By: Taylor Wilson, KCOU Sports
Ah, the Wild West. The land of Steve Nash and Gonzaga domination gets its conference tournament up and running tonight in Sin City. Only Gonzaga has a locked bid to the NCAA Tournament at this point, while BYU and St. Mary’s could pick up at-large bids. Elsewhere, the rest of a sneaky good league could create havoc, while searching for an automatic nod to the big dance.
When: March 5-10
Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV
Where to Watch: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN3
No. 7 Santa Clara (7-11, 13-17) vs. No. 10 Loyola Marymount (4-14, 8-22)
Loyola hasn’t won a game since February 5th, a stretch good for a six-game losing streak to close out the regular season. Sophomore guard Evan Payne is a legitimate scorer (17.6 ppg) but the Lions only have one other player averaging in double figures. These are the two worst scoring teams in the conference with Loyola averaging 62.5 ppg and Santa Clara coming in with a cool 62.2 ppg on average.
Prediction: It won’t be a barn burner but it will be close. Santa Clara’s won two of their last three, so I’ll take the warm team in this one.
No. 8 San Francisco (7-11, 13-17) vs. No. 9 Pacific (4-14, 12-18)
San Francisco was a couple non-conference losses away from getting a rest today but they’ll be happy to get a decent matchup in their opening game. The Dons will wonder if they’re the team that lost five straight in late January/early February or the side that won four of five to close out the regular season. After a 9-6 start, Pacific struggled mightily in the depths of the conference schedule, losing eight straight at one point.
Prediction: Give me the Dons of USF for a big win.
No. 3 St. Mary’s (13-5, 21-8) vs. No. 6 Portland (7-11, 16-14)
Despite another nice season, St. Mary’s can’t help but feel frustrated. The Gaels posted a 1-3 record against the league’s best pair of teams (Gonzaga, BYU) and got swept handily by the Zags despite leading by 11 at halftime of their most recent contest. An at-large bid would be unlikely, although a deep conference tournament run could help sway the committee. Portland, meanwhile, went 10-3 to start off the year, before succumbing later in conference play.
No. 2 BYU (13-5, 23-8) vs. No. 7 Santa Clara
After narrowly losing to San Diego State, Purdue, and Utah in non-conference play, many wondered if this BYU team might be a sleeper to watch in the WCC. Fast-forward a few months and the Cougars are playing their best basketball of the year, finishing the season on a six-game winning streak and a win over the no. 3 team in the country at the time, Gonzaga. Santa Clara will just be happy to make it to this stage.
No. 1 Gonzaga (17-1, 29-2) vs. No. 8 San Francisco
Here they are, the toast of the league, Gonzaga. Head Coach Mark Few has seen some excellent teams over the years in Spokane but this might be his best yet. After a year off to focus on strength and conditioning, junior forward Kyle Wiltjer has done what no one thought possible: exceeded Kevin Pangos as the Zags’ star. Wiltjer (16.5 ppg) is shooting a monstrous 53% from the field, while shooting 44.9% from beyond the arc. Pair that with almost 6 rebounds a game and the dude is a force. Pangos hasn’t gone anywhere either, shooting 44.6% from three and helping to orchestrate a smooth, tough-to-defend offense that can beat you inside (Sabonis, Karnowski), outside (Pangos, Wesley), and on the wing with Wiltjer. This team is, simply put, a machine. USF could have been a sleeper had they met the Zags at a later stage but it would be one of the shocks of the season if they could upset the best team in the league.
No. 4 Pepperdine (10-8, 17-12) vs. No. 5 San Diego (8-10, 15-15)
With a sweep against BYU to their name, Pepperdine has been largely inconsistent in league play this year. How do you get swept by San Francisco? San Diego will hope senior guard Johnny Dee (17.2 ppg) can help them do better than their 65.3 ppg season average. Neutral fans won’t feel bad for whoever loses this game as they’ll head back to either Malibu or San Diego.
Prediction: San Diego
No. 2 BYU vs. No. 3 St. Mary’s
Despite what should be a terrific championship game, this could end up being the best game of the tournament. Brigham Young ranks first in the COUNTRY in points per game (84.0) and has arguably two of the nation’s top 25 players in Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth. St. Mary’s will need Brad Waldow (19.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 56.3% fg) to have one of his better games in order to keep up with BYU’s scoring.
Prediction: BYU in a classic
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 San Diego
There’s a huge difference between the no. 1 and no. 2 seeds in this year’s tournament as evidenced by the other semifinal game. Gonzaga should have no problem with the Toreros who just aren’t good enough on either end to slow down a deep Gonzaga roster. Expect the Zags to win this one early enough to rest some guys for the championship game.
Prediction: Zags, big
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 BYU
After falling on their home court for the first time this season, Gonzaga will smell revenge in Vegas next week. Both teams have talented guards who can score (Haws/Collinsworth for BYU and Pangos/Wesley for Gonzaga) but the real test will come inside. BYU don’t have a single big man among their top 5 scorers with freshman forward Isaac Neilson leading the pack with a measly 3.2 ppg. That will be a tough test when trying to stop and score against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski.
Prediction: It’ll be close but expect Gonzaga to do enough to win yet another WCC title.