SAN DIEGO — The first West Coast Athletic Conference tournament begins tonight with one slightly nervous regular-season champion trying to fend off seven also-rans happy to be getting a second chance.
The University of San Diego, the regular-season champion, will meet last-place finisher Loyola Marymount (4-10 in conference, 12-15 overall) at 7:30 in the USD Sports Center.
The Toreros (13-1, 23-4) must win the tournament to be assured of reaching the NCAA tournament for the second time in four seasons. The conference semifinals and finals will be next Friday and Saturday at the University of San Francisco.
In other first-round games tonight, second-seeded Gonzaga will play host to seventh-seeded Pepperdine and third-seeded St. Mary's will play host to sixth-seeded USF. Fourth-seeded Portland and fifth-seeded Santa Clara play in Portland Sunday.
The pairings for the semifinals will have the two highest remaining seeds in different brackets. If there are no upsets, USD would meet Portland in its semifinal.
USD has opposed a conference tournament, which was debated the last four years before being adopted this season.
"Basically, we felt if you played 14 regular-season games, the winner is the winner," said Father Patrick Cahill, USD athletic director.
"We didn't feel some of the reasons advanced for holding a tournament were sufficient to warrant it, specifically that everybody else was doing it except the Big Ten and Pac-10. Some leagues have seen it as a way to get another team into the NCAAs, but our conference rarely has two (invited to the NCAA), and we didn't feel a league tournament would make a difference in that sense. Plus, our league is so geographically widespread, from San Diego to Spokane, that it didn't seem to make sense economically."
Cahill, however, has come around to grudging acceptance of the tournament.
"Right now there are seven happy teams and one unhappy team," he said. "If we were in second place, we probably would be happy too."
If the tournament turns a profit, its future would seem beyond debate, according to Cahill.
USD has won both games against Loyola this season. The Toreros won, 82-48, on Jan. 29 at USD but struggled to an 88-82 double-overtime victory on Feb. 7 at Loyola.
The Toreros, 13-0 at home this season with a 16-game winning streak in the Sports Center, last lost at home last season to Loyola.
"It's going to be a tough game, because they are playing well right now," USD Coach Hank Egan said. Loyola beat Pepperdine this week, 98-79.
"They have a lot of quickness and are a good rebounding club, so we have to get back quickly on defense and get set up early."
Loyola, which is led by 6-7 forward Mike Yoest, has not shot well in earlier games with USD.
The Toreros, who are holding opponents to a 39.5% average in field-goal shooting--tops in the nation--held Loyola to 31% shooting in the first game and 34% in the second.
The Torero defense is ranked fifth nationally, giving up an average of 59.3 points a game.
With so much at stake, USD appears to be nearing a peak.
"It's too late if we ain't peaking," Egan said. "But I'm not concerned about that."