By John Crumpacker
As the regular season showed, every game counts in the West Coast Conference. Although SAINT MARY’S and GONZAGA technically tied for the regular season championship with 15-3 records, it was the Gaels’ sweep of the Zags that gives them the No. 1 seed going into Las Vegas for the conference tournament.
Saint Mary’s might have won the regular season title outright if it had managed a split with PEPPERDINE. Instead, the Waves swept the Gaels. Oh, well.
Even with getting swept by Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga could have been the No. 1 seed if it had managed to hold serve at home on Jan. 14 against BYU. Instead, the Zags dropped a 69-68 game at the McCarthey Center.
Going through the brackets, it would be easy to project a Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga final on Tuesday, March 8, with possibly a one-and-only berth in the NCAA Tournament at stake. However … in a projected semifinal between BYU and Gonzaga on Monday, who wins? The teams split during the regular season. In a less-than-dominant season for Gonzaga, it’s no stretch to see BYU winning and moving on to the final.
In the same spirit, it’s not hard to imagine Pepperdine making it a hat trick and beating Saint Mary’s for the third time this season to advance to the final against BYU. Pep and BYU split during the regular season, so a projected semifinal between these two could go either way.
Say Pepperdine does make it to the final, and wins the guaranteed NCAA bid at 20-12. What happens to Saint Mary’s, 24-4 at the moment, and Gonzaga, 23-7? Would the NCAA Selection Committee leave both the Gaels and Zags out, or take one? And if so, which one? More established Gonzaga, or the team that beat it twice during the regular season?
That’s what makes the WCC Tournament so compelling. Anything seems possible among the top four seeds, which has to make Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga a little nervous as they prepare for games at the Orleans Arena later this week.
Here’s how I see the brackets unfolding this week:
I’ll take LOYOLA MARYMOUNT (13-16) over SAN DIEGO (9-20) on Friday in what is a “play-in’’ game into the quarterfinals on Saturday. The Lions closed the regular season with a roar by beating No. 4 seed Pepperdine in the finale. Coach Mike Dunlap has a little something going in L.A.
In the quarterfinals on Saturday, BYU (22-9) has too much talent and puts an end to SANTA CLARA’S season at 11-19. Broncos coach Kerry Keating needs to fortify his front line and give Jared Brownridge more to work with in 2016-17.
Pepperdine, still smarting from its season-ending loss to LMU, takes care of SAN FRANCISCO in the 3 p.m. game while Saint Mary’s has to work up a sweat to beat LMU at 7 p.m. In the last quarterfinal, Gonzaga has an easy time of it against PORTLAND despite oh, say, 29 points by Alec Wintering.
Following a day of rest on Sunday, it’s BYU-Gonzaga in one semifinal on Monday and Saint Mary’s-Pepperdine in the other. Hmmm … Kyle Wiltjer finds his groove with something like 27 points while Domantas Sabonis, ever the stevedore, does the heavy lifting with 22 points and 16 rebounds as the Zags advance to the final. However, in a season in which most everything went right for Saint Mary’s, its Achilles Heel remains Pepperdine and coach Marty Wilson’s team makes it 3-0 over the Gaels to make it to the conference tournament final for the first time since 2002.
Tuesday night’s final features two highly motivated teams in Pepperdine and Gonzaga. The Waves know their only hope of getting an NCAA bid is to win the WCC tournament. Gonzaga has a strong national reputation built on 17 straight tournament invites but this has been a less-than-stellar season in Spokane. The Zags might feel like they need to win in Las Vegas to keep their streak going.
With two desperate teams each battling for the same prize, I’ll go with the experience of Gonzaga to win the title again. That will leave Saint Mary’s, and to a lesser extent BYU, sweating it out for another week to learn their NCAA fates.
It would be a shame if the Gaels, for all the good things they did this season, are left out of the NCAA Tournament. BYU, too, has an appealing team and interesting storylines, as well as 22 wins going into Vegas.
Before the first tipoff at the Orleans Arena, here’s a look at the leaders in the most significant team and individual categories at regular season’s end:
Team scoring – BYU, 83.9
Team defense – Saint Mary’s, 60.3
Scoring margin – Saint Mary’s, 15.0
Scoring – Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga, 20.8
Rebounds – Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga, 11.9
Field goal percentage – Dane Pineau, Saint Mary’s, .643
Assists – Kyle Collinsworth, BYU, 7.5
Free throw percentage – Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga, .876
Steals – Kyle Collinsworth, BYU, 2.1
3-point field goal percentage – Stefan Gonzalez, Saint Mary’s, .507
3-point field goals made per game – Chase Fischer, BYU, 3.0
Blocked shots – Jito Kok, San Diego, 2.6
Assists-turnover ratio – Kyle Dranginis, Gonzaga, 3.6
Minutes played – Emmett Naar, Saint Mary’s, 36.8
Speaking of which
I had a little fun at the outset of the season noting how many players named “Kyle’’ could be found on WCC rosters. I even came up with an All-Kyle team. Well, who’s laughing now? Notice that at the end of the regular season, a Kyle leads the conference in scoring (Wiltjer, 20.8), free throw percentage (Wiltjer, .876), assists (Collinsworth, 7.5), steals (Collinsworth, 2.1) and assists-to-turnovers ratio (Dranginis, 3.6).
To that, let me say, well done, Kyle. You, too, Kyle. And you as well, Kyle.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.