Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Saint Mary's has won two of the last three WCC Tournament Championships, can Gonzaga regain their dominance over the Gaels this season?
When Gonzaga and Saint Mary's face off on Thursday night, it will truly be a battle of opposing strengths. On the Gonzaga side, we are all aware of the Bulldogs strength. It starts with the frontcourt, and most notably, with Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. The dynamic duo has been absurdly efficient for the Zags and they are the primary reason for the Bulldogs impressive 15-1 record. On the other side, Randy Bennett is paced by an annoyingly familiar face: Matthew Dellavedova. The Australian point guard simply continues to get better for the Gaels and he, along with a talented group of guards, has driven Saint Mary's to another solid start.
While Dellavedova and his backcourt mates are very stellar this season, the depth of the Gaels is not as strong as it has been in recent years. Alongside Dellavedova are a pair of solid guards in Stephen Holt and James Walker. All three can shoot it from all over the floor, particularly Walker who is shooting 52% from three point distance. While they are all incredibly solid players, there is no doubt that this team stops and starts as Dellavedova wishes. He's averaging 17 points per game this season along with 7 assists. He's averaged 23 points per game in his last five games against Mark Few's club.
The overarching question in Thursday nights contest will be what strength wins out. Can Beau Levesque and Brad Waldow slow down Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris or will Dellavedova, Holt, and Walker get hot from outside and bury the Zags just as Brandon Paul did. Unlike many teams, Saint Mary's will not enter the McCarthey Athletic Center with trepidation. Instead, they are a very confident bunch led by a coach that knows how the beat the Zags. They key Thursday will be the power of the Zags frontcourt and if anyone can stop Olynyk.
We are all very aware of the dent that Saint Mary's has made in Gonzaga's WCC dominance over the past few years. Two of the past three WCC Tournaments have been won by the Gaels and, both times, they beat Gonzaga. Last season, they took home the regular season crown, as well. It will be intriguing to see if Bennett has another team that can defeat the Zags. So far, the verdict on Saint Mary's is incomplete - mainly due to the fact that they have played a very weak nonconference schedule. They have a strength of schedule deep in the 200s and have already lost games to Georgia Tech, Pacific, and Northern Iowa. In order for the Gaels to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, they will absolutely need to gather some solid wins against the Zags and BYU.
Similar to game previews against some of Gonzaga's previous opponents, most notably Oklahoma State and Illinois, Thursday night's contest seemingly comes down to whether or not Gonzaga can slow down Saint Mary's guards and if Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk can continue to dominate as they have all season. Dellavedova has had massive success in the past against the Bulldogs and when he is hot, he has proven that he is one of the hardest players in the country to stop. Gary Bell, Mike Hart, and the rest of the Zags are going to have the difficult task of sticking with him, Holt, and Walker. On the other side, if Gonzaga can get some solid production out of Bell and Pangos, you really have to like Gonzaga's odds because it is hard to fathom the Gaels having enough to slow the Zags' frontcourt. In the end, I really like this matchup for GU not only because I think their perimeter defense has improved since the Illinois game but also because they are battled tested and you can't really say the same about SMC. Crazy things tend to happen in this fantastic rivalry but I think the Zags get the job done tonight at home.