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Gaels and Gonzaga

Gonzaga faces another big test Thursday night on the road against Saint Mary’s. Read more about the Gaels, coach Randy Bennett, Gonzaga’s media day and my Four Corners copy below in a lengthy post.


First, a capsule look at Gonzaga’s upcoming week:

GONZAGA BULLDOGS

RECORD: 12-3 overall, 1-0 WCC

COMING UP: Tonight at Saint Mary’s, 8 p.m.; Saturday at San Diego, 6 p.m.

OUTLOOK: The Gaels (15-2, 2-0) have put together impressive statistics, particularly on offense where they rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring, scoring margin, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, assists and assists-to-turnover ratio. Saint Mary’s also leads the WCC in scoring defense (65.8). The only catch is the Gaels’ strength of schedule (105), which has probably kept them out of the Top 25. Four WCC schools, including Gonzaga (32), have played tougher non-conference slates, according to College Basketball News. Still, the Gaels have adept 3-point shooters and WCC player of the year candidate Omar Samhan (20.8 ppg, 10.9 rpg). While Saint Mary’s likes to play up tempo, San Diego, coached by ex-Zag assistant Billy Grier, will try to keep the score and possessions down against Gonzaga.

Here are a couple of notes that will appear on the S-R Four Corners basketball page Thursday.

By Jim Meehan

Rewind the calendar a couple of months and many expected Saint Mary’s, like Gonzaga, to take a step backward this season.

If so, the Gaels have followed it with a step or two forward.

The Gaels, like Gonzaga and Austin Daye, lost Patty Mills early to the NBA. They also had to replace three-time All-WCC forward Diamon Simpson. Earlier this season guard Wayne Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Going into tonight’s home game against No. 17 Gonzaga, the Gaels are 15-2 and perhaps the biggest threat to the Bulldogs’ attempt to win a 10th consecutive conference crown.

“That was rational thinking, that both teams lost a lot of good players, older ones, seniors and we both lost a guy that we were hoping would stick around another year or two,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “Those are big hits. But a lot of guys have stepped up in both programs.”

The Gaels have relied on three-year starting center Omar Samhan, who leads the WCC in scoring and rebounding. Mickey McConnell, who filled in capably when Mills was injured last year, is averaging 12.9 points and 6.3 assists. Freshman Matthew Dellavedova, one of five Australians in the rotation, chips in 13.4 points and 4.1 assists. Both guards are 3-point threats with McConnell hitting 53.1 percent and Dellavedova 42 percent.

“I wouldn’t have known last year if (McConnell) would have been able to make the jump he has, but I knew when we went to Australia this summer,” Bennett said. “He played 40 minutes (vs. Santa Clara). He even said it on the court the other day, that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. If you’re only playing 18-20 minutes, it’s not your show.”

Dellavedova “is just a good all-around guard, good passer, good ballhandler and shooter,” Bennett said. “He’s a big guard, similar to the big guard that plays for Gonzaga in some ways. They’re different. Matt (Bouldin) is older, but he’s a big guard that can pass and play point and shoot it.”

Asked if the Gaels might be better than a year ago, Bennett said, “I’m not sure. Yes, in some ways. We’re a better passing team and shooting team. I don’t know if we’re a better team. I’ll tell you in a few months.”

Happy talk

There is no love lost between Saint Mary’s talkative center Omar Samhan and Gonzaga fans. Bulldogs center Robert Sacre is aware of Samhan’s reputation for on-court chatter, but he’s experienced only one conversation.

“I know he talks a lot of trash, but he really just came up to me (last year) and said, ‘I hope you get better from your (foot) injury, I hope everything is good and I hope your healthy, just keep working,’ ” Sacre said. “I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ You (media) guys put horns on him, but he has a halo around his head.”

Lastly, more from Bennett and GU media day:

—Take a look at Saint Mary’s offensive numbers: 82.5 points per game, 49.5 percent FG, 41 percent 3-point, 77.8 percent FT, 297 assists, 198 turnovers, four players in double figures and another at 9.9 per game.

The Gaels have played at a quick pace with relatively few turnovers and a fairly short bench. That’s a rare combination. Saint Mary’s has a 7-8 man rotation and three players average at least 30 minutes, led by the 34 each of Dellavedova and McConnell. Samhan’s on the court for 30.3 minutes per game.

“Obviously we can shoot,” Bennett said. “That’s key. I thnk we can score because we can shoot. It’s hard to be up tempo if you can’t shoot, otherwise it’s just running down to run down. When you have shooters and spread the floor, I just think you have to an answer at the end of the break and that’s a made basket. Another factor is we don’t have much of an option as far as depth. We did have depth when we had Wayne (Hunter), but the rest of our depth is inside guys and wings. As far as guards, there’s not a lot of depth.”

—Samhan has shed another 8-10 pounds, continuing the physical transformation he’s undergone in his four years at Saint Mary’s. He’s listed at 265, much lighter than when he arrived in Moraga. His scoring and rebounding averages have improved steadily every season.

“He’s replaced some of that extra weight with muscle and he’s toned up,” Bennett said. “He’s a little quicker and he can go longer. He doesn’t fatigue as easy. The other thing that’s a factor is his role (is different). Last year we played off three guys (Mills, Simpson and Samhan). This year we play off him and the rest is fairly balanced, so the ball is going to end up in his hands a lot of times.”

—Bennett said his team has been under the radar compared to the past two seasons.

“We had a good crowd (vs. Santa Clara) and at USF, but it’s not like it’s been the past two years, maybe because of the preseason predictions,” he said. “Even on the road in non-conference it hasn’t been quite the same. People are ready for us, but it’s not the same when we were coming in nationally ranked. It’s been nice actually.”

—Bennett said preparing for Gonzaga often revolves around the Bulldogs’ offense.

“It’s their load on the offensive end, all you have to prepare for, their transition game and their ability to shoot it and their inside game, that’s why they’re so good,” he said. “They don’t have any holes. Some teams you don’t have to worry about them shooting the ball, some teams don’t have a low-post presence, so you take out one of those things and they’re easier to guard. Gonzaga has all the bases covered.”

—Gonzaga coach Mark Few said McKeon Pavilion (3,500) is a “very tough place to play. It’s like a junior high gym. It’ll be packed to the rafters and they’re playing great. They’re shooting the ball every bit as well as Portland or maybe better. They’ve just been rolling people in their building.”

—Center Robert Sacre has done a solid job defensively, Few said. “He’s been pretty effective. I’d say the other ones have left a lot to be desired and I’ll leave it at that.”

—Few has been impressed with SMC’s backcourt of McConnell and Dellavedova.

“McConnell is really shooting it,” Few said. “Delladevoda, I had not seen him (play), I don’t get down to Australia much, but I know they were excited when they signed him. They’ve had a pretty good track record of evaluating guys down there. He has quite a motor and he flies around and plays hard. He’s 92 percent at the foul line.”

The Gaels excel offensively by sharing the ball with McConnell (108 assists) and Dellavedova (70) doing most of the distributing.

“They have a team that can really pass the ball,” Few said. “We have to take care of the ball like we did against Portland. We have to get out and challenge their shooters, but therein lies the problem because then you have to play Samhan 1-on-1. If you’re doubling him, you leave someone open.”


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Jim Allen (@srjimallen) Sports reporter Jim Allen's primary coverage areas are Eastern Washington University football and men's basketball, and college and high school soccer. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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Jim Meehan (@srjimm) Jim Meehan's coverage areas include Gonzaga University men's basketball, Spokane Shock football, golf and volleyball. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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