You asked for it and you got it, America. Saint Mary’s will take on Gonzaga tonight in the West Coast Conference Championship at 9 PM on ESPN in Las Vegas. I for one did not ask for this match up because–and I am secure enough in my sports fanhood to admit this–I didn’t know that either of these teams resided in the West Coast Conference. Nonetheless, after learning that this was indeed the case, it seems fitting that the Zags will have to dispatch their most hated rivals, the Gael’s of Saint Mary, in order to secure a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Let’s take a look at some key points in tonight’s biggest college basketball game.
-#1 Gonzaga (30-2, 16-0) [16-12-2 ATS]
-Saint Mary’s (27-5, 14-2) [15-15 ATS]
-January 10, 2013: Saint Mary’s 78 @ Gonzaga 83
-February 14, 2013: Gonzaga 77 @ Saint Mary’s 60
-Point Spread: Gonzaga -6 (82% of public money currently on the Zags)
The Rundown: Gonzaga
Gonzaga head coach, Mark Few, has carved out a unique niche in college basketball. He has built Gonzaga into a mainstay in the NCAA tournament and made this small private school a name that all college basketball enthusiasts are familiar with. This year, Few has elevated the Bulldogs to heights that most thought unimaginable. They currently sit atop the college basketball rankings for the first time in Gonzaga history. How did they get there?
Gonzaga has climbed to these new heights with the help of a high-powered and efficient offense. To this point, they are averaging 78 points a game on over 50 percent field goal shooting. The Zags don’t rely too heavily on any single player with three averaging double digits in points. Senior forward Kelly Olynyk, however, has been their leader this year. Aside from carrying on the rich Gonzaga tradition of long-haired, strange looking foreigners being their best players, Olynyk has been a force to be reckoned with on the court averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game. Forward Elias Harris and guard Kevin Pangos have also been key cogs in this team’s historic success. This will need to remain the case tonight to secure the West Coast Conference title.
The Rundown: Saint Mary’s
As Gonzaga’s fortunes have risen, Saint Mary’s College has done its best to stay with the Bulldogs of Gonzaga. While I may not have known that the West Coast Conference was home to these two programs, I did know that they were in conference rivals (whichever conference that may have been). If any team has challenged the Zags in the West Coast Conference, it has been the Gaels of Saint Mary’s. In the past six years, Saint Mary’s, a small private college of just 4,000 students, has made the tournament three times. In 2010 after beating Gonzaga in the WCC championship, the Gaels played the role of Cinderella, reaching the Sweet 16 after posting a 25-5 record in the regular season. After making the tournament again last year, Saint Mary’s appears ready to dance again.
The balanced attack that Gonzaga presents is matched, and possibly surpassed by Saint Mary’s. The Gaels have seven players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, four of them scoring in double figures on the year. Also like Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s is led by a foreigner, senior guard Matthew Dellavedova of Australia who I will henceforth refer to as Matthew–you don’t want to read his last name as much as I don’t want to type it. Matthew leads the team in scoring at 16 points per game but his best stat is not his point production. Matthew is among the nation’s best in assists at 6.4 per game, a statistic that has been vital to the balanced scoring the Gaels have seen this year. In order to beat Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s will need a complete game from their turnover prone guard.
Final Take and how this game may affect Kentucky:
While Saint Mary’s is likely in the tournament at large regardless of what happens here, it can’t hurt Kentucky for them to lose–with a loss, perhaps I am wrong and they are knocked off the bubble and out of the tourney leaving more leeway for the Cats. At the very least, Saint Mary’s is in a similar position as Kentucky when it comes to seeding and a loss for the Gaels can only help the Wildcats quest for the best possible position.
Additionally, Gonzaga provides a rare phenomenon for the sports watcher to enjoy. We may root for the favorite while still pulling for a perennial underdog. Although Gonzaga is ranked number one, the naysayers are still out in full force. With a loss, the Bulldogs will lose the number one seed and will have every basketball purist known to man saying, “I told you so”. Like Boise State in football, Gonzaga is trying to prove that they belong in the conversation as a contender. A victory against Saint Mary’s would secure them the easiest road to the championship. In a year where almost all of Kentucky’s most hated rivals are in the picture to win it all, the Zags’ may be the Cats unlikely knight in shining armor, fending off Duke, Indiana, and Louisville to take home the trophy.
In all honesty, I just don’t want any of those punks getting Gonzaga as a two seed in their region. Go Bulldogs.