Published on February 3rd, 2012 | by Bryant West, Columnist0
Team of the Week: Saint Mary’s
The 22-2 Saint Mary’s Gaels head to Spokane next week to face their old rivals, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, in a WCC Showdown highlighted as one of the best rivalries in the west. And while the game will certainly mean a lot for rankings, for NCAA Tournament seeding and for gosh-darn bragging rights, for the first time Saint Mary’s doesn’t actually NEED to win for their WCC Regular Season Title.
They just NEED to win to prove they belong amongst the NCAA’s consistently respected teams. No pressure there, Gaels.
The Gaels sit at 11-0 in conference play, and even if the Bulldogs win on Thursday, Saint Mary’s will still sit in command of the WCC. Gonzaga is just 7-2 in conference play, already having suffered losses at Saint Mary’s and at BYU.
The magic number for Saint Mary’s to secure the long-awaited WCC Regular Season Title stands at four with five games to play. So while Randy Bennett’s squad will most certainly be ready as effort for their tussle on Thursday, if they lose, they’re still in command.
Still, Saint Mary’s need only remember last season if they begin to feel over-confident. Last January, the Gaels went into their road contest against Gonzaga needing a victory to give them a shot at the regular season crown.
Saint Mary’s pulled off a 73-71 win in Spokane, handing Gonzaga their first three game losing streak since 1997. But thanks to a late season meltdown and an eventual loss in their own building against the Zags just two weeks later, the hopes of that Regular Season crown evaporated, and the eventual tie for the title felt hallow for most Gaels fans.
Of course, it got much worse in the later weeks. After once being a lock for the NCAA Tournament, the Gaels late season losses put them squarely on the bubble, and after a 75-63 loss in the Conference Championships—to who else but Gonzaga, of course—Saint Mary’s was relinquished to the NIT Tournament.
And so here they are again, with an excellent shot at the title and a near lock for the NCAA tournament. Saint Mary’s continues to make improves every season and seems to come out with a stronger and stronger team as time goes on.
This year’s squad is highlighted by junior guard Matthew Dellavedova, a leading candidate for the conference Player of the Year award. He averages 15.5 points and 6.4 assists for the Gaels while shooting 46% from the field and 40% from downtown. Senior forward Rob Jones is only a step behind Dellavedova in the hunt for the Player of the Year award, averaging 14.8 points and 10.4 rebounds on identical 46% shooting from the floor.
But aside from the two stars, the Gaels have been so excellent this season because of surprising contributions and excellent depth. Sophomore guard Stephen Holt averages 11.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals a contest, but the real surprise has been the play of freshman Brad Waldow. Since the start of conference play, Waldow has been stellar, with a 17 point/10 rebound game against Gonzaga, a 14/16 game at Santa Clara, and a 19/8 game at BYU.
Saint Mary’s thrives with one of the best offenses in the country, scoring 77 points (29th in the NCAA) on 48.1% shooting (22nd) and getting 16.5 assists (14th) a contest. But of all of the Gaels recent success in the past few seasons, this is also the best defensive squad Head Coach Bennett has worked with, giving up just 60.9 points a contest, 39th best in the nation. The Gaels only two losses this season have come to 19-2 Baylor (#3 RPI) and 16-7 Denver (#97 RPI).
The Gaels earned another big vote of confidence when they were selected to face undefeated Murray State (19-0, #31 RPI – see this article on Murray State for more info) in the Bracketbuster challenge. But if the Gaels really want to plant themselves in the upper tiers of NCAA basketball, they need to beat Gonzaga on Thursday and all but secure the Regular Season Title. And likely they’ll have to beat them again in March, in the WCC Championships in Las Vegas.
Saint Mary’s hasn’t secured a regular season WCC championship since 1989 (they’ve shared the title twice). It’ll be hard to get a better shot at winning one than the shot they have here.