(1) Saint Mary’s (26-5, 14-2) vs. (2) Gonzaga (25-5, 13-3), Line: Gonzaga -2.5, 9 p.m., ESPN/3
Here we go again.
For the fourth straight year, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga meet in the West Coast conference tournament final. SMC won in 2010, with Gonzaga wins sandwiched around that. The difference this year, however, is that SMC is the top seed — the result of ending the 11-year regular-season title streak of the Bulldogs.
The WCC tournament bracket provides a big advantage to the top two seeds, giving them byes all the way to the semifinals, so both teams have played just one tournament game entering Monday. The SMC Gaels struggled against fifth-seeded San Francisco, trailing at halftime before rallying for an 83-78 win. San Francisco was playing the role of bid thief, looking to get in the NCAA tournament with a pair of upsets, but it was not to be. SMC’s Clint Steindl, who averages 22.9 minutes and 8.7 points per game, scored 19 points in the win. Steindl made six three-pointers and scored 19 points. Perhaps more incredibly, Steindl took 14 three-pointers (15 shots total) in 37 minutes. He’s gotten more playing time down the stretch, playing at least 30 minutes in five straight games, making at least three three-pointers and scoring in double-figures in four of them. The Gaels shot 54.2 percent from the floor, but allowed San Francisco to shoot 52.8 percent.
In the other semifinal, Gonzaga jumped out to a 21-7 lead on third-seeded BYU and never looked back, eventually winning 77-58. Freshman guard Kevin Pangos scored 30 points, his second 30-point game of the season. Pangos was Gonzaga’s leading scorer during the regular season around 14 points per game, eventually being named WCC Newcomer of the Year. He was 5-for-9 from three-point range and 5-for-8 on two-point shots. As a team, Gonzaga shot 54.7 percent from the floor and held BYU’s top-ranked offense to 37.7 percent.
So both of these teams have tournament bids locked up. Gonzaga currently has a No. 6 seed in the Bracket Matrix, while Saint Mary’s has a No. 7.
These teams split their regular season meetings, with both winning at home. Saint Mary’s routed the Bulldogs 83-62 on Jan. 12, ending Gonzaga’s eight-game winning streak. The Gaels shot 51 percent and held Gonzaga to 40.7 percent. Matthew Dellavedova, the WCC Player of the Year, put in 26 points on 10-of-16 from the field, including 5-for-10 from three-point range. Pangos was held to just 12 points for the Bulldogs, taking just nine shots. In the second meeting, Gonzaga ended SMC’s 12-game winning streak with a 73-59 win in Spokane. This time, Pangos got his shots, and made them, finishing with 27 points on 8-for-16 (5-for-6 from three). Four Bulldogs scored in double-figures, as Gonzaga shot 52.8 percent and held the Gaels to 38.2 percent. Dellavedova scored 20 points, but was just 2-for-7 from three-point range.
These teams are about as even as can be. SMC (74.8 points) and Gonzaga (74) are third and fourth in the WCC in scoring offense, respectively. They’re also the top two scoring defenses in the conference, in the same order. They’re two of the top three rebounding teams in the conference, as well. The difference in the two games this season pretty much was the play of the stars. Along with Pangos and Dellavedova, each team has one more player who finished in the top-10 in scoring in the WCC. Elias Harris adds in 12.8 points for Gonzaga and Rob Jones averages 14.7 per game.
These teams had five of the 10 players on the All-WCC team, the four mentioned above and Gonzaga’s Rob Sacre, who was named conference defensive player of the year. Both teams took advantage of home court advantage in their previous meetings, and the stars shined. On a neutral court, I think the difference in tonight’s game will be which team has a third player step up on offense.
I’m leaning toward Gonzaga for no reason other than how the teams have been playing recently. The Bulldogs have won eight of their last nine games, while the Gaels have lost three of their last seven. The Bulldogs have averaged 77 points per game in the last four, while the Gaels have averaged 66.2 in their last five. It really is hard to find something that sticks out as a difference between these teams. Everything that went right for Saint Mary’s in the first meeting went right for Gonzaga in the second meeting.
One thing I do know: This is going to be a great game. These are two of the top mid-majors teams in the country. The term “mid-major” shouldn’t even apply to these teams anymore. They might be the two best teams on the west coast this season. Gonzaga has made 13 straight NCAA tournament and was the shining example of a mid-major team before Butler’s last two runs. Finally, another WCC team stepped up to Gonzaga’s level with Saint Mary’s in recent seasons. The Gaels have made two NCAA tournaments since 2008 and will make a third this season. In 2010, they reached the Sweet 16. SMC took another step forward with the regular season crown this year. This should be a good one.