Coach Randy Bennett was rewarded for last year’s breakthrough season, which included a regular-season victory over league champion Gonzaga and the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997, with a new six-year contract. The wins might not come as frequently this year, however, with veteran guards Paul Marigney, a first-team All-WCC selection, and E.J. Rowland having departed. But with 6'10" senior forward Daniel Kickert, a two-time all-league pick, back to anchor a solid frontline that includes California transfer Erik Bond, don’t look for the Gaels to slip too far, if at all. Kickert averaged 16.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last year and is the top WCC Player of the Year candidate not wearing a Gonzaga uniform.
3. San Diego (16–13, 7–7)
This might seem like a stretch for the Toreros considering they lost last year’s leading scorer Brandon Gay and frontline beast Brice Vounang, their leading rebounder, to graduation. But 12th-year coach Brad Holland gets as much out of his players as any coach in the WCC, and this year he returns several good ones, including seniors Nick Lewis, Corey Belser and Floyd North III. Lewis averaged 12.6 points and 5.2 rebounds last winter and will probably shoulder much of the scoring load this year. Belser, a 6'7" swingman, is one of the best defenders in the league, and the 6'5" North, a second-year transfer from Oregon State, has a chance to be something special because of his bulk and athleticism. In addition, junior point guard Ross DeRogatis, a second-year transfer from Oklahoma State, figures to be greatly improved.
4. Portland (15–15, 4–10)
The Pilots made some noticeable strides under coach Michael Holton once again last season, posting their best record since 1995-96. And they did it with junior point guard Pooh Jeter taking a step back following his All-WCC sophomore season. If Jeter returns to form, and fellow senior guards Donald Wilson and Darren Cooper progress as expected, Portland should challenge for a rare first-division finish. The Pilots’ biggest weakness continues to be on the frontline, where they will be both inexperienced and woefully undersized — especially with the unexpected offseason departure of Dreshawn Vance, a promising 6'8" forward. The return of 6'8" sophomore Marcus Lewis following an impressive rookie season that earned him a spot on the WCC’s All-Freshman team should help immensely.
5. Santa Clara (15–16, 7–7)
Dick Davey was rumored to be on his way out midway through the 2004-05 season, but the Broncos put together a season that was respectable enough to earn the dean of WCC coaches a 14th season at the helm. The Broncos lost a pair of high-profile guards in Kyle Bailey and Doron Perkins but return a solid young player at the point in sophomore Brody Angley. SCU should be physical up front once again and boasts a consistent scorer in 6'7" senior forward Travis Niesen, who averaged 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds last season. Offensive help could come from junior Brandon Rohe, a 6'4" guard who missed all of last season with a back injury.
6. San Francisco (17–14, 6–8)
The Dons, notorious underachievers under Phil Mathews, bought into the teachings of first-year coach Jessie Evans in a big way last winter. Led by WCC scoring leader John Cox, USF upset league bully Gonzaga during the regular season and made its first postseason appearance since 1998 in the NIT. Cox is gone and will be sorely missed, but Evans, a former assistant under Lute Olson at Arizona, has put together one of the top recruiting classes in the WCC to complement returning starters Jerome Gumbs and Alan Wiggins Jr.
7. Pepperdine (17–14, 6–8)
This seems like a major putdown for the once-proud Waves, but the program has been on a noticeable slide under coach Paul Westphal for the past few seasons. Pepperdine, following some unexpected offseason player defections, tied for fifth in the WCC last winter, despite All-WCC performances by guard Alex Acker and center Glen McGowan, neither of whom will return this year. McGowan graduated and Acker left school early for the NBA and was selected by Detroit with the final pick of the second round. That leaves Westphal with little in the way of proven offensive weapons, unless last year’s WCC all-freshmen tandem of 7'0" center Russell Hicks and 5'7" guard Kingsley Costain matures in a hurry.
8. Loyola Marymount (11–17, 3–11)
Injuries crippled the Lions last season and ultimately cost coach Steve Aggers his job. Up next is Rodney Tention, a former Arizona assistant who inherits some decent returning talent that knows little or nothing about winning. Junior forward Matthew Knight averaged a team-high 15.4 points and 5.9 rebounds as a sophomore and should be even better this season. In addition, three other starters return, but the backcourt losses of Brandon Worthy and Charles Brown will be almost impossible to overcome.