The West Coast Conference is the leading power among the midmajors this year (for the record, I include the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 among the “majors”), with the addition of BYU giving them three solid contenders to not just make the NCAA Tournament, but make some noise in March. St. Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU are looking to close the season strong and the push starts tomorrow night when the Zags match up with BYU (11 PM ET, ESPN2). Today, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the WCC’s Big Three. The NCAA Tournament seed projections come from ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi and are based on whether the season ended today.
St. Mary’s (21-2, 10-0, projected #5 seed): The Gaels’ have the dazzling record, but the non-conference resume is pretty thin. One of the losses was an inexplicable defeat to Denver early on, and they also lost to Baylor, a rematch of a Sweet 16 game from the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Actually that’s not a “thin” resume, it’s a non-existent one. What St. Mary’s does have is the fact they’re 3-0 against their two WCC rivals, with an impressive road win at BYU last Saturday night completing a season sweep.
St. Mary’s is a finesse team that relies on three-point shooting. Rob Jones and Clint Steindl are the only forwards who get regular playing time and neither goes taller than 6’7”. Jones plays bigger than his height and posts 14 points/11 rebounds a night, while Steindl is more effective when coming outside to hit the trey. The backcourt is led by the outstanding Matthew Dellavedova, who scores, hits from outside and distributes. Stephen Holts is an able running mate who can do all of the above almost as well.
I respect the Gaels—look as an Irish Catholic I’m going to respect any school named the St. Mary’s Gaels. But I don’t look at them and see a team really ready to shake up the college basketball establishment. I question if Jones can keep “playing big” when he goes against better teams—for that matter, when he goes to Gonzaga on February 9. I question whether Dellavedova can get his shots against faster defenses. Above all, I question how far this team might slip in the eyes of the Selection Committee if they lose a few games. On the surface, Gonzaga and a February 18 trip to Murray State would be the only problem areas, but if they somehow dropped a couple more, I could see a free-fall to the NCAA bubble happening.
Gonzaga (17-3, 71, projected #6 seed): Other than the road loss to St. Mary’s, the Zags have only lost to Illinois and Michigan State. Meanwhile they’ve beaten Notre Dame, Arizona, Butler and Xavier, giving them the overall resume St. Mary’s lacks. They also have the post players that their rival lacks. Robert Sacre occupies the middle and the 7-footer averages a 12/7 every night. Elias Harris is at power forward, with a 14/8 line, mixed with a nice shooting touch when he comes out for the three-ball.
What Gonzaga doesn’t have is backcourt experience. Kevin Pangos has gotten the job done at the point and is a respectable shooter, but he’s only a freshman. He’s joined by another freshman Gary Bell. Along with Sacre and Harris these are the Core Four for this team. The fifth spot is shared by 6’9” Sam Dower and 5’11: David Stockton, giving Mark Few flexibility when it comes to what type of lineup he wants to put on the floor. Stockton can hit the trey, but he’s only a sophomore, adding to the backcourt inexperience problem. If this were the NBA, we’d be talking about Gonzaga adding a veteran point guard at the trade deadline—is Sam Cassell still available? Another potential problem with this group of guards is that none are taller than 6’1”, giving up a few inches to Dellanova and Holt against St. Mary’s, and also creating potential matchup problems against BYU, as we’ll see next.
BYU (18-6, 6-3, misses field by 1-4 spots): The Cougars clearly could have used that home win over St. Mary’s last Saturday night and they really need the game against Gonzaga tomorrow night. The only wins of note are Oregon and Virginia Tech, while the losses include Loyola Marymount and Utah State. BYU’s forwards are talented, with Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies combining to average a 33/13 line each night. The Coogs also have a freshman point guard in Matt Carlino, but they do have more experience on the wings, with 6’6” Brock Zykstra and 6’5” Charles Abouo. Both have good range in shooting the three, and both make a contribution in going to the boards.
With Hartsock, Davies, Zykstra and Abouo, the Cougars can play the wings as well as anyone, but they combine St. Mary’s problem of no true center and Gonzaga’s problem of inexperience at the point. They still have both games with Gonzaga ahead of them, starting tomorrow night and short of winning the conference tournament, those games are their best chances to play their way in.