By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
This was unexpected. The big story this week was supposed to be Gonzaga rolling into Las Vegas undefeated and ranked No. 1. Instead, Eric Mika is making news.
Mika, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, was named the NCAA.com Player of the Week on Monday after totaling 29 points and 11 rebounds to help Brigham Young wreck the Zags’ perfect regular season. The Cougars were 20½-point underdogs in their 79-71 win on Saturday.
Mika was gone for a while but he’s no longer forgotten. As a freshman in 2013-14, he was a standout. He left for his LDS mission to Italy, and returned last summer to get married. So he’s not the typical sophomore.
It’s now a three-horse race in the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena, with BYU joining two ranked teams — No. 4 Gonzaga (29-1) and No. 20 Saint Mary’s (26-3) — in the chase for the automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
One loss might do the Bulldogs some good in March. As any coach would do, Mark Few will use the setback as a teaching point moving forward.
“A definite wake-up call,” VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said. “Few will use that situation to say, ‘We have to get back to work. Anybody can beat us.’ I think Gonzaga gets it back on track.”
The odds indicate it’s still a one-horse race. Magliulo made Gonzaga a minus-425 favorite to win the WCC tournament. If each team wins Saturday, Saint Mary’s (plus-325) and BYU (plus-600) would meet in Monday’s semifinals.
The Zags face a much easier road to the March 7 championship game.
The field, which offers 18-1 odds, includes Santa Clara, San Francisco, Loyola Marymount, San Diego, Pepperdine, Pacific and Portland. There’s probably a better chance of catching Bigfoot than cashing the field bet.
Gonzaga has won four straight and five of the past six WCC tournaments in Las Vegas.
The loss to BYU might cost the Bulldogs the NCAA’s top seed in the West Region, depending on how things play out with Oregon, UCLA and Arizona in the Pac-12.
“But I think Gonzaga is still a No. 1 seed if they win it,” Magliulo said. “Others teams are losing. Everybody else is beating each other up.”
For the Cougars, it’s either win the WCC or go to the NIT.
The Gaels are considered safely in the NCAA field even with a third loss to Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s swept BYU in the regular season, winning each meeting by 13 points.
But after what Mika did to Gonzaga, it’s a more confident Cougars team.
SCOUTING THE WCC TOURNAMENT
Record: 29-1, 17-1
Player to watch: Nigel Williams-Goss. The 6-foot-3 junior is one of the nation’s top 10 point guards. He leads the team in scoring (16.3) and assists (4.8) and shoots 90.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Fast facts: The No. 4 Bulldogs are 20-6-1 against the spread. … In Saturday’s loss to Brigham Young, the Zags shot 3 of 16 (.188) from 3-point range and 16 of 29 (.552) on free throws, both season lows. … Williams-Goss (Findlay Prep) and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins (Bishop Gorman High) played high school basketball in Las Vegas.
Prediction: Gonzaga has won this tournament four consecutive years, each time by double digits in the championship game, beating Saint Mary’s twice and BYU twice. Expect coach Mark Few to turn last week’s loss into a positive to get his team refocused. The Zags will win the title again and get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
2) SAINT MARY’S
Record: 26-3, 16-2
Player to watch: Jock Landale. The 6-11 junior from Australia is a talented low-post player and good shooter. He matches up well against the league’s other top bigs — 7-1 Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga) and 6-10 Eric Mika (BYU). Landale averages team highs of 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds. It’s critical for him to avoid foul trouble and stay on the floor.
Fast facts: The Gaels rank No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense (56.1), but they allowed 79 and 74 points in losses to Gonzaga. … Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar each shoot better than 43 percent from 3-point range.
Prediction: Randy Bennett is an underrated coach, mostly because he consistently loses to Gonzaga. That’s not going to change. Saint Mary’s is ranked No. 20 this week and has a solid resume, so getting an at-large NCAA bid is a safe bet even with a third loss to the Zags.
3) BRIGHAM YOUNG
Record: 21-10, 12-6
Player to watch: Elijah Bryant. The Cougars’ big star in the upset of Gonzaga was Eric Mika, but Bryant also had a big week, scoring 14 points against the Zags after going for a career-high 39 against Portland. A 6-5 sophomore, he’s a wild card with TJ Haws and Nick Emery in an improving, young backcourt.
Fast facts: Offense is always BYU’s strength, and the Cougars rank 26th in the nation in scoring (81.1). … Mika (9.4) leads the nation’s No. 2 rebounding team (42.2). … The Cougars are 4-7 against Gonzaga in the past four seasons, and the rest of the conference is a combined 4-66.
Prediction: BYU will have to go through Saint Mary’s in Monday’s semifinals, and the Gaels won each of their regular-season meetings by 13 points. The Cougars will put up a tougher fight the third time and could be live ‘dogs. But the end result will be an NIT trip.
4) SANTA CLARA
Record: 16-15, 10-8
Player to watch: Jared Brownridge. The Broncos will go to Jared early and often to keep their season alive. The 6-3 senior guard from the Chicago suburbs has been among the WCC’s top scorers the past four years. He leads the team in scoring (17.3)
Fast fact: Santa Clara ranks 35th in the nation in scoring defense (64.9), which is no surprise considering Herb Sendek is a defensive-minded coach.
Prediction: The Broncos split with San Francisco, winning 72-58 at home and losing 61-58 on the road. Their third meeting in Saturday’s quarterfinals should turn into a grinding, slow-down game. Brownridge’s scoring and Sendek’s coaching will help Santa Clara advance.
5) SAN FRANCISCO
Record: 20-11, 10-8
Player to watch: Ronnie Boyce. The 6-3 guard leads the team in scoring (12.8), but he also rebounds well for a skinny 170-pounder. He’s the lone senior on the Dons’ roster.
Fast facts: San Francisco ranks 52nd in the nation in scoring defense (66.5). … The Dons finished last season 15-15, so reaching 20 wins with one returning starter is an impressive accomplishment for first-year coach Kyle Smith.
Prediction: Smith has an inexperienced team that should be better next season. Expect the Dons to go down to a more experienced Santa Clara team in a tight, low-scoring game.
6) LOYOLA MARYMOUNT
Record: 15-14, 8-10
Player to watch: Brandon Brown. The 5-11 senior guard hit the winning jumper in the last minute as the Lions clipped Pacific 67-66 in the regular-season finale. He’s the main scoring threat for a limited offensive team.
Fast fact: Mike Dunlap needs one win to secure his first winning record in three years as Loyola’s coach.
Prediction: Dunlap will have to settle for a .500 finish. The Lions drew BYU in Saturday’s quarterfinals. The Cougars swept the regular-season series, but both games were competitive down the stretch. Unless Brown goes wild, the Lions are going home early.
7) SAN DIEGO
Record: 13-17, 6-12
Player to watch: Brett Bailey. The 6-6 senior forward leads the Toreros in scoring (15.5) and rebounding (6.9).
Fast fact: San Diego was held to 27 points in a Feb. 4 home loss to Saint Mary’s.
Prediction: The Toreros will be small favorites and should advance against 10th-seeded Portland, but it might not be easy. The teams met Saturday in San Diego, and the Toreros won 85-82.
Record: 9-21, 5-13
Player to watch: Lamond Murray Jr. The 6-5 senior guard is by far the best player and top scorer (20.7) on a bad team. The name should sound familiar. His dad played at California and in the NBA for 11 seasons.
Fast facts: The Waves went winless (0-7) in December and come into the tournament riding a four-game losing streak. … Pepperdine was a 9-point underdog in a 99-83 upset of BYU on Feb. 9, when Murray scored 30.
Prediction: Murray is capable of carrying the Waves past Pacific. He scored 26 in an 82-72 victory over the Tigers on Feb. 4. This is the end of his college career, so he’ll go out firing.
Record: 10-21, 4-14
Player to watch: Anthony Townes. The 6-6 sophomore started to emerge late in the season. He came off the bench Saturday to produce 22 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Loyola Marymount.
Fast facts: The Tigers are coached by former Arizona and NBA point guard Damon Stoudamire. … Each of Pacific’s past two losses were by one point.
Prediction: To Stoudamire’s credit, his team continues to play hard in a hopeless situation. The Tigers are 4-0 ATS in their past four games, and they figure to give Pepperdine a tough test in Friday’s first round.
Record: 10-21, 2-16
Player to watch: Jazz Johnson. The 5-10 sophomore has a great first name, and his game is not bad, either. He’s averaging 15.5 points and 35 minutes per game.
Fast facts: The Pilots are coached by former Portland Trail Blazers star Terry Porter. … The team’s best player, senior guard Alec Wintering, went down to a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 19. The Pilots, 9-9 at the time, have since defeated only Walla Walla University. … Portland went 2-0 ATS versus Gonzaga this season.
Prediction: Porter’s team has been playing well enough lately to pull off a minor upset of San Diego in Friday’s first round.