With both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s both looking sharp last night, tomorrow’s match-up at Moraga’s Cool Hand Luke inspired sweatbox of a gym will be a fitting end to one of the most competitive WCC seasons in recent memory.
With both teams guaranteed byes to the semi-final round of the WCC tournament and secure in their NCAA tournament bids, Gonzaga will be playing for another perfect WCC season and to sustain their hold on the NCAA tourney’s #1 seed. St. Mary’s is currently projected as a #6 seed, a win against GU could move them up a line or two.
Meet the opponent
St. Mary’s Gaels 23 – 6, 11-4 in the WCC, AP Ranking #23, KenPom #21
Since losing to Gonzaga nine days ago, St. Mary’s took care of business with 5-point wins at home against USF (CA) and BYU then last night’s 14-point win at San Diego.
Randy Bennett may throw a wrinkle or two at Gonzaga tomorrow, but expect more of the same from the Gaels; slow tempo, tough defense, lots of dribbling with shots just before the shot clock expires. I was impressed by the Gaels when after they fell behind in Spokane by 21. Tommy Kuhse hit some clutch shots, Matthias Tass had a couple of spin moves on Chet as the Gaels successfully sped up their pace. They cut the lead to eight with three minutes left to play before Julian Strawther sealed the game with a couple of dagger threes.
After the Gonzaga game, Kuhse returned to the starting line-up and had big games against USF and BYU, 22 and 25 points respectively. Kuhse is essentially the only Gael player who can put the team on his back and lead them to victory. Their other three double digit scorers; Tass, Logan Johnson and Alex Ducas are consistent but the trio only have four 20+ point games between them in WCC play.
Tomorrow will be St Mary’s Senior night so emotions will be high. Tommy Kuhse, who began playing at St. Mary’s in 2016, Matthias Tass, Dan Fotu and Logan Johnson will be honored.
What to watch out for
Few and Bennett know each other as well as any two coaches in the nation so there will be few surprises, but expect bunches of counterpunches and adjustments. Bennett chose to let Mattias Tass play heads-up against Timme 10-days ago and Drew torched him for 25 on 11 for 16 from the field. If Bennett adjusts his defense to slow down Timme, he’ll need to find a way to slow the sublime Chet Holmgren and the shooters who were 10 for 20 from deep last night.
Timme and Holmgren provide a unique problem for the Gaels (as they do all teams). Besides Tass, the Gaels other bigs are Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen, 6’ 7” and 6’ 8” respectively, so either Timme or Holmgren will be guarded by a much smaller player at the games beginning.
Gonzaga also has the nation’s sixth ranked defense. Chet Holmgren unquestionably owns the paint and watching opposing centers consistently attempt to challenge him and fail looks like a case study in futility. Look for Rasir Bolton, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman to face-guard Kuhse all night while hopefully minimizing the damage by the Gaels other three-point threats.
Let’s face it, when Gonzaga is firing on all cylinders it’s all but impossible to stop. The Gaels do have KenPom’s 15th ranked defense and will attempt to control pace while smothering and frustrating Gonzaga’s shooters. That’s what happened in their last victory in the 2019 WCC tournament. In that game, GU shot 12% from deep, Rui and Clarke only took 14 shots while Perkins and Norvell were 4 for 25 from the field in the 60 – 47 loss.
The Gaels doing something like this again while Gonzaga plays so poorly is probably beyond the realm of expectations. A more likely scenario is another grinder of a game where Gonzaga’s balance and overall talent eventually wins out.