Saint Mary's (13-4) and BYU (14-4) just happen to meet on Wednesday night (9 p.m., ESPNU) in Provo. They represent the league's best chance to put a second and/or third team into the tournament, now that Santa Clara (12-6) has gone into a funk after such a promising nonconference run.
Wednesday's winner in front of what should be a crowd of more than 20,000 in Provo likely moves off the tournament bubble, at least until the rematch on Feb. 21 in Moraga.
If the first two weeks of league play have taught us anything, it is that the Zags, Gaels and Cougars are again the class of the league, and nobody else is really that close. Sure, San Diego is 3-0, with road wins at Pepperdine and San Francisco, but a 7-8 nonconference record and an RPI of 155 won't impress a single committee member.
Gonzaga will be a prohibitive favorite to win the conference tournament at the Orleans in Las Vegas in early March, and the automatic bid that goes to the champion. Don't expect coach Mark Few's Zags to let up, either, because they will be playing for a high tournament seed, possibly a No. 1.
"It's going to take quite an effort to beat [Gonzaga]," BYU coach Dave Rose acknowledged before conference play started. "Mark's got himself a great group."
At the top, the WCC's profile is as strong as ever. Only five programs in NCAA Division I basketball have won 25 or more games for five straight years, and three are Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's. You might have heard of the other two: Duke and Kansas.
That string of success, and some recent tournament wins, probably helped the Cougars squeak in last year with the last at-large berth.
Overall, the WCC is generally rated as the 10th best conference in the land, somewhere between the Missouri Valley and Conference USA. It has gone 81-44 in nonconference games, with Gonzaga's roadie on Saturday at No. 13 Butler and BYU's makeup game against 14-1 Utah State on Feb. 19 looming large for the league's reputation.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN's bracketology expert, has BYU as a No. 12 seed in this week's projections. He's got Saint Mary's among the first four out, but they will almost certainly change places next week if the Gaels are victorious again in Provo. The bracket project, which monitors nearly 40 bracket projections across the Web, has BYU in 27 of the 39 brackets, and SMC in six.
One factor that may contribute to the WCC getting more than one or two teams in the tournament this year is the fact that most of the so-called power conferences aren't really that powerful this year. The Pac-12 is better, but still down. The ACC and Big 12 are strong at the top, with Duke and Kansas, respectively, but the drop-off is sizeable after those two perennial powers. Same with the SEC, beyond Florida and Missouri.
WCC vs. non-conference foes
Pac-12 • 3-4
Big 12 • 4-2
Big East • 1-1
Big Ten • 0-1
Mountain West • 0-6
WAC • 4-1
Big Sky • 13-2