WCC Tournament 2014: BYU challenges Gonzaga's authority

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The WCC has been Gonzaga's playground for over a decade, but BYU is chomping at the Bulldogs' heels as both teams search for the autobid.

The West Coast Conference Tournament will be an important one for teams on the bubble to watch as it kicks off in Las Vegas on Thursday.

Most bracketologists give the WCC two teams in the NCAA Tournament. That assumes that either the Gonzaga Bulldogs or BYU Cougars win the tournament, and the other team is granted an at-large bid. If a surprise third team comes out to take the autobid, the bubble will constrict a bit.

It is a toss-up between BYU and Gonzaga on who is the favorite. Based off of history, the WCC has been Gonzaga's conference for the past 15 years; all stops to the tournament go through the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs had a couple of unexpected losses in conference and lost two of their last four games. BYU, meanwhile, enters the tournament with a four-game winning streak.

The Cougars boast one of the better scorers in the nation, Tyler Haws, who leads their potent offense. The Cougars average 85 points per game, good for third in the nation. They do this with a relentless attack on offense, attempting to draw as much contact as humanly possible. Also, BYU leads the nation with 935 free throw attempts. Ken Pomeroy ranks BYU No. 48, giving the Cougars props for their brutal non-conference schedule.

Despite 10 losses, the non-conference onslaught appears to have paid off for March consideration. BYU tested its mettle (and lost) against Oregon, UMass, Wichita State and Iowa State in the non-conference. The Cougars picked up two wins early in the year over Texas and Stanford to boost its resume.

That is the sort of non-conference schedule Mark Few used to routinely subject his Bulldogs too. This year, that wasn't the case, and the lack of quality opponents is hurting Gonzaga's chances for an at-large bid. Gonzaga lost in the first game of the Maui Invitational, losing chances to play Baylor or Syracuse. The Bulldogs overall profile is a bit weak looking, with its best win being against BYU at home.

Gonzaga enters the WCC Tournament as the No. 1 seed and the best team in the conference until proven otherwise. Ken Pomeroy rates the Bulldogs No. 44 on offense and No. 20 on defense. Gonzaga is one of the better shooting teams in the nation, hitting 49.7 percent of its shots as a team. If the backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are firing threes, the Bulldogs are a hard team to keep up with.

It isn't all roses for the Gonzaga offense. The Bulldogs have serious size up front in Przemek Karnowki and Sam Dower, but that is it. If either player gets into early foul trouble, Gonzaga is pretty much forced into a four-guard offense. This has made it tough for Gonzaga to compete on the offensive boards, and opponents have exploited this for a lot of second chance points. The Bulldogs' offense has also struggled as of late after starting out the season as the top shooting team in the nation.

After that, much of the rest of the WCC will have to work quite hard to make the championship game. The No. 3 seed, San Francisco, lost both games against BYU and Gonzaga this year. Saint Mary's never really recovered from Matthew Dellavedova's departure. Still, the WCC was a much tighter race than it usually is, either a sign of parity or a decline in Gonzaga's stranglehold on the conference.

The WCC also has one of the more weird conference tournament schedules. There are no games on Friday because women's basketball takes over the New Orleans Arena, and Sunday is a day off because of BYU. BYUtv will show a few of the games until ESPN takes over. The bracket can be viewed here.

Thursday, March 6 (first round)

No. 7 Portland vs. No. 10 Loyola Marymount, 9 p.m. ET, BYUtv

No. 8 Pacific vs. No. 9 Santa Clara, 11:30 p.m., BYUtv

Saturday, March 8 (quarterfinal)

No. 3 San Francisco vs. No. 6 San Diego, 3 p.m., BYUtv

No. 2 BYU vs. Winner of No. 7/10, 5:30 p.m., BYUtv

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. Winner of No. 8/9, 9 p.m., ESPN2

No. 4 Saint Mary's vs. No. 5 Pepperdine, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2

Monday, March 10 (semifinals)

Winner of No. 1/8/9 vs. Winner of No. 4/5, TBA, ESPN or ESPN2

Winner of No. 2/7/10 vs. Winner of No. 3/6, TBA, ESPN or ESPN2

Tuesday, March 11

Championship game, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

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