Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: St. Mary's Gaels

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

St. Mary's broke a decade's worth of dominance by Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, but it didn't pay off in the NCAA Tournament. Could the Gaels shock the preseason projections and repeat as dual champions in the league? The returning depth and value say yes.

St. Mary's walked away with both the regular season and conference tournament title in the West Coast Conference last year. We should still leave a moment for that to sink in.

This was a changing of the guard in the WCC, and it is still amazing when you see that written. Gonzaga, despite a stronger overall resume, and a strong finish in the NCAA Tournament, was actually not the winner of the conference it had dominated over the last decade.

But here is the thing: despite losing Rob Jones, who was a huge reason for the Gaels dual victories, they could do it again.

That might seem hard to believe especially since the forward had an 8.8 HW30 last season, and a 22.6 DEF100 score. But Jones wasn't the player of the year in the conference last season, despite actually providing the most value. And he wasn't alone on the team.

Enter Matthew Dellavedova who was the player of the year, and turned in a very strong 6.3 HW30, mostly on the offensive end. That the senior was able to represent Australia in the Olympics over the summer speaks volumes to how much value he provides that the numbers might not show. This was a full four years earlier than the coaching staff of St. Mary's thought was realistic for him to contribute on that level.

You can't underestimate what that means for a college team, to get a player back who played against the top competition in the world. Dellavedova can share the knowledge he gained from that experience, and be more of a floor leader than before.

And the value doesn't end with Dellavedova. Keep running down the roster to Stephen Holt (3.5 HW30), or Brad Waldow (1.8 HW30). Those are three strong players, and in most leagues, having three players with that much talent would be enough.

But the WCC isn't most conferences. This is all about matching Gonzaga player for player down the line.

And shockingly that is where St. Mary's might have the edge, even with the big names that the Bulldogs brought in. St. Mary's has its own high profile transfer in Matt Hodgson. Look back at his 2009-10 season at Southern Utah.

Hodgson blocked 10 percent of the shots against his team when he was on the court. Could he step in and fill the space left open by Jones? Most definitely on the defensive end, and that might be enough.

The Gaels do need to replace that offense from Jones, but it won't be as much of a problem if they can continue the strong defensive side of the ball that they put forth last season.

I just see it like this: both St. Mary's (Jones) and Gonzaga (Robert Sacre) lost big men that we essential to their success. And while Jones was arguably more valuable based on HOOPWAR, the team left around him has more experience and time on the floor together than Gonzaga.

Gonzaga might have gotten the flashy Polish center, and they might have the players with the greater upside. But the Gaels have basically the team they left the court with a year ago, and that team is what will make the difference for them, not the flashy names.

Bottom Line: It just seems like St. Mary's has more value from top to bottom than every other team in the conference. It is a gut feeling in many ways, but Gonzaga has disappointed before with more to be excited about in the past.

Gonzaga might have the flashy names on the roster, but the Gaels might be able to make it work better as a team of strong components rather than waiting for a single star to take the game over. Any one of the top players on the roster could take over, but it isn't necessary night in and night out for the Gaels to win.

Maybe St. Mary's will struggle against BYU, who as detailed yesterday, has a tough inside presence in Brandon Davies. But the Gaels should have enough to counter that presence and get the edge in the end.

This has me calling the WCC for St. Mary's again this year, even with all the attention being paid to Gonzaga in the preseason. It might seem like a shocker, but when you go back and look at the results it shouldn't be.

I can't project Kevn Pangos to go off again against the Gaels -- not like he did in the dominant regular season win by the Bulldogs.

That doubt is enough for me to believe that the Gaels are poised to pull the upset again. It just might not be as much of an upset as we think.

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