Challengers to the Throne

A couple of WCC squads might have a shot at the Zags

The Gonzaga Bulldogs enter the season ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and are the overwhelming favorite in the West Coast Conference. But that doesn't mean the Zags can coast to yet another WCC title.

Preseason hype and a roster loaded with talent doesn't change the path the Zags must take to March. Brigham Young and Saint Mary's haven't gone anywhere, and road games will be as dangerous as always. So what's out there for the Bulldogs to trip on?

BYU is the team best positioned to challenge Gonzaga for the top spot in the conference standings.

Tyler Haws, the 2014 WCC Player of the Year, is back for his senior season. Haws has scored more than 750 points in each of the last two years. If he does that again, he'll be nearly 100 points clear of Jimmer Fredette for first place on the Cougars' all-time scoring list.

While Haws' scoring prowess is scary, the Cougars' ability to threaten the Zags is made more viable by the presence of do-it-all junior guard Kyle Collinsworth. If he's fully recovered from an ACL tear, which he suffered against Gonzaga in last season's WCC championship game, the Cougars have a backcourt on par with Gonzaga's.

Archrival Saint Mary's has fallen behind Gonzaga and BYU in the two seasons since winning both the regular season and tournament titles. The once Aussie-dominated roster is now, much like Gonzaga's, filled with highly touted transfers from major-conference programs. Joe Coleman transferred from Minnesota, Aaron Bright from Stanford and Desmond Simmons from Washington. Not to be forgotten is all-WCC senior forward Brad Waldow, who last season kept alive the tradition of Gaels wearing absurdly visible mouth protection.

Dethroning Gonzaga is likely just a pipe dream for the remaining seven teams in the conference. But by virtue of their home court, experience or coaching staff, three of those seven have a legitimate shot at hanging a loss on the Zags.

From 2010 to 2012, the Zags were unable to pick up a win at the University of San Francisco's War Memorial Gymnasium. While they've managed to win two straight at San Francisco since then, the Zags will have to face what could be Rex Walters' best Dons squad yet — and last season's Dons finished tied for second in the conference standings. Gonzaga plays at War Memorial on Feb. 7.

Portland, my pick as this year's WCC sleeper team, knows what it takes to pull off an upset. Last season's Pilots upset both Gonzaga and BYU in Portland. Eric Reveno's team returns four of the five starters from those games. The Zags make the short trip down to Portland on Jan. 3.

Former Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier led San Diego to a win over the Zags late last season. The Toreros will get additional insider information from Grier's assistant Kyle Bankhead, who played for Gonzaga from 2000-04. San Diego hosts Gonzaga on Dec. 29 and comes to Spokane on Feb. 26. ♦

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