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No guarantees for Cougars in what could be craziest WCC tourney ever

LAS VEGAS — While gearheads are overrunning Las Vegas for Sunday’s NASCAR race, in this city known for its prizefights, don’t count out the West Coast Conference basketball tournament. It looks like it will be a top drawer pugilistic, knock-down, battle-to-the-wire, last-gasp impassioned event.

“From now on, it’s single elimination,” declared Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

“I think it’s wide open,” said WCC Coach of the Year Randy Bennett of St Mary’s.

“Nobody’s talking about us getting an at-large bid,” said BYU’s Dave Rose. “We gotta make it to Tuesday to have a chance.”

Nobody’s ranked. Nobody’s guaranteed an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. It’s do-or-die time.

The only sure chance of getting into the Big Dance is to come out as king of the hill Tuesday as the champion of the WCC tournament and earn the league’s automatic berth.

This sets the stage for all-out drama this weekend. No. 3 seed BYU finds itself in the blocks Saturday against pesky No. 6 Santa Clara (2 p.m. MST, BYUtv). The second game features No. 4 Pepperdine against No. 5 San Francisco. In the night session, No. 1 seed Saint Mary’s takes on Friday’s winner of Loyola and San Diego and No. 2 Gonzaga plays No. 7 Portland.

This just may be the craziest WCC tournament ever because Saint Mary’s swept Gonzaga this year for the first time in 21 years and the Zags are royalty at this event. Gonzaga owns it. The Zags expect to win it every time and swagger in every season. Gonzaga has appeared in the finals of this tournament 18 straight years. Yet, BYU beat Gonzaga in Spokane, just like the Gaels did. And Saint Mary’s lost twice to Pepperdine, which is in the Gaels' bracket.

The top three seeds can all see a path to the title — if they take care of business.

So, enter the Cougars.

The Cougars have been to the finals of the WCC, but they’ve never won it. In two of the last three years, they’ve boasted the league’s top players in MVPs Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth.

Rose needs to win one of these things some time and this would be a dandy time to do it. The drought has gone on too long. BYU is 5-4 in this event. His program is too successful to continue stumbling in postseason play. It’s becoming a trademark, a reputation he’d like to shake off.

If BYU gets hot, it can make a run. The Cougars proved this season they can lose to anybody if those 3-pointers go clanking. In fact, that Pacific team that came into the Marriott Center and handed Rose the worst home loss of his career just fired coach Ron Verlin and assistant coach Dwight Young on Friday. The Tigers are not in Las Vegas due to infractions.

How did that BYU loss to Pacific happen? Well, that’s part of the equation of the 2015-16 Cougars: Anything can happen.

Rose hopes his recent deployment of eight players to make a deeper bench will help in a three-game tournament. “We’ve got a young bench. But I’m hoping the format will help us. We’re pretty much playing eight guys.” Those key reserves include Jordan Chatman, Zac Seljaas and senior Nate Austin.

Collinsworth’s advice to his teammates in his last appearance at this tournament is simple. He doesn’t want anybody to lock up or panic over fears and pressures of the day but to play uninhibited and freely.

“Pay hard, play confident, do what you’ve done all year, nothing more, nothing less and enjoy it. It’s a fun atmosphere and anything can happen,” he said.

Easier said than done.

The Cougar strength has to surface here in Las Vegas. They need to play fast, push the ball, engage their frenetic transition game and play their best defense. They can’t afford to be put in a half court game like the Gonzaga match in Provo a week ago.

Running and gunning will be key.

The Cougars should defeat Santa Clara. An expected rematch with Gonzaga would then loom Monday.

I get the feeling Collinsworth and the rest of his teammates relish a rematch with the WCC’s historic blue blood.

But Santa Clara comes first.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

EMAIL: dharmon@deseretnews.com.

TWITTER: Harmonwrites