The BYU basketball team enters year two of West Coast Conference play--and year two post-Jimmer Fredette--with a deep roster and several returning starters. But national writers say they're not the favorites for the West Coast Conference crown.
While several writers said the Cougars will challenge for the conference title, they favored defending champion Saint Mary's and perennial powerhouse Gonzaga to finish at the top.
"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," Basketball Prospectus writer Josh Gasaway wrote.
The Bulldogs face the added wrinkle of having to chase the title for the first time in 11 years after Saint Mary's victory last season.
"For the first time in years, Gonzaga will be chasing the title," ESPN's Myron Medcalf wrote. "And that’s sure to add even more oomph to what should be another three-team race between Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU."
Despite favoring the Bulldogs and Gaels, SB Nation's Mike Rutherford said BYU is better equipped to improve this year.
"The Cougars now have a feel for the WCC, and despite the loss of (Noah) Hartsock, they're probably bringing back a more complete team than the one which won a game in the NCAA Tournament a year ago," Rutherford wrote. "These factors considered, it's safe to say BYU has a better chance to finish this season first or second in the conference than it did in its debut campaign."
The key factor in the conference may be the play of Olympian Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's starting point guard and last season's WCC Player of the Year. Dellavedova is a senior this year, and if he repeats his performance, the Gaels will be a tough out.
"The senior point guard has improved his scoring numbers, assist numbers and field-goal percentage each of the past three years," wrote CBS Sports' Gary Parrish. "Assuming he does that again, he'll take home a lot of hardware."
The likely result is that the West Coast Conference will again be a three-team race, and while the Cougars aren't the favorites, conference observers say they're in the mix.
"This is a three-team race that Gonzaga, SMC or BYU could reasonably win," Parrish wrote. " and it should be noted that BYU coach Dave Rose has never finished worse than third or lost more than four games in any league in seven years as a head coach. So don't count BYU out — this year or any year to come."
NBC Sports' Raphielle Johnson predicted a third-place finish for the Cougars: "Matt Carlino’s a year older while Brandon Davies anchors things in the paint. The return of Tyler Haws will definitely help the Cougars on the wing."
"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 seasons," Gasaway wrote. "Over the long haul, however, this BYU program projects to be in the mix more or less year in and year out."
Medcalf argued that BYU will go only as far as point guard Matt Carlino can take them: "BYU will likely position itself a notch below Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s if Carlino’s erratic play continues."
As for the conference's fate come NCAA Tournament time, it's looking like the ’Zags, Gaels and Cougars can all expect a dance invite.
"Despite the mega recruiting classes pulled in by the Pac-12's Arizona and UCLA, the WCC again figures to be about as lethal at the top as any conference on the West Coast," Rutherford wrote. "A second straight season where the league sends three teams to the NCAA Tournament seems probable."
That's heartening news for BYU fans, no matter where they finish in the conference standings.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: TheShums