Las Vegas • Just when it appeared the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament would be short on drama and intrigue again this year, some off-the-court happenings earlier this week could change everything.
San Diego coach Lamont Smith was put on paid administrative leave Monday after being arrested Sunday on suspicion of domestic abuse and won’t be on the bench Saturday when the Toreros face BYU. How will the much-improved Toreros respond?
Then the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Wednesday that Gonzaga, which basically has owned the league the last two decades and is a favorite to win its sixth straight tournament championship this week, might be interested in bolting the WCC for the Mountain West Conference. And the powerhouse Zags, who have been responsible for pouring millions and millions of dollars into the league’s coffers, might get BYU to go with them to hand the WCC a one-two gut punch.
Suffice it to say, it will be an interesting four days at Orleans Arena.
Action begins Friday with a pair of first-round games that will decide which cellar-dwellers get to be pulverized by Gonzaga (27-4) and No. 22 Saint Mary’s (27-4) in Saturday’s quarterfinals. Saturday’s other two quarterfinals — No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 San Diego and No. 4 San Francisco vs. No. 5 seed Pacific — should be much more competitive.
The tournament takes off Sunday, which has happened since BYU joined the league back in 2011-12, and resumes Monday with semifinals at 7 and 9:30 p.m. MST. The championship game is set for 7 p.m. MT Tuesday on ESPN, and it will be a major surprise if the Gaels and Zags aren’t playing in it for the third straight year.
The WCC has gone from the Big Three to the Big Two the past few seasons, with perennial third-place finisher BYU now closer to the middle-tier teams than the elite.
If seeding holds, second-seeded Saint Mary’s will meet the BYU-San Diego winner and top-seeded Gonzaga will meet the Pacific-San Francisco winner in the semis. But BYU coach Dave Rose said nothing can be taken for granted in March.
“They have to win two games first before they get to the finals,” Rose said about Gonzaga. “History has shown that they are pretty good at it. But I think that there is a reason why we play the games, and we don’t just figure out on our phones the statistics of who is going to win or not.”
Gonzaga fans annually dominate the venue, outnumbering fans from all the other teams combined. But it will be interesting to see what kind of reception the Zags get from the non-GU supporters, especially after Wednesday’s reports that the school has discussed a move to the MWC with that league’s commissioner, Craig Thompson.
Then again, that probably won’t matter. Gonzaga has won five straight tournament championships and 16 overall. Saint Mary’s is 3-8 in championship games and will be seeking its first tournament championship since 2012, a 78-74 overtime win over Gonzaga.
As for BYU, the Cougars expect the Toreros to be fired up in the absence of their coach, just as last-place Peppedine was when it gave the Cougars all they wanted a few days after the school announced Marty Wilson would not be returning. Three-year assistant Sam Scholl will be USD’s interim coach.
“Every team is in a different spot,” BYU’s Elijah Bryant said. “Like our coaches have talked about, there is hope for each team now. You are playing to move on. There is no tomorrow. You give the teams at the bottom another shot at a top team, so it kind of re-energizes both sides of the spectrum.”
WCC MEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Friday’s first-round games
No. 8 Loyola Marymount vs. No. 9 Portland, 7 p.m., AT&T Rocky Mountain, BYUtv
No. 7 Santa Clara vs. No. 10 Pepperdine, 9 p.m., AT&T Rocky Mountain, BYUtv
Saturday’s quarterfinal games
No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 San Diego, 2 p.m., AT&T Rocky Mountain, BYUtv
No. 4 San Francisco vs. No. 5 Pacific, 4 p.m., AT&T Rocky Mountain, BYUtv
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. Loyola Marymount-Portland winner, 8 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 Saint Mary’s vs. Santa Clara-Pepperdine winner, 10 p.m., ESPN2
Note: All times are MST