Sunday, July 21, 2024

Why Saint Mary’s was picked over perennial favorite Gonzaga to win 2023-24 West Coast Conference championship

For the first time since the 2017-18 season, a team other than Gonzaga has been picked to finish atop the West Coast Conference in the league’s preseason poll. Saint Mary’s edged the Zags 61-60 in total points in the coaches poll, announced Thursday. The Gaels received five first-place votes while the Bulldogs received four.

The results come after the rival programs finished tied atop the league standings last season before Gonzaga edged Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament Championship Game. Gonzaga proceeded to make the Elite Eight — marking its sixth consecutive run to the Sweet 16 or beyond — but is losing program legend Drew Timme and two other starters.

Saint Mary’s returns first-team All-WCC performers Aidan Mahaney and Mitchell Saxen from a team that earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament before being eliminated in the second round. The Gaels have been a consistent challenger to the Zags under longtime coach Randy Bennett, and the the coaches poll underscores the strong standing of Saint Mary’s entering the 2023-24 season. Bennett has posted a 53-16 (26-5 WCC) record over the past two seasons while earning consecutive No. 5 seeds for the Big Dance.

While the coaches poll is a ringing endorsement for Saint Mary’s from the peers of Bennett and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, it’s also a sign of the uncertainty the Zags face entering Few’s 25th season. 

Gonzaga’s new faces

Gonzaga landed the No. 10 transfer class, according to 247Sports. The group is headlined by former Creighton point guard Ryan Nembhard, who was the No. 6 player in the 2023 CBS Sports transfer rankings. It also includes No. 34 transfer Graham Ike, who was one of the best bigs in the Mountain West at Wyoming during the 2021-22 season before missing last year due to injury. Former Big Sky Player of the Year Steele Venters, who shot 40.3% from 3-point range last year at Eastern Washington, rounds out the class.

While the veteran trio makes for a solid influx of talent, the Zags are entering a new era without Timme, who was an essential part of the lineup for four seasons. The three-time All-American left as Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer after averaging career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (7.5), assists (3.2) and blocks (1.0) last season.

With No. 2 scorer Julian Strawther and No. 4 scorer Rasir Bolton also departed, Few must mix a blend of returners, led by fifth-year forward Anton Watson and junior guard Nolan Hickman, with the incoming transfers and a group of newcomers that includes players from Croatia, Serbia and South Korea.

The Saint Mary’s precedent

Though it’s rare for anyone other than Gonzaga to be picked to finish atop the WCC, last season’s shared regular-season title between the Zags and Gaels was not unprecedented. The teams also split the regular-season title in 2016, and the Gaels won the league outright in 2012. Saint Mary’s also won the WCC Tournament in 2010, 2012 and 2019, providing brief interruptions to Gonzaga’s steady stream of WCC dominance.

The teams are scheduled to play regular-season games on Feb. 4 and Feb. 25, 2024. 

2023-24 WCC preseason poll

1. Saint Mary’s (5)
2. Gonzaga (4)
3. San Francisco
4. Loyola-Marymount
5. Santa Clara
6. Portland
7. Pepperdine
8. Pacific
9. San Diego

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