Although a season-opening loss to St. Joseph's last Friday in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic cost the Bulldogs their top-10 ranking in the Associated Press poll -- Gonzaga dropped from 10th to 16th -- they have three all-league players, Blake Stepp, Cory Violette and Ronny Turiaf, returning from a 24-9 team that pushed Arizona to double overtime in the NCAA tournament.
Is there any doubt that the Zags are expected to win their fourth consecutive WCC title and sixth in seven years?
"I think this has to be the best team they've ever had," Pepperdine Coach Paul Westphal said. "They are legitimately being talked about as a top-10 team. They've got probably three or four future NBA draft choices on their team."
Loyola Marymount Coach Steve Aggers agreed. "We're all chasing Gonzaga," he said.
Though the rest of the conference figures to battle for second, they'll all take their shots at unseating the Bulldogs. After an injury-plagued, subpar 15-13 season, Pepperdine is putting itself back in position to contend.
The Waves' strength is in the backcourt with sophomore Alex Acker and junior Terrance Johnson. Acker was the WCC's top freshman and immediately established himself with his all-around play. Johnson has averaged nearly 14 points over his first two seasons.
Pepperdine was decimated on the front line last season. Forward Glen McGowan was lost for all but one game while recuperating from a blood clot discovered in his left arm. Center Will Kimble's career ended prematurely when he was found to have a heart condition.
McGowan, a natural offensive player, returns for his junior year and will play up front with junior small forward Robert Turner and sophomore transfer Jesse Pinegar in the middle.
"The thing I like about our team is, we have some guys who are versatile inside and out," Westphal said. "I think we have a very explosive team. We've got a lot of guys that can shoot the three and we've got some players that can take you off the dribble and post up."
Yakhouba Diawara, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho, is a 6-foot-7, 225-pound junior expected to start at forward when he's eligible. Pepperdine officials are holding Diawara out as they investigate whether he played with professionals in a league in his native France.
"He's very strong and aggressive," Westphal said, noting he expects Diawara to be available soon. "If there's a crowd going up for a rebound, he's going to get it."
Progress continues to be slow for Loyola Marymount, although the Lions had their moments last season with an upset of Gonzaga and a conference tournament victory over Portland, their first since the 1995-96 season. It didn't stop them from going 11-20 overall, their third consecutive 20-loss season.
"Everyone in this program has raised their level of expectations," said Aggers, starting his fourth season. "The bottom line in our business is wins and losses."
Loyola was dealt a setback Saturday when starting guard Brandon Worthy suffered a broken right hand when he went for a steal in the first half of the Lions' exhibition victory over Ratiopharm Ulm of Germany. Worthy is expected to be out four weeks.
"My heart dropped to my stomach when I saw that during the game," Aggers said. "A year ago, it would have been devastating. We're older, more mature, more experienced than we were a year ago."
Senior forward Sherman Gay and junior point guard Charles Brown will be the leaders of a team that has five freshmen and six sophomores.
Promising sophomore center Chris Ayer and freshman guard Damian Martin figure to give Loyola more scoring options, particularly late in close games. Eleven of its losses in 2002-03 were by 10 points or fewer.
"It's about learning how to finish games and learning how to win," Aggers said.
(Begin Text of Infobox)
*--* Conference Overall W L Pct. W L Pct. Gonzaga 12 2 857 24 9 727 San Diego 10 4 714 18 12 600 San Francisco 9 5 643 15 14 517 Pepperdine 7 7 500 15 13 536 St. Mary's 6 8 429 15 15 500 Santa Clara 4 10 286 13 15 464 Portland 4 10 286 11 17 393 Loyola Marymount 4 10 286 11 20 355
* Coach: Paul Westphal.
* 2002-03 record: 15-13, 7-7 in WCC (fourth).
* Top players: Alex Acker, Soph., 13 ppg, 5 rpg; Terrance Johnson, Jr., 15 ppg, 4.2 rpg; Glen McGowan, Jr., 9.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg in 2001-02; Robert Turner, Jr., 7 pgg, 3.1 rpg.
* Outlook: Injuries at key positions last year derailed any chance at keeping their status as main conference challenger to Gonzaga. The Waves are long on talent but short on cohesiveness, and a brutal nonconference schedule awaits.
* Schedule: Friday Dayton, 8 p.m.; Monday Colorado, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 29 at Oklahoma State, 5 p.m.; Dec. 1 Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Nov. 3 at UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Dec. 6 Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 12 at Lipscomb, 5 p.m.; Dec. 14 at Maryland, 2:30 p.m.; Dec. 18 at UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Dec. 20 Bradley, 2 p.m.; Dec. 28 American in Rainbow Classic at Honolulu, 9:30 p.m.; Dec. 29 Bowling Green or Fairfield, TBA; Jan. 3 at Colorado St., 2:30 p.m.; Jan. 5 at Utah, 9 p.m.; Jan. 8 Gonzaga, 5:30 p.m.; Jan. 10 Portland, 5 p.m.; Jan. 15 at Santa Clara, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 at San Diego, 3 p.m.; Jan. 24 Loyola Marymount, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 29 St. Mary's, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 San Francisco, 7 p.m.; Feb. 5 at Gonzaga, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 at Portland, 7 p.m.; Feb. 12 San Diego, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 14 Santa Clara, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 21 at Loyola Marymount, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 26 at San Francisco, 7 p.m.; Feb. 29 at St. Mary's, noon; Mar. 5-8 WCC Tournament at Santa Clara.
* Coach: Steve Aggers.
* 2002-03 record: 11-20, 4-10 in WCC (tie for sixth).
* Top players: Charles Brown, Jr., 11.1 ppg, 4 rpg, 4.4 apg; Brandon Worthy, Soph., 11 ppg, 3.2 rpg; Keith Kincade, 9.2 ppg; Sherman Gay, 9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 60 blocks).
* Outlook: The pain of a major rebuilding effort continues into a fourth season under Aggers with only three seniors on the roster. The Lions had their moments last year, but finding consistency continues to be a struggle and another finish in the lower half of the WCC may be tough to avoid.
* Schedule: Friday UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Nov. 25 Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Nov. 29 SUNY-Binghamton in Mohegan Sun Classic at New Britain, Conn., noon; Nov. 30 Central Connecticut State or Charleston Southern, TBA; Dec. 3 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Dec. 6 Nevada Las Vegas; Dec. 13 at UCLA, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 16 at Denver, 6 p.m.; Dec. 19 Virginia, 7 p.m.; Dec. 23 at Long Beach State, 7:35 p.m.; Dec. 30 at Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Jan. 2 Colgate, 7 p.m.; Jan. 8 Portland, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 Gonzaga, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15 at San Diego, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 at Santa Clara, 7 p.m.; Jan. 20 Northern Colorado, 7 p.m.; Jan. 24 at Pepperdine, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 29 San Francisco, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 St. Mary's, 7 p.m.; Feb. 5 at Portland, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 at Gonzaga, 7 p.m.; Feb. 12 Santa Clara, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 San Diego, 5 p.m.; Feb. 21 Pepperdine, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 26 at St. Mary's, 7 p.m.; Feb. 28 at San Francisco, 7 p.m.; Mar. 5-8 WCC Tournament at Santa Clara.