Chris Dufresne: West Coast Conference eyes multiple NCAA bids

Wednesday , February 29, 2012 - 3:39 PM

Chris Dufresne

LOS ANGELES -- West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich is a rookie on this year's NCAA tournament selection committee but is aware of the rule that prohibits him from being in the room when his league's schools are discussed for at-large consideration."I remember Dan Beebe (former Big 12 commissioner and committee member) telling me he was out of the room constantly," Zaninovich said by phone this week from WCC headquarters in San Bruno, Calif. "It's a nice problem to have. I hope it's a real problem for me."

Zaninovich, just in case, might want to pack a few crossword puzzles in advance of the selection committee's convening next week in Indianapolis.

The WCC still acts like a mid-major up-and-comer by staging its conference tournament a week before the big league boys. The WCC tournament starts Wednesday in Las Vegas with low-seeded Portland and Santa Clara facing off in a first-round game.

The WCC is playing more like a power league, though, with a chance to earn at least as many NCAA bids as the Pac-12, and maybe more.

The latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) conference rankings actually list the Pac-12 at No. 10, out of 33, one spot ahead of the WCC. But the ERI (Eyeball Ratings Index) makes clear which league has had the better season.

The Pac-12 has limped through the season quietly. California, at No. 36, is the conference's highest-ranked team in the RPI and it lacks a significant nonleague win. (Sorry, Georgia doesn't count.)

The WCC has Gonzaga, 24-5 and No. 22 in the RPI, which has defeated Notre Dame, Arizona, Xavier and Butler; and St. Mary's, 25-5 and No. 31, which lost marquee nonconference matchups to Baylor and Murray State but claimed its first outright WCC regular-season title in 23 years.

Brigham Young, in its first year as a WCC member, has wins over Oregon and Virginia Tech but enters the conference tournament needing to beef up its at-large resume.

Only once in WCC history, 2008, has the conference sent three schools to the NCAA tournament. That year Gonzaga, St. Mary's and San Diego all made the field.

The WCC has a chance to equal that total, with an outside shot at four bids if a team outside the top three wins the WCC automatic bid.

It could happen. Loyola Marymount (19-11, 11-5 in conference) is enjoying its best season since 1995-96. The Lions have defeated UCLA this season and, two weeks ago, shocked St. Mary's at Moraga.

St. Mary's and Gonzaga, the top seeded teams, received byes to Saturday's semifinals.

BYU and LMU, seeded third and fourth, earned passes to Friday's quarterfinals.

BYU plays the winner of Thursday's game between Pepperdine and San Diego.

Loyola Marymount takes on the winner of San Francisco versus Wednesday's opening-round victor, Portland or Santa Clara.

San Francisco (18-12, 8-8), with its recent home win over Gonzaga, proved it also has tournament knockout capability.

The best NCAA scenario for the WCC would be for LMU or San Francisco to win the automatic bid by going through St. Mary's in a semifinal Saturday.

On the other side, BYU reaching the finals with a Saturday win over Gonzaga might cinch four bids for the WCC.

It's a stretch, but it's not impossible.

The WCC has been a respectable conference for years. "It's not like we just got here," Zaninovich said.

However, the addition of BYU and the improvement of Loyola Marymount and San Francisco have added extra sizzle to this year's conference tournament.

"Undeniably, they are an international brand and have a loyal fan following," Zaninovich said of BYU's Cougars. "It's been good for them and good for the other teams in the conference."

Zaninovich, in preparing for his NCAA selection committee duties, has been recording and watching as many as 10 games a day. He has already been through a mock selection provided for incoming committee members.

"It certainly gave me some insight," he said. "But I don't think you can be totally prepared unless you've been through it. I'm really excited. It's a huge responsibility to do it. But it's a lot of fun."

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Rim shots

Long Beach State needs closing wins against UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton this week to become just the ninth team in Big West/Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. history to complete an undefeated regular season. Former member Nevada Las Vegas did it four times. Long Beach State has already clinched the Big West title and will open conference tournament play against UC Davis a week from Thursday at the Honda Center.

ESPN "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi has projected Long Beach at No. 11 in the NCAA West Regional, opening against No. 6 Temple in the Pittsburgh sub-regional.

Long Beach has played the nation's toughest nonconference schedule, followed by Duke and Davidson.

Harvard's first NCAA bid since 1946, which seemed a cinch a week ago, was put on hold after Saturday's home loss to Pennsylvania. Harvard and Penn both have two league losses and could be headed for a one-game playoff to decide the NCAA bid. The Ivy League does not have a postseason tournament. Harvard lost a one-game playoff last year to Princeton.

Northwestern, which has never made the NCAA tournament, stayed on the bubble with its squeak-out win at Penn State. Northwestern (17-11 overall, 7-9 in Big Ten Conference play) faces Ohio State at home and Iowa on the road this week and might need a split to stay in the running.

In Division III, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps earned the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference's automatic bid and will travel Friday to Wisconsin-Whitewater to face defending NCAA champion St. Thomas (Minn.).

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