It's hard to believe that it has been nearly a month since Mickey McConnell floated in a miracle shot from the free throw line to send Gonzaga to its third consecutive WCC loss and give St. Mary's what seemed to be an insurmountable lead atop the conference standings. However, since that floater fell through the net, these two programs have gone in opposite directions. Gonzaga has won six of its last seven games and pulled within a game of the Gaels at the top of the standings. On the other hand, St. Mary's has dropped two consecutive games, including a potentially devastating loss to USD.
While this game certainly doesn't rank near the top of the most important games in Gonzaga history, no matter what some people might say, there are certainly some big implications on the line. Even though extending the WCC streak is something that most people are focusing on, I believe that earning this win and sealing a spot in the NCAA Tournament is the most important aspect on the line tonight. Not only does making the NCAA Tournament give you a chance to win a National Championship, which is the goal every program should have entering the season, it's also vital to recruiting. With the loss of Rob, Meech and Marquise after next season, 2012 recruiting will be huge for the program, and having the NCAA Tournament streak in tact is a key recruiting point for this program.
The key heading into this game rests on the coaching staff. If the coaches rely on the rotation and system that has made this team so successful over the past thee weeks, I think Gonzaga keeps the momentum going and impresses the committee with a double-digit win. Not only does having Marquise Carter in the starting lineup improve the offensive flow of this team, but I also think he provides a nice matchup defensively on McConnell. Carter has nice size and although he might struggle with quicker guards, he should be able to shadow McConnell off screens and using some of his physical play to set a tone on the defensive end.
Although the perimeter will get the majority of the attention, this game will be won by the big boys in the paint. Guys like Sam Dower, Elias Harris and Rob Sacre need to continue to improve and provide a physical presence in the paint. When Sacre and Harris get in the offensive groove early in the game, this team is difficult to beat. Factor in a legitimate scoring threat off the bench like Dower, and the Zags have the chance to wear St. Mary's down and take the crowd out of the game with a physical performance.
For some reason, I continue to believe that this team is hitting the stride I expected it to hit early in the season. This is a true statement game for this team and an excellent opportunity to impress a lot of important people who will be making key decisions on a particularly important Sunday that is coming up. I think Gonzaga continues to send a message and pulls out the convincing 77-65 win.