Think Kansas has had an impressive run in the Big 12? Try Gonzaga’s in the West Coast Conference. Not only have the Bulldogs won all but one regular-season title since the 2000-01 season, but they also have advanced to every league tournament championship game since 1998.
Gonzaga gave its customary dominant performance this season, stopping just one game shy of completing a fifth undefeated run through league play since 2000.
That’s why, for much of the second half of the season, the West Coast Conference looked to be shaping up as a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament. Because the Bulldogs cast such a huge shadow over the league, it was easy to write off the other members.
Until BYU defeated the Zags.
The Cougars gave hope to other league schools as they descend upon Las Vegas for the WCC tournament March 6-10. All of a sudden, Gonzaga looks a little less formidable and a little more vulnerable. The shine has recently dulled on two of its best players, too.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer, the transfer from Kentucky who dropped 45 points against Pacific, scored a combined nine in the final two regular-season games against San Diego and BYU. Guard Kevin Pangos, who led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, shot a combined 4-for-19 from the floor in their past two games.
Not just any team can pull off what BYU did. The Cougars boast the league’s leading scorer, senior guard Tyler Haws, who averaged 21.9 points per game this season en route to becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. The Cougars have the eighth-most efficient offense in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy, with unprecedented scoring balance. Kyle Collinsworth, Anson Winder and Chase Fischer each averaged around 13 points per game.
If having star power matters, Saint Mary’s will have a say in the tournament thanks to forward Brad Waldow. The 6-foot-9 senior led the league in rebounding (9.1) and was second in scoring (19.9) this season.
What’s at stake?
Gonzaga will be an angry and motivated top seed in the league after its loss to BYU in the regular-season finale. The loss not only ended the nation’s longest home win streak at 41 games but also potentially knocked the Bulldogs off the No. 1 seed line for the NCAA tournament.
To state the obvious, this ain’t the ACC. The Zags won’t have a chance to beat multiple top-ranked teams in their conference tournament, which could restore a No. 1 shine to their résumé. They’ll probably need teams such as Villanova, Wisconsin and Kansas to lose in the regular season or early in their respective conference tournaments in order to have a chance.
Aside from hating on other teams competing for a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga can keep itself in position for a such a seed only by winning the WCC tournament.
BYU seemingly went from outside the NCAA tournament bubble to punching its golden ticket to the dance with its road upset of the Zags. But the Cougars can’t feel so comfortable that they allow a letdown in the WCC quarterfinals. Anything short of a rubber-match meeting with Gonzaga in the league championship game might still be just cause for trepidation on Selection Sunday.
Saint Mary’s nearly pulled off a Gonzaga upset that could have vaulted it into the NCAA tournament conversation. The Gaels led the Zags for nearly 36 minutes -- by as many as 17 points -- before folding down the stretch at home.
Team with the most to gain
Gonzaga is the only team that has an NCAA bid locked up, so BYU, St. Mary’s, Pepperdine and the rest of the league all have a lot to gain from winning it. But let’s be clear here: Gonzaga has the most to prove.
It seems that whenever the Bulldogs flirt with being ranked in the top five or come close to securing a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, the naysayers start with that noise again: “They’re overrated. … They don’t play anybody. … They’re the weakest (fill in the blank) seed.”
The Zags are basically in no-win territory. If they assert their dominance over the league with big wins in the WCC tournament, some will say they were supposed to win big in this conference. If they struggle to win or, gasp, actually lose in the league tournament, some will say they’re not as good as advertised.
That chatter will continue to be revisited annually until Gonzaga reaches the program’s first Final Four. This is arguably coach Mark Few’s best team, and this could be the season they get it done. But a run to Indianapolis has to begin with a strong showing in the WCC tournament.