October 26, 2008

Preseason story line No. 16: Can WCC repeat?

»Preseason countdown: No. 13 Gonzaga | No. 26 San Diego | No. 33 Saint Mary's

The idea of the West Coast Conference sending three teams to the NCAA tournament seemed far-fetched at this time a year ago. Now, not only does it sound reasonable, it will be expected.

That's because those same teams return an extraordinary amount of experience (13 of 15 starters combined).

Gonzaga, which has one its most talented teams ever, will be ranked in the preseason top 20 - possibly within the top 15. Saint Mary's and San Diego each have a legitimate chance to start out in the top 25.

The Gaels return four starters, including Australian point guard Patrick Mills, one of the stars of the Beijing Olympics. The Toreros return all five starters from the only WCC team that won an NCAA tournament game. The Toreros upset Connecticut in the first round.

That has all generated a ton of preseason buzz and publicity for a mid-major league that is moving the WCC tournament to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this season. It's the first time the event will be played on a neutral court.

"There has never been a better time to be part of the West Coast Conference," new league commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said.

Saint Mary's eighth-year coach Randy Bennett agrees wholeheartedly. Bennett says he's never seen the WCC look stronger in his 18 years in the league – he spent 10 years as an assistant at Saint Mary's. But that doesn't necessarily mean Bennett believes that three WCC teams will earn their way into the field of 65 again.

"It took the perfect storm to get three teams in," Bennett said. "Everything had to happen just right. If you were betting, you'd have to (bet) against it happening again. It's happened only once in the history of our league."

Bennett is referring largely to the scenario that unfolded in the 2008 WCC tournament in San Diego. If either Gonzaga or Saint Mary's had won the event, the WCC would have only sent two teams to the NCAA tournament. No other team in the league had a strong enough non-conference résumé to warrant an at-large bid. But the Toreros knocked off Saint Mary's in double overtime in the semifinals and Gonzaga in the final to earn an automatic bid. Toreros coach Bill Grier said his team probably wouldn't have made the run without the home-court edge.

Moving the WCC tournament to Las Vegas takes away that advantage of playing at home, diminishing the chances of another "perfect storm."

But Grier, who spent eight years as an assistant at Gonzaga before taking the San Diego job last season, is more concerned with another obstacle.

Gonzaga is used to dealing with the expectations of going to the NCAA tournament – the Zags have earned an NCAA bid 10 consecutive times. But Saint Mary's and San Diego aren't. The Gaels have been to two NCAA tournaments in the past 11 seasons (the other appearance coming in 2005), while last season was the Toreros first taste of the Big Dance in school history.

"The thing I've tried to preach in the preseason is stepping up the challenge of being the hunted," Grier said. "It's going to be different for us."

It won't just be different for Grier or Bennett and their respective players. Nearly everyone will have to adjust their perceptions of the West Coast Conference as it begins its unprecedented quest of trying to secure three NCAA tournament bids for the second consecutive year.

»Preseason countdown: No. 13 Gonzaga | No. 26 San Diego | No. 33 Saint Mary's

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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