As I sit here watching the terrific Illinois St. vs. Northern Iowa, I have suddenly remembered the reason why I came to Las Vegas. While it may be a huge advantage for Gonzaga to get two byes in the WCC tournament, it sure is tough as a fan to wait this long to see the team play. Barring a freak accident of nature, or a complete and utter mistake by the tournament committee, the Zags will be playing in the NCAA tournament. However, starting tonight with Santa Clara, every opponent knows that if they lose, their dancing dreams are likely over. It should be a tremendous environment tonight at the Orleans, as I have seen what seemed like endless amounts of Gonzaga and Santa Clara fans on the strip the past two days.
To be completely honest, Santa Clara is perhaps the team that I least wanted to see during this tournament. Had it not been for one of the most idiotic displays from a student section in NCAA history, Gonzaga might now have escaped with the 81-73 victory on February 26th. The Broncos have steadily improved throughout the conference season, and have found a somewhat consistent supporting cast for WCC POY John Bryant.
Santa Clara will only go as far as John Bryant will take it. Although many Gonzaga fans question the decision, it's hard to argue with Bryant being the conference player of he year. The terrific Bryant averaged 18.2 points and 14.3 rebounds this season, and has positioned himself as arguably the top big man on the west coast. Bryant continued his dominant season with a legendary performance in the WCC quarter finals. In the 80-69 victory over USD, Bryant not only scored 24 points, but he had a WCC conference tournament record 27 rebounds!!!! However, if Josh Heytvelt can continue and limit Bryant's touches in the paint, Gonzaga has an excellent chance to win this game.
Over the course of the season, Kevin Foster has emerged as an excellent complimentary scoring threat to Bryant. The 6'2 freshman has had a huge impact on the program, and averaged 14.7 points this season. Foster had 21 points in the win over USD, and he is a player that Jeremy Pargo, Steven Gray, and Micah Downs need to keep their eyes on.
After almost a full week without playing a competitive game, it's hard to believe that the Zags wont come out a little rusty. If they do indeed struggle on the offensive end early, it's vital that they take care of business on the other end of the floor, and do not allow Rahon, Foster, and Bryant to get comfortable. I really believe that the Zags recognize how important winning this tournament would be for seeding in the NCAA tournament. Behind a great performance from Josh Heytvel, I expect Gonzaga to emerge with a 77-65 victory.