West Coast Conference still making strides

JANIE McCAULEY AP Sports Writer Published:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- When Jamie Zaninovich looks at the West Coast Conference men's basketball tournament as commissioner, he envisions two teams from the conference reaching the NCAA tournament and putting the WCC on the national map once more.

As a member of the NCAA tournament men's basketball selection committee, he has to take a hard look at the entire league while wearing a different hat. The conference tournament winner crowned next week in Las Vegas will receive an automatic bid and the WCC also could land an at-large berth, considering both regular-season champion Gonzaga and runner-up BYU each have impressive RPI rankings based on strength of their nonconference schedule and results. The Zags rank 25th in RPI nationally and BYU is 35th.

While Gonzaga (25-6, 15-3 WCC) won its 13th conference regular-season title in 14 years, Zaninovich is celebrating all but two of the 10 conference schools finishing at or above .500. Newcomer Pacific (15-14) made a tough transition back into what has become one of the more competitive mid-major conferences.

"You probably have the most competitive year we've had in our modern era," Zaninovich said leading up to Thursday's start of the conference tournament. "Four teams are in the top (66) in the RPI, which is almost half the teams."

As the WCC tournament kicks off its sixth year at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the tournament will now feature a more traditional 10-team bracket in which the top two seeds don't get byes for the first two rounds but rather just one bye. Five games will be televised on either ESPN or ESPN2.

"Between the parity in the conference and the fact that the playing field in terms of the format of the tournament has really leveled, it's going to be really interesting," said Zaninovich, the WCC's sixth-year commissioner. "It's more of a traditional format. We weren't ready for it until recently. And you trade some things off, we're not protecting our higher seeds as much. We felt like we were headed toward more depth, where this was the right way to do it."

While San Francisco produced the program's first 20-win season in 32 years under 2014 WCC Coach of the Year Rex Walters, some nonconference losses could cost the third-seeded Dons if they don't capture the WCC tournament and automatic bid. USF is riding a season-best five-game winning streak into the tournament and went 9-2 down the stretch.

"We think we have two teams - commissioner hat on, men's basketball committee hat off - that are pretty well positioned for NCAA selection, so we hope that this format can only help them," Zaninovich said. "Then we play the games on a neutral site with a bunch of 18-20 year olds and we see what happens."

The WCC expanded in July 2011 for the first time in 32 years with the addition of BYU, then added Pacific. No more expansion any time soon, Zaninovich insists. Pacific - which plays 85 miles away from San Francisco in Stockton - joins USF, Santa Clara and Saint Mary's in the Bay Area as the WCC's Northern California representatives.

"Oh yeah, we're good," Zaninovich said with a smile. "Our conference didn't expand for 30 years and we've added two in three years. The one thing that's been really cool with Pacific's addition that we did get, that we hoped we'd get, is that these four Bay Area rivalries, being sort of the renaissance of those."

The WCC is signed to stay at Orleans Arena through 2016, with option years beyond that. In 2009, the league moved its conference tournament to a neutral site and away from one of the school's campuses. The WCC women's tournament also is played at Orleans Arena.