St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett works the bench in the first half of a first-round college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett works the bench in the first half of a first-round college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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DENVER (AP) — It's no secret that bigger conferences are always looking at Gonzaga, and that Gonzaga has been looking at them, too.

But the Zags, for the time being, are still in the West Coast Conference. Contrary to what some analytics and big-conference biases might suggest, it has done nothing to hold them back.

For the second straight year — and third since 2017 — Gonzaga's toughest competition in the WCC is also in the second round at the NCAA Tournament. That team is Saint Mary's, which is a No. 5 seed for the second straight year and which actually went into the conference tournament earlier this month as the top seed thanks to a split of the regular-season matchups with the Bulldogs.

In a pair of West Region contests with trips to the Sweet 16 at stake on Sunday, Saint Mary's faces UConn of the Big East, while third-seeded Gonzaga plays TCU of the Big 12.

A decade or two ago, these games might've been viewed as chances for the little guy to strike a blow against big schools from big conferences. Nobody has mistaken Gonzaga for a little guy in a while, though. Saint Mary's, meanwhile, is a 3 1/2-point underdog according to FanDuel Sportsbook against the Huskies, who have three national titles to their credit since 1999. The Gaels came into the tournament ranked 11th in the NET rankings, only three spots behind UConn.

“That’s a question I answer all the time in recruiting,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said of the mid-major tag. “It’s your program. Like, you may be in a mid-major league, but it’s your program.”

Bennett says mid-major programs with mid-major resources and mid-major aspirations usually end up as just that — mid-majors. But teams that do big-school things, such as chartering flights, and working (and sometimes paying) to build a tough nonconference schedule, can rise beyond that.

It's a formula Gonzaga has been perfecting over a quarter-century. The Bulldogs haven't missed an NCAA Tournament since 1998. Along that road, they've been to the national final twice, been seeded No. 1 five times and have rid themselves of the underdog label.

They've become such an attractive program that the Big East (starting in 2012 and continuing sporadically ever since) and Big 12 (more recently) have both made inquiries about the Zags joining them, even though they don't have a football program.

It's a possibility any school with as strong a basketball program as Gonzaga has to at least consider, with yet another round of conference realignment upending college sports.

Athletic director Chris Standiford said he spends time exploring possible moves because the realities of college sports demand that schools bring in enough revenue to compete at the highest level.

“In the West Coast Conference, with success, you can have that contribution, but you always have to be assessing the balance between” revenue and staying true to your roots, Standiford said.

Gonzaga, at least so far, has held that off, in part because the travel commitments and the overall feel of the big conferences haven't quite meshed with the private, 7,200-student Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington.

But if Gonzaga does go, nobody will forget where it built its reputation.

The competition in the WCC has not proven to be a hindrance to its postseason success, the way many skeptics thought it might. This season, Santa Clara made its second straight appearance in the NIT and Loyola Marymount won 19 games, one of which was at Gonzaga and snapped the program's 75-game home winning streak. BYU, a longtime factor in hoops, will end its 12-year stay in the WCC after this season for a move to the Big 12.

Saint Mary's has been in four of the last five March Madness brackets.

“The WCC has been great for us because it hasn't gotten in our way,” coach Mark Few said. “The best thing we've done over the years is — even back to ’99 — we wanted to stay in growth mode. We did not want to just be a one-hit wonder.”

These days, Gonzaga has no problem getting regular-season games against the Baylors and Purdues of the world. Saint Mary's scheduled Houston, San Diego State and Vanderbilt this year. In between those games and March Madness, the WCC rivals played each other three times. After their first-round games earlier this week, a pair of double-digit wins, nobody was saying they weren't ready for the big time.

“They push us for sure, but we push them, too,” Saint Mary's guard Logan Johnson said. “They tell us all the time that we’re the toughest team they play. We get the respect from them, and we also give the respect to them because of what they’ve done in the past.”


AP College Sports Writer Ralph D. Russo in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.


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