By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was 1999 and Matt Santangelo, Casey Calvary and Richie Frahm were doing damage at the Big Dance.
They played for a small Jesuit school out of Spokane, Washington that nobody had ever heard of, but these guys didn’t seem to care. Santangelo ran the point, Calvary crashed the boards and Frahm casted three bombs from the corner. It was a formula that somehow worked well enough for the Zags to knock off Minnesota, Stanford and Florida that year en route to the Elite 8, an awe-inspiring tourney run that still to this day is not forgotten by college roundball purists.
On Thursday night in Moraga, the ghost of that special Gonzaga team will be present when the Zags go on the road to face St. Mary’s College in a game to decide first-place position in the West Coast Conference. The 3,500 seat McKeon Pavilion will be filled to the gills, the game will be on ESPN2 and the level of play will be extremely high. All this is thanks in large part to the tone that ’99 Gonzaga team set during that special tourney run. In that one year, the WCC went from being an afterthought to becoming a conference basketball fans can’t take their eyes off of.
The year following Gonzaga’s magical Elite 8 run, Mark Few took over as head coach. Few has now been at the helm for 12 seasons. He has won the WCC regular season crown 11 times. Through the years, Few has coached the likes of Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp, Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio and Matt Bouldin. The Zags have yet to make it back to the Elite 8, but they are always a tough out in the NCAA tourney.
The school is undoubtedly the class of the WCC, not to mention maybe the most consistent college basketball team on all of the West Coast. Gonzaga routinely packs their raucous home gym, “the Kennel”, and has the guts to play the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, year in and year out.
Up against Few and the Zags on Thursday will be a team in St. Mary’s who has been building a formidable program over the past decade. When head coach Randy Bennett arrived in Moraga in 2001, he inherited a team that had just gone 2-27. St. Mary’s had no football team (they still don’t), a small gym, a tiny fanbase, little funding and not much upside to speak of. Unfazed, Bennett took the challenge head on, using a creative strategy to recruit talent from the shores of Australia to come play hoops for him in the Bay Area.
Perhaps his biggest star from Australia in the early going was Daniel Kickert, who took the Gaels to the NCAA tournament in 2005. Bennett then struck it rich with Patty Mills who got SMC into the field of 64 in 2008. Today, the Gaels feature a host of impact players from Australia including Matthew Dellavadova, Jorden Page, and Mitchell Young.
Thursday’s matchup should be a high-scoring affair with tremendous guard play on both sides. Neither team is up to par with North Carolina or Kentucky when it comes to athleticism, but when it comes shooting the three, both teams can really stroke it. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga’s Sophomore guard out of Canada, is one of the most pure shooters in America. One of Pangos’ backcourt partners just happens to be David Stockton, so you can bet Gonzaga knows how to tickle the twine. On St. Mary’s side, Dellavadova, Page, Stephen Holt and even Beau Levesque all know how to connect from long distance.
Tune into ESPN2 this Thursday at 8 Pacific, 11 Eastern, 5 Hawaiian to see the latest installment of this red hot rivalry. And, oh yes, don’t forget to pay homage to Richie Frahm by getting some shots up at halftime in your backyard. Enjoy.
(Note: A portion of this article was writtten and published by me on another site at an earlier date. This is the first time it has been on Sec925)