SPOKANE — The Gonzaga Bulldogs are hoping for a restful night of sleep March 15.
Selection Sunday rolls around the next day and the Bulldogs can guarantee soothing ZZZs with a ‘W’ in the WCC tournament championship game Tuesday at Orleans Arena. That would secure automatic entry into the NCAA tournament.
Should they stumble in Las Vegas, the top-seeded Bulldogs (25-6, 15-3) appear safe for an at-large berth but they aren’t considered a lock.
“We just want to sleep well,” junior guard Kevin Pangos said. “If we take care of business this weekend we won’t have any problems with that.”
Under a new format, Gonzaga will have to win three games instead of two to nail down their second straight tournament title. The Zags open Saturday against the winner of tonight’s No. 8 Pacific-No. 9 Santa Clara contest. Gonzaga swept Pacific by an average of 19.5 points. The Zags beat Santa Clara 74-60 in Spokane and needed a last-second 3-pointer from Sam Dower Jr. to win at the Leavey Center.
“It’s going to be harder,” coach Mark Few said. “I don’t like this format. If you want to move teams on to the NCAA tournament you should protect your highest seeds in the long run. That’s how you’re going to get the most teams into the tournament, but it is what it is so it’ll make for a long, hard physical weekend.
“The way all these teams are playing, I think everybody has seen over these last 2½ months anybody can beat anybody.”
The Bulldogs seem more vulnerable, with regular-season losses to seventh-seeded Portland, No. 6 San Diego and No. 2 BYU. However, the Zags also thumped BYU by 15 in Spokane and beat No. 3 San Francisco by an average of 19 points and No. 4 Saint Mary’s by 25.
“I feel like last weekend (lopsided wins over Pacific and Saint Mary’s) was definitely a turning point for our team,” Dower said. “We’re really focusing on the positives from that and trying to keep that moving ahead.”
BYU is the only other WCC team with a chance at an at-large berth.
“These teams are playing what could be their last game of the year,” Few said. “You have to go down and play with that same sort of desperation.”
Gonzaga experienced that desperation in last year’s opener against No. 9 (last place) Loyola Marymount. The No. 1-ranked Zags led by one at half before posting a 66-48 win.
It’s been a while since the Bulldogs tossed and turned prior to Selection Sunday. They were 4-5 early in 2011 and had nine losses entering the WCC tournament before handling Saint Mary’s in the championship game.
The Zags lost to San Diego in the 2008 title game, causing some panicked fans to phone the newspaper to express their concerns. Gonzaga received a seven seed and lost to Davidson in the first round.