One of the great aspects of the WCC, and it's something that I hope will continue if a 10th team is added to the conference at some point, is the fact that the conference schedule still presents a true round-robin. With expansion, conferences like the ACC, Pac-12 and Big East have grown to a size where the round-robin schedule simply isn't realistic. While previous rivalries remain intact, it's nearly impossible for a new rivalry to grow when you only play an opponent once a season. However, over the past five or six years, Gonzaga and St. Mary's have faced off so many times, and developed such familiarity, that it has become the top rivalry on the West Coast.
Before looking at this game, I think it's important to reflect on the performance from last night, which Zach so expertly broke down. The 19-point loss by BYU was the largest of the season and the only loss even remotely close to that number with Matt Carlino eligible came in the Cougars first WCC game against St. Mary's. The 58 points BYU scored were the fewest they scored the entire season, with the second fewest coming in the season-opener against Utah St. While both Zach and I have been critical of the defense Gonzaga has played at times this season, it's important to note that the Zags haven't allowed a team to reach 70 points since the loss at BYU. When you factor in that Gonzaga averages 74 points per game, that should provide a good omen heading into the 2012 NCAA Tournament.I would be highly-surprised if we saw Stephen Holt on the court for the Gaels. Both these teams will be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of the result, so why risk Holt when he could potentially be ready to play a week from Thursday? With that said, St. Mary's isn't nearly as complete of a team with the athletic Holt sidelined. Not only is Holy by far the best defender on the perimeter, he also helps stretch the defense with his shooting and can take the ball out of Matthew Dellavedova's hands and let him play as more of a scorer. Not surprisingly, the Gaels are only 4-3 without Holt in the lineup, although they put together their best performance since his injury in the semifinal win over USF.
While Kevin Pangos stole the headlines with his performance against BYU, and deservedly so, the contributions from Elias Harris and Guy Landry-Edi were equally important. As long as Pangos gets his 12-16 a game and is hitting from the perimeter, it will open up the offense and allow other guys to attack the paint or get open looks from outside. However, the Zags need the contributions they have been getting from Harris and Landry-Edi if they want to beat St. Mary's and put together a good tournament run. Harris has been completely dominate on the glass and has been playing some excellent defense, while scoring completely within the flow of the offense. Landry-Edi has proven to be a terrific defender, and has also started to demonstrate some consistent scoring ability on the perimeter and when attacking the rim. I would expect both Landry-Edi and Gary Bell Jr. to get some time on Dellavadova, while Harris will almost certainly be matched up with Rob Jones.
The winner of this game might have claim to a top 5 seed and a spot in the Portland regional. Being so close to home would be a huge benefit for both programs, so there is certainly something on the line between these two rivals. What I will really have my eye on is whether the Zags can put together a 40-minute performance like they did against BYU. Playing at that high of a level at the end of the season is all any coach can ask for, so it will be interesting to see if Saturday was just a flash of how good this group can be, or if this team has really found its groove heading into the most exciting part of the season.