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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: WCC Tournament in Sin City looking more and more like a gamble for top-ranked Gonzaga

Feb. 18, 2021 Updated Thu., Feb. 18, 2021 at 10:15 p.m.

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In 1987, the West Coast Conference staged its first postseason basketball tournament and then spent two decades trying to get it right.

It was an earnest enough effort. Trying to address competitive fairness, fiscal concerns, image and too many high schoolish gyms to make a true rotation feasible required the skills of Houdini and Wallenda combined. Then there was the 13,000-pound elephant that Gonzaga grew into doing the heavy leaning for a neutral site.

Finally, the whole show wound up in Las Vegas in 2009 and everybody seemed happy – in particular the 6,000 Zags fans desperate to get out of the deep freeze and par-tay.

But back to 1987.

In finally dipping its toe into the postseason business and not wanting to risk a financial bath, the WCC opted for a hybrid format: first-round games played on campus sites of the four highest seeds, with the surviving foursome meeting up at the University of San Francisco’s Memorial Gym – the theory being maybe a couple of Bay Area teams would boost the gate.

It was, well, calamitous. Upsets abounded, the host team didn’t make it out of the first round and seeds 5 and 7 ended up in the championship game.

But, hey, March basketball. What are you going to do?

Which seems to be the question for the WCC and the Zags at the moment.

As this COVID-begotten basketball season lurches toward a finish, much reasoned hand-wringing is being devoted to the upcoming conference tournaments – whether to do them, how to do them and, for the nation’s elite teams, whether to participate.

Bringing 20 men’s and women’s teams together at a single site, in a city with the human come-and-go of Las Vegas seems – just on the surface – less than an ideal way to finesse the always looming danger of spreading the virus. It’s being painted as particularly risky for Gonzaga, the nation’s No. 1 team with championship cred, but it’s no less a concern if, say, a Pepperdine rises up and snatches the automatic NCAA berth and a trip to Indianapolis.

It’s not a matter of competitive risk, but COVID risk.

“I’m more than happy to play in a league tournament and give everybody a shot,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Bulldogs nailed down another WCC regular-season title with an 87-65 thrashing of Saint Mary’s.

“But … this is a very, very different year, and some of us are facing some really, really stringent requirements as far as getting our tests before we’re even allowed to go into Indy.”

He’s talking about the NCAA mandate that before a player can even set foot in Indianapolis he must have seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests. There are nine days between the end of the WCCs and the start of the NCAAs, but a positive test coming out of the former would set in motion protocols that would surely compress the timeline and threaten a team’s chances of getting to the church on time.

This weighs particularly heavy on the Zags, who would have been a No. 1 seed a year ago had the virus not shut down the sport, and everything else. With an even more loaded team now, they’ve shown all season that they’re eager to challenge themselves – trying to hunt down out-of-conference Top 25 teams to fill COVID cancellations.

The only thing anyone wants to avoid is the virus. And you’d think it would be a priority for the lodge brothers, too.

It is elsewhere. Across the country, the Atlantic-10 Conference has moved its tournament out of New York to Richmond, Virginia, where it will be staged in two separate arenas to lessen teams’ contact. It’s also moved the dates up a week to March 3-6 – though the championship game will still be played on March 14 to satisfy television obligations.

That, friends, is being proactive.

And it seems like something the WCC might have entertained, though its TV deal is trickier (both the semis and finals are on ESPN).

But if a tournament needs to be played – and that’s still a question – what makes even more sense is one in the fashion of that original 1987 event, a stepladder at campus sites where the teams have already been playing. Yes, if the No. 9 seed gets on a roll, that could mean a lot of flying for that team. But if the seeds hold, everyone but the Zags gets on a plane once.

But travel for something like that would stretch the event to nine days, not counting a Sunday off to accommodate BYU. It would have meant starting a week from Saturday; it would have meant putting things in motion earlier.

Instead, the WCC announced on Thursday a full slate of regular-season makeup games of earlier cancellations to be played next week – the Zags getting home dates against Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount.

“It’s not business as usual,” Few said, “and you can’t just roll out and act like it is.”

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