Conference Tournament Primer: West Coast ConferencePosted by Michael Vernetti on March 6th, 2014
Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
There are some new contenders, some elevated expectations and the hint of upset in the air. But, in the end, will it add up to someone other than Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s winning the WCC Tournament title next Tuesday and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? Those two have played in the championship game for the past five years – Gonzaga winning three – and the first change in 2014 is that they will not repeat that engagement. The Gaels and the Zags are in the same half of this year’s bracket; their clash, if it comes, will be in the semifinals on Monday, and only one will emerge to contend for the championship.
The replacement of Saint Mary’s by BYU as the tourney’s second seed and the emergence of San Francisco as a legitimate championship contender is the first major change in the tournament makeup. BYU and San Francisco tied for second place behind Gonzaga in the conference standings, with BYU earning the second seed by virtue of a sweep over San Francisco, and Saint Mary’s limped in at fourth. The other major change is a requirement that all teams in the tournament play at least three games. Gone is the WCC’s controversial practice of granting the first and second finishers a bye to the semifinal round. For the last five years, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s had only a semifinal game to contend with before squaring off for the title.
Does either BYU or San Francisco pose a real threat to the Zags? Recent performance suggests they might, and BYU also boasts a 73-65 win over Gonzaga in Provo on February 20. San Francisco lost both league encounters with the Zags this year, but has been the conference’s most consistent performer over the past three weeks, posting five straight wins following a 73-68 loss to BYU in Provo on February 8. WCC coaches voted their appreciation for Rex Walters’ stewardship of the Dons by naming him Coach of the Year for 2013-14. The Dons open tourney play with a 12:00 PT clash on Saturday against upset-minded San Diego, which they swept in conference play, and would face BYU in the semifinals if both teams progressed.
BYU, however, seems a better bet to advance than San Francisco, having overcome some early-to-mid-season wobbles to finish with eight of nine wins since January 30. The Cougars also hold two wins over the Dons, although both were close and hard-fought. With WCC Player of the Year Tyler Haws, fellow all-WCC forward Kyle Collinsworth, rugged Center Eric Mica and super-sub Matt Carlino leading the team, the Cougs have more firepower than the Dons. San Francisco gets most of its scoring from all-WCC forward Cole Dickerson, with guard Avry Holmes and forwards Mark Tollefson and Kruize Pinkins backing him up. Give the nod to BYU.
Does Saint Mary’s merit consideration in the conversation about competing for the championship? Maybe based on previous years’ performance, but you couldn’t make a strong case for the Gaels if you consider recent history. Just last Saturday, Saint Mary’s rolled over and played dead for Gonzaga, losing 75-47 in a game that wasn’t as close as that lopsided score indicates. Can Randy Bennett rally his troops for a superhuman effort against the Zags in the semifinals – assuming the Gaels advance past Pepperdine? Take the Zags and the points.
And, finally, what of Gonzaga? Do its three league losses (to San Diego, Portland and BYU) indicate a weakness that can be exploited in the tournament? Observers note that the Kelly Olynyk-led Zags went undefeated in last year’s WCC race as if that fact alone warrants concern for Mark Few’s troops. Gonzaga did stumble a few times this season, but it is instructive to note how they responded to a two-game road losing streak (69-66 to San Diego and 73-65 to BYU) on February 20 and 22. In their final two games of the season – both on the road—the Zags blitzed Pacific (70-53) and Saint Mary’s. That’s the way you get ready for a conference tournament. Look for Gonzaga to walk away with both the WCC Tournament title and the NCAA bid, leaving the WCC as a one-bid league this season. BYU is a strong candidate for the NIT, as is San Francisco, while Saint Mary’s should probably start thinking about next year.