This year’s West Coast Conference tournament has a different feel. A feeling of invincibility.
With Gonzaga coming to Orleans Arena as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team and flirting with a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, the intrigue could be who will play the Bulldogs in Saturday’s WCC semifinals and if they can spring a monumental upset.
The two teams that appear to have the best chance of knocking off the Zags — Brigham Young and Saint Mary’s — are on a collision course to meet in the other semifinal Saturday and face Gonzaga, assuming the Bulldogs (29-2, 16-0) win their semifinal game.
“They’ve had a terrific season,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “They can beat you a number of ways, and their flexibility makes them so tough to play against.”
The tournament begins at 6 p.m. today with No. 8 Portland meeting No. 9 Loyola Marymount. The winner gets No. 5 San Francisco on Thursday, with the survivor of that game meeting No. 4 Santa Clara on Friday. That winner gets the monumental task of trying to upset Gonzaga at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The tournament’s all-session passes are sold out, but a limited number of tickets will be available for each day’s session at the Orleans Arena box office beginning at 10 a.m. that day.
Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating knows the challenge his team faces.
“We’ve had some experience playing the No. 1 team when we played Duke in December,” Keating said. “It’s great exposure for our league. People can try to undervalue (Gonzaga) being No. 1, but it can’t be undervalued. They’ve earned it, and they’ve got even more motivation now than in the past, so that makes it even tougher for the rest of us.”
Gonzaga has the WCC Player of the Year in junior forward Kelly Olynyk and placed sophomore guard Kevin Pangos and senior forward Elias Harris on the all-conference first team.
“You need to have everyone playing well at the same time and hope you catch them on a bad night,” Keating said. “But they haven’t had many bad nights. They have a lot of depth and a lot of weapons.”
BYU, which will play in the quarterfinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of the San Diego-Pepperdine game, enters the tournament having lost four of its past seven games. But the Cougars (21-10) still are a dangerous team, with all-conference first-team senior forward Brandon Davies and sophomore guard Tyler Haws leading the way.
“We’ve got a terrific group of competitors, and when we get the right matchup, the right setup, we can compete with anyone,” Rose said. “We don’t have the flexibility to play different styles. That’s our biggest flaw.
“But when you get into tournament play, if you can get a couple of guys hot, get a couple of guys to contribute who had struggled during the year, and you catch it all together, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Keating hopes his Broncos (21-10) will have enough firepower to ruin Gonzaga’s plans for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. They are led by Evan Roquemore, a junior guard from Foothill High School, senior guard Kevin Foster and senior forward Marc Trasolini.
“We’ve got to get there first,” Keating said. “We’ll have a tough game Friday. But we’re good, we’re healthy, and when we have Kevin and Marc on the floor together, we’ve won 66 games. Having two all-conference guys (Foster and Trasolini) back makes a big difference.
“(Roquemore) has been a little up and down. We need him to get hot this week. We’re right on the cusp of playing somewhere in the postseason, so it’s a big week for us.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.
• When: Today-Monday
• Where: Orleans Arena
• Schedule: First round — Portland vs. Loyola Marymount, 6 p.m. today; Second round — San Francisco vs. Portland-LMU winner, 6 p.m. Thursday, San Diego vs. Pepperdine, 8:30 p.m.; Quarterfinals — Santa Clara vs. USF-Portland/LMU winner, 6 p.m. Friday, Brigham Young vs. USD-Pepperdine winner, 8:30 p.m.; Semifinals — Gonzaga vs. Santa Clara-USF/Portland-LMU winner, 6 p.m. Saturday, Saint Mary’s vs. BYU-USD/Pepperdine winner, 8:30 p.m.; Championship — Semifinal winners, 6 p.m. Monday
• TV: BYUtv (today, Thursday), ESPNU (Friday), ESPN2 (Saturday), ESPN (Monday)
• Tickets: $40, $45, $50, $55, $65, $75 and $85 (single session available day of game only in person at Orleans Arena box office)