LAS VEGAS – ’Tis the season for those March Madness buzzwords: RPI, strength of schedule, bubble teams, automatic bids, Bracketology and Selection Sunday.
Pardon Gonzaga if it isn’t crunching every number or hanging on every word from the so-called experts this time around. The second-seeded Bulldogs (24-5) enter the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena knowing they’re a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament. Most projections list them as a No. 6 or 7 seed.
A year ago, a nine-loss Gonzaga team firmly on the bubble left nothing to chance by winning the WCC tournament and dashing the NCAA hopes of Saint Mary’s.
“It’s nice to be able to go into the tournament and know you’re not sweating it,” coach Mark Few said.
That doesn’t mean Gonzaga’s motivation is lacking. Top-seeded Saint Mary’s ended the Bulldogs’ 11-year streak of consecutive regular-season titles. The Gaels and Bulldogs have played in the last three championship games with GU winning twice.
Those two aren’t the only teams thinking a title is within their grasp. Third-seeded BYU, which might need one or two tournament wins to bolster its NCAA resume, has one of the nation’s top offenses, particularly if standout forward Noah Hartsock, slowed by knee, ankle and calf injuries, returns to the line-up. Fourth-seeded Loyola Marymount won at BYU and at Saint Mary’s. No. 5 San Francisco is capable of beating the top three teams.
“I think a really dangerous team going in is San Francisco,” said San Diego coach Bill Grier, after Saturday’s loss to Gonzaga. “They’re playing well and they’re so potent offensively. If you have to play them and all you get is a walk-through to prepare for that run-and-jump stuff, it’s going to be hard.
“Four teams had 11 or more conference wins and five had 18 or more wins overall. Our guys feel we can go compete against everybody. LMU was 7-1 on the road and they feel like they can make some noise.”
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have byes into Saturday’s semifinals. BYU, which is on Gonzaga’s side of the bracket, and LMU enter in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“It’s usually been one or two teams tops,” Few said. “This year there are four or five teams that could have a shot.”
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