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March 5, 2010
Tournament Preview
West Coast Conference

by Kevin Pelton

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West Coast: March 5-8, all games in Las Vegas

Seed                 Qtrs     Semis    Final    Champ
  1 Gonzaga           100      100      89.9     52.4
  2 St. Mary's        100      100      68.8     35.1
  3 Portland          100      87.0     30.2     11.1
  4 San Francisco     100      49.4      4.5      0.6
  5 Loyola Marymount  83.5     47.3      5.5      0.9
  6 San Diego         61.6      9.2      0.8      0.09
  7 Santa Clara       38.4      3.8      0.2      0.02
  8 Pepperdine        16.5      3.4      0.3      0.01

The West Coast Conference begins its tournament today in Las Vegas offering its lesser lights relatively little hope of the kind of magical run underdogs dream of pulling off. Start with the conference's imbalance. Per Ken Pomeroy's ratings, the WCC is a very stratified conference, with three teams in the top 100 but no one else higher than No. 171 and last-place Pepperdine at a distant No. 291. To that, add the favorite-friendly tournament format the WCC adopted 2003, a four-round tournament for eight teams. Seeds 5-8 will play today for spots in the quarterfinals against No. 3 seed Portland and No. 4 seed San Francisco. Only on Sunday will favorites Gonzaga and St. Mary's join the fray, needing to win just one game apiece to set up an anticipated meeting in the championship game.

Still, there is much at stake for the WCC. Gonzaga is surely in the NCAA Tournament, but looking to solidify both seeding and its chances of staying at home in Spokane for the first weekend. Because Washington State University is hosting games at the Spokane Arena, the Bulldogs could play minutes away from their campus in front of what would surely be a partisan crowd. Gonzaga almost certainly needs to win the WCC Tournament to draw that kind of favorable seeding.

The second-place Gaels of St. Mary's find themselves squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, appearing as a No. 12 seed and one of the last teams in by most projections. Depending on the fate of other bubble teams, St. Mary's probably needs to win its semifinal and test Gonzaga in the final to assure a berth. Standing in the Gaels' way are the Portland Pilots, the third team that harbors legitimate aspirations of winning the tournament. On their best days, the Pilots have shown the ability to play with anyone, crushing UCLA early in the season and splitting two matchups with St. Mary's. An overtime stumble at Loyola Marymount, however, ended Portland's hopes of edging the Gaels out for the second bye into the semis.

For Gonzaga, the big question is somewhat similar to the one posed by Pomeroy about Kentucky earlier in the season (with a nod to the 2005-06 Zags)--are close matchups against lesser opponents indicative of Gonzaga's ability or simply an indication that the team's focus waned at times against WCC competition? Of the Bulldogs' 14 conference games, eight were either losses (shockers at San Francisco and Loyola Marymount) or decided by single digits. That's hardly the domination you'd expect from a team ranked as high as the top 10 of the polls in a lesser conference. When tested in league play, however, Gonzaga responded by going 4-0 against St. Mary's and Portland and beating the two teams by a combined 46 points at home.

This Zags group is not nearly as dominant offensively as its predecessors, ranking 41st in adjusted offensive efficiency. With sophomore Robert Sacre and WCC Newcomer of the Year Elias Harris anchoring the middle, Gonzaga is stouter defensively, scoring well in each of the Four Factors save forcing turnovers. On the other end, the Bulldogs boast a balanced attack with Harris, senior Matt Bouldin, Stephen Gray and Sacre each using between 21.8 and 24.1 percent of the team's possessions. Harris, Bouldin and Gray are all efficient options whose skills complement each other. Harris, a native of Germany who came to Spokane with relatively little fanfare, has in particular impressed, making 57.0 percent of his two-point attempts.

The recipe for knocking off Gonzaga starts with keeping the team off the foul line, which is easier said than done. The Zags are 10th in the country in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Harris and Sacre can bully smaller defenders in the paint and Bouldin and Gray are capable of reaching the paint off the dribble. Gonzaga is less potent from beyond the arc, where only Bouldin (57-of-132, 43.2 percent) is a major threat. Also, the Bulldogs' young bench, led by three freshmen and a sophomore, has been inconsistent.

St. Mary's has done an impressive job of weathering the losses of Patty Mills, now plying his trade in the NBA, and D-League standout Diamon Simpson to post . Fortunately for Randy Bennett, who has built a strong program in Moraga, Calif., the Gaels still have a standout in senior center Omar Samhan. While Bouldin won WCC Player of the Year, the statistical case for Samhan as the conference's top player is pretty convincing. He is a skilled low-post player with few weaknesses. Samhan is especially strong on the glass, rebounding 19.5 percent of available misses and ranking 22nd in the country in defensive rebound percentage.

St. Mary's surrounds Samhan with a cadre of good shooters who hit 40.8 percent of their three-pointers to rank sixth in the nation. The leader of the group is junior Mickey McConnell, who knocked down 50.8 percent of his long-range tries and also doubles as the team's leading assister. Bennett relies heavily on the trio of Samhan, McConnell and freshman Matthew Dellavedova, and the three will get little rest in the tournament. Foul trouble--most likely to Samhan--could be devastating.

With four senior starters, this was the year for Portland to make some noise under Eric Reveno, and the campaign got off to a promising start when the Pilots opened 5-0 with victories over Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota. The luster has since come off the Pac-10 conquests, and Portland slipped badly in the rest of its non-conference schedule, losing at home to Portland State and at Idaho. Still, the Pilots survived the loss of senior guard Nik Raivio for the second half of the conference schedule (he will not play in the conference tournament) to finish 10-4, and knocked off St. Mary's in overtime at home on national television. The numbers favor the Gaels to advance to the championship game, but Portland has a legitimate shot at winning the rubber game of the season series.

The Pilots are one of those five teams in the country that shoots better from distance than St. Mary's, ranking third in the NCAA at 41.2 percent. Junior guard Jared Stohl made his threes at a 48.7 percent clip and is 92.3 percent in his rare trips to the free throw line. Add it up and Stohl's Offensive Rating of 128.7 is ninth in the country. Junior forward Luke Sikma gives Portland another strong role player, ranking fifth in the country on the defensive glass and making 56.1 percent of his twos. The leader is senior guard T.J. Campbell, who is quick and shoots 43.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Pilots' Achilles heel is relatively weak interior play, a major problem in matchups against Samhan and Gonzaga's frontline. Sikma is undersized as a power forward and center Robin Smeulders is not much of a shot blocker.

Rex Walters' charges at San Francisco went 5-10 in non-conference play, but a difficult slate (including visits to Arizona State, Colorado and Washington and a game against BYU) helped prepare the Dons for conference play. Senior forward Dior Lowhorn is a do-it-all player who took the nation's second-highest percentage of his team's shots while on the floor. The reason Lowhorn's usage rate isn't quite as high is simply because he rarely turns the ball over. Lowhorn shot 51.5 percent on twos and is excellent when he gets to the free throw line (81.4 percent).

Over the course of the season, Loyola Marymount has been stronger than San Francisco, but a pair of head-to-head wins gave the Dons the nod for a bye into the quarterfinals. It's not exactly Paul Westhead-ball, but the Lions play a fairly fast pace (tops in the WCC) and are better on offense than defense. Another sharpshooting WCC team, Loyola Marymount rarely tries threes, but makes them at an impressive 38.8 percent clip. Forward Drew Viney, who hits 42.2 percent beyond the arc, is the team's best shooter. Junior guard Vernon Teel is a tough cover who averages nearly seven free throw attempts a night. Unfortunately, he makes them at just a 66.5 percent clip. With wins over Gonzaga and Portland, the Lions have shown the ability to play with anyone.

Two years removed from winning the conference tournament and upsetting UConn in the NCAA Tournament, the San Diego Toreros slipped to a three-way tie for last in the West Coast Conference this season. The loss of forward Rob Jones to a transfer, combined with the graduation of center Gyno Pomare, left former Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier short on talent up front. The departures put heavy pressure on senior guard Brandon Johnson, who saw his True Shooting Percentage dip from 54.4 percent to 50.8 percent. Brazilian JC transfer Roberto Mafra did step up in his senior season as a strong shot blocker and decent rebounder. By virtue of winning the three-way tie and earning the No. 6 seed, the Toreros are strong favorites to reach the quarterfinals but have little chance of pulling an upset after that.

While Santa Clara was 3-11 in conference play, it was a relatively competitive 3-11. The Broncos lost by more than 13 points twice and were decent in the nonconference schedule as well, losing by three at home to UNLV and getting wins over Fresno State and Pacific. Santa Clara is anchored by 6'9" sophomore Marc Trasolini, a quality shot blocker who boasts soft touch around the basket and shot 57.9 percent on twos as well as making 19 threes. All-Freshman selection Robert Smith is the go-to guy on the perimeter, using a team-high 26.1 percent of possessions, but is a very inefficient shooter (43.6 percent True Shooting Percentage). The Broncos' most impressive game of the WCC season was a 59-43 over San Diego at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Would you believe that Pepperdine started the WCC season at 3-0? A favorable early schedule gave the Waves home games against three of the conference's other non-powers, and they swept that homestand. But then the schedule evened out and sophomore swingman Dane Suttle Jr. (the team's best outside shooter) battled ankle problems before eventually succumbing to season-ending surgery. Pepperdine's last win came on Jan. 16, the Waves finishing the season on an 11-game losing streak. Just two of those losses were by single digits. A young Pepperdine roster features just two upperclassmen (both juniors) in the rotation. The leader of this group is sophomore guard Keion Bell, who uses possessions at the nation's fourth-highest rate.

Check back next week for Basketball Prospectus previews of the BCS conference tournaments.

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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