By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
The biggest game on the west coast this week will undoubtedly take place inside the sweaty bandbox that is McKeon Pavilion on the bucolic campus of Saint Mary's College. The 7pm tip on ESPN2 will likely feature a Saint Mary's team gunning for an unprecedented 20th straight win (assuming a Thursday night victory at LMU) versus a Gonzaga team coming off last year's run to the National Championship game. Their first meeting up in Spokane earlier this year was a back and forth affair that eventually ended in the Gaels' favor 74-71, but not before 22 lead changes took place inside the Kennel. On Saturday, the two titans of the West Coast Conference will trade blows in round 2 of their season series.
If you don't already have a ticket to Saturday's game and find yourself browsing StubHub at the last minute, you'll see there's nothing on the market for less than $100. The rivalry has gotten so big that one could argue it's cheaper and easier to find a ticket to see the world champion Warriors inside Oracle Arena than it is to witness a Zags-Gaels tilt on a Saturday night.
Even in a season where Mark Few has been forced to replace three starters from a year ago, it goes without saying that he still expects to beat St. Mary's. Since they built a new arena and signed a splashy Nike sponsorship, the Zags have turned their attention to beating the blue bloods of college basketball including Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. In the process, they've become a household name in college hoop themselves. A marquee team with name-brand value reaching across America and beyond.
During Randy Bennett's illustrious run as SMC's head coach, the Gaels have constantly been nipping at the Zags' heels, finishing in second place in the WCC nine times since 2004 and winning the league three times (tying for first twice). Never once, however, has St. Mary's been able to sweep all three games away from Gonzaga in a single season since Mark Few arrived in Spokane. Could this be the year where the Gaels finally break through and prove wire-to-wire supremacy over the Zags?
As long as Jock Landale is being fed the ball in the painted area, there's no reason to think the Gaels can't pull this off. The 6-11 senior has developed into a All-American candidate who averages 23 points a game and is virtually unguardable when he catches the ball near the basket. It doesn't hurt that his fellow Aussie countryman, Emmett Naar is currently second in the nation in assists with nine a game. (Oklahoma's Trae Young produces 9.7).
Purdue currently owns the nation's longest winning streak at 19 games, but by the time things tip off on Saturday, there's a good chance the Boilermakers will be upended by either Ohio State or Michigan State who they see on Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon, respectively. For the Gaels, waking up on Sunday morning with a nation-leading 20 game win steak would be quite the feat. A far cry from Bennett's first year on campus in 2002, a year in which he lost 20 games. Back then, ESPN cameras and $100 general admission tickets were unthinkable in Moraga. Somehow, we've reached that exact destination.