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Provo • The West Coast Conference men's basketball tournament will have a new look this year, and not just because the league has adopted a traditional 10-team bracket format with the addition of Pacific.
For starters, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's won't meet in the championship game for the first time since 2008 (when Gonzaga lost to San Diego in the finale) because the Zags and Gaels are in the same half of the bracket.
And the Zags are not overwhelming favorites this year, despite having won the league by two games, Gonzaga's 13th regular-season title in the last 14 years. Longtime coaches are saying the tournament is as wide open this year as they can remember, mostly because Gonzaga suffered three regular-season losses and the league as a whole has improved.
It all starts Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, although the top six seeds, including No. 2 BYU, won't play until Saturday.
In first round games, No. 7 Portland takes on No. 10 Loyola Marymount at 7 p.m. MST, followed by Pacific and Santa Clara at 9 p.m., or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game. Both games will be televised by BYUtv.
The Portland-LMU winner moves on to play BYU at 3 p.m. MST on Saturday, while the Pacific-Santa Clara winner faces Gonzaga (7 p.m.).
The Cougars split their season series with the Pilots and the Lions, winning easily at home and losing 87-76 at LMU and 114-110 in triple-overtime at Portland.
But BYU (21-10) seems to be peaking now, having gone 13-3 since opening the season 8-7.
"Well, I would say that we have more players playing well," coach Dave Rose said last week before the Cougars wrapped up the No. 2 seed with a 78-70 win at No. 6 seed San Diego. "I think that we went through stretches of the season where we had guys playing really good basketball, but it was hard to get everybody playing their best. I think now we have a really deep group of guys that are all contributing and playing well, and hopefully that continues, because that's what needs to happen."
Hanging over the Cougars' heads is the fact that they haven't won a conference tournament since 2001, when they were a member of the Mountain West Conference. They are 1-2 at the WCC tournament, beating San Diego in 2012 before losing to Gonzaga in the semifinals. Last year, they fell 72-69 to San Diego in the opener before making a decent NIT run.
"I think we've turned the corner on a few things," said BYU's Tyler Haws, named the WCC Player of the Year on Monday. "But one thing we have learned this year is just when you feel like you've turned the corner, that's when you get bit. So we can't relax, and all of our guys know that."
San Diego, which plays red-hot San Francisco in Saturday's first quarterfinal game, and BYU should be the most well-rested teams in the tournament. Because they had byes last week, the Cougars and Toreros will have played one game in the past 13 days when they take the court on Saturday.
WCC men's basketball tournament
O At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
First round, Thursday
• No. 7 Portland vs. No. 10 Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m. MST
• No. 8 Pacific vs. No. 9 Santa Clara, 9 p.m. MST
• No. 3 San Francisco vs. No. 6 San Diego, 1 p.m.
• No. 2 BYU vs. Portland-LMU winner, 3 p.m.
• No. 1 Gonzaga vs. Pacific-Santa Clara winner, 7 p.m.
• No. 4 Saint Mary's vs. No. 5 Pepperdine, 9 p.m.