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Picked to finish 2nd, BYU eager to challenge Gonzaga for WCC title

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 10:37 a.m. MDT

Junior Guard Tyler Haws will be a key factor for the Cougars heading into this season after averaging 21.7 points last year.  (Matt Gade, Deseret News) Junior Guard Tyler Haws will be a key factor for the Cougars heading into this season after averaging 21.7 points last year. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

LOS ANGELES — As expected, Gonzaga was picked to win the West Coast Conference men’s basketball championship as voted on by the league’s coaches — and, as expected, BYU was selected to finish in second place — Thursday at the WCC Tipoff event at the Time Warner Cable Sports studios.

The Bulldogs have had a stranglehold on the league for more than a decade and earned a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Cougars received one first-place vote in the preseason poll (coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team).

Pacific, which enters its inaugural season in the 10-team conference, was picked to finish seventh.

No doubt, the road to the WCC championship goes through Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs, who received eight of 10 possible first-place votes, are ranked No. 14 in the USA Today/ESPN poll. A year ago, Gonzaga became the first WCC team to achieve a No. 1 ranking since the 1970s. It posted a 32-3 record and made its 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

“Gonzaga’s the team to beat, and they’ve been the team to beat for quite a few years in this league,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “That’s why the league has improved so much, because Gonzaga sets such a high standard and everyone is trying to knock them off.”

Since joining the WCC in 2011-12, BYU has posted a 1-4 record against Gonzaga.

But Cougar junior guard Matt Carlino said his team is poised to challenge the Bulldogs for the title.

“I think we’re definitely capable of beating them,” Carlino said. “We beat them at our place our freshman year. We’ve just got to believe. And I think we do. It’s awhile until conference play, and we have to improve, but it’s going to be fun.”

While Gonzaga lost All-America and NBA lottery pick Kelly Olynyk, the Bulldogs are still loaded with talent, including guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.

What is it going to take to dethrone Gonzaga?

“It’s consistency,” Rose said. “If Gonzaga plays at their normal level, a 16-2 record (in conference play) might be finishing second. You have to worry about yourself and get better in every game. And when you get an opportunity to play them, you’ve got to beat them to win a championship.”

Meanwhile, the team picked to finish third in the league, Saint Mary’s, will be without guard Matthew Dellavedova, who graduated. Dellavedova, who shocked the Cougars last season in Provo with a buzzer-beating, game-winning half-court shot, is one of the reasons BYU is 0-4 against the Gaels since joining the WCC.

“He was such a key piece to Saint Mary’s team,” Carlino said. “They have a great program. It’s weird not to have him around.”

While Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both played in the NCAA Tournament last season, BYU was invited to the NIT, where it advanced to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

One of the Cougars’ goals this season is to get back to the NCAA Tournament, where they played the previous six seasons.

“It’s funny, because after (NCAA) Selection Sunday, it was the first time in a long time that we weren’t selected,” Rose said. “It was kind of an empty feeling that we had. That NIT was really good for our players, because five or six hours later, we found out we had another game. Our guys really embraced that and it was really good for us. But that’s not what you shoot for. We want a spot in that field of 68.”

Said Carlino: “We want to win the conference, win the conference tournament, be in the NCAA Tournament, and go as far as we can go in the NCAA Tournament. We’re looking forward to all of that.”

Junior guard Tyler Haws was the only BYU player named to the 10-member preseason All-WCC team, which also includes Gonzaga’s Bell and Pangos; San Diego’s Johnny Dee; and Saint Mary’s Brad Waldow.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company