Friday March 26th, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Sitting in the back of the Saint Mary's locker room at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, maybe 30 minutes after his Gaels had held off Villanova to advance to the Sweet 16, a drained Randy Bennett was asked to comment on the meaning of his team's victory.

"I probably can't put it into perspective," he said. "I just know our conference office is happy right now."

Truer words may not have been spoken last weekend, as the West Coast Conference, a football-free collection of small, private Christian schools, may finally have found a worthy challenger for Gonzaga. If it has, it could mean much bigger things for the league as a whole.

"We've always felt for a long time that we're more than one team," said WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich in the arena's concourse after the Gaels' 75-68 win. "Gonzaga's a really, really good program. They're unlike anything else in our category. This really is a platform for our second-best team to show they can play."

While this week has been all about Saint Mary's, the last decade-plus in the conference has been all about the Zags. They haven't even shared the league crown since 2002, let alone had someone win it. The battle for second place during that span has ebbed and flowed, with teams such as Pepperdine and Santa Clara taking brief moments, but those felt more illusory than illustrative of a league trying to rise to the level of its king.

Over the past few years, though, Saint Mary's has made a strong ascent, and this season's dual tournament breakthroughs -- first KO'ing the Zags in Vegas for the WCC tournament title and then outlasting them in the NCAAs -- might finally be the moments that lead to the league as a whole garnering more respect.

"This national perception of us being Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with Gonzaga is not where we are anymore, which is a good thing," Zaninovich said Tuesday, by phone, from his Bay Area office. "That said, I think we still have some work to do with the depth of the league. There's still too big a disparity between our top teams and some of our bottom teams."

Zaninovich said that the WCC is working on some scheduling initiatives that should, in the short run, at least help the bottom of the conference improve its RPI. He notes, though, that the lesser programs will still have to find a model for sustainable success, one which is unlikely to be like Gonzaga's, which is a one-of-a-kind convergence of a rabid local market, expert branding, institutional investment and quality of basketball product.

Years of quality performance have elevated Gonzaga well beyond the stature of a team from a mid-major league. It's now a program that gets home-and-homes with Michigan State, that gets games in Madison Square Garden with Duke, that has a national recruiting reach and the ambition to match. While the Zags may not love ceding this March's spotlight, in the long run, having a viable challenger -- and a more viable league -- will undoubtedly help them.

"We want -- we need, in some ways -- for the conference to be more competitive top to bottom," said Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth. "We'd like to see the WCC move up as a total conference, solidify ourselves as a year-in, year-out multi-bid conference."

This year, Gonzaga lost on the road in league play at San Francisco and Loyola Marymount. Combined with the loss to Saint Mary's in the league title game, those defeats helped push the Zags down to an 8 seed in the NCAAs, leading to a second-round dismissal by top-seeded Syracuse. If the conference is stronger, league losses will be less damaging. A deeper league also may allow the Zags to fill out the front half of their schedule more carefully.

"[Games against opponents like Duke] are the things we're going to continue to do regardless of the competitive stature of the rest of our league," Roth said. "As the league hopefully continues to find ways to make itself better top to bottom, it may give us the opportunity to maybe not have to schedule such a demanding nonleague portion of the schedule."

Long-term, Saint Mary's rise may help multiple parties, but forgive some of the Gaels if that message was lost in the glory of their Sweet 16 berth. After last Saturday's win, Bennett did sound sincere (or, at the very least, diplomatic) when he said he hoped Gonzaga also made it to the Sweet 16, noting how impressive it would be for a smaller league like the WCC to get two teams there. Leave it then to talkative center Omar Samhan, the "most hated man in Spokane," to sound an appropriate postscript, via a Tweet from New York Times reporter Pete Thamel.

"It would help our conference a ton if they win," Samhan said of the Zags' game against Syracuse. "But I still want them to lose."

Rivalry smack talk between two teams playing on the game's grandest stage? It's music to the WCC's ears.

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