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WEST COAST CONFERENCE

Gonzaga favored, with caveats

March 02, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

The West Coast Conference tournament begins today in Portland with order seemingly restored: Gonzaga is the top-seeded team.

But not so fast.

True, the Bulldogs went 11-3 in conference play and won their seventh consecutive regular-season conference title and ninth in the last 10 years, but a closer look reveals that they are more vulnerable this year than they have been during their decade of dominance.

Gonzaga's three conference losses are more than they had the previous three seasons combined and the most in a season since going 11-3 in 1999-2000. And not only that, they have no All-Americans such as Adam Morrison to carry them.

What it all means is that opposing teams have more hope entering this year's tournament than they have had in recent years.

"This is going to be as good a tournament as it's been in a while," said Loyola Marymount Coach Rodney Tention. "Anybody can beat anybody."

Tention should know. His team finished sixth in the eight-team conference with a 5-9 record. The Lions were 3-1 against Gonzaga and Santa Clara, the top two teams, but 1-3 against Pepperdine and Portland, the bottom two.

Santa Clara (10-4) entered the final weekend with a chance at winning the regular-season title, but lost to LMU and Pepperdine (4-10) and finished second. Of the Broncos' four losses, three were against the Lions and Pepperdine, one to Gonzaga.

There are other signs that the Bulldogs are ripe for the taking. They finished the regular season 21-10, their fewest regular-season victories since 2000-01 and their most regular-season losses since 1990-91.

Gonzaga lost four consecutive games at one point this season, the first time that had happened since 1997, and on Feb. 10, forward Josh Heytvelt, the team's primary big man and averaging 15.5 points and 7.7 rebounds, was suspended for the season after police found hallucinogenic mushrooms in his car.

The Bulldogs were 4-2 without Heytvelt and entered the final weekend in second place in the conference before getting the title when Santa Clara lost its last two games.

Still, nobody is writing off Gonzaga, least of all the Bulldogs.

"We faced a lot of adversity and a lot of things that we haven't faced at Gonzaga for quite some time," Coach Mark Few said. "But our guys never lost sight of their goal, which was to win the championship. It's been a pretty incredible season and we're looking to continue that in the tournament."

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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