Jay Drew: BYU is the key to WCC’s hopes for three tourney bids
Cougars cannot afford to stumble more than once before conference tourney.
Published: February 16, 2012 11:49PM
Updated: January 15, 2013 04:21PM
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Barring an epic collapse, West Coast Conference basketball teams Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s will make it into the NCAA Tournament next month, either as the league’s automatic qualifier for winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas or as at-large selections.

The BYU-killing Gaels are 23-3, ranked 16th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and 21st in the Associated Press Top 25. Their RPI is in the 20s. They’re in.

The Zags are 20-4 and ranked 24th in both polls. They have a better RPI than Saint Mary’s, have a win over the Gaels and some impressive nonconference wins over the likes of Notre Dame, Butler, Xavier and Arizona. They’re in.

That settled, the most compelling question regarding the WCC this season is simple. Is it a three-bid league?

If so, it would mark the first time since 2008, when Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego all made the Big Dance, that the WCC represented so well in March Madness.

Everything seems to hinge on BYU — unless a team other than BYU, St. Mary’s or Gonzaga breaks through at Orleans Arena and wins the tournament title. In that case, there’s no way the WCC gets four bids, and BYU would likely be on the outside looking in.

Hello NIT.

From what I’ve seen, Loyola Marymount is the only team outside of the Big Three that appears capable of winning the tourney title. The Lions (16-10) have three excellent players in Drew Viney, Ashley Hamilton and Anthony Ireland, and Ireland is the type of point guard that can thrive in a tournament environment. He’s mentally tough, as he showed in LMU’s upset of BYU in Provo last month.

San Francisco (17-10) is a bit underrated and could be a threat, too, although the WCC tournament format awards first- and even second-round byes to the higher-seeded teams, making it more difficult for non-favorites to run the table than in a regular conference tournament format like the Mountain West has.

My take is that if the season were to end today, the Cougars (21-6) would be in the tournament and would provide some much-needed validation, of sorts, for their admission into the WCC. The new kids on the block have already caused some angst in their new league, already invoked some hostilities, albeit unintentionally.

Their fans have literally taken over arenas at some schools, which didn’t exactly endear the Cougars to the locals, and their students’ behavior at the Marriott Center during and after that 80-66 loss to Saint Mary’s was seen around the sportsmanship-oriented league as boorish and embarrassing.

Leaders of their new conference were not amused.

What better way to make up for that awkward entrance than to pad the league coffers with the cash that an NCAA Tournament appearance will bring?

But BYU cannot afford to stumble more than once before the conference tournament. Sure, the Cougars can probably lose at Gonzaga and keep their tournament hopes alive. But a loss before then — say, at much-improved San Francisco on Thursday — would be devastating.

The Cougars aren’t on the bubble right now, but they should stay away from sharp objects.

On Monday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had BYU as a No. 11 seed in his latest version of Bracketology. The Bracket Matrix website, which compiles 60 bracket predictions, says BYU is in 57 of them, and has an average seed of 11.

Of course, whether the WCC gets three bids or not partially depends on what happens in the Pac-12. A Power Six conference has never had just one team in the tourney since 1980, when the field was expanded to 48 teams, but the Pac-12 could do that this season.

drew@sltrib.com

Twitter: @drewjay