MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga freshman guard Gary Bell Jr. hasn’t played inside Saint Mary’s cozy 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion, but he has a pretty good idea what’s coming.
He’s has heard stories from senior center Robert Sacre and former Zags point guard Jeremy Pargo.
“Rob said they’re brutal,” Bell said. “They’re going to be saying stuff about my mom, my family, stuff I didn’t think anybody knew about. I think I’ll be ready for it. Illinois was kind of hostile, so Saint Mary’s can’t be much worse.”
Sacre missed on his national championship prediction earlier this week when his beloved LSU Tigers were thumped by Alabama, but he was dead-on assessing the heated Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s rivalry, which resumes tonight with first place in the WCC on the line.
“They hate us and we hate them,” Sacre said. “It’s a love-hate relationship. They make us better. We make them better.”
No. 21 Gonzaga (13-2, 3-0) has dominated the series and the WCC, winning 11 straight titles (nine outright). The Gaels (15-2, 4-0) have made some inroads, winning last season in Spokane en route to a co-regular season championship and two years ago in the WCC tournament title game in Las Vegas.
Gaels senior forward Rob Jones, third in the conference in scoring (15.4) and first in rebounding (10.5), credits 11th-year head coach Randy Bennett and a string of recent standouts, including Diamon Simpson, Patty Mills, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell, for elevating the program’s stature.
“He recruits guys that may not always be America’s top player, but they fit into Randy’s system,” said Jones, a WCC player of the year candidate along with teammate Matthew Dellavedova (15.2 ppg, conference-leading 6.6 assists). “They’re good guys so it’s easy for Randy. He wants players who want to play and want to be in the gym the most.”
Saint Mary’s ranks in the top 25 nationally in six categories, including scoring margin and scoring defense. The Gaels threatened the school record by making 67.3 percent of their shots in Monday’s win over San Francisco.
“They’re very adept operating (with ball screens) and they’ve had some wizards manipulating it the last 3-4 years,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It creates a challenge because Dellavedova reads where you’re helping and then bang, the ball goes right to that and if you don’t help then it goes right to the big.”
Gonzaga plays a tougher nonconference schedule than Saint Mary’s, but Few said there are merits to both approaches. The Gaels are on their way to a fifth consecutive season with at least 25 wins, but they didn’t receive an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament last year despite a 25-8 record. The Gaels lost to Kent State in the first round of the NIT.
“Both of them are right, as far as building the confidence up of your team,” Few said. “Now the selection committee will tell you otherwise.”
Jones said Saint Mary’s probably doesn’t have as much big-game experience as last year’s team, but might be better on defense and have more offensive weapons.
“You always want to play the top-ranked teams, because those are the fun games to be part of,” he said. “Our coaches did a good job of getting good teams that we were able to get better as we played them and make sure we developed.”