This is the way it should be. The conferences’ two best teams, two of the best teams in the nation, end their conference schedules with a single game to determine the WCC regular season title. It should be a blast and a battle.
Gonzaga has won the last six regular season crowns outright and at least a share since the 11-12 season when the Gaels won it. They can win it again with a victory Saturday. If Gonzaga wins, the universe returns to balance and the Zags complete an seemingly unlikely accomplishment after the earlier losses to LMU and St. Mary’s.
The game could also determine which team will be the #1 seed in the WCC Tournament, “could” being the operative word. A Gonzaga win would give both teams identical conference records, including losses to each other and LMU. The #1 seed would be determined by which team has the high NET ranking. As of this morning, the Gaels moved up one place to seventh after blowing out Pacific. Gonzaga remains at tenth with not as big a blow-out against USD. I’m not sure a Saturday Gonzaga win would be enough to move them ahead of the Gaels on the NET.
Of course, the #1 WCC Tournament seed is more about bragging rights and a psychological victory. Both teams have assured themselves the Tournament’s #1 and #2 seeds thus giving them byes to the semifinals. As important and exciting as tomorrow night’s game seems, these two teams will most likely be doing it again in the March 7th WCC Tournament Final.
Meet the opponent
St. Mary’s Gaels, 25-5 (14-1 WCC), KenPom #8
Randy Bennett never fails to impress. For the past several years, I’ve been waiting for the Gaels to have a down, rebuilding season. This year seemed like a good bet. With the loss of Tommy Khuse, Bennett’s bunch didn’t have their key cog, a go-to guard who could score or dish with five seconds or less remaining on the shot clock. Logan Johnson seemed like the heir apparent, but he’s a poor three-point shooter with a tendency to disappear offensively for long stretches (not last night though).
Enter Aidan Mahaney. The St. Mary’s fansite is called “God is a Gael”. I doubt that’s the case, but the manifestation of Mahaney does seem like divine intervention. Local boy, Gaelic name, looks like Shirley Temple’s grandson and is a sublime baller. Simply put, the Gaels most likely would have had three consecutive losses against BYU, USF and Gonzaga is it wasn’t for Mahaney and probably a couple more in games I didn’t watch.
If you’re reading this, you know exactly what to expect from St. Mary’s. Incredibly slow tempo (359th) to take opponents out of their game, KenPom’s sixth ranked adjusted defense, second in the nation in preventing opponent’s offensive rebounds and a very good three-point shooting team.
That good three-point shooting comes from their leading scorer Mahaney (15.1 ppg, 41% from deep), Kyle Bowen (43%), Alex Ducas (41%) and sub Luke Barrett (41%). Kicking out to a shooter on the perimeter late into the shot clock has been a Gaels staple for years.
Center and Seattle native Mitchell Saxen (12.2 ppg) has turned into force on both ends of the floor. His 8.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game lead the Gaels and are respectively third and second in the WCC. The aforementioned Logan Johnson (13.8 ppg) is second on the team in scoring and leads them in assists in at 3.6 per game. He’s a disrupter who always seems to find a way to take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes.
As good as they have been, the Gaels have looked quite vulnerable lately. Besides the three consecutive games mentioned above saved by Mahaney, the very next game was the loss to LMU. Prior to last night’s Pacific game, their last two contests were squeaking by a depleted USD by three and a six-point home victory over a downtrodden BYU. Their problem, the Gaels can go into long offensive lapses.
As of this writing, KenPom shows Gonzaga winning the game 72-70 with a 58% win chance. EPSN gives Gonzaga a 79.5% chance of victory.
What to watch out for
Get out fast, control the tempo
Gonzaga’s slow starts and falling behind early, a definite problem in December, are now a thing of the past. In fact, the recent Santa Clara, USF, LMU and last night’s USD games were all essentially over at halftime. Even at Moraga, the Zags took an eight-point lead into the locker room at the half.
If Gonzaga can jump out to a big lead early, the Gaels slow-tempo, low possession game makes it hard for them to comeback. Luckily for them at Moraga, Mahaney went into beast-mode to prevent the loss. It will be up to Mark Few and staff to find a way to ensure that doesn’t happen again, a la Cam Shelton.
Even if Gonzaga doesn’t jump out big early, they can’t play the Gaels game and let them control the tempo. #1 Houston scored just 53 points and only 22 in the second half against the Gaels. Gonzaga needs to quicken the pace at every opportunity, attack the rim, let Strawther shoot the trailing threes and keep St. Mary’s on their heels.
Foul trouble for Saxen
In the 16-17 season, St Mary’s, led by Jock Landale, had one of their best teams ever, 29-5 and 16-2 in the WCC. Three of those were to Gonzaga by double digits. The primary reason, Landale committed 13 fouls in the three contests and averaged only 21 minutes per game.
As mentioned above, Mitchell Saxen has turned into a force for the Gaels. Minimizing his minutes through foul trouble will could be the key to a Zag victory and Drew Timme is one of the best players in the country at drawing fouls. Saxen fouled out of last game, but only after playing 38 minutes. The Gael’s backup big, 7’1” freshman Harry Wessels, is huge but inexperienced. With Saxen out, the Gaels often go small with 6’8” Joshua Jefferson in the post.
Speaking of fouls in the post, in their last contest Gael’s forward Kyle Bowen successfully drew two offensive fouls after being “knocked” to the floor by a backing-down Drew Timme. The second, with 1:13 left to play, was the most questionable and one of the game’s turning points. It will be interesting to see if a similar situation occurs at a different venue would there be an offensive foul or a flop call.
Gonzaga did a great job stifling St. Mary’s three-pointers at Moraga, holding the Gaels to 6 for 24. Hickman and Smith did a great job keeping Mahaney ineffective for the first 35 minutes of the game and he finished 1 for 10 from deep. The defensive scheme Gonzaga employed worked until a great offensive player (Mahaney) started playing great.
Once again Gonzaga’s defense will need to minimize the Gaels open looks from deep and challenge perimeter shots using their advantages in quickness and length. I was encouraged to see the successful press last night and really impressed by the defense against LMU.
Few and Bennett know each other so well and the games are always a chess match. It will be interesting to see what Bennett does to get his players open and just as interesting to see what Few and staff do to ensure they don’t.
An extra gear at the Kennel and for the Kennel club
ESPN’s College GameDay will be broadcasting live from the Kennel from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning with the Kennel’s doors opening at 6:00 a.m. Students and fans will have the entire day for the excitement to build for one of Spokane’s biggest events in a long time. A quick check of SeatGeek and StubHub show zero secondary market tickets available at any price.
This should be one of the most raucous nights in Kennel history. It could also be the last competitive home game for Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton. Students will be rocking, stomping and chanting, season ticket holders will be standing when the teams are on the floor and every Gaels mistake will be loudly and vigorously mocked.
I’m not sure how many points Vegas would add to a betting line based on home court advantage, but tomorrow night should max it out.