Sports

Blanchette: GU, Saint Mary’s prove patience pays

Sheesh, these Games of the Century sure come around fast.

Not even 11 months have passed since the West Coast Conference staged its previous one. Now we could be looking at another in two weeks.

Next thing you know, these games will meet each other going opposite directions, like Benjamin Button and Daisy.

Still, Thursday night’s collision at the McCarthey Athletic Center between top 25 tenants Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s will be a welcome chinook of actual competition in the WCC, where the average margin of victory this season is nearly 18 points and there have been as many games decided by more than 30 points as by fewer than 10.

Do these two teams need each other or what?

Surely the conference needs them. Otherwise, it’s the Patriot League with a better TV package.

The occasion of two ranked WCC teams meeting each other for only the second time – the other being Gonzaga’s 88-76 win here March 1 – may be cause for both hypothermia (students pitching tents outside McCarthey) and hyperventilating, but it’s also an indictment of the general indifference that afflicted the league’s commitment to basketball for the better part of a decade, the Zags being a notable exception.

And now Saint Mary’s, too.

Coach Randy Bennett’s Gaels have yet to climb over the Bulldogs in the end-of-the-year standings, but they have been the closest to it four of the past five seasons and have been to the NCAAs with two different waves of recruits, so they’re no one-hit wonders.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few admires in particular how the current Gaels, who are riding a 16-game winning streak, have assembled “all the pieces.”

“They have a big guy with soft hands (Omar Samhan) who can score,” he said. “They have a power forward (Diamon Simpson) who’s an incredible rebounder and good defender. Their point guard (Patrick Mills) is one of the fastest players in college basketball who’s shooting it real well, and then they have shooters around them.”

From a historical perspective, it seems particularly unlikely that this has been pulled off in Moraga. Yes, the Gaels have had high points in the past, but before Bennett arrived in 2001 they’d had 10 losing seasons in the previous 12. The program was an afterthought on the fringe of a major market, with the second-smallest gym in the WCC (and until this year, the worst lighted).

So Bennett did what any aspiring midmajor coach must – he scrounged.

“They’ve done a good job evaluating and getting some guys others missed on,” Few said. “And like everybody has to, you get a little lucky.”

For instance, Mills was bound for a recruiting visit to Utah when coach Ray Giacoletti – now sitting on Gonzaga’s bench as an assistant – got a commitment from another guard. Saint Mary’s was Mills’ only other option.

Oh, and one other thing.

“Continuity,” Few said. “Randy’s been there a while, and that’s huge.”

This is a very coachly thing to say – who in the profession does not covet some administrative patience when it comes to resurrecting a program, or a commitment of further resources to keep it growing? And it’s not as if a school can keep doling out endless chances. But it’s hard to argue with Few, given what continuity and a line of succession – that dates back 30 years now with the hiring of Dan Fitzgerald – has meant to Gonzaga.

“We live in a society that thinks you can just go out and get rid of things and fix them right away – whether it’s a car or a house or a marriage,” Few said. “But it’s not the case in building college programs. When you don’t have stability, you get situations like what you have at Pepperdine. Remember? They were our rival my first five years.”

Now, the Waves had some coaching churn even when they were successful, but it’s certainly caught up with them. In just the past 20 years they’ve had nine head coaches, including interims. Few, in his 10th year, has coached against six of them.

Likewise, Loyola Marymount has made some dubious decisions in both hiring and firing and has gone through seven coaches in the same span. USF, Portland and even the Gaels before Bennett have been the picture of impermanence.

Of course, you do have to give some hope to the college fathers – to say nothing of the players you’ll need to carry you further.

“Success breeds success, like we’ve been able to do here,” Few said. “I’m sure people looked at us back in the day as the least likely to get to this point. Fitz used to lecture us nightly about that, about having the worst job in the league. But you make the best of your situation and accentuate the positives.”

Like another Game of the Century. They’re coming around fast, but just in time.



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