Game of the Night: Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 PM, ESPN2)
With exactly two months remaining until Selection Sunday, everyone’s eyes have begun to turn towards the NCAA Tournament and bids to the Big Dance. There are plenty of games that will help separate the contenders from the pretenders in the major conferences, but the best game on Thursday night is a West Coast Conference showdown between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, two teams doing better than expected. Gonzaga, ranked No. 50 by Kenpom.com and No. 19 in the RPI, is 11-3 with wins over Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Illinois, Oklahoma, Washington State and Portland. The Bulldogs’ losses have come against Michigan State, Duke and Wake Forest. Saint Mary’s is a surprising 14-2 with wins over San Diego State and at Utah State and Oregon. The Gaels are No. 35 in the RPI and No. 31 on Kenpom.com.
Gonzaga has rebounded nicely from the losses of Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye, Josh Heytvelt and Micah Downs, and are looking more and more like a team that can get back to the Sweet Sixteen. The team revolves around the experienced guard duo of Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray. Bouldin is one of the best all-around players in the country, while Gray can shoot. Demetri Goodson has been inconsistent at the point. Freshman Elias Harris has grown into a potential first-round pick with his play, while Robert Sacre is a solid offensive option down low. Mark Few has begun to use his bench more and more in recent games; Bol Kong and Kelly Olynyk are the team’s best options off the pine.
After Saint Mary’s lost Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson from last season, many expected the Gaels to fall back a few notches in the West Coast Conference. However, that has not happened, as they look like they will fight Gonzaga all season. Center Omar Samhan is one of the best big men in the country, averaging 21-11 every night to go with 2.6 blocks. Former Indiana transfer Ben Allen is an excellent shooter and passer for his size, and he can also rebound well. Forward Clint Steindl has started the last 10 games for Saint Mary’s, after guard Wayne Hunter went down after seven games. The backcourt of Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell is versatile and can do a variety of things. They combine to average 26.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game, and both shoot better than 42 percent from three.
Going into the season, most thought that Gonzaga’s main competition would be Portland, but Saint Mary’s looks to be the primary contender. In this one, I think the difference will be Omar Samhan down low. Gonzaga does not have a lot of depth, and Samhan could force Robert Sacre into some foul trouble early. Saint Mary’s has the guards to hang with Gonzaga, and the Gaels are never easy to beat on their home court. Unless Bouldin carries Gonzaga to victory, I think Saint Mary’s takes the early lead in the WCC.
Prediction: Saint Mary’s 75, Gonzaga 71