Holding on to second place in the WCC race is ‘a pretty big deal’ to the BYU Cougars as they embark on tough two-game road trip this week

Top two seeds get double-byes into semifinals of conference tournament next month, and league-leading Gonzaga is well on its way to the No. 1 seed, again

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Diego forward Isaiah Pineiro defends BYU guard Zac Seljaas in a game played last season at the Marriott Center. The Cougars and Toreros meet for the first time this season on Thursday in San Diego and both are chasing second place in the West Coast Conference.

Provo • Take No. 3-ranked and league-leading Gonzaga out of the equation, and a case could be made that the 2018-19 West Coast Conference men’s basketball race is as intriguing — and important — as it has ever been.

Second place has never looked so good.

Getting the runner-up spot in the regular-season chase is uber-important, after the WCC made a significant change to its conference tournament format last March in an attempt to keep the nationally prominent Zags from bolting for the Mountain West. The top two seeds in the men’s and women’s WCC tournaments will receive double-byes into the semifinal round on Monday, March 11.

Under the previous system, the top two seeds entered in the quarterfinals, which created the possibility of a top-two team getting upset by teams in the 7-10 range which already had a tournament game under their belts. Such a happening could be seen as devastating to a team’s at-large chances for an NCAA Tournament bid.

What does all this mean for BYU, which sits alone in second place with an 8-3 league record? The Cougars’ second-place destiny is in their own hands as they embark upon their remaining five league games, beginning Thursday night at San Diego and continuing Saturday afternoon at Loyola Marymount.

“This is a really important road trip for us,” BYU coach Dave Rose understated.

The Cougars (16-10 overall) know they will have to win the WCC tournament to make the NCAA Tournament in March, and knocking off the powerful Zags (10-0, 23-2) in front of a decidedly pro-Gonzaga crowd at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas is an almost impossible task. But having to win just two games to make the Big Dance, rather than three or four, is obviously the goal.

“It feels a little bit different if we are all indeed all playing for that second-place slot,” Rose said Tuesday. “That’s way more important this year than it has been. … The two [seed] gets a bye into the semifinals? That’s a pretty big deal.”


At Jenny Craig Pavilion, San Diego

Tipoff • Thursday, 8 p.m. MST

TV • AT&T Rocky Mountain

Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Records • BYU 8-3, 16-10; San Diego 5-5, 16-9

Series history • BYU leads 14-5

Last meeting • BYU 85, San Diego 79 (March 3, 2018)

About the Toreros • They are coming off a heartbreaking 70-67 loss at Pepperdine last Saturday in which they led by three in the final minute. Utah transfer Isaiah Wright scored 14 points and Isaiah Pineiro added 13 points and 10 rebounds, his ninth double-double of the season. … They are averaging 73.5 points per game and allowing 68.0 ppg. … This marks the first of four straight home games for the team tied for fifth in the league standings.

About the Cougars • They have won three straight games for the fourth time this season and have moved into second place in the WCC standings. … They have won three of the last four matchups with San Diego, but haven’t won at JCP since a 69-67 win in February of 2016. … Junior F Yoeli Childs has 14 double-doubles this season and 34 in his career. He’s tied with Alan Taylor for fourth all-time for career double-doubles in BYU history. Averaging 21.0 points per game, Childs is 32nd in the country in scoring.

Rose isn’t complaining. He was the chair of the WCC men’s basketball head coaches group that proposed many of the changes made on March 26, 2018.

The coach is also trying to decide if the new conference scheduling format — men’s teams are playing 16 games instead of the double round-robin format of 18 — is working out as planned. The change was made to lessen the RPI impact for top teams such as Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s when they play the traditionally lower-tier opponents in the league such as Portland, Pacific, Pepperdine and Santa Clara.

The Cougars may have caught a break with that arrangement, because the two teams they will play just once — Pepperdine and Santa Clara — are both 5-6 in conference play and have seemingly improved.

“I think if you got into the [coaching] staff meetings of the five or six teams that are still fighting for that [second] spot, you will hear some real interesting discussions about who is playing who as far as how that is going to play out,” Rose said. “So, we will see how it stacks up at the end. But I do think that it feels different right now with three weeks left and … us still being able to compete for that bye into the semifinals.”

Also, those better teams were able to play two additional non-conference opponents in an attempt to boost their RPIs; BYU added San Diego State and Mississippi State, but lost both those games on the road.

“The disparity in RPI from the top of our league to the bottom is larger than [in] any other conferences,” Rose said last March in arguing for the changes, which also included changes to the league’s revenue distribution process.

As for playing Thursday at San Diego (5-5, 16-9), where the Cougars have stumbled two straight times, Rose and seniors McKay Cannon and Luke Worthington said Tuesday it will take an outstanding effort to beat the Toreros, who are finally healthy after missing up to two starters for several league games last month.

“My first impression is they are a lot better than their record, because they have had some real injuries,” Rose said. “They are at full strength right now and they are playing really good basketball, and they have played really well at home.”

USD is 11-1 at Jenny Craig Pavilion, having lost only to Pepperdine (76-71) on Jan. 12 when senior Isaiah Wright and freshman Akim-Jamal Jonah didn’t play.

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