The 18th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs will be favored but not feared when they open defense of their title at the West Coast Conference men's basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
“I think they’re vulnerable, like anyone,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said.
“We’ve played them well,” San Francisco coach Rex Walters said. “We definitely have confidence against them.”
USF (12-17) is seeded fourth, but the Dons handed the top-seeded Bulldogs one of their two losses in league play and lost by just six points at Gonzaga last week. Fifth-seeded Loyola Marymount (16-14) was the other WCC team to beat Gonzaga.
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Gonzaga (25-5) has byes today and Saturday before playing in a Sunday semifinal (5:30 p.m., ESPN2) at the Orleans Arena. The Bulldogs will open against San Francisco, Loyola Marymount or No. 8 seed Pepperdine (7-23). The last-place Waves lost by seven and 28 to Gonzaga.
“The teams we could potentially play in the semis, they’re all teams that gave us fits this year,” said Steven Gray, Gonzaga’s All-WCC guard from Bainbridge High School.
Gonzaga rebounding leader Elias Harris, who had no rebounds in an overtime loss at San Francisco, sounds like he wouldn’t mind another crack at the Dons.
“They played really well (against Gonzaga),” Harris said. “We played well, too, but I think we can play better.”
Gonzaga has won four in a row. Second-seeded Saint Mary’s (24-5) is the only WCC team besides Gonzaga that appears to have a chance of being invited to the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tournament.
“We are going to be facing some hungry teams that are desperate to make the postseason,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Few said the WCC is “probably as tough as it’s been since I’ve been a head coach the last 11 years.”
That’s one reason Few said he’s “as proud (of this team) as any I’ve ever been associated with.” The freshmen-laden Bulldogs won their 10th straight WCC regular-season title after losing four starters from last season who are now playing professionally.
Senior guard Matt Bouldin, the WCC Player of the Year, admits he had doubts about the Bulldogs after the first few practices.
“I remember calling my dad: ‘Dad, this could be a long year,’ ” Bouldin recalled.
Women ready to go, too
The WCC women’s tournament will be held the same four days as the men’s tourney at the Orleans Arena. Defending champion Gonzaga, carrying the highest national ranking (17th) in the history of the program, is seeded No. 1 and won’t play until Sunday’s semifinals.
The Bulldogs (25-4) have won 16 consecutive games overall, and 18 in a row against WCC rivals. Only three of Gonzaga’s league games were decided by fewer than 24 points this season.
“Our team gets along so well on and off the floor,” said WCC player of the year Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga’s junior point guard from Kentwood High. “You can really see it in our style of play. We like to share the ball.”
Harris, a freshman forward from Germany, said he will wait until the end of the season before deciding whether to make himself available for the NBA draft. … Few, who has a 289-71 (.803) record at Gonzaga, is one shy of Hank Anderson’s school record for coaching victories. North Carolina coach Roy Williams (305 wins at Kansas) is the only coach who won more games in his first 11 seasons as an NCAA Division I head coach. … Gonzaga has won five of the past six WCC men’s tournaments.
West Coast Conference Tournament
At Orleans Arena in Las Vegas
• Loyola Marymount vs. Pepperdine, 6 p.m.
• San Diego vs. Santa Clara, 8:30 p.m.
• San Francisco vs. Loyola Marymount-Pepperdine winner, 6 p.m.
• Portland vs. San Diego-Santa Clara winner, 8:30 p.m.
• Gonzaga vs. San Francisco-Loyola Marymount/Pepperdine winner, 5:30 p.m.
• Saint Mary’s vs. Portland-San Diego/Santa Clara winner, 8 p.m.
• Semfinal winners, 6 p.m.