode Island, San Diego State’s offense has struggled in recent years to keep pace with its stifling defense. The Aztecs were college basketball’s fourth-best defensive unit last season, but didn’t even crack the top 150 on the other end and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. With guards Trey Kell (12.6 PPG) and Jeremy Hemsley (12.0 PPG) back, along with talented wing Malik Pope and a pair of incoming transfers — former Missouri slasher Montaque Gill-Caesar (9.0 PPG) and Indiana transplant Max Hoetzel — Steve Fisher hopes to increase the tempo this season. If that results in considerable offensive improvement, San Diego State has second-weekend potential.

The return of Hans Brase is just one reason to like Princeton this season. (Courtesy: Princeton Athletic Communications)

The return of Hans Brase is just one reason to like Princeton this season. (Courtesy: Princeton Athletic Communications)

5. Princeton — Ivy. Sporting a top-40 RPI ranking, Princeton quietly earned some fringe NCAA Tournament at-large consideration last March. If everything pans out this year, the Tigers should receive more serious consideration. Almost the entire roster remains intact, including three seniors — Henry Caruso, Spencer Weisz, and Steven Cook — who each garnered all-conference honors. Caruso ranked among the league’s top 15 players in countless offensive and defensive efficiency categories, and should compete for Ivy League Player of the Year. Sophomore shooting guard Devin Cannady (11.6 PPG), an explosive scorer off the bench, has all-Ivy potential as well. And the kicker? Mitch Henderson has an ace in the hole: Hans Brase (11.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), a 6’9″ stretch-four, returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

6. Dayton — Atlantic 10. Rhode Island may have cracked the Top 25 this preseason, but Dayton was the media’s pick to win the Atlantic 10. And for good reason. Not only do the Flyers return all-conference guards Charles Cooke (15.6 PPG) and Scoochie Smith (11.7 PPG, 4.3 APG), but at some point the track record simply commands respect — Archie Miller’s teams have won 25+ games and reached the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row. With Bradley transfer Josh Cunningham (7.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) shoring up the frontcourt alongside Kendall Pollard (10.3 PPG), Miller has the depth, versatility, and experience he needs for another March run.

7. Wichita State — Missouri Valley. Just because Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are now in the NBA doesn’t mean the Shockers are doomed to fall off the map. Not with Gregg Marshall still at the helm, and not with the amount of talent he has returning. Former Kansas point guard Conner Frankamp should provide a steady hand in VanVleet’s stead. Wing Markis McDuffie (7.4 PPG), the team’s best two-way player, figures to see a considerable uptick in minutes and production after winning MVC Freshman of the Year honors. Junior forwards Shaq Morris, Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly and Rauno Nurger, along with 6’9″ JuCo transfer Darral Willis Jr., make up what is probably the league’s deepest frontcourt. If Marshall can get his talented-but-green unit to play angry, Wichita State will hardly miss a beat.

Mo Alie-Cox is back, which should scare just about everyone in the Atlantic 10. (theblacksheeponline.com)

Mo Alie-Cox is back, which should scare everyone in the Atlantic 10. (theblacksheeponline.com)

8. Virginia Commonwealth — Atlantic 10. Replacing Melvin Johnson’s offensive production (17.4 PPG) will not be an easy task — the 6’4″ guard accounted for a whopping 43 percent of the team’s long-range scoring last season. Luckily, the Rams have plenty of “breakout” potential scattered across the roster. While JeQuan Lewis (11.3 PPG) should become the team’s go-to scoring weapon, look for point guard Jonathan Williams (3.9 PPG) — or even seniors Jordan Burgess and Doug Brooks — to pick up some of the offensive slack. Likewise, expect forward Justin Tillman (7.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG) — already an exceptional offensive and defensive rebounder — to see more minutes, and more buckets, down low. Even if the offense does take a step back, VCU should remain among the Atlantic 10’s best by virtue of its bruising defense. Brooks, the nation’s biggest thief on a per-possession basis (6.8% steal rate), and power forward Mo Alie-Cox (1.9 BPG) are sure to keep HAVOC humming along.

9. Brigham Young — West Coast. Bad news: BYU must replace Kyle Collinsworth, the NCAA’s all-time triple-double leader and a guy who led the WCC in assists and steals, ranked third in rebounding, and dominated in a number of efficiency categories. Good news: leading scorer Nick Emery (16.3 PPG) is back, along with high-flying big man Eric Mika (11.8 PPG, 6.4 PPG in 2013-14), who spent the last two years on an LDS mission. The Cougars also add Elon transfer and former CAA Rookie of the Year Elijah Bryant, a 6’5″ guard who should immediately help fill the void left by Collinsworth.

10. Valparaiso — Horizon. Despite the departure of head coach Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt, Alec Peters (18.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG) chose to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to Valparaiso this season. That fact alone puts the Crusaders on this list. A dynamic 6’9″ wing, Peters’ ability to score from anywhere and over anybody should at the very least keep the Crusaders atop the Horizon League standings. Depending on how players like Tevonn Walker (8.6 PPG) and former LSU transfer Shane Hammink (8.8 PPG) perform in larger roles, the ceiling could be higher. The biggest question mark is whether anyone can fill the defensive void left by 6’10” center Vashil Fernandez, who posted the nation’s best block rate (14.3% block rate). Derrik Smits, the 7’1″ son of Pacers great Rik Smits, might be the best bet.

Justin Robinson and the Hawks might have a few more upsets of their sleeves. (Photo by Taylor Jackson)

Justin Robinson and the Hawks might have a few more upsets of their sleeves. (Photo by Taylor Jackson)

11. Monmouth — Metro Atlantic. The bench mob is back, and so is MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson. The diminutive guard is a relentless, often-heroic scorer (19.3 PPG) with quick hands to match — Robinson led the league with 2.2 steals per game. He’ll be flanked by an experienced lineup that includes MAAC Rookie of the Year Micah Seaborn (13.2 PPG), former Oklahoma guard Je’lon Hornbeak (8.9 PPG), and 6’10” forward Chris Brady, who posted the conference’s second-highest block rate (7.76% block rate). After beating UCLA,  Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown last season, the Hawks’ upcoming trips to South Carolina (November 15) and Syracuse (November 18) seem less daunting.

12. UT-Arlington — Sun Belt. Kevin Hervey (18.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG) was having a massive season last year before tearing his ACL in warmups on January 21. The 6’7″ forward logged nine double-doubles in 16 games, including a 22-point, 11-rebound performance in a win at Memphis and a 15-point, 15-rebound effort in an overtime loss at Texas. And yet, even without him, the Mavericks still went 24-11 and finished third in the Sun Belt. With Hervey healthy and nearly everyone else back from last year’s roster, UT Arlington has Cinderella written all over it.

13. Harvard — Ivy. Because Harvard finished below .500 last season, we won’t give it the benefit of the doubt over the 12 teams listed above. But from a talent standpoint, though, this team absolutely belongs in this group. Not only does all-conference point guard Siyani Chambers return after missing all of 2015-16, but Tommy Amaker added what might be best freshman recruiting class in Ivy League history. Throw in one of the premier rebounders in college basketball, Zena Edosomwan (13.1 PPG, 9.9 RPG), and there’s no questioning this team’s ceiling. It’s really, really high.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Akron (Mid-American); Belmont (Ohio Valley); Chattanooga (Southern Conference); Davidson (Atlantic 10); George Washington (Atlantic 10); Long Beach State (Big West); Middle Tennessee State (Conference USA); Nevada (Mountain West); Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley); UNC Wilmington (Colonial); UAB (Conference USA).

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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