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BYU basketball: Cougars picked to place 3rd in WCC; Gonzaga first

By Janie McCauley

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 27 2011 4:41 p.m. MDT

Saint Mary's head coach Randy Bennett, left, shakes hands with BYU head coach Dave Rose during a West Coast Conference NCAA college Basketball tipoff event at YouTube headquarters Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011, in San Bruno, Calif.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Mark Few never counts on anything coming easily in the West Coast Conference despite Gonzaga's decade-long run of dominance and all the NCAA bids along the way.

Now, add BYU to the mix twice a season and it becomes that much tougher to preserve a streak of 11 straight regular-season conference titles. Few, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett, Santa Clara's Kerry Keating and the rest of the bunch consider these new games on the schedule as automatic Top-25 matchups considering the Cougars' track record in the Mountain West and NCAA tournament.

"You just added a monster. You're throwing fireworks in the ... fire," San Francisco coach Rex Walters said.

The perennial favorite Zags are picked by the WCC coaches to win a 12th consecutive crown, receiving seven of a possible eight first-place votes in the poll announced Thursday. Coaches cannot vote for their own program to win.

"It certainly makes the task of winning another conference title that much more difficult," Few said Thursday during a conference kickoff event at YouTube headquarters. "I consider them a national program. On one end, it's good to have another national program in the conference. On the other hand, it makes it that much tougher to keep our streak of conference titles going."

The WCC expanded in July for the first time in 32 years with the addition of BYU, which eliminated 11th-seeded Gonzaga with an 89-67 victory in the NCAA tournament round of 32 last spring.

"Nationally, I think people will look at this conference and say, 'It could merit three teams, legitimately,'" Few said of NCAA conversations.

The Cougars are picked third in the WCC preseason poll, behind second-place Saint Mary's after the Gaels earned a share of the conference title last season but didn't receive an NCAA berth. Both schools received one first-place vote.

The addition of BYU brings instant credibility to a conference that already has made big strides in men's basketball, though Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich insists the Cougars are helping raise the level of other minor sports, too.

"We took the Mountain West's best team and put them in the WCC," Bennett said. "It has moved us up in the strength of conference in the West. We were probably behind the Mountain West before that, but I think this probably gets us closer to the Pac-12."

In 2008, the Zags, Saint Mary's and San Diego all reached the NCAA tournament in a remarkable first for the conference. That created quite a national buzz that Zaninovich hopes to build on this season.

The WCC will have 17 conference games on ESPN networks. Also, 75 percent of league games will be shown on regional or national television.

Saint Mary's reached the regional semifinals in 2010, then was stunned by Kent State 71-70 in the first round of this year's NIT.

San Francisco, picked to place fourth, is coming off its best WCC season since 1982 and returns all five starters. Six of the nine WCC schools are back after postseason appearances, including Santa Clara's championship in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

"It's great to add a school like BYU to the mix with an incredible track record, a great national — international brand, actually — ... and one that fits with the philosophy of our schools in how they think about undergraduate education and how they think about athletics on their campuses," Zaninovich said. "It's a lot bigger school, but how they think about athletics is really similar. So, it's a slam dunk that we were able to get both things — a good fit and a great basketball program."

The WCC teams lose two preseason games from their schedules to make room for BYU. One big change for all the schools will be the difference playing in the Cougars' 22,000-seat Marriott Center compared to the intimate WCC venues like USF's Memorial Gym or sold-out, 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion at Saint Mary's.

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