WCC Preview: Zags want it outright this year

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s
Jill Townsend (with ball) was the second-most efficient 3-point shooter in the WCC last year at 41.1 percent counting nonconference games. | Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 21 Gonzaga Bulldogs did not win the WCC Tournament last year after comfortably winning the regular season. This year they need to avoid a similar fate to get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, but will be going up against the improved BYU Cougars and Portland Pilots.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have finished the past two seasons ranked in the Top 16 nationally.

But due to a loss to the Oregon State Beavers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 Big Dance, the Bulldogs haven’t finished in the Top 16 the way they would like — with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

Could this be the year Gonzaga gets back there for the first time since 2015?

The Bulldogs should have high expectations nationally with the return of 2020 WCC Player of the Year Jill Townsend as well as twins Jenn Wirth and LeeAnne Wirth. But they have to take care of business in the WCC first. They’ve won the regular-season title four years in a row, but haven’t won the conference tournament since 2018. Last year they lost to the eventual tournament champion Portland Pilots by one point in the semifinals.

The Pilots return stars Alex Fowler and Haylee Andrews and were picked to finish third in the WCC, according to the league’s head coaches. They even received a first-place vote, while the No. 2 BYU Cougars received two.

Gonzaga received the seven other first-place votes, but their path to an outright WCC title (winning both the regular-season and tournament crowns) is not going to be a cakewalk because of BYU and Portland as well as the San Diego Toreros and Saint Mary’s Gaels. And if Valerie Higgins and her sparkling stats have their say, the Pacific Tigers could be in the mix as well.

Rewind: A look at where the WCC left off

The Bulldogs were four games ahead in first-place last year with a 17-1 record in conference play. San Diego and BYU snagged the 2- and 3-seeds, respectively, with 13-5 finishes, while Portland (11-7) was the 4-seed.

The sixth-seeded Pepperdine Waves (8-10 WCC) upset the Cougars in the quarterfinals before losing to the Toreros in the semis. Portland then defeated San Diego 64-63 in overtime of the tournament championship game.

The WCC had six teams with winning overall records: Gonzaga, San Diego, BYU, Portland, Pacific (9-9 WCC) and Pepperdine. The Gaels (6-12 WCC), Santa Clara Broncos (5-13 WCC) and San Francisco Dons (5-13 WCC) all went 12-19 overall and the Loyola Marymount Lions (3-15 WCC) were well behind the pack at 7-25 overall.

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-seed at-large bid) and Portland Pilots (15-seed automatic bid) represented the WCC in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket.

Highlights: Portland’s thrilling win over San Diego in the WCC championship game

Townsend’s Player of the Year campaign featured 13.3 points and six rebounds per game as well as a 3-point percentage of 43.1 in conference play. BYU’s Sara Hamson, who like Townsend was a junior last year, was named Defensive Player of the Year and Fowler, then a freshman, was the Newcomer of the Year. San Diego’s Cindy Fisher won Coach of the Year after her team was picked to finish eighth in the preseason vote.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2020-21 season, in order of the predicted standings voted on by the league’s head coaches:

1) Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Bulldogs return three of their top four scorers in Townsend, Jenn Wirth and LeeAnne Wirth. Townsend is a 5-foot-11 guard and the Wirths are both 6-foot-3 forwards. Katie Campbell, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2019-20, has graduated along with Jessie Loera, who averaged a team-best 4.8 assists. Those are big losses, but with Townsend and the Wirths all being seniors, Gonzaga is poised to have a special season. The Bulldogs hope 6-foot-1 freshman wing McKayla Williams (the No. 87 Hoop Gurlz recruit) gets in on the fun as well.

2) BYU Cougars

Redshirt sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales, who is back from a knee injury that kept her out for all of last season, averaged 17 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game as a Cougar freshman in 2018-19. If the Cougars can duplicate the 31.5 points per game it got that year out of the combination of Gonzales and her backcourt mate Paisley Johnson Harding, BYU could be very dangerous. Meanwhile, 6-foot-7 senior center Sara Hamson will look to once again impact the game in the post. She averaged 7.0 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds last year.

3) Portland Pilots

The Pilots return Newcomer of the Year Alex Fowler and now that she’s a sophomore she could make a big leap. Junior guard Haylee Andrews is also back and provides the same level of statistical output. Fowler, the team’s leading rebounder, averaged 18 points per game last year while Andrews, the team’s leading distributor, averaged 16. Fowler led the WCC in scoring and Andrews’ 5.5 assists per game paced the league as well. With that duo leading the way, Portland hopes to improve on its 11-7 conference record and then come up big in the conference tournament again.

4) San Diego Toreros

The Toreros will be led by redshirt senior guard Jordyn Edwards (averaged 10.1 points and 3.6 assists last year) and senior guard Myah Pace (11.6 points) as they look to fight for a top-two seed in the WCC Tournament again. Junior guard Steph Gorman and senior guard Sydney Hunter are players to keep an eye on too. However, The Toreros are guard-heavy and have lost their top two rebounders, Patricia Brossmann and Madison Pollock, to graduation.

5) Saint Mary’s Gaels

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Saint Mary’s Emily Codding (with ball) as seen as a sophomore in 2019.

Senior guard/forward Emily Codding, sophomore guard/forward Sam Simons and junior guard Madeline Holland are the big three for the Gaels. All of them averaged double figure scoring last year, along with sophomore guard Taycee Wedin who also returns. Wedin is just a scorer, while Codding does the rebounding (8.4 rebounds per game) and Holland does the distributing (4.4 assists). Meanwhile, Simon led the team with a scoring average of 16.3. Codding went down with a season-ending knee injury after 18 games last year. With her back healthy, the Gaels could make some noise.

6) Pacific Tigers

Based on statistics, the Tigers’ Valerie Higgins had the best season out of anyone in the WCC last year and has been named to the preseason all-conference team. Higgins is a 6-foot-1 guard who filled out the stat sheet with 16.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.5 steals per game in 2019-20. Now a redshirt senior, Higgins hopes to go out with a bang along with senior forward Brooklyn McDavid, who averaged 14.5 points per game last year.

7) Pepperdine Waves

The Waves lack a true star, but if junior forward Eve Braslis is granted immediate eligibility after transferring from the Utah Valley Wolverines she could form a trio of go-to scorers with junior guard Malia Bambrick and senior forward Monique Andriuolo. Pepperdine has lost its top scorer in Hannah Friend and its top distributor in Barbara Sitanggan, both to graduation. Andriuolo was the team’s leading rebounder last year with 7.3 boards per game.

8) Loyola Marymount Lions

The Lions return their top three scorers from last year: senior guard Chelsey Gipson, sophomore guard/forward Ciera Ellington and senior forward Jasmine Jones. In addition, Baylor transfer Aquira DeCosta is now eligible to play after sitting out the 2019-20 season. She won the national championship with the Lady Bears as a freshman and even scored 11 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year. Another Power 5 transfer, Ariel Johnson from the Florida Gators, hopes to gain eligibility. The Lions could be a dangerous team if those transfers play well in the WCC.

9) Santa Clara Broncos

Santa Clara hopes that Arizona Wildcats transfer Bryce Nixon will be eligible to play this season and also hopes that senior forward Merle Wiehl and junior guard Lindsey VanAllen can step up and contribute even more than they did last year. Redshirt senior forward Ashlyn Herlihy will likely be the team’s best player after being second on the team with 10.3 points per game 2019-20. The Broncos’ leading scorer, Tia Hay, has graduated.

10) San Francisco Dons

The Dons may be picked to finish last, but they do have depth to go along with talent at the top of their roster. Redshirt freshman guard Ioanna Krimili played in just nine games last year but averaged an impressive 15.6 points. She will be back along with senior Lucie Hoskova, who averaged 13.9. Then there’s Leilah Vigil, who could be the team’s best player. The junior averaged a double-double with 12.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last year.

Preseason nods

Player of the Year: Jill Townsend (Gonzaga)

All-WCC Team*: Haylee Andrews (Portland), Alex Fowler (Portland), Shaylee Gonzales (BYU), Sara Hamson (BYU), Valerie Higgins (Pacific), Paisley Johnson Harding (BYU), Brooklyn McDavid (Pacific), Myah Pace (San Diego), Sam Simons (Saint Mary’s), Jill Townsend (Gonzaga), Jenn Wirth (Gonzaga)

*as voted on by the WCC head coaches

Key conference dates

Dec. 28: WCC season start

Must-see WCC matchups

Jan. 9: Portland vs. Gonzaga. Rematch of last year’s WCC Tournament semifinal game in which Portland upset Gonzaga.

Jan. 21: BYU vs. Portland. Could be significant in terms of who has the end-of-season tiebreaker for second place behind Gonzaga.

Jan. 23: BYU vs. Gonzaga. Battle between the top two teams in the conference.