Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Gonzaga: 2017-18 West Coast Men's Basketball Champions

LAS VEGAS -- Bubble teams around the country will sleep a little bit easier Tuesday night after Gonzaga's 74-54 win against BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game.

The Bulldogs' sixth straight WCC tournament title all but eliminates the Cougars from NCAA tournament contention. BYU isn't expected to receive serious consideration for an at-large berth after finishing the season 24-10, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

No. 6 Gonzaga (30-4), the national runner-up a year ago, will enter the NCAA tournament on a 14-game winning streak -- currently, the longest active streak in the country -- and for the second year in a row is the first team in the country to reach the 30-win mark.

"It doesn't get old. Every team is different; every journey is different," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I'm unbelievably proud and so happy for these guys, all they've accomplished. Thirty wins is a very significant accomplishment in college basketball."

After losing four of its top five scorers off of last year's team, the Zags had their skeptics coming into the season. In the official preseason poll, WCC coaches voted overwhelmingly to anoint Saint Mary's the favorite, but in hindsight, it's clear they were overthinking things.

Yes, Gonzaga needed to replace four of its top five scorers, but it took very little time for it to become clear what team, again, was the conference's deepest and most talented. Coming into the championship game, five Gonzaga players were averaging between 11.5 and 13.6 points per game and against BYU that depth was on display.

Killian Tillie, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, led the Zags with 22 points, while Zach Norvell Jr. (17), Josh Perkins (11) and Johnathan Williams (10) all scored in double figure.

It was close early, but Gonzaga used an impressive 40-8 run to that leave BYU searching for answers it could never find.

"That's probably as good a run as I've ever been a part of in the 28 years I've been at Gonzaga and definitely the 19 I've been the head coach," Few said. "Just fantastic defense that led to great offense, where we're sharing it, making quick decisions, moving the ball, running at each other, running together. It was just a thing of beauty to see."

With 13:20 left in the game and the Zags up 57-31, their fans broke out into chant: "This is our house."

They weren't wrong.

At this point, the Orleans Arena -- which has hosted the WCC tournament for the last 10 years -- has become a more than a second home for Gonzaga. Since the tournament moved to the desert a decade ago, Gonzaga is 23-2 -- a winning percentage (0.92) that somehow surpasses its mark in Spokane (0.903), where it has the nation's fifth-best home winning percentage in that span.

Now in his 19th season leading Gonzaga, coach Mark Few has yet to miss an NCAA tournament. The school's tournament streak extends one year further to 1999, Dan Monson's last season as head coach. Only Kansas (28), Duke (22) and Michigan State (20) have longer active streaks and each of those schools will be among this year's field.

For Gonzaga, the WCC tournament title is nice, but the program is past the point where its success will be measured on what takes place before the Big Dance.

"It's not easy when everyone is telling them that," Few said. "Quite frankly, whether they turn on the TV and see that, or people book tickets down here for the Monday and Tuesday games. These guys do a masterful job throughout the whole year dealing with expectations.

"There's great expectations put on this program, and there is even more put on the program after what these guys accomplishing last year going to the national championship."

The last time Gonzaga lost in the conference tournament was to Saint Mary's in the 2012 championship game and the Zags haven't missed a final in 21 years.

While BYU is likely headed to the National Invitation Tournament, Lunardi still believes the WCC should get two teams in, with Saint Mary's in line for a bid despite its loss to the Cougars in the semifinals Monday night. Saint Mary's finished the season 28-5, but a soft nonconference schedule and a lack of impressive wins outside its victory at Gonzaga on Jan. 18 leaves some room for debate.
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