Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
This will be the fifth straight year of a dramatic showdown in the West Coast Conference tournament between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. On the line tonight, as it has been in four previous showdowns, is an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament – something that means more for Saint Mary’s than Gonzaga.
The Zags are darlings of the basketball world this year, reeling off 30 wins (a school record) and earning a #1 national ranking. Their participation as a high seed in the NCAA tourney is a given, with many pundits according them a #1 seed in the West Region. They want to give themselves every chance to maximize their standing, however, and can’t afford to stumble over the Gaels. Many so-called experts are pooh-poohing the Zags’ accomplishments because, they say, going 16-0 in the WCC pales in comparison to battling through a Big East, ACC or Big Tem season. Those people overlook the Zags’ 5-0 record against teams in the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and West Virginia), which indicates they’d fare pretty well in a Power Six conference.
Saint Mary’s faces the specter of dismissal to the NIT if they fail to win the automatic bid, however. That fate befell them after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC championship games in 2009 and 2011, and they got to the NCAAs only by defeating the Zags in 2010 and last year. Many bracketologists contend the Gaels will be in whether they win or lose tonight because they finished the WCC regular season with a 14-2 record, losing only to Gonzaga, defeated Creighton in a BracketBuster game and escaped the WCC Tourney semifinals with a gut-wrenching 69-66 overtime win over San Diego on Saturday. But Randy Bennett’s boys have experienced the kick in the gut that comes with an NCAA rejection and don’t want to put their fate in the hands of the selection committee.