So away we go: Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the dreadnoughts of the West Coast Conference, renewing Saturday night a deepening rivalry.
This time, it’s with a twist.
Each game last year generated its own distinct flavor. At Saint Mary’s in the latter part of January, with the Zags hunting an elusive quality win, they led by 10 points in the final five minutes. And they coughed it up, losing 70-67.
Surely, 30 days later, Gonzaga would atone on Senior Night. But no. Saint Mary’s led virtually the entire game and upended the Zags, 63-58. It was about as dark a place as Gonzaga has visited in recent years, seemingly a sign that 17 straight seasons of NCAA tournaments was drawing to a close.
“I just remember, we had a really bad week of practice,” said GU assistant Tommy Lloyd, referring to the run-up to the second game. “We had a handful of guys get pinkeye, so they couldn’t practice. We didn’t let that be known. We were a mess. We played like it.”
But in the WCC tournament finale, Gonzaga got it done, 85-75, shooting 61.7 percent and led by Eric McClellan’s 20 points.
All those were memorable in their own way, but for this latest Gaels-GU joust, a short memory might be best.
Why? Because five of the top six Gonzaga scorers didn’t play against Saint Mary’s last year. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were redshirting; Przemek Karnowski was wincing through his first steps after back surgery; Jordan Mathews was at Cal; and Zach Collins was still in high school. Throw in Killian Tillie, to balance returnee Silas Melson, and only two of Gonzaga’s primary eight-man rotation were on the floor for GU in 2015-16.
Undoubtedly, at some point in the locker room, or in a shootaround, or in a team meeting at the hotel, somebody will tell the Gaels: You’ve done this before. You’ve won on Gonzaga’s home floor. You’ve beaten these guys.
But have they, really?
That’s why this is such a milepost game for Gonzaga, now a winner of its first 16 games. The eyeball test tells you this Zags outfit is much better than last year’s, but this is the best available yardstick to validate it. Because Saint Mary’s has its starting five back, much unlike Gonzaga.
Saint Mary’s (15=1) brings some arresting numbers: Perhaps the most noticeable is that entering its blowout victory over Portland Thursday night, the Gaels were No. 350 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rankings (Virginia was No. 351). That helps them place No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (58.1).
They take their time. They get good shots. They put defenses in compromising positions.
“They’re extremely sound in everything they do,” said Lloyd. “They do a really good job of reading the game, with a combination of spacing the floor, ball-handlers, decision-makers. They put you in situations where you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do.”
Jock Landale, a 6-11 Aussie, has become the centerpiece of the Gaels, averaging 18.4 points and 9.7 rebounds. His battle with Karnowski (and no doubt, Collins) will be intriguing.
Entering Portland, SMC was shooting .501 from the field, 12th nationally. Its .756 free throw percentage was 30th in the country. Its efficiency is underscored by a sharp 1.57 team assist-turnover ratio, 11th in the nation. And Saint Mary’s rebound margin (9.9) is No. 7.
The Gaels are capable of befuddling the Zags, who haven’t yet played as cohesive a team as Saint Mary’s.
But if Gonzaga hasn’t seen anything like the Gaels, Saint Mary’s hasn’t seen anything like the Zags, either. At least not these.