The West Coast Conference Tournament starts today in Las Vegas, on 2012's "extra" day--which is appropriate, since the WCC has actually added a couple of extra days to its annual tourney, to facilitate the league's inclusion of BYU.
Since adopting its double-bye format in 2003, the tournament has been a four-day affair, stretching from Friday through Monday, with games every night. With BYU making the WCC a nine-team league, and with the Cougars not playing on Sundays, the tournament has added a play-in game, and incorporated a Sunday "rest day," extending the tournament to six days: today through next Monday.
The tournament bracket shows what used the be the First Round now called the Second Round, in which the winner of tonight's First Round game will play on Thursday. #8 seed Portland and #9 seed Santa Clara will play for the right to join San Francisco (#5 seed), San Diego (#6 seed) and Pepperdine (#7 seed), with the two survivors of that four-team group advancing to the Friday night quarterfinals, where #3 seed BYU and #4 seed Loyola Marymount await. The top-seeded St. Mary's Gaels and second-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs are off until Saturday night's semifinals. After an off-day Sunday, the tourney will conclude March 5th.
Previewing his team's first foray at the WCC Tournament, BYU head coach Dave Rose told me last night on his weekly KSL Radio show that "it's what you play for all year long, is to get yourself into a position where your team is playing well. Then you get these tournaments, and it's exciting."
"The lower-seeded teams, they have new life," said Rose, "and everybody's playing for something that is really important. Very exciting for every fan base, no matter where you play, or who you cheer for; you get excited about your team's chances when the tournament time starts."
BYU will be playing its conference tournament games in Las Vegas for a sixth straight season and the 12th time in the last 15 seasons, having played tourney games at the Thomas & Mack Center as a member of both the WAC and the MWC. The WCC holds its tournament games at the Orleans Arena--a venue that will welcome the WAC next week.
Rose says returning to Las Vegas at this time of year is familiar, but that "it kind of sums up the entire season; it will be similar, but it's not the same--it's going to be different."
"The similar part of it will be that we're going down for our first game, and we don't know who we play (on Friday)--we've been through that before."
About the built-in Sunday off-day for the tournament teams, Rose said "they (the WCC) have really made a lot of changes in their tournament to accommodate us...we're just really grateful that we have an opportunity to play in this league."
While the venue city is familiar, the Cougars' tournament seed is not; in its 12 years as a Mountain West Conference member, BYU was a 3 seed only once, and lost its 2006 tourney opener, to 6 seed Utah, in the MWC quarterfinals. Since 2006, BYU has won its ensuing five conference tournament debuts, all of them as a 2 or a 1 seed.
Since the WCC adopted its double-bye format in 2003, the WCC Tournament 3 seed is 9-0 in the quarterfinals, but only 1-8 in the semifinals against the 2 seed. The one victory came in 2008, when San Diego, playing on its home floor, defeated second-seeded St. Mary's and top-seeded Gonzaga to secure the league's automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
In 2012, college basketball observers are divided on what BYU has to do to secure a sixth consecutive Big Dance bid. It is all but certain that the Cougars need to win their Friday night game to remain in the mix for the field of 68; some think a semifinal win over Gonzaga is an additional necessity. Rose prefers to worry about gameday Friday over Selection Sunday.
"The most important thing with your players is that you try to get them to focus in on what we can actually do and what we can control, and kind of stay away from what other people are saying is going to happen in a couple of weeks from now...the bottom line is, let's go down, have a really good practice on Thursday, then see who we're going to play. Then, on Friday, go play our best and try and get a win."
"From there," says Rose, "let's deal with what happens in that game and move forward. That's the challenge."
BYU last won a conference tournament championship in 2001, defeating New Mexico to win the MWC tourney title in Las Vegas. UNLV was that season ineligible to participate in the event held on its home floor.
Rose addressed the health of three players dealing with either recent or lingering injuries: Noah Hartsock, Matt Carlino and Stephen Rogers. Hartsock suffered a significant knee sprain to go along with a sprained ankle and calf injury on the same leg, while Carlino sprained a knee and Rogers continues to recover from a torn meniscus, resultant surgery and ensuing soreness and swelling.
"Noah's doing better…he continues to improve. (Monday) he was a little sore, kind of limping around a little bit…he got some real good treatment...and (Tuesday) was better. He got a ball in his hand, he was in the gym, doing a lot of individual moves, shooting with the trainers."
"I saw him on the bike which was the most positive thing for me…that thing was cranked up—the tension was really hard, and it looked like he was putting on a lot of pressure to ride that."
"His ankle is feeling better. His knee is still sore and stiff is the best way to describe it, but he's in some really intense rehab treatments right now."
"We're excited about how this is progressing, hopefully we have enough time. We're looking at a Friday game, and if we can get him back for Friday that would be great. If we win on Friday and he's not ready, maybe we could get him in on Saturday, but I would bet, just based on how he's progressed, that he will be back, eventually. It's just a matter of how much time we have."
"We're past the point of 'is he going to get better?'; it's just ‘when,' now. The trainer will clear him when that time comes, then Noah will decide how he feels, and then we'll play. If he can play Friday, then we'll play him Friday."
Rose compared the decision on whether to play or "save" Hartsock for the weekend to his days as a baseball coach in tournament settings, when in planning pitching rotations, he was "of the mindset that I always threw my number one guy (in the opener). Let's try to win that game, then worry about the next one the next day."
Hartsock was in uniform Wednesday and spent time on the bike, shooting on the side--including some minimal moves--shooting free throws on his own and with the team, watching sets and recognizing offensive/defensive assignments. He had a smile on his face much of the time, and didn't appear to be favoring his injured knee or laboring in what he was doing. After practice, Rose gave the following status report:
"We'll know Friday...we'll know Friday, game-time. He improves every day, but he's not in a position to practice yet, and we probably won't practice him. If (Noah) is in a position to play on Friday, we'll know at game-time. If not, then we'll hope for Saturday, if we're still playing on Saturday."
"It looks to me that Matt is taking the approach where ‘I'm not going to really let anybody know what's up with my knee, and I'm just going to tell them I'm fine and I'll play through it.'"
"There are times when you look over on the sideline that you see him kind of rubbing it a little bit, so I'm sure it's bothering him a little bit, but he's full-go, and he hasn't missed a practice; hasn't sat out any time. I like that. That's a good sign."
"They drained his knee, and they go a lot of fluid out of there, and it's responded well; I asked him (Tuesday), and he said ‘Coach, it feels great right now, and if I went out and played on it today, it would be swollen tomorrow'; that's the process hat he's gotten in."
"There's obviously something there (in the knee), and we don't know exactly how we're going to approach it, how we're going to use him. We've kind of left it up to Stephen and his family; we'll probably address that a little more (Wednesday) with our trainers."
Asked if it was too early to rule on Rogers' status for the WCC tourney, Rose said "yeah, probably."
Carlino's toughness in playing through pain is more pointed in light of a Sports Illustrated article that blisters the UCLA Basketball program, in part for the way Carlino was treated by former Bruin teammate Reeves Nelson and head coach Ben Howland.
An excerpt from the article:
From the first practice, Nelson's treatment of Carlino was a divisive issue. Carlino suffered a concussion during the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games. Nelson ridiculed Carlino for letting the injury sideline him. He told Carlino he didn't belong at UCLA and wasn't any good. He would yell at Carlino to leave the locker room, calling him "concussion boy." When Carlino returned to workouts, Nelson would go out of his way to set a screen on Carlino so he could hit him. Eventually, players say, Carlino dreaded practice. It was of little surprise when he left UCLA midway through the season and transferred to BYU.
After Carlino left, there was a team meeting at which Howland said he couldn't respect a quitter. "But everyone knew why Matt left," says one player. "He didn't want to keep sitting on the bench, but most of all he didn't want to be around Reeves anymore. That wasn't quitting. That was just smart."
Carlino became eligible for BYU midway through this season and immediately became a standout.
Carlino has repeatedly explained that his transfer from UCLA was the result of not having a "good fit" with the Bruins; from the extent of the issues described in the SI piece, it is easier to understand why.