Drama really isn't something we are used to seeing in the West Coast Conference come March.
For the past decade, Gonzaga has been head and shoulders above the rest and their tournament record proves it. Eight times in the past ten seasons, Mark Few's team has cut down the nets at the tournament championship. The Zags enter as the No. 1 seed once again this season but this might be one of the most difficult WCC fields in recent memory. The conference has plenty of star power and they are just itching to get their chance to knock off the top dog.
The young Zags have progressed this season by leaps and bounds. Victories over nonconference foes such as Illinois, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, and Memphis were matched by an embarrassing loss to Duke and two terrible conference losses against San Francisco and Loyola Marymount. Gonzaga's biggest challenge this season has come from a familiar team in Saint Mary's. For the past few years, Randy Bennett has been building an excellent program in Moraga and this season has been no different. They are sitting firmly on the bubble right now after a great regular season and come into Vegas with high expectations.
The rest of the field is also very impressive. Teams like Portland, LMU, and San Francisco all have the ability to make waves this weekend and come into the tournament with big dreams. The Vegas scene will provide an outstanding backdrop to what should be a very exciting and interesting conference tournament.
Regardless of what happens in the WCC tournament, Gonzaga has a place in big dance. From there, things get a bit dicey.
The one team on the bubble is Saint Mary's. The Gaels have a great looking 24-5 record but their overall tournament resume is less than impressive. Wins at Utah State and at home against San Diego State are the only two that really jump out. They were three points away from getting a great quality win against Vanderbilt but couldn't seal the deal at home. Now they are in a familiar position; win the tournament or you arenailbiting on selection Sunday. Just like last season, Saint Mary's will have to have a strong performance in Vegas to make up for subpar scheduling. They couldn't pull it off a year ago as they were routed by Gonzaga in the tournament final and, if this season's results have any bearing, it does not look good for this time around either. The Zags swept their season series with the Gaels and have done their best to reduce Saint Mary's to a one-man show.
For the rest of the conference, the stakes are win and you are in. Portland was expected to make some noise for a possible at-large bid early in the season and were even ranked at one point but fell off after getting bit by the injury bug.
Names You Should Know
Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's: In my mind Omar is still the most underrated player in this part of the country. His 21 point, 11 rebound average speaks for itself and he has really blossomed into a complete player over the past few years. Samhan is the ultimate competitor and the Gaels will go as far as he can carry them.
Dior Lowhorn, San Francisco: If Omar is the most underrated player this season, Lowhorn has to be the most underrated player throughout his career. The two-time West Coast Conference scoring leader has never been the player of the year but continues to put up remarkable statistics. His career as a Don will go down as one of the best in recent memory and you can bet the senior is looking for one last great college memory.
Steven Gray, Gonzaga: Matt Bouldin might be the face of this team, but Gray might be the key for a successful March. Steven has been consistently streaky this season but when he is on, theZags elevate to a different level. He's no longer the sharpshooter he once was as a freshman, but he has become a more complete offensive threat and has also turned into one ofGonzaga's best defenders.
Keion Bell, Pepperdine: The Waves may not be all that fun to watch, but Bell is worth the price of admission alone. He is without a doubt one of the most exciting players in the western region and can light up any team at will. His career high 37 point performance againstGonzaga in Spokane nearly led to an upset and he is fully capable of shooting any club out of the building in Vegas.
Vernon Teel, LMU: The up and coming Lions of Loyola Marymount have been bolstered by the outstanding play of their junior guard from Jamaica, New York. Teel has grown into a complete package in the WCC. He's averaging nearly 15 points a game and leads the conference in assists per game with almost six. Forward Drew Viney has gotten most of the attention this season at LMU but don't sleep on Teel.
The overwhelming favorites to win this tournament have to be Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. Not only does the structure favor them (they each get byes into the semifinals) but they are each just much more talented from top to bottom. The likely scenario in the semifinals is for the Zags to match up with Loyola Marymount and for the Gaels to take on Portland. I expect both games to remain quite close throughout, but I really like the favorites in neutral site scenarios such as this.
The key for teams like LMU , Portland, and the rest of the field will be to try and strike early and take the fans out of the game. Vegas may not be the home of any WCC team, but you can expect that Gonzaga fans will descend on the city in packs to support their team. Last season no team was able to match the Zags' intensity and the Orleans Arena turned into a home-gym type atmosphere for Gonzaga as they walked all over the competition.
If the Zags do happen to match up with the Gaels in the finals, don't expect a repeat of last season. Matt Bouldin may have walked away with the conference player of the year award but the most consistent player throughout the year was Omar Samhan...and he doesn't exactly like Gonzaga . He might not have enough help around him to upset the favorites but he's going to make it interesting. If Randy Bennett can get one or two other players to step up, they are fully capable of grabbing the auto-bid.
In the end, however, Gonzaga will prevail thanks to great play in the backcourt and grab their sixth tournament crown in seven years.
Friday, March 5
Men's First Round Session Game 1 (5 vs. 8) - 6:00 PM
Men's First Round Session Game 2 (6 vs. 7) - 30 mins after the conclusion of Game 1
Saturday, March 6
Men's Quarterfinal Round Session Game 1 (5/8 vs. 4) - 6:00 PM
Men's Quarterfinal Round Session Game 2 (6/7 vs. 3) - 30 mins after the conclusion of Game 1
Sunday, March 7
Men's Semifinal Round Session Game 1 (5/8/4 vs. 1) - 5:30 PM (ESPN 2)
Men's Semifinal Round Session Game 2 (6/7/3 vs. 2) - 7:30 PM (ESPN 2)
Monday, March 8
Men's Championship - 6:00 PM (ESPN)