One of the most common things you are going to see coming into the 2017-18 season will be something along the lines of the following headlines:
Can Saint Mary’s supplant Gonzaga atop the West Coast Conference?
Can St. Mary’s overtake Gonzaga?
Rather than keep going on and on, let’s cut it short there. But the point is pretty clear. One of the big storylines the national media has hopped on is whether or not this is finally the year that Saint Mary’s makes something of itself.
Over the past three years, the Gaels have been a pretty decent team, but that decency has been one of those things mostly relegated to paper. Last season, the Gaels peaked as high in the AP polls at No. 12, and did make it into the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the second round to Arizona. The previous two years, that decency got the Gaels no where.
The hype train has officially left the station. And here is the thing, that hype train is completely true, yet, at the same time, that hype train is quite a load of garbage. So where does it stand with regards to Gonzaga?
The internal dialogue suggesting everyone is right and Saint Mary’s is better than Gonzaga.
This is largely predicated on the roster turnover between the two schools since last season. Last year, Saint Mary’s, who finished the year ranked No. 15 by Ken Pomeroy, lost seniors Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. Meanwhile, they retained one of the best passers in the WCC in Emmett Naar, one of the best rising forwards in the WCC in Calvin Hermanson, and one of the best overall players in the entire country in Jock Landale. On top of that, they added grad transfer Cullen Neal, who averaged 9.4 points last season for Ole Miss (and was a slightly more prolific scorer at New Mexico).
The Zags have quite the opposite story. Gonzaga lost the best center in the nation in Przemek Karnowski, a second-team All-American in Nigel Williams-Goss, one of the best freshmen in the country in Zach Collins, their senior winger in Jordan Mathews, alongside Dustin Triano, Ryan Edwards, Bryan Alberts, and Rem Bakamus. And yeah, the Zags finished No. 1 in the country last year in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, but I’m just flat out sorry. You can’t lose that much and expect to come right back.
What you have are two teams that appear to be trending in two different directions: the Gaels are returning a large portion of their core players who should improve, and the Zags are scrambling to fill virtually their entire starting rotation, even with good players as well.
The internal dialogue suggesting that everyone is wrong and Saint Mary’s is not better than Gonzaga.
Well, here is the thing. Sure, the Zags lost a lot of players. But they are also returning Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, who outside of Jock Landale are probably No. 2 and No. 3 in most exciting players in the WCC. Silas Melson and Josh Perkins are big guards, and Saint Mary’s doesn’t necessarily have an answer for their size. Zach Norvell isn’t some no name dude, Corey Kispert looks like an absolute man child, and Johnathan Williams might be one of the hardest and most versatile players in the conference. These Gonzaga Bulldogs might not look a lot like last year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs, but there is still a lot of talent left over from the team that made it all the way into the title game.
And let’s be clear: losing Joe Rahon to graduation hurts a lot. Saint Mary’s was turning heads because they were a great shooting team, and a lot of that great shooting relied on getting passes distributed from one of the two point guards on the squad—Rahon and Naar. Naar is a phenomenal passer in his own right, but last season, their most frequent lineups either used Naar or Rahon at guard almost exclusively. The two logged huge minutes, which isn’t to say there is no backup, but Saint Mary’s in essence lost 1⁄2 of its point guard.
Jock Landale is a phenomenal player, there is no doubting that. But let’s stop acting like he is going to make the offensive-minded jump he did from his sophomore to junior year and continue at the same trajectory into his senior year. In Landale’s sophomore year, he had an offensive rating of 123.0 according to Sports-Reference.com. His junior year, it was 124.3. In fact, if you take a look at most of his sophomore to junior year level splits, he was consistent across the board. Virtually the same eFG%, same TO%, same everything. The only thing that was different was the minutes — going from 14.5 to 28.3 per game. That isn’t to say that Landale isn’t going to get any better this season, or he has strictly plateaued. However, barring a complete revelation in his game play, we’ll see a slightly bumped up Landale, probably averaging around 22-24 points per game and 10-12 rebounds per game. That is really good, but it is hardly the doombringer for Gonzaga.
The internal dialogue suggesting we all wait and see how this is going to play out.
Saint Mary’s buffs will be quick to point out that the Zags iron grip on the WCC has been waning over the years, and Zag fans will be quick to point out that Saint Mary’s was supposed to be really good last year, and well, three losses to the Zags sort of proved they weren’t.
The key thing: Gonzaga has been a wildly different team from the 2015-16 season, to the 2016-17 season, to this upcoming season. Can we predict how this battle for the top of the WCC will commence? Not really, but we can all right now assume that the contests between the two teams should be highly entertaining matches. The rivalry has been building for quite some time, and perhaps, this is the year that Saint Mary’s comes pounding on the door demanding a seat at the head of the table.