Gonzaga and BYU are accustomed to hanging conference championship banners.
The Bulldogs have won 11 straight WCC men’s basketball titles, a run that will likely require two wins this week and help elsewhere to continue. The Cougars won or shared four Mountain West championships under seventh-year head coach Dave Rose prior to joining the WCC this season.
The teams share second place entering Thursday’s clash at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Both are trying to keep their title hopes alive with the winner taking a huge step toward a bye into the semifinals of the WCC tournament in Las Vegas.
“One of your goals at the start is you want the last week of the regular season to mean something,” Rose said. “Because of what happened last week with LMU winning (against Saint Mary’s) and San Francisco winning (over Gonzaga) it puts us back in position where it’s possible.”
After eight weeks of the nine-week WCC season, here’s what’s been settled. Santa Clara will be the ninth (last) seed. San Francisco will be No. 5, San Diego No. 6. Pepperdine and Portland will be 7 and 8 with the order to be determined.
The top is more unsettled. Saint Mary’s, leading by one game with road dates at Portland and San Francisco, will finish first, second or third. Gonzaga (home vs. BYU, at San Diego) and BYU (at GU, home vs. Portland) could land anywhere from first to fourth. Loyola Marymount is locked into second, third or fourth.
The tiebreakers are: 1. Head-to-head. 2. Results vs. teams in descending order of conference finish. 3. Collegiate Basketball News RPI (GU is currently 21, SMC 32, BYU 46, LMU 89).
“We want that bye. It’s critical. Especially in this tournament, you don’t want to play back-to-back,” Bulldogs center Robert Sacre said.
Coach Mark Few wasn’t quite as certain.
“It’s a big game because it still keeps you in the hunt for a league championship and BYU is an NCAA tournament team,” he said. “I’m not convinced that playing two or three (WCC tourney games) is that big a deal. I know we won it many times when we had to play three games.”
That was under the old format. The current format was adopted in 2003. The addition of BYU means there will be an off day March 4, between Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s championship.
Rose said the WCC has been as challenging as the Mountain West.
“It’s really hard to win conference championships. You have to be so consistent over an eight- to 10-week period and when you look at that challenge compared to the challenge from where we just came from, it’s exactly the same,” Rose said.
Like most college teams, Gonzaga’s statistics at home are much better than on the road. The Bulldogs are 13-1 at home, 5-4 on the road (not including 3-0 on neutral courts).
Gonzaga is plus-15.1 in scoring margin at home, plus-0.8 away. The Zags shoot almost the same (47.7 percent home, 47.4 percent away), but their 3-point percentage dips from 40.4 percent to 32.3. They’re plus-11.1 rebounding at the MAC, plus-4.3 away. They commit 1.3 more turnovers per road game and their assists drop from 13.9 to 13.1 per game.
Sacre’s points are similar (11.9 home, 11.8 road), but he grabs 2.3 more rebounds per home game and his field-goal accuracy climbs to 53 percent from 48. Gary Bell Jr. (10.9 vs. 9.5) and Elias Harris (14.1 vs. 12.4) score at a higher clip on the road. Kevin Pangos is more productive at home (16.2 ppg, 49.3 FG percent, 49.5 3-point percent, 3.5 assists, 1.4 turnovers) compared with the road (10.2 ppg, 39 FG percent, 23 3-point percent, 3.1 assists, 2.4 turnovers).
“I cherish the environment at home and I enjoy the away environment,” Pangos said. “It’s a different routine to have to adjust to, just being on buses, in hotels and you don’t have the same access to some of the things we do at home. That’s a bit of a factor but other than that the games just haven’t panned out the way we wanted them to and I just haven’t played as well.”
“I think that’s a freshman being on the road with a lot of responsibility and the ball in his hands a lot. … He hasn’t seemed to be quite as aggressive as he is at home,” Few said.
BYU forward Noah Hartsock, who leads all WCC players with a 17.3 scoring average, missed a short portion of Saturday’s win over Santa Clara with a knee injury. He hasn’t practiced yet this week.
“He’s pretty sore,” Rose said. “Hopefully he’ll feel better and we can get something from him, if not Thursday than Saturday.”