In typical fashion, Gonzaga heads into this West Coast Conference tournament final knowing it likely won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday should it fall short.
The 18th-ranked Bulldogs, however, have long preferred to eliminate any suspense.
Gonzaga looks to claim its 10th WCC tournament championship in 12 years Monday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas against Saint Mary’s, which has lost six straight to the Bulldogs - including a drubbing in last season’s title game.
Gonzaga (26-5) has won 10 consecutive WCC regular-season titles, and as it’s risen from a mid-major program to a perennial power, it’s generally had an NCAA bid all but wrapped up heading into the conference tournament.
That hasn’t kept the Bulldogs from asserting their dominance. Gonzaga has won nine of 11 WCC tournament titles, including an 83-58 rout of Saint Mary’s in 2009 that tied for its largest winning margin in a championship game.
This will be the fourth time since 2004 the Bulldogs have faced the Gaels (25-5) for the title, with Gonzaga winning the previous three by an average of 17.0 points.
“We come into this every year and want to win it,” said Bulldogs guard Matt Bouldin, the conference player of the year. “We want to be playing our best game going into the NCAA tournament. Winning this thing is everything.”
Bouldin had 12 points in Sunday’s semifinal against Loyola Marymount - four below his average - but he got plenty of help from his teammates. Steven Gray had game highs of 18 points and seven assists while Elias Harris scored 17 in a 77-62 win over the Lions.
“We try to come out and follow the game plan, play hard,” Gray said. “It makes the game simple. If we keep things simple, other things will take care of themselves.”
Departed senior Josh Heytvelt and Bouldin led six Bulldogs in double figures in last season’s rout of Saint Mary’s, but their key against the Gaels this season has been a player who was overseas a year ago.
Harris, a freshman who came to Spokane, Wash., via Germany, has averaged 25.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in Gonzaga’s two regular-season wins over second-seeded Saint Mary’s.
Harris had 19 and Bouldin 18 in an 80-61 home win Feb. 11, the Bulldogs’ sixth straight in the series.
“Those guys are always the challenge,” center Robert Sacre said of the Gaels. “We got fired up.”
While Gonzaga will be headed for the NCAA tournament win or lose, Saint Mary’s fate is far more uncertain should it fail to win its first WCC tournament since 1997.
The Gaels have earned at-large bids in 2005 and 2008, and have a solid resume once again. Saint Mary’s is 11-3 in road and neutral site games after a 69-55 semifinal win over Portland on Sunday.
Failing to beat Gonzaga, though, might leave it on the outside looking in. The Gaels beat WAC champion Utah State on the road and Mountain West bubble team San Diego State, but lost to Vanderbilt in November in a game that could have bolstered their case.
Saint Mary’s will almost certainly need a star performance from leading scorer Omar Samhan (21.5 points per game), and he’s elevated his game against the Bulldogs, averaging 26.0 points and 11.5 rebounds.
Just as significant might be a big effort from its other big man. Australian senior Ben Allen has been held to 7.5 points per game versus Gonzaga, but the Gaels are 18-0 when he scores in double figures.