Since the West Coast Conference adopted its current tournament format in 2003, only once has a team seeded third or higher advanced to the championship.
That was No. 3 San Diego, which capitalized on home-court advantage to knock off No. 1 Gonzaga in the 2008 tournament. Outside of 2008, the last seven WCC tournaments have come and gone with the top seed defeating No. 2 five times, and the second seed topping No. 1 twice.
It’s hardly breaking news when top seeds advance in a tournament setting, but it underscores the importance of securing a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Gonzaga’s chances of extending its record run of 10 consecutive regular-season titles received a big boost when San Diego upset Saint Mary’s (22-5, 10-2) on Wednesday. The Bulldogs (17-9, 7-3) can earn at least a share of the crown by winning their last four WCC games, including a contest with Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Calif., next week. GU is tied for second with San Francisco (13-12, 7-3) and those two teams collide at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday.
The top two seeds earn byes into the tournament semifinals. The third and fourth seeds enter in the quarterfinals and need three wins to claim the title. The 5-8 seeds face the daunting task of winning four games in four days.
“We had to play three games for a long time,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, referencing the format in effect prior to 2003. “It’s nice probably not to have to play three. Some people say getting one under your belt helps, but I would think the fewer games the better. We’ve won three games numerous times and we’ve gone in and won two.”
Gonzaga has played in the WCC title game 13 straight years, going 9-4. Two of those losses were to San Diego on the Toreros’ home floor. One was to Saint Mary’s last year in Las Vegas. The other was to No. 5 San Francisco in the 1998 tournament at Santa Clara.
Under the current double-bye format, Gonzaga has won its last four semifinal games by an average of 27 points – and six of eight by at least 15 points – against opponents who had already played at least one tournament game.
“We talk about everything, but the league race doesn’t matter unless you take care of business in the game you’re playing,” Few said “You need to take care of the one in front of you, and then there’s a big picture at the end.”
The one in front of Gonzaga is Santa Clara, which visits the McCarthey Athletic Center tonight. The Broncos (16-11, 6-4), who defeated Gonzaga 85-71 last month, still have designs on second place.
“An extra game (at the tournament) makes a huge difference,” Bulldogs center Robert Sacre said. “The other teams in the conference know that and we’re all competing to get those spots. The race is still on.”
Santa Clara guard Kevin Foster erupted for 36 points and all five starters reached double figures in the first meeting. There were 49 fouls and 64 free throws in the contest. Gonzaga committed 19 turnovers.
“They took it to us,” Sacre said, “and they hit some big shots at the end to seal the deal.”
Foster hit many of those, draining four of his six 3-pointers in the last 5 minutes.
“Foster was on fire the last time, we need to do a better job there, but we need to do a better job against a couple of their other guys, too,” Few said. “They play really hard, really physical, a lot of flopping, a lot of stuff going on away from the ball. We just have to ignore the flopping and the antics and focus on basketball.”