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The West Coast Conference was expected to be a two-team race for the title between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. However, Saint Mary’s’ star guard Patty Mills went down with a broken right wrist in the two teams’ first match-up and the league became Gonzaga’s to lose. The Bulldogs didn’t disappoint, running through the league undefeated, finishing 14-0 and four games clear of Saint Mary’s, which finished in second. Portland finished in third at 9-5, and no one else finished above .500. With Mills expected back for the conference tournament, the WCC tourney is certainly one to watch.
Favorite: Gonzaga wasn’t as dominant as it was in 2004 and 2006, when it also finished undefeated, but this year’s group might be the program’s most talented ever. The Bulldogs excel at both ends of the floor and have the weapons to play with anyone in the country. The perimeter is led by Matt Bouldin, one of the most underrated players in the nation, and Jeremy Pargo, who regressed this season but is still outstanding. Steven Gray and Micah Downs can shoot it. Jojsh Heytvelt is back to being his dominant self down low, but Austin Daye struggled late and needs to get much tougher up front.
Contenders: With Patty Mills back in the fold, Saint Mary’s is definitely Gonzaga’s toughest competition. The Gaels were on their way to beating the Zags when Mills went down, and they almost beat the Bulldogs again without Mills. He is one of the best point guards in the country and can take over a game. The big man tandem of Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan is one of the best in the nation. Both players are double-double locks nearly every night. Carlin Hughes can play both guard slots, and Mickey McConnell became a big-time scorer in Mills’ absence. Portland started 6-1 in league play before losing four of its last seven to finish the season. The Pilots can really shoot the ball, ranking third in the nation in three-point percentage. Nik Raivio is their go-to-scorer and also their best rebounder. Jared Stohl and T.J. Campbell can also stroke the three effectively. Up front, 6-10 Robin Smeulders shoulders the load; he needs to have a big tournament.
Sleeper: Santa Clara won eight of its last 11 games, and can throw a scare into any team in the league. Why? One reason: John Bryant. One of the most productive players in America, Bryant can put up a 20-20 and lead this team to a win. Plus, Kevin Foster and James Rahon are double-figure scorers who can shoot the ball and provide balance. Defensively, the Broncos force teams into difficult shots and control the defensive glass. They are also a very deep team.
Prediction: Everyone on the Selection Committee will have their eyes on this tournament. Will Mills be the same player he was before the injury? Will Saint Mary’s do enough to get an at-large bid? Can the Gaels get the auto-bid and make the argument moot? With both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s receiving byes to the semifinals, expect them to meet in the title game. In the first meeting between the two, Saint Mary’s looked like the better team when Mills was healthy. If he comes back and can be effective, I think that the Gaels have balance with Simpson and Samhan inside to knock off the unbeaten Zags. The WCC gets two invites to the Dance.
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