Worth paying attention: Ongoing WCC hoops showcase has first round Thursday

BYU men's basketball
2012-01-11T10:00:00Z 2013-11-06T21:45:15Z Worth paying attention: Ongoing WCC hoops showcase has first round ThursdayJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
January 11, 2012 10:00 am  • 

BYU is in the mix, but don't discount the West Coast Conference main event: Gonzaga vs. St. Mary's.

The league's two clear-cut basketball powers, before the Cougars joined this year, will meet for the first time this season Thursday at St. Mary's.

"I would say it's one of the great rivalries in college basketball," WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said. "Certainly, the past couple of years. It's a fight for championships."

Tipoff is at 9 p.m. Utah time on ESPN2, a nationally televised format that has helped add some allure to the WCC.

Last year's games were worth staying up late. Both went down to the wire, the road team winning each time.

Mickey McConnell scored SMC's first win in Spokane, Wash., since 1995 with a difficult, leaning jumpshot to post a 73-71 decision.

The now-graduated McConnell missed a similar shot at the end of regulation in the rematch, and the Zags prevailed, 89-85, in Moraga, Calif., in overtime. 

Adding to the drama, it was a loss that continued a Gaels slide that kept them out of the NCAA Tournament (they also lost to GU in the WCC tournament championship game).

"I expect nothing different as far as the competition level," said Zaninovich, who will not be able to attend at least the first meeting (the rematch will be Feb. 9 in eastern Washington).

He's part of the 10-member NCAA Tournament selection committee, and has a first go-around of meetings on the event in Indianapolis. This will be Zaninovich's first year of a five-year term.

Right now, he has to feel good as a WCC rep. He will not get to boast on behalf of his teams leading up to Selection Sunday, but various pundits have three WCC teams in the field of 65.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the WCC's two flagship teams along with newcomer BYU in his field. A Sports Illustrated prognosticator doesn't agree, however, leaving the 14-4 Cougars out at this point.

GU has been to the dance for 13 straight years, BYU is seeking out its sixth consecutive bid under coach Dave Rose. St. Mary's has been the hit-and-miss team, a bit like UNLV or New Mexico from the old Mountain West Conference days the way non-conference strength of schedule and/or conference-play streaks could affect their postseason chances.

What's been pretty consistent, though, has been the entertainment value and importance of GU-SMC.

The teams split their series in 2007 and 2008. GU won all three meetings (including the conference tournament) the next year, and took 2-of-3 in 2010. 

Close and heated games is the norm, and two of the last 11 meetings have required overtime.

This one could fall right in line. Gonzaga's improved defense will face high-scoring (76.2 ppg) St. Mary's, a team that already ousted the Cougars.

BYU being around should be a good fit for the two dominant WCC teams. A road win is especially valued among the troika, but a loss isn't necessarily a punch to the at-large-bid gut. All three should benefit from an increased strength of schedule being around each other.

GU and SMC are a combined 28-4 and have won 13 in a row. Both have lost to a top-10 team (Michigan State and Baylor, respectively.)

Combined with BYU, it could relive the 2007-08 season, when three WCC teams made the field.

That was a unique season, indeed. Gonzaga wound up losing in the first round to a new Cinderella story, Davidson, which featured sharpshooter Stephen Curry. SMC was one-and-done, too. San Diego made the field that year, as well, even beating UConn in the first round.

∫Yeah, he's heard of him: "We caught and bounced. It's really hard to shoot the basketball when you play that way. Jimmer (Fredette) was a guy who could catch, bounce and still shoot it. But he was shooting it from like, 35 (feet). We don't have that guy." USF coach Rex Walters after his team's lackluster shooting show last Saturday at BYU.


Jason Franchuk can be reached at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter, @harkthefranchuk


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