Going into the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have the luxury of knowing they’re probably a lock to make the NCAA tournament, no matter the outcome at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The rest of the field doesn’t have that safety net, meaning they’ll be driven to prolong their seasons.
“We’re going to be facing some hungry, hungry teams that are desperate to make the postseason,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We already know we’re in the postseason. It’s going to take some maturity and understanding that we need to be playing our best basketball this time of year.”
The 18th-ranked Zags (25-5) are hardly without motivation, the biggest of which is that a tournament title would bolster their chances of playing in the NCAA tournament about two miles from campus at the Spokane Arena. ESPN.com projects Gonzaga as a No. 5 seed, facing No. 12 Siena in Spokane.
“We want to get a high seed,” senior center Will Foster said. “We want to play in Spokane and have that home-court advantage pretty much.”
Gonzaga’s opponent in Sunday’s semifinals won’t be known until Saturday night. Fifth-seeded Loyola Marymount meets No. 8 Pepperdine tonight, with the winner to face No. 4 San Francisco in Saturday’s quarterfinals. If it goes according to seeding, Gonzaga will face an opponent that it lost to during the regular season. LMU topped Gonzaga 74-66 while USF beat the Zags 81-77 in overtime.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get past our first-round opponent, we’ve played (Gonzaga) well,” San Francisco coach Rex Walters said.
“We definitely have confidence against them. They’re very talented and can score in a lot of different ways.”
On the other side of the bracket, No. 6 San Diego and No. 7 Santa Clara clash tonight, with the winner taking on No. 3 Portland on Friday.
No. 2 Saint Mary’s awaits Friday’s winner in the semifinals. Gonzaga swept the Pilots and the Gaels.
“We played (Gonzaga) after they lost to San Francisco,” said Portland coach Eric Reveno, whose team posted the school’s first 20-win season since 1995. “They played so hard, so well defensively, it was really impressive. When they play like that, they’re going to be really tough. To say they’re vulnerable sounds a little overstated.”
Saint Mary’s (24-5) finds itself in nearly the same situation as a year ago. The Gaels’ record is the same, their best nonconference wins – arguably Utah State and San Diego State – are the same and they reside on the NCAA bubble.
Last year, Saint Mary’s advanced to the title game but was crushed by Gonzaga 83-58. The Gaels went to the NIT and won twice before losing a rematch with San Diego State.
“We approach it like we need to win two games,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s the only way we can be assured of getting into the NCAA tournament.”