The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.

 
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These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Let’s continue on with a look at the West Coast Conference.

Recap

Saint Mary’s proved to be a worthy adversary to Gonzaga, which has ruled the WCC for years. The Gaels and the Bulldogs each turned in 15-3 conference records in 2015-16, though the Zags ultimately prevailed in tournament championship game.

That turned out to be huge for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga was the only WCC team to make the NCAA tournament last season, while St. Mary’s found itself on the outside looking in. The Gaels won two NIT games before ending their season against Valparaiso; Gonzaga did the same in its postseason before falling to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.

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Overall, the WCC was a top-heavy league in 2015-16. Third place finisher BYU had a solid season, racking up 23 wins while going 13-5 in conference play. Fourth place Pepperdine went 10-8 in league action, but outside of that foursome, every other WCC team finished below .500.  

Best player

Santa Clara had a rough season in 2015-16, but it has a stud in the backcourt in senior guard Jared Brownridge.

Brownridge is a pure scorer that can get buckets from just about anywhere. As a junior, he averaged 20.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game; he also canned nearly three triples per contest.

Brownridge’s efficiency dipped a bit as a junior in comparison to his first two seasons. He failed to shoot 40 percent from the floor, but he was doing pretty much all of the heavy lifting for a Bronco offense that lacked other viable options. Here are his career totals:

Brownridge career stats
Year FG% 3FG% PPG
Freshman .454 .436 17.2
Sophomore .441 .433 15.9
Junior .397 .386 20.6

The Aurora, Illinois native took several contested shots last season – they were more out of necessity than greed. Brownridge could stand to improve his playmaking ability, and Santa Clara would love to see his efficiency shoot back up after falling off in that department as a junior. Regardless, any WCC team would be lucky to have a player like Brownridge.

Best team

We’ll give the slightest of edges to Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs and Saint Mary’s are essentially deadlocked atop the WCC.

In the first edition of the AP Poll, the Bulldogs (No. 14) came in three spots ahead of the Gaels. But the advanced metrics like St. Mary’s more; KenPom has the Gaels (No. 18) ranked four spots ahead of the Zags.

FULL RANKINGS: Preseason AP Poll

We’re really splitting hairs here, but at the end of the day, it comes down to this: who do you trust more? Based on Mark Few’s track record, it’s really difficult to pick against a Gonzaga team that has the talent level this one does.

The Bulldogs can trot out a starting lineup of Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams and Przemek Karnowski, which looks awesome on paper. That unit has ball-handling, shooting, back-to-the-basket scorers and everything in between.

Depth was a question mark in Spokane last season, and it could be once again in 2016-17. Bryan Alberts and Silas Melson return, but beyond those two, Few will need to find a couple of guys that can carry the load when the starters are off the floor.

Given their two-point guard lineup, the Bulldogs can stagger minutes this season. That’s huge. Few doesn’t have to go a second without either Williams-Goss or Perkins in the game, and the Zags’ frontcourt is strong as always. There’s a lot to like about this team.

Sleeper team

Loyola Marymount struggled to a 14-17 overall record last season, but the Lions have to like what they have returning.

Loyola’s top three scorers (Adom Jacko, Brandon Brown and Steven Haney) each averaged double-figures a year ago, and all are back for 2016-17. Jacko was outstanding last season in particular; as a freshman, he led the Lions in scoring (16.6 PPG), rebounding (6.4 RPG) and field goal percentage (55.7).

BOLD HOOPS PREDICTIONS: Part I | Part II Part III | Part IV

That’s an excellent building block to have, and while nobody expects Loyola Marymount to make the NCAA tournament, it has a good chance to finish in the top half of league play this season.

Freshman to watch

With Emmett Naar entrenched as St. Mary’s starting point guard, don’t expect freshman Jordan Ford to leap to stardom in 2016-17. But he could still make a big impact as a rookie, and when all is said and done, he should have an outstanding career at St. Mary’s.

Naar logged 37.2 minutes per game last season, so expect to see Ford and Naar share the court some this year. The former is only 6-1, but he has a long wingspan that should allow him to be disruptive on defense and hound bigger players.

He’s deceptive on the offensive end, and he fits the St. Mary’s free-wheeling system like a glove; Ford is a crafty driver that can get to his spots on the floor with ease. Look out for this guy in the coming years.

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