Las Vegas • Orleans Arena, a 9,500-seat sports and entertainment venue here that sits adjacent to a casino and across the street from a defunct strip joint annually turns into Spokane South for a few days in early March. Gonzaga basketball fans flock there to watch their beloved Zags dominate the West Coast Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Gonzaga supporters easily outnumber fans of all the other teams combined. BYU is by far the second most-represented school, but doesn’t come close to attracting the numbers that GU does.
Gonzaga fans have been known to buy season tickets to all the other schools in the WCC not named Saint Mary’s or BYU — often for less than $100 a season — knowing they will never step foot in venues such as the Leavey Center at Santa Clara or Firestone Fieldhouse at Pepperdine so they can get priority purchasing for WCC tournament tickets.
That dynamic could change a bit this weekend, however, because the Zags’ No. 1-ranked men’s team and No. 14-ranked women’s teams don’t play until Monday under the league’s new tournament format put in place last spring when Gonzaga threatened to bolt for the Mountain West.
In other words, third-seeded BYU will play the winner of Friday’s late second-round game between No. 7 seed San Diego and No. 6 seed Santa Clara at 10 p.m. MDT Saturday in a quarterfinal in front of a lot of empty seats and an ESPN2 television audience.
The Cougars (19-12, 11-5) swept San Diego 88-82 in overtime in San Diego on Feb. 14 and 87-73 in Provo last Saturday. They faced Santa Clara just once, due to another WCC scheduling change that trimmed two games, beating the Broncos 80-74 at the Marriott Center on Jan. 12.
No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 Santa Clara or No. 7 San Diego
At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
When • Saturday, 10 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN2
BYU coach Dave Rose was part of the coaches committee that pushed the changes through, so he’s not complaining. He doesn’t seem to have any “Gonzaga Fatigue,” either, although if any men’s team other than the No. 1-ranked Zags (16-0, 29-2) wins the championship game on Tuesday night, it will be a major stunner.
“Mentally, you have to keep your guys really positive” knowing that Gonzaga is probably unbeatable, Rose said. “The streak that they are on has to come to an end sometime, and hopefully you get a chance to do it. But physically you have got to go out there and beat them instead of just proving that they are not going to lose. You don’t necessarily have to be better than they are, but you have to beat them. That’s why we play.”
In their seven previous WCC tournament appearances, the Cougars are 0-5 against the Zags — three of those losses were in the championship games — and 9-2 against the other teams in the league that has seemingly improved recently with the upswings of San Francisco, San Diego and Loyola Marymount this year.
BYU juniors Yoeli Childs and Zac Seljaas both said they enjoy playing at Orleans Arena, notwithstanding its unusual setup for basketball — it originally housed a minor league hockey team and then an Arena Football League team — and how it has the vibe of McCarthey Athletic Center, aka The Kennel, when hordes of Zags fans show up.
“It is awesome,” Childs said. “I first played there in high school. I played really well there. I feel like we’ve had a lot of really good individual games and I don’t think it is going to affect us too much. We are one of the few teams from the conference that is lucky enough to play in a really large arena, so we are more prepared for it than most teams.”
Seljaas, who relies on outside shooting for his points more than any other Cougar, said it is just like “any other gym” he’s played in.
“You just gotta go in and get used to the feel of it, and you are set,” Seljaas said. “The Orleans Arena is kind of like home now. To us, it is just home.”
At least until Gonzaga shows up.
BYU’S WCC TOURNAMENT HISTORY
2012 — Def. San Diego 73-68, Lost to Gonzaga 77-58
2013 — Lost to San Diego 72-69
2014 — Def. LMU 85-74, Def. USF 79-77 (OT), Lost to Gonzaga 75-64
2015 — Def. Santa Clara 78-76, Def. Portland 84-70, Lost to Gonzaga 91-75
2016 — Def. Santa Clara 72-60, Lost to Gonzaga 88-84
2017 — Def. LMU 89-81, Lost to Saint Mary’s 81-50
2018 — Def. San Diego 85-79, Def. Saint Mary’s 85-72, Lost to Gonzaga 74-54
Overall record: 9-7