With Gonzaga unbeaten and both teams ranked in the top 25 for just the third time in series history, there’s a bit more juice in this edition of the best rivalry out west. Here’s what to look for at Saint Mary’s visits Spokane.
No. 21 Saint Mary’s Gaels (15-1, 5-0) at No. 5 Gonzaga Bulldogs (16-0, 4-0)
When: Saturday, January 13 at 7 p.m. Pacific
Where: McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, Washington
You know the story by now. Saint Mary’s snapped Gonzaga’s streak of 11-straight regular season titles in 2012 and a lopsided-but-fierce rivalry suddenly became the west’s best.
It’s only gotten better since, and this season’s first act may just be the best yet.
Not only is this a clash of two Top 25 teams, one of which holds the nation’s last unblemished record, but it’s a clash between two elite teams, each with a case for revenge against the other.
Last year, Saint Mary’s swept Gonzaga in the regular season before the Zags knocked off the Gaels in the WCC Tournament final, effectively relegating Saint Mary’s to the NIT. This year, Saint Mary’s could all but lock-up an at-large-worthy resume with a win Saturday. In their way is a Gonzaga team that would hate to lose to Saint Mary’s in Spokane ever again.
But of course nobody on either side would say such things, now that Rob Sacre is gone, at least. Concepts like revenge and hate aren’t coach-speak. They’d prefer to just focus on the game at hand. So let’s do that as well.
The undefeated Bulldogs boast one of the most balanced offenses in all of college basketball. Five Zags average double-figures scoring, with two more putting in at least 8.5 points per game. Junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15 ppg, 4.8 apg) leads the charge, followed by 7-1 senior center Przemek Karnowski (12.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
While no player individually averages big numbers, the team ranks 15th in the nation, scoring an average of 86 points per game.
Saint Mary’s doesn’t score at the same clip, thanks to a slower pace of play, but the Gaels are equally unselfish. The Gaels have assisted on two-thirds of their made field goals this season, the eighth-best mark in the country. That absurd assist rate is due in part to having two point guards on the floor at all times. Senior Joe Rahon (5.9 apg) and junior Emmett Naar (5.7 apg) run a ball-movement clinic for 40 minutes.
But what really helps is having an unstoppable big man who connects on 66.7 percent of his shots inside the arc. Get him the ball, and you’re probably getting an assist. That big man is junior center Jock Landale (17.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg), who has gone from role player last year to legitimate all-America candidate this season.
While Saint Mary’s may have the best big man on the court, Gonzaga has a bunch of them. Specifically, four players over 6-foot-9 in its eight-man rotation. All those big bodies, on both sides, can be hard to stop.
Which brings us to the defensive side, where both of these teams excel as well.
The best defense nobody is talking about belongs to Gonzaga. It’s not West Virginia’s press, Louisville’s length, or UVA’s snail’s pace. Gonzaga is just sixth in the country in three point percentage defense (28.6%), 14th in two point percentage (42.9%), 24th in steal percentage (11.3%). It’s fifth in defensive rebounds (30.1 per game) and seventh in field goal percentage (37.7%).
That mess of stats adds up to this: Gonzaga has held opponents to a measly 0.88 points per possession this season.
Saint Mary’s ranks high in many defensive statistical categories as well. The Gaels held Portland to just nine first-half points on Thursday night. Overall, Saint Mary’s is giving up just 56.6 points per game, third lowest in the nation. But on a per-possession basis, the Gaels are not at Gonzaga’s level.
The Gaels’ defense is strong, yes, but bolstered statistically by their limited possessions. Only Holy Cross and Virginia average fewer possessions per game than Saint Mary’s at 60.6.
That’s not a slight at the Gaels, though. Not even lightning-fast BYU was able to speed up Saint Mary’s. Randy Bennett’s veteran-laden squad controls the game as well as any team in the country.
They’ll need to be in complete control in Spokane if they want to win Saturday night. With the spring semester getting underway Wednesday, the students are heading back to Spokane. That means a full-throated Kennel Club will turn the McCarthey Athletic Center into one of the most hostile arenas in college basketball.
I can’t think of a better setting for a Saturday nightcap between bitter rivals.