By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
As is almost always the case, the St. Mary’s Gaels head into Thursday’s 6pm (ESPN) matchup at #13 Gonzaga knowing full well that the Zags are an outstanding team, bound for yet another NCAA Tournament appearance. The Gaels will get at least two shots at Mark Few's squad, if not a third in the West Coast Conference tournament title game. And if the lads from Moraga want to avoid having their bubble burst on Selection Sunday come mid-March, at least one win against their rival from the great Northwest is all but essential resume material.
Since 2001, Gonzaga has won the WCC regular season crown every single year, save for 2012. That’s the year the Gaels trotted out Matthew Dellavedova, Brad Waldow, Mitch Young, Clint Steindl, and Stephen Holt to counter Few’s college basketball mid-major machine. Not only did the Gaels win the regular season league title that year, but they also won the conference tournament in Vegas, outlasting the Zags in overtime. Something not even Omar Samhan can claim.
Coming off their best year in program history in which they narrowly lost to North Carolina in the National Championship Game, Gonzaga looks to be relatively vulnerable here in 2018, having lost three key starters from a year ago (Jordan Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski). Returning starters include guard Josh Perkins and forward Jonathan Williams who are supported by Killian Tillie, Silas Melson, Rui Hachimura of Japan and Zach Norvell, a star freshman guard from Chicago.
Unlike St. Mary’s, Gonzaga has a tough non-conference schedule under their belt in addition to their undefeated WCC record thus far. Gonzaga’s three blemishes came to Villanova (currently #1 in America), Florida (in Double OT) and at San Diego State (certainly their worst lost). Meanwhile, Gonzaga has squared up with Ohio State, Texas, Creighton and Washington and beat them all, proving that a post Final Four hangover isn’t in the cards if that was what the rest of the WCC was hoping for.
An impressive six different Zag players score more than 10 points a game, making it tough for Randy Bennett to drill down during game planning. As usual, Gonzaga is good in all facets, with players that can beat you wherever you look.
That being said, St. Mary’s should have their best chance since 2012 of claiming the pole position in the WCC. Trusted point guard Joe Rahon is gone from last year’s team, but beside that, everyone is back, including Aussies Tanner Krebs, Emmett Naar and Jock Landale as well as Calvin Hermanson of Oregon and Jordan Ford from Sacramento. Ford has stepped up big as the Gaels new point guard, running an offense led by Landale who is perhaps the best player in the entire conference (see 21 points, 10 rebounds a game). Hermanson is a lethal 44% from beyond the arc, featuring a quintessential jump shot that is tough to guard. Meanwhile, Naar leads the team in assists by a huge margin with nine a game. Ford is second on the team with only two a game.
SMC comes into Thursday’s matchup with the best overall record in the league at 17-2, but that can be deceiving considering who’ve they played thus far. Beside Cal, the biggest name schools Bennett was able to schedule came in the Wooden Legacy Thanksgiving tournament held at Cal State Fullerton against Washington State of the Pac-12 and Georgia of the SEC. St. Mary's dropped both, albeit by a total of just seven points combined. As it stands today, the only ranked team the Gaels will play all year before the tournament will be 13th ranked Gonzaga. This will only make the stakes that much higher inside The Kennel.
Despite losing to Gonzaga all three times last year, Bennett’s Gaels managed to punch their ticket to the Big Dance and do damage by beating VCU and playing Arizona tough in the second round. But it’s not every year that the WCC will be a “two bid league” in the eyes of the Joe Lunardi’s of the world. Gonzaga has come back to earth and appear to be as beatable as they’ll ever be. Especially against a team as experienced and savvy as St. Mary’s. We’ll see if the Gaels can head inside The Kennel and silence the big dogs of the west coast. It promises to be as entertaining as ever.