LAS VEGAS – Hours before the start of the WCC Tournament on Thursday, Gonzaga coach Mark Few talked about the benefits of winning the regular-season title and earning a bye into the semifinals.
But not for as long as he recounted the benefits of a team having a game or two under its belt in the earlier rounds.
“Obviously it’s a blessing to get the byes and all that,” said Few, following the Zags’ practice Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “But I would say this: In all the years we’ve been doing it, it’s an advantage to play, too. There’s something different about being in a postseason tournament, where every team has this crazy sense of urgency and desperation to get to the NCAA Tournament or not end the season.
“If you look over the course of the last five years, our first game has always been a little rough. The bye is great for rest, not dealing with losing to a bad NET ranking, but it’s an advantage to the team that’s already played, quite frankly.”
It sure hasn’t bothered eighth-seeded Pepperdine, which rattled off three wins in three nights, including an impressive 89-72 thrashing of No. 4 San Francisco on Saturday, to earn a shot at top-ranked Gonzaga at 6 p.m. Monday at the Orleans Arena.
It sure hasn’t hurt No. 7 San Diego, which moved to 3-0 in the tourney by clobbering No. 3 BYU 80-57 to earn a date with No. 2 Saint Mary’s in Monday’s nightcap.
Pepperdine (16-17) and San Diego (21-13) took advantage of Sunday’s off day. The Zags (29-2) practiced Sunday in Spokane before flying to Las Vegas.
The Waves, who lost 92-64 to the Zags on Feb. 21 in Spokane, dropped six of their final eight regular-season games, but they’ve emerged as one of the early darlings of March Madness.
Along the way, the Waves have overcome mountains of adversity. They rallied from double-digit deficits in the second half to defeat Pacific and Loyola Marymount. They left no doubt against USF, reversing two regular-season losses.
Reserve wing Andre Ball was taken off the floor on a stretcher in their opener after a hard fall under the basket. Ball is expected to be OK after undergoing additional medical exams.
Starting forward Kameron Edwards, who had just returned from a foot injury, hobbled off the floor in Saturday’s win and didn’t return in the second half. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer (14.7) and top rebounder (6.2).
The Waves have turned to a smaller lineup, led by sophomore point guard Colbey Ross, who torched the Dons with 26 points and nine assists. He made four of the team’s 14 3-pointers.
“I thought we shared the ball and we were able to get open shots,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We believe we can shoot it.”
Now the Waves face their biggest challenge, a rested Gonzaga outfit that has won 20 straight games and will be cheered on by its usual throng of 4,000 to 5,000 supporters.
The Zags have won 36 straight in the series. For all of their first-round issues, they’ve advanced to 21 consecutive WCC championship games.
And they could have the services of junior forward Killian Tillie, who has been sidelined for more than a month with a partially torn plantar fascia. The reigning WCC Tournament most outstanding player returned to practice Thursday.
“They guard better than people might think,” Romar said. “A lot of it has to do with their bigs (Brandon) Clarke and Rui (Hachimura). They can guard guards like they’re guards.”
“At the other end, they’re just so dangerous. There’s not a guy on that floor that can’t go get 20 points in a game.”
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