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As usual, Gonzaga was predicted to win the West Coast Conference, although the league featured a fun league race. The Bulldogs did win the league, but by only one game over Saint Mary’s, and two games over Portland. They are not invincible this season, as evidenced by losses to San Francisco and Loyola Marymount in the WCC. Saint Mary’s surprised some by contending, while Portland fell off after a hot start. Two more teams finished with .500 records, but there is a clear drop off after the top three teams.
Favorite: Despite its deficiencies, Gonzaga is still the favorite to win the conference and a threat to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are very good on the offensive end, with versatile weapons that can score inside and outside the arc. Defensively, they control the glass and force tough shots. Matt Bouldin is the leader of this team; he can do it all and is one of the best go-to-guys in the country. Elias Harris has been one of the best freshmen in the country, while Steven Gray can shoot. Robert Sacre has been inconsistent inside, while Demetri Goodson is a disappointment at the point.
Contenders: Saint Mary’s, even without Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson, has put itself in a position to get an at-large bid on Selection Sunday. The Gaels are a fantastic offensive team, taking care of the ball and showing great balance. Defensively, they guard the three-point line closely and don’t foul. Omar Samhan is one of the best big men in the country, and Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova are both productive guards. Portland got off to a hot start this season, defeating Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota back in November. The Pilots struggled after that, but finished the season by winning 10 of their last 12 games. They are an excellent three-point shooting team that can beat anyone when they’re hitting their shots. T.J. Campbell is a great shooter and distributor, while Jared Stohl knocks down 48 percent of his outside shots. Robin Smeulders and Luke Sikma are the primary options inside.
Sleeper: There is an enormous drop off after the top three teams, but Loyola Marymount could be a threat to pull an upset. The Lions have already defeated Gonzaga this season, as well as Portland, USC and Notre Dame. They push the ball and are efficient from three. Drew Viney is a versatile and talented forward, while Vernon Teel is one of the better all-around guards in the conference. Dior Lawhorn and San Francisco could be another team to watch.
Prediction: Bubble teams from around the country are going to be keeping an eye on this tournament. Gonzaga is a lock, and will likely get a 4-6 seed. Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s is right on the cutline, and might need to win the automatic bid to get to the NCAA Tournament. I think that the top two teams will get to the title game – Portland won’t be able to contain Samhan in the semifinals. In the title game, Gonzaga’s balance and experience will be the difference. Matt Bouldin comes through when necessary, and Saint Mary’s has struggled against Gonzaga twice this season. Saint Mary's will be left to sweat on Selection Sunday.