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.”
An undersized post at 6-foot-6, Brandon Wiley was often overlooked last year as Idaho climbed to third place in the WAC. But the senior’s absence from a lingering back injury this season appears to have had a far bigger impact than most envisioned.
Wiley has appeared in just three games after leading UI in rebounding last year. Coach Don Verlin said he doesn’t expect Wiley to return this season, even though he hasn’t officially been ruled out.
Eastern Washington coach Kirk Earlywine has accepted blame for his team’s road-heavy schedule, but he hopes to see it pay some dividends this weekend when the Eagles return to Reese Court for only the second time since mid-December.
“In the last month, we’ve played one home game,” said Earlywine, whose team is coming off a 75-73 road win over Montana State on Sunday. “It was big to be able to win on the road after coming off a disappointing loss at Montana (last Friday), where we played well for 35 minutes.
“But our players have to be ready to get back to work this week. When you win one on the road, it seems like it becomes more important to win that next home game, because you don’t want to give one back.”
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