West Coast Conference tournament preview

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The West Coast Conference, in its history, has sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament just once.

There is a chance that that record could end up being tied this season. Gonzaga and St. Mary’s are locks for the dance, or so says your courageous bracketeers. BYU, on the other hand, probably still has some work left to do to earn an at-large bid. If they can get past Gonzaga in the semis and make it to the tournament title game, the Cougars should be able to feel pretty confident about their chances of dancing. And if, say, Loyola Marymount makes a run and ends up beating BYU for the WCC’s automatic bid, than its possible we could be looking at four teams from the WCC.

That would probably double what the Pac-12 ends up sending to the Big Dance.

But that’s also precisely why everyone in their right mind lauded the WCC for getting BYU to join the league. (If you’ve forgotten, when their football team went independent, the WCC scooped up all non-football BYU sports teams.) With Gonzaga’s continued relevancy nationally and the emergence of St. Mary’s as a perennial NCAA Tournament team — so long as they don’t collapse in the final two weeks of the season — BYU gives the league a third program with a pedigree. At the top, the WCC is just as strong as the likes of the Mountain West or the Atlantic 10.

With San Francisco and Loyola Marymount trending up and teams like Portland and Santa Clara closer to competitiveness than their combined three league wins would indicate, the WCC is a burgeoning mid-major powerhouse.

It should also be noted that the WCC has the strangest bracket you’ll see for conference tournaments. It has always been that the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds get a bye while the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds get a double-bye. Since a ninth team has been added to the conference, there are now five rounds in the tournament. In other words, there is now a play-in game for the right to play the No. 5 seed in the first round.

The Bracket

Where: Las Vegas

When: Feb. 29th-Mar. 5th

Final: March 5th, 9 p.m., ESPN

Favorite: St. Mary’s

Yeah, I’m going with the Gaels. They are the league champs and the No. 1 seed for a reason. Perhaps the biggest reason I’m going with the Gaels is that I think Rob Jones has proven himself as one of the toughest covers in the conference. He plays the four, but he’s undersized, strong and very mobile and athletic. He doesn’t quite qualify as a face-up four as much as he does a combo-forward, but he’s going to be difficult for guys like Elias Harris or Noah Hartsock to deal with. I’m also convinced that, when healthy, the Gaels have the best back court in the league. Matthew Dellavedova is one of the best point guards in the country while Stephen Holt had really come into his own down the stretch of the season before getting hurt.

And if they lose?: Gonzaga

I was as hard on the Zags early in the season as anyone, but Mark Few has gotten this team to turn it around a bit as the year as gone on. They’ve gotten better defensively as Gary Bell and Guy Landry Ebi have taken some of David Stockton’s minutes. Kevin Pangos has had the kind of freshman season that makes him appear to be the next great Gonzaga guard. Throw in the big front line of Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Sam Dower, and the Zags have a number of quality pieces.

Sleepers: BYU, obviously, although they may not exactly be a “sleeper”. Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock are good enough to compete with almost any front court in the country and Matt Carlino has done a admirable job filling in for Jimmer. Loyola Marymount has a shot as well. They have some seriously talented players when they are able to stay healthy. And keep in mind, the reason that St. Mary’s had the door to the league title open up is that San Francisco beat Gonzaga at home.

Studs:

Anthony Ireland, Loyola Marymount: Ireland was terrific this season playing in the absence of Drew Viney. His 15.8 ppg and 4.8 apg kept the Lions relevant.

Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: Harris is the guy with the potential of an NBA draft pick. Pangos, however, is the kid that has put up the numbers this season.

Noah Hartsock, BYU: Coming into the year, everyone was talking about Brandon Davies, and while Davies had a good season, Hartsock is the guy that has looked like a first-team all-league player.

Matthew Dellavedova and Ron Jones, St. Mary’s: These may be the two front-runners for WCC Player of the Year.

Evan Roquemore, Santa Clara: Roquemore has been terrific this season despite his team collapsing around him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.