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John Blanchette: Las Vegas has played host to plenty of memorable WCC tournament moments for Gonzaga

Gonzaga's David Stockton, right, is mobbed by teammates at the end of a quarterfinal West Coast Conference NCAA college basketball tournament game against Santa Clara, Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Las Vegas. Stockton hit a basket to put Gonzaga up by two points with one second left on the clock. Gonzaga won 77-75. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)
Gonzaga's David Stockton, right, is mobbed by teammates at the end of a quarterfinal West Coast Conference NCAA college basketball tournament game against Santa Clara, Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Las Vegas. Stockton hit a basket to put Gonzaga up by two points with one second left on the clock. Gonzaga won 77-75. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS – In a city that can make a 24-hour stay feel like a lifetime, a decade is an epoch.

And epochs demand historical record-keeping.

The marriage of the West Coast Conference tournament and Las Vegas turns 10 this week, an anniversary of such happy construct that it’s hard to remember the Pliocene days when the event was played on an assortment of rotating home courts – the road inevitably doubling back to Santa Clara, it seemed, and later San Diego.

Unless you’re the circus, it’s hard to build an identity when you’re always pulling up stakes – though some things never change.

Gonzaga won seven of the nine WCC tournaments before permanent shelter was found, and has lost only two of the nine since – and, of course, has been in the championship game 20 years running.

Still, a look at the audience makeup at the Orleans Arena confirms that the Vegas decade is very much the Zags decade.

So why not mark the occasion with an All-Vegas team, Gonzaga-style?

Now, this could be dispensed with quickly enough by just lumping together the various Zags who won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. There are six, and you could make Kyle Wiltjer the MOP of the MOPs because he won it twice, in 2015 and ’16.

But that’s no fun. Arbitrary criteria and weighting anecdotal evidence over data – that’s fun.

Nor is this a lifetime achievement award, though it could be. Surely there’d be no harm in acknowledging Przemek Karnowski’s 125 career points in Vegas – the Gonzaga record – or Elias Harris, whose 117 points came without the benefit of playing in any quarterfinal games.

So a few starting points:

  • Zags who made the all-conference team during the regular season aren’t going to get a lot of run here, with possible exceptions. Call it the curse of expectation. If that eliminates a guy like Nigel Williams-Goss, whose 67 points last year were an all-time GU tournament high at the Orleans, apologies.
  • This is more about rising to the occasion, rewarding the unsung, righting some overlooked wrongs. And bonus points for those who had a hand in nailing down the WCC’s automatic berth on the years Gonzaga was very much on the NCAA bubble.
  • Sorry Zags of 2010 and 2012 – you didn’t win the tournament and, for better or worse, that’s the baseline.

Ready?

Jeremy Pargo, 2009: Micah Downs was a well-deserving MOP and remains one of the under-regarded figures in GU’s 20 years as WCC bully – remember his 180-pound turns in the post as the Zags were salvaging the 2007 season? But it was Pargo, the regular season MVP in 2008, who had to resurrect himself from a rugged senior year – and did, spectacularly, in Vegas. A crazy hustle play – poking a loose ball toward the corner, chasing it down, braking and netting a 3 – against Santa Clara set the tone for the whole tournament.

Marquise Carter, 2011: He was invisible his first couple of months on the team – he played just 74 minutes in January – and drifted back into an afterthought his senior year. But he had 18 points in a narrow semifinal win over USF and 11 in the first half against Saint Mary’s and was the tournament’s MOP. The Zags – as evidenced by their No. 11 seed – don’t get into the NCAAs without winning the WCC tournament, and they don’t win without Carter.

Gary Bell Jr., 2014: There’s no rule that says you can’t put three players from the same school on the all-tournament team – Gonzaga’s done it a bunch of times. For some reason, this escaped the consciousness of the courtside voters in the case of Bell, who endured a lot of that as a Zag. He averaged 14 points a game in the tournament and made life hard on Saint Mary’s Stephen Holt, among others. Of course, he might have made it if not for …

David Stockton, 2014: Only made the biggest shot in Gonzaga’s WCC tournament history – shaving off Sam Dower Jr.’s screen and driving for a twisting, right-handed-on-the-left-side layup over Denzel Johnson with 1.4 seconds left to beat Santa Clara 77-75 and avoid a first-round upset – and possible relegation to the NIT.

Eric McClellan, 2016: Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis cast long shadows on this team, but in another instance in which the Zags simply had to win the tournament to make the NCAA bracket, no one came up bigger than McClellan. He had a tournament-high 61 points and with the title game still up for grabs scored 15 of GU’s 17 points in one stretch. And – sigh – didn’t make the all-tournament team.

But then, that’s never the mission. Winning the tournament is. And in that regard, virtually every Zag has been All-Vegas.


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