The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is more or less how I'd describe the outlook for this season's West Coast Conference tournament. Did some small pieces shift here and there? Sure did, but this looks an awful like it did last season. For Gonzaga, this goal this time around is to end the season a bit differently than the way they did last year. Last year in Las Vegas, the Zags were knocked off their perch by Saint Mary's in a downright rout. Mickey McConnell and Ben (freaking) Allen had career nights as the Gaels went on to capture the tournament crown which began an outstanding run into the Sweet Sixteen.
Fast forward to 2011. Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are still the top teams in the conference and are the overwhelming favorites to once again return to the conference title game for the third consecutive season. The good news for Gonzaga fans is that this season is a bit different in terms of where the teams are at this moment. Gonzaga has won seven of their last eight and are, without a doubt, playing their best basketball of the season. The Gaels have lost three of their last four and are looking to muster up some momentum before Vegas this evening with a little tune-up against Weber State. Each team will get a bye to Sunday evening's semifinals at the Orleans Arena while the rest of the conference battles it out to see who will take on the class of the WCC.
After the jump. I'll take a quick look into some of the things to watch for as the West Coast Conference tips off tonight in Las Vegas.
Is there any chance a team not named Gonzaga or Saint Mary's wins the tournament and gets the auto-bid?
Not a chance. The Zags or Gales will win the tournament unless both teams are suddenly disqualified today. If both teams are disqualified, then I'd put my money on San Francisco to win the West Coast Conference tournament. The Dons lost 9 of their first 15 games of the season but now sit 16-13 on the year and 10-4 in the conference. Rex Walters is the rightful owner of Randy Bennett's 2011 WCC Coach of the Year trophy for what he has done there with very few expectations after losing program player Dior Lowhorn. Alas, sorry Rex and the Dons, this conference tournament is a two horse race.
It is March. There has to be an upset...right?
I'm an absolute sucker for Loyola Marymount basketball. Each year I predict them for success and am consistently disappointed. I'm going to do it again and say that LMU will upset Portland tomorrow night in the first round. Now, I know that LMU has lost 12 of their last 14 but...they are due. Their two most recent losses were at Santa Clara and at San Francisco. They took the Broncos to overtime but lost and followed that up with a crushing two point loss to the Dons. The Pilots smoked the Lions in early February but I've got a feeling that LMU will end this season on a somewhat high-note and knock off Portland.
Who are the top two contenders to win WCC Tournament MVP?
Sam Dower: Down the stretch, Sam has been an absolute revelation. In the past five games, Dower has not shot under 50% and in his two contests against Saint Mary's this season, Sam has gone for 15 and 21 points. Saint Mary's is an excellent team, but they have little answer for the post game that Sam possesses and he exploited that in late February. Assuming the tournament MVP is decided by who played best during the championship, my money is on Sam to walk away with the trophy.
Mickey McConnell: A little reverence for the best player in the conference. Mickey has averaged 17 points a game this season and won player of the year honors from the WCC. While I like Mickey's supporting cast alright, they are very limited and he'll have to have a big weekend for the Gaels to repeat. What has been remarkable about McConnell throughout his four years is that each year, he has become a more efficient player. He went from a 42% shooter from the floor as a sophomore and how sits at around 52% and his minutes have nearly doubled.
While you should take my words for what they are worth (this is a Gonzaga blog, remember), I will try to be as unbiased as possible. With that being said, I truly do think the Zags win the West Coast Conference tournament and remove all speculation and anxiety about the bubble and tournament time. Overall, Gonzaga's current trajectory thanks in large part to the arrival of Marquise Carter and Sam Dower give this team an added dimension that it lacked for a majority of the year and is something I don't think any other team in this field can match up with. I would wager that Gonzaga defeats USF by 15-18 points in the semifinals and that they maintain a healthy margin throughout the title game against Saint Mary's and breeze past by 10-14 points with Sam Dower being the difference.
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