The wait is finally over.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s collide tonight in one of the most highly anticipated West Coast Conference men’s basketball games of the season. Both bring national rankings, winning streaks, similar stats, up-tempo offenses, marquee players and a bit of a chip on their shoulder to the showdown for first place in the WCC at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Saint Mary’s center Omar Samhan said earlier this week in a telephone interview. “We can’t wait to go up there and have some fun.”
The 22nd-ranked Gaels have the longest winning streak in the nation (15), but they lack an attention-grabbing win, thanks to a modest non-conference schedule. The 20th-ranked Bulldogs have bounced back from a three-week December swoon, but the players are well aware that some are predicting this is the year GU’s rule of the WCC ends.
Asked if he believes Gonzaga is the underdog, forward Josh Heytvelt said, “I think it could go either way. I think some people think Saint Mary’s is a lot better than us due to their record, but I think we’ve played a lot tougher teams in the preseason. I’m not saying who is better right now, but the team that comes out and plays harder is going to win.”
Gonzaga (14-4, 5-0 WCC) has dominated the conference for more than a decade, but Saint Mary’s (18-1, 5-0) has made recent inroads. Since the 2003-04 season, the Bulldogs are 69-6 in conference games; the Gaels 53-22. The other six WCC teams are less than .500.
Samhan considers wins at Oregon (6-14 overall, winless in the Pac-10) and against San Diego State (13-5) on a neutral court as his team’s biggest victories this season. The combined record of the Gaels’ 12 Division I non-conference opponents is 113-118 with a Bracketbusters game still to come Feb. 21. Gonzaga, which has dates remaining with Memphis and South Carolina Upstate, has faced 11 D-I opponents who are a combined 122-90.
According to collegerpi.com, Saint Mary’s strength of schedule ranks 246th while Gonzaga’s is 95th. In RPI, the Bulldogs are No. 51 and the Gaels No. 52.
Saint Mary’s is led by the big three of point guard Patty Mills, who played for his native Australia in the Beijing Olympics and scored 20 points against the U.S.; forward Diamon Simpson, the school’s all-time rebounding and blocks leader; and Samhan, who averages 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds. One of those three has led the Gaels in scoring in every game this season, with Simpson and Ian O’Leary sharing high-point honors against Loyola Marymount.
Gonzaga’s scoring is spread out more evenly with six players averaging between 8.9 and 14.7 points. Each of those six – Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs, Steven Gray and Austin Daye – have led GU in scoring at least once.
“They have a pretty good core group of three to four guys,” Downs said. “Our four, five, six, seven guys have the advantage over their four, five, six, seven guys. We go a little deeper, I think.”
Samhan said both teams are improved from a year ago, when they split games, each winning on their home floor.
“It’s important because it’s on their home court and you’re supposed to win at home, but we are ranked ahead of them (in the ESPN/USA Today poll) and you’re supposed to win if that’s the case,” he said. “Somebody is going to be upset Friday morning.”