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2014 West Coast Conference Tournament Preview

<p>It was business as usual for the Gonzaga Bulldogs this season in West Coast Conference play, as the 'Zags won their 13th regular- season title in the last 14 years.</p>

(SportsNetwork.com) - It was business as usual for the Gonzaga Bulldogs this season in West Coast Conference play, as the 'Zags won their 13th regular- season title in the last 14 years.

Gonzaga will be the top overall seed heading into the 28th-annual West Coadet Conference Tournament, which starts Thursday, March 6, and will run through Tuesday, March 11.

The winner of the event will receive an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament later this month.

This time last year, Gonzaga (25-6 in 2013-14) had just been voted the Associated Press' top overall team in the country, which gave the Bulldogs a spot in the national tournament regardless of whether they won the WCC Tournament. This season the 'Zags aren't in nearly as good of a position, but it's certainly not a bad one either. The Bulldogs finished with a 15-3 mark in conference play, losing to Portland (82-73) on the road, BYU (73-65) on the road and then to San Diego (69-66) again away from their home court.

So the West Coast Conference Tournament this season isn't quite as cut-and-dry as it was last year, especially with teams like BYU and Saint Mary's always breathing down the necks of the Bulldogs.

With the top seed in the conference, Gonzaga will receive a bye into the quarterfinal round of the tournament, and will play on Saturday against the winner of Santa Clara and Pacific.

BYU (21-10, 13-5 WCC) and San Francisco (20-10, 13-5) will be the second and third seeds, respectively. With a season sweep of San Francisco, BYU gets the No. 2 seed despite the identical 13-5 league records. BYU will await the winner of Loyola Marymount and Portland in the quarterfinal round.

Only the top two seeds are waiting for their opponents to be decided by first- round matchups. San Francisco and fourth-seeded Saint Mary's (21-10, 11-7) automatically advance to the quarterfinal round. The Dons will tangle with the sixth-seeded San Diego Toreros (16-15, 7-11) in the first quarterfinal clash, and the Gaels will take on fifth-seed Pepperdine (15-15, 8-10) in the late matchup. There's a distinct possibility that Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary's could earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament without the automatic qualifier.

The first round of the tournament, taking place on Thursday, is between the bottom four seeds and will decide Gonzaga's and BYU's opponent. The 10th- seeded Loyola Marymount Lions (12-18, 4-14) will play the seventh-seeded Portland Pilots (15-15, 7-11), and the Santa Clara Broncos (13-18, 6-12) will clash with the eighth-seeded Pacific Tigers (15-14, 6-12).

First-round play kicks off with Loyola Marymount against Portland. The Lions struggled yet again this season, losing 14 of their 18 conference games. LMU defeated BYU and San Diego to start conference play, then proceeded to lose its next six contests. The Lions dropped their regular-season finale to San Francisco, 65-61, at home, and dropped two contests to Portland during the season. The tournament hasn't been kind to the Lions in recent years, as they enter this postseason with an all-time WCC Tourney record of 18-24, and without a title since the 1990 season. LMU sported a conference-worst scoring defense, allowing 77.3 ppg to opponents, and had a minus-3.8 ppg scoring margin. Anthony Ireland was the lone bright spot for the Lions, averaging a team-best and second-in-conference 18.7 ppg with a team-high 161 assists on the year. Evan Payne chipped in 15.4 ppg, and Gabe Levin added 11.1 ppg.

Portland also tripped and stumbled its way into the postseason after losing the last four regular-season games the team played, including a tough 68-65 loss to Pacific in Saturday's finale. The Pilots have won one conference title - back in 1996 - and have been demolished in the tournament in history, owning a 10-25 record. The Pilots did manage to average 75.4 ppg - good for third in the conference - and had a 39.1 shooting percentage from 3-point range. Ryan Nicholas topped the team and the West Coast Conference in rebounding during the season at 8.7 rpg, while Thomas van der Mars added an eighth-best 7.1 rpg mark in the league (second on Portland). Kevin Bailey notched 16.5 ppg to lead the Pilots, while van der Mars chipped in 13.3 ppg and Nicholas scored 12.9 ppg. Van der Mars netted a team-high 60.9 percent of his field goal attempts this season, which was second in the conference standings. Bailey is listed as questionable to play with a strained calf.

The later first-round contest features Santa Clara going head-to-head with Pacific. The two teams met on the court twice this season, with the series split going to each home team. The Broncos suffered through a disastrous seven-game losing streak in the middle of conference play, and ended the regular season losing three of their last five. But Santa Clara ended on a high note with an 86-78 topping of Pepperdine Saturday. The Broncos sport an even 25-25 all-time record in the WCC Tournament, but haven't been victorious in the title game since 1993. Brandon Clark was a saving grace for the Broncos this season, averaging a team-best 17 ppg, which fit into third in the conference. Jared Brownridge was tied for fourth in the conference standings at 16.9 ppg, and Evan Roquemore chipped in 10.4 ppg. Clark's 110 assists topped the team, but the Broncos' 70.5 ppg was second worst in the league.

Like Santa Clara, Pacific endured some losing streaks that set them back in the standings. The Tigers dropped four straight contests in conference play before defeating Portland, 68-65, in the season finale Saturday. This is Pacific's first season as a member of the West Coast Conference, and first go at the conference postseason. Andrew Bock paced the Tigers with an 11.3 ppg average, adding a team-best 3 apg. Tony Gill (11.2 ppg) and Sama Taku (10.8 ppg) each scored in double figures for Pacific. The Tigers sported the best free-throw percentage in the league, connecting on 77.1 percent from the charity stripe.

Fast forward to Saturday's quarterfinal round, where San Diego and San Francisco will be waiting to start the action. San Diego was topped by BYU to end the team's regular season, but the Toreros had won three in a row before that, including an upset of then-No. 25 ranked Gonzaga, 69-66. San Diego did lose both regular-season meetings with the Dons, the most recent of which came on Feb. 6. The Toreros have won two tournament titles in the program's history, but none since 2008. Still, the team boasts a 26-24 WCC Tournament record entering this postseason. Johnny Dee was sensational for USD on the year, netting 16.9 ppg to pace his squad and check in at fourth in the conference. Duda Sanadze added 13 ppg, and Christopher Anderson led the team and the conference with a 5.9 apg mark. That's about all that can be said about San Diego's offense, which averaged a West Coast Conference-worst 67 ppg. The Toreros' defense however, gave up a league-best 64.6 ppg through 31 games played.

Aside from BYU and Gonzaga, there may be no hotter team in the conference entering this tourney than San Francisco. USF ended the season with five consecutive wins, and was one of four teams to record at least 20 wins in 2013-14. The Dons finished fourth in the conference in scoring offense (75.3 ppg), fifth in scoring defense (71.6 ppg allowed) and was second in field goal percentages (47.9 percent). Cole Dickerson led a group of five Dons players averaging a double-digit point total with 14.6 ppg, adding 7.6 rpg to top his squad. Both Kruize Pinkins and Avry Holmes added 12.5 ppg, and Mark Tollefsen contributed 11 ppg. There's an opportunity this postseason for San Francisco to turn its tournament fortunes around. The Dons enter this year with a 15-26 record in tournament history, and have only one conference title to show for it.

BYU will await the winner of Loyola Marymount and Portland in the second quarterfinal matchup of the tournament. The Cougars struggled a bit in the transition from non-conference play to conference action, at one point losing four straight games in December. But the conference schedule was good to BYU this season, as the Cougars completed their second full season as a member of the WCC at 13-5 in league action, with significant wins over Gonzaga at home, multiple victories over St. Mary's and a season sweep of San Francisco. BYU won the last four in a row to end the season, and eight of its last nine altogether. The Cougars will search for their first conference title in just their second season, and have the best shot at upsetting Gonzaga should the two teams square off in the final round on Tuesday. Tyler Haws picked right up where he left off from last season with a dominant 2013-14 performance, netting a conference-best 23.4 ppg and hitting 43.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. Both Nate Austin (8.3 rpg) and Kyle Collinsworth (7.8 rpg) were in the conference's top three this season in rebounding, while Collinsworth added a team-high and third-best in-conference 4.9 apg. Matt Carlino (14.1 ppg) and Collinsworth (13.6 ppg) round out the Cougars' double-digit scorers.

Gonzaga will get the winner of Santa Clara and Pacific in the third quarterfinal matchup of the day on Saturday. The one time the Bulldogs suffered back-to-back losses all season long came with just over a week left in the regular season. The 'Zags dropped a 73-65 contest to BYU, and a 69-66 one to San Diego. But Gonzaga wrapped up the season by winning its last two games and finishing 15-3 in the WCC. The 'Zags went a perfect 4-0 in the regular season against Pacific and Santa Clara, so it might be hard for the Bulldogs to not be looking ahead to the semifinal round. Gonzaga has won 12 league titles in West Coast Conference history - nine more than Pepperdine, St, Mary's and Loyola Marymount have won, who are all tied for second with three total. At 41-15 in their WCC Tournament history, the Bulldogs have by far the most tournament wins of any current league team. The 'Zags sport the conference's second-best scoring offense (77.2 ppg), second-best scoring defense (65.1 ppg), the best field goal percentage defense (39.3 percent for opponents from the field), and have the best field goal percentages combines in the league (49.7 percent). It's not hard to see why this team is the clear- cut favorite. Sam Dower (14.6 ppg), Kevin Pangos (14.6 ppg), Gary Bell Jr. (10.9 ppg) and Przemek Karnowski (10.3 ppg) fuel a strong Bulldogs offense.

The quarterfinal round will conclude with a matchup of Pepperdine against Saint Mary's. Pepperdine began conference play on the right foot, but really faltered down the stretch after losing all but one of the team's final six games. Pepperdine owns a 28-23 all-time tournament record, but hasn't won a conference title in 20 years. Stacy Davis had a spectacular season for the Waves, and likely saved the team from a worse fate in conference play, especially when Brendan Lane went down earlier in the year with an injury. Davis led the team with 15.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg (fifth-best in conference), and had 19 blocked shots. Lane chipped in 13.2 ppg with 7.4 rpg and a team-best 71 blocked shots. In fact, lane almost single-handedly gave Pepperdine the conference lead at 4.4 blocked shots per contest. Malcolm Brooks contributed 10.3 ppg to the mix.

Saint Mary's and Gonzaga won't get a chance to replay their West Coast Conference final from last season, but could very meet up in the semifinal round on Monday. There was a big step up from the fifth-seeded Waves (15-15, 8-10) to the fourth-seeded Gaels (21-10, 11-7), so Pepperdine, which lost regular-season meetings to Saint Mary's, needs a spectacular effort to advance. Saint Mary's is the most recent conference title winner other than Gonzaga (2012), but the Gaels didn't fare so well against the Bulldogs after being swept by Gonzaga this year. Though the team's offense didn't blow anyone away this season (72.4 ppg - seventh in the WCC), Saint Mary's found success on the defensive end, allowing just 65.5 ppg to opponents. Brad Waldow paced the team in scoring with 15.7 ppg (seventh in the conference) and in rebounding at 7.7 rpg, with Stephen Holt not far behind in the offensive category at 15 ppg.

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