PROVO — As BYU tips off its second season in the West Coast Conference, there aren't as many unknowns for coach Dave Rose and his program as there were last year at this time.
"We're a lot more comfortable than last year because we hadn’t played in these road venues and we weren't familiar with the league," Rose said of his team's inaugural campaign.
At the same time, the Cougars understand more than ever how difficult it is to capture the WCC championship.
"I know the challenge of trying to win this conference," said Rose, whose team finished third in the WCC in 2012. "It's a big challenge. There are quality teams at the top of the league, and we know all about it now, because we've been through it."
BYU hosts Loyola Marymount Thursday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv) in its WCC opener. The Lions, who boast the league's leading scorer, guard Anthony Ireland, upset the Cougars last season in Provo.
To compete for the league title, BYU will face stiff challenges from No. 10 Gonzaga and the defending conference champions, Saint Mary's. The Cougars posted a dismal 1-4 record against Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in 2012.
Gonzaga was picked to win the WCC again in the preseason coaches poll. Guard Kevin Pangos, forward Kelly Olynyk and forward Elias Harris lead the way for the Bulldogs.
"We have great balance across all the positions. We have good depth at every position," coach Mark Few told the Deseret News last October during WCC basketball media day in Los Angeles. "We've got a lot of guys who can get double figures every night."
With the way Gonzaga has started this season, many observers believe this might be Few's best team ever in Spokane. But Few knows that won't be determined until March.
Saint Mary's snapped the ’Zags' streak of 11 consecutive regular-season WCC crowns last season.
"I've been telling my players they're not defending anything. For the first time in a long time, we're not defending a (league) title," Few said. "I'm hoping they're hungrier and it can give them a little bit of an edge."
Meanwhile, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett didn't know how to react to his team being selected third behind Gonzaga and BYU in the preseason poll.
Behind reigning player of the year Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's won both the WCC regular season and tournament titles for the first time.
"We return 13 guys off the team that won it, including the player of the year," Bennett said.
He added that one factor that's overlooked is his team's conference tournament championships.
"In one way or another, we won a conference championship the last three years," Bennett said. "Winning the regular-season title wasn't shocking to us. We feel like it should have happened the year before. It's about continuing to build. Our conference is getting better."
Four teams enter league play with double-digit preseason victories — Gonzaga (13-1), Saint Mary's (11-3), Santa Clara (11-3), and BYU (10-4).
"There are six teams that have the personnel to be a 20-win team," Bennett said. "That's good depth in the conference. We went 14-2 last year in conference. That's going to be tough for any team to do."
Santa Clara is looking to turn things around after going winless — 0-16 — in WCC play last year. The Broncos lost two of their top players a year ago as forward Marc Trasolini suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and star guard Kevin Foster was sidelined for the second half of the year following a DUI. With Trasolini and Foster back, the Broncos could make things even more interesting in the league.
Last weekend, Santa Clara threw a bit of a scare into top-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium before falling, 90-77.
The other teams in the league — Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, San Francisco, Portland and San Diego — are each looking to make an impact on the league race.
Pepperdine was picked to finish last, but the Waves are eager to prove doubters wrong.
"We'll do better than people expect us," said Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson. "That's my personality. I like to tiptoe in and sneak up on people."
Wilson said the next two months in the WCC will be a battle.
"It's a tough league. Gonzaga has had a stranglehold on the league for a long time, and Randy's done a great job at Saint Mary's. That's how I look at our program, based on what he's done at Saint Mary's. We're focusing on making progress. We want to gradually get better every season. We're heading in that direction."
The WCC basketball tournament will be held at The Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on March 6-11.
WCC opener on the air:
Loyola Marymount (7-6, 0-0) at BYU (10-4, 0-0)
7 p.m. MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM