Is it possible we’re undervaluing Saint Mary’s?
Consider: The Gaels are now 24-3, against what most people feel is a schedule that’s at least a tick more challenging than many they’ve put out over the years. That places Saint Mary’s in position to tie or better Lynn Nance’s 1988-89 team, which went 25-5, for fewest losses in school history.
(I suppose the 2009-10 Saint Mary’s team would be considered the gold standard at the school. It went 28-6 and rolled to the Sweet 16. That Omar Samhan-led club rocked Gonzaga 81-62 in the WCC final after the Zags swept the regular-season series.)
Yet I haven’t seen or heard of any speculation that this could be Randy Bennett’s best Saint Mary’s team. Such is the oppressive effect of Gonzaga’s season, in which the helpless West Coast Conference opposition routinely genuflects by double digits -- including the Gaels.
At Provo, Saint Mary’s led by 11 at halftime and was up by 23 before recording a second 13-point victory over BYU. It was mostly effortless, and in fact, it looked easier than Gonzaga’s victory there Feb. 2, in which the Zags kept sprinting into 15-to-18 point margins, only to see the Cougars routinely whittle it back to single digits.
Go back to a couple of Saint Mary’s earlier games: On Jan. 12, on the road, the Gaels manhandled Portland, 74-33. SMC led 37-9 at halftime. It led 58-14 midway through the second half.
That’s not a blowout, it’s a pistol-whipping.
On Feb. 4 -- again on the road -- Saint Mary’s bludgeoned San Diego, 71-27. Again, it allowed nine points in the first half. With seven minutes left, it was 59-15.
My gut instinct is that the WCC is mostly dreck this year. Yet RealTimeRPI.com has the conference ranked a respectable ninth nationally, one ahead of the Mountain West and three in front of the Missouri Valley.
Tough to say how much the dominance of Gonzaga, and to a lesser extent, Saint Mary’s, sways that ranking, but it must be considerable. (Before Gonzaga met Saint Mary’s for the second time, I entertained a counterintuitive -- admittedly bizarre -- thought: That there would be some value in GU losing to the Gaels, simply to discourage national naysayers from the notion that the WCC is no good.)
At any rate, it’s Saint Mary’s lot to be doing perhaps its best business in a year when Gonzaga is maxing out. The Zags won by 23 when the teams met Jan. 14, albeit a deceivingly big margin, and they repeated by 10 at Saint Mary’s Feb. 11.
Here’s a different way of saying it: Saint Mary’s is holding its WCC opponents other than Gonzaga to .383 field-goal shooting. The Zags are shooting a combined .602 in the two games with the Gaels. (And the fact GU also shot 61.7 in the WCC final last year has to make for some furrowed brows in Moraga.)
So maybe we’re sleeping on the Gaels. And transitively -- who would think it -- on the only undefeated team in the country.