Gonzaga Sitting in Good Spot

Times Staff Writer

Imagine Duke as host of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and you have an idea how the rest of the West Coast Conference feels as the men's WCC tournament begins on Gonzaga's home court tonight.

Except Gonzaga has an even bigger advantage than the Blue Devils would: The nation's fifth-ranked team won't face another team in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index, and the Bulldogs get a bye into the semifinals Sunday at McCarthey Athletic Center, the 2-year-old arena where they have never lost.

Plus, there's a new reason to think of Gonzaga as the Duke of the Palouse: San Francisco Coach Jessie Evans contended this week that the Bulldogs get more than their share of calls, in part because of the atmosphere their fans create.

"I think it's unfortunate the officiating is intimidated a little bit. Stats don't lie," Evans said Tuesday, the day after a 75-72 loss at Gonzaga during which his team shot seven free throws to Gonzaga's 23, 16 by Adam Morrison.

"I guess I'm just saying things probably that other coaches feel," Evans said. "You know, there's a lot of flopping going on."

Gonzaga Coach Mark Few reacted sharply.

"That's questioning the integrity of the game of basketball. It's questioning the integrity of the officials," he said, contending that Gonzaga's free-throw totals result from the physical defense teams are playing against Morrison, the nation's leading scorer, as well as the low-post game of J.P. Batista.

"It seems like it goes hand in hand with what they say about Duke," Few said. "The reason Duke shoots so many free throws has nothing to do with [Coach Mike Krzyzewski] and everything to do with a great low-post scorer, Shelden Williams, and an offense based on dribble penetration."

The advantage Gonzaga (25-3) has in the tournament is partly the result of a change in the WCC tournament format adopted in 2003 that grants the top two teams in the regular-season standings byes into the semifinals -- largely because of complaints by Few that the WCC needed to "protect" its top-seeded team going into the NCAA tournament.

The quirk this year in the format means that Loyola Marymount -- an 11-17 team that has lost four consecutive games but finished second to Gonzaga -- is two victories from the NCAA tournament.

"I have to say, I love it right now," Loyola Marymount Coach Rodney Tention said.

This will be the first time the tournament has been played at Gonzaga. It has been played at either Santa Clara or San Diego the last 10 years, with one stop at Loyola Marymount.

The WCC now rotates the event regionally, and it landed at Gonzaga's campus in Spokane, Wash., this year.

"I think they deserve it," Pepperdine Coach Paul Westphal said. "They built the nicest building in the conference and have the most successful program in the conference. And it's definitely long past their turn to host."

Evans and some others would prefer a neutral site.

"Why should we have to go up there to the farthest end of the conference?" Evans said. "It's ridiculous to me."

Winning the WCC tournament would change little for Gonzaga, long since a lock for an NCAA at-large bid and a probable No. 2 seed. The only way the WCC will get a second team in is if Gonzaga is upset.

For all the Bulldogs' advantages, they have not been untouchable in the WCC, with three close calls during their undefeated conference season. It took game winning three-pointers in the final 10 seconds to beat USF on Monday, as well as at San Diego earlier in the season. Gonzaga also survived an upset bid on its home court against St. Mary's when Sean Mallon made a free throw with less than a second left.

St. Mary's starts the tournament with a six-game winning streak, and like USF, gets a bye into the quarterfinals. Those are the favorites to provide any kind of threat to Gonzaga.

But against a team that has the nation's longest home winning streak, at 38 games, and must play only two games, any shot is a long shot.

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