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March 4, 2011
Tournament Preview
WCC Tournament

by Kevin Pelton

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West Coast: March 4-7, all games in Las Vegas

                       Rd1   Semis   Final   Champ
2 Gonzaga              100     100    90.0    56.9
1 St. Mary's           100     100    78.4    36.3
5 Portland            77.2    49.7    13.6     3.5
3 San Francisco        100    67.8     7.9     1.6
4 Santa Clara          100    42.3     7.3     1.3
6 Pepperdine          75.4    28.1     2.0     0.3
8 Loyola Marymount    22.8     7.9     0.8     0.09
7 San Diego           24.6     4.0     0.1     0.005

There is plenty at stake from an NCAA Tournament perspective as the West Coast Conference prepares to tip off its tournament today in Las Vegas, though the action doesn't really begin until Sunday. That's when the WCC's top two teams, Gonzaga and St. Mary's, enter the fray in the semifinals and begin doing battle on two fronts. One goal, obviously, is to win at the Orleans Arena and claim the conference's automatic bid to the NCAAs. The secondary objective is to do enough in a losing effort to convince the Selection Committee they belong as an at-large.

As recently as February 5, when they lost a key midseason intersectional against Memphis at home, the Zags' chances of laying claim to an at-large berth appeared to be on life support. By running off six consecutive wins to finish the conference season, including a showdown overtime victory at St. Mary's, Gonzaga has done enough that Mark Few and company can feel reasonably confident as long as they win on Sunday. Of course, the Bulldogs would surely prefer to rest easy until Selection Sunday with a bid securely in hand.

While Gonzaga was surging, the Gaels were slipping. On February 12, St. Mary's sat 22-4 and 10-1 in the West Coast Conference with a win at the Kennel in hand. A terrible nine-day stretch moved the Gaels squarely onto--and even perhaps all the way off--the bubble. Losing on the road to lowly San Diego opened the door for the Zags to tie for the conference with a win in Moraga, which they did. Just as costly was St. Mary's Bracketbuster loss at home to Utah State sandwiched in between those games. A bad loss and two missed opportunities for a statement win leave the Gaels wanting no part of the Selection Committee's whims, no matter how weak the at-large field. St. Mary's heads to Las Vegas knowing it likely needs to win out to be able to reprise last year's march through March.

The rest of the field hopes to play spoiler, but Ken Pomeroy's log-5 predictions indicate that's an extreme long shot. There is just a 6.8 percent chance that anyone besides Gonzaga and St. Mary's walks away with the auto bid; for that matter, given the WCC's top seed-friendly format, the vast majority of scenarios have the Bulldogs and the Gaels meeting in Monday's title game. Should that come to pass, St. Mary's would wear the home whites as the nominal No. 1 seed, but both Pomeroy's season-long numbers and John Gasaway's in-conference Tuesday Truths suggest that Gonzaga out to be considered a solid favorite.

What allowed Gonzaga to turn around this season? There are a variety of explanations, including health and personnel, but the simplest is the Zags' in-season improvement at the defensive end of the floor. As Gasaway has noted, this is the first Few team in recent memory and maybe ever that has won primarily with defense. Gonzaga is still nothing special when it comes to defending the three-point line (a challenge in a conference loaded with shooters), but makes up for it by stifling opponents in the paint. During conference play, teams shot just 40.7 percent inside the arc. For the season, the Bulldogs are top-10 in the country when it comes to stopping two-point attempts. With 7-footer Robert Sacre in the middle and another big man alongside him, Gonzaga's length makes life difficult for both post players and guards driving the paint.

Since injuring his Achilles early in the season, forward Elias Harris has never been quite right. During conference play, Few has been able to complement him with promising redshirt freshman Sam Dower. Dower has excellent touch. He's not only making 60.4 percent of his two-point attempts but is also dangerous at the line (82.0 percent). In the backcourt, redshirt freshman David Stockton has provided a steadier alternative to Demetri Goodson at the point and junior Marquise Carter offers athleticism on the wing.

St. Mary's has overcome the loss of star big man Omar Samhan with shooting, shooting and more shooting--though not just of the three-point variety. The Gaels are 16th in the country in three-point percentage (.395), but that actually explains less of their offensive success than their 51.5 percent shooting on two-pointers. Rob Jones has replaced Samhan as the interior counterbalance to guards Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell. Jones makes 58.3 percent of his twos, can step outside and is a terrific defensive rebounder. Casual fans will remember him from his role leading San Diego to an upset of Connecticut in the 2008 NCAA Tournament before transferring. While Dellavedova and McConnell are both potent and use plays almost equally, it is the senior McConnell who has been one of the nation's most efficient players. He ranks seventh in the country in True Shooting Percentage (67.9 percent) and 12th in Offensive Rating (130.3). St. Mary's is more vulnerable to breaking down at the defensive end, so a team that gets hot from beyond the arc might be able to outshoot the Gaels in a single game.

The WCC's No. 3 team, San Francisco, has had two wildly different seasons. In non-conference play, the Dons went 6-9 with losses to lowly Montana State (No. 264 in the Pomeroy Ratings) and Cal State Bakersfield (No. 314). But a difficult schedule--USF played Louisville, San Diego State and Washington--helped prepare Rex Walters' charges for conference play. Taking advantage of a number of close wins, San Francisco finished 10-4, just a game out of first place. In reality, though, the Dons' profile in conference play was more that of a .500 team, as they barely outscored opponents. San Francisco lacks scoring punch, but the team emerged as the second-best defensive unit in the WCC. The Dons contest shots and rarely put opponents on the foul line while cleaning up the defensive glass.

Give this to Santa Clara--the Broncos took care of business throughout West Coast Conference play. All six of Santa Clara's losses came to the conference's top four other teams: at Gonzaga, St. Mary's, Portland and San Francisco and home against the Gaels and Dons. Junior forward Marc Trasolini is the Broncos' best all-around player. Trasolini made 64.7 percent of his two-point attempts this season and is also an occasional three-point threat. Sophomore guard Kevin Foster is more mercurial. Foster is lightning quick, but often tries to do too much. He used more than 30 percent of the team's possessions with only middling efficiency, largely because he shot just 41.7 percent inside the arc.

By all accounts, Portland was the WCC's third-best team. They narrowly surpassed San Francisco in efficiency margin and there is a big gap between the Pilots and the conference's lesser lights in Pomeroy's metrics. That throws off the seedings for the tournament, where Santa Clara is the underdog in the teams' likely second-day meeting and top-seeded St. Mary's has a more difficult path to the final game than Gonzaga because of a possible matchup with Portland. The Pilots are lights-out beyond the arc, where both Nemanja Mitrovic (47.1 percent) and Jared Stohl (43.5 percent) are among the nation's best shooters. As a team, Portland ranks second in the country in three-point percentage. Inside, senior forward Luke Sikma is a super-efficient role player who is one of the best defensive rebounders around. Still, the Pilots were enigmatic in conference play in part because they lack a dependable option at the point.

Aside from Gonzaga, nobody was happier to see San Diego knock off St. Mary's than Pepperdine. The Waves now get a much more winnable first-round game against the Toreros instead of facing the stronger Loyola Marymount Lions, who lost the tie-breaker with San Diego that decided the seventh and eighth seeds. Junior guard Keion Bell continues to try to do it all for Pepperdine on offense; his 35.5 percent usage rate is second in the country behind Anatoly Bose of Nicholls State. Bell made incremental gains in his efficiency this year, but still could stand to share some of the load with more talented scorers. Alas, none of the Waves' starters has an Offensive Rating better than 103.0.

NCAA Tournament runs are just a memory for San Diego, which has just four wins all year against D-I competition. The Toreros have been relative giant-killers, taking down a decent Utah team in addition to St. Mary's. San Diego simply can't score the basketball, ranking no better than 222nd in the nation in any of the Four Factors on offense. There is no player on the roster for whom opponents have to gameplan.

It wasn't supposed to come to this for Loyola Marymount, picked to finish third in the conference before the season by Basketball Prospectus. After improving by 15 wins a year ago, the Lions suffered from the Plexiglass Principle this season. LMU was also unlucky in conference play; on a per-possession basis, the Lions were far superior to the Toreros, yet they finished with identical records. Still, Loyola Marymount's play was a disappointment. In sweet-shooting forward Drew Viney, LMU has a legit go-to guy. But guard Vernon Teel struggled to build on last year's successful season, seeing both his efficiency and his assist percentage decline. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster offered little production. Against another opponent, Loyola Marymount might have had a decent shot at a first-round upset to redeem the season. Squaring off with Portland will make that difficult.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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