With the steady success of Gonzaga, the arrival of another marquee program in BYU and the refusal of Saint Mary's to exit the national spotlight, the WCC wasn't supposed to worry about being a one-bid league anymore.
That may not be the case this season, however, thanks to an uncharacteristically mediocre non-conference performance from the league's upper-tier programs.
I already detailed Gonzaga's dicey situation on Saturday after its loss to Kansas State. Though the Zags' 10-2 record looks decent on the surface, they've lost to two teams not expected to make the NCAA tournament and the best opponents they've beaten are small-conference power New Mexico State and mediocre Arkansas and West Virginia. Unless they win at Memphis in February, they will probably have to rely on piling up wins in the WCC and hoping that's enough for an at-large bid should they get upset in the league tournament.
BYU's non-league resumé features more moral victories than marquee victories. The Cougars will enter their WCC opener 8-5 with narrow losses against Oregon, Iowa State, Wichita State and UMass and a one-sided losses to rival Utah. Two decent victories against Stanford and Texas will help, but to contend for an at-large bid the Cougars may need to win the WCC and have the Cardinal and Longhorns perform well enough in league play to make those wins resonate.
Saint Mary's (9-3) was in the best position of any WCC team before a four-day flop in this week's Diamond Head Classic. Unbeaten with a resumé-boosting win at Boise State entering the tournament, the Gaels dropped all three games, falling to SEC bottom feeder South Carolina, host Hawaii and struggling George Mason.
The Diamond Head disaster makes an at-large bid appear to be a long shot for Saint Mary's. The Gaels may need to win the league outright and post a gaudy record in doing so to avoid having to rely on winning the WCC tournament.
The other problem for the WCC's three elite teams is avoiding losses against the rest of the league may be difficult since those teams seem stronger than usual this season.
Every WCC team enters league play with an above. 500 record. Veteran-laden Pacific is 9-2 with wins at Nevada and Utah State. Guard-heavy San Diego has pushed both San Diego State and New Mexico to the brink. Talented but erratic Loyola Marymount is a threat on its home floor and Portland finished non-league play on a high note with wins over Princeton and Bradley.
At this point, the WCC has a couple of potential formulas to send two teams to the NCAA tournament.
One is Gonzaga upsetting Memphis in February to secure a badly needed marquee win, enabling the Zags to make the field 0f 68 without either thoroughly dominating the WCC in league play or winning the conference tournament. The other is for Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary's to win the WCC regular season title convincingly with a near-flawless record but fall in the conference tournament and cede the league's automatic bid to someone else.
Either option is certainly a possibility, however, neither is anywhere close to a sure thing. That's why the WCC concludes non-league play in a precarious position.