MORAGA, Calif. – For all the talk about Gonzaga’s lofty position in the college basketball polls and the possibility of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, there is still the matter of who is the best team in West Coast Conference.
The fifth-ranked Bulldogs (23-2, 10-0 WCC) and closest pursuer Saint Mary’s (21-4, 10-1) collide Thursday at 8 p.m. at McKeon Pavilion with a ton at stake for both teams.
Gonzaga is trying to reclaim the regular-season title from the Gaels, who ended GU’s run of 11 championships last year. The Bulldogs will continue to climb up the rankings – No. 4 Michigan lost by 23 to No. 8 Michigan State on Tuesday – and could reach rarified air if they avoid a setback in their last six regular-season games. Keep winning and the Zags, currently pegged as a two seed by ESPN.com and CBSSports.com and a three by FoxSports.com, boost their chances of moving up on the seeding line.
“I don’t know when it hasn’t been (for first place) the last 4-5 years,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the Saint Mary’s rivalry. “The best thing is it’s a big game and it’s the middle of February. That’s what you want your program to be involved with.”
For Saint Mary’s, which shared the league crown with GU in 2011 and swept regular-season and tournament titles last year for the first time in program history, a victory keeps its chances of a third straight title alive. The Gaels sit on the NCAA bubble and desperately need a résumé-building win or two. Knocking off Gonzaga could mean a Top 25 ranking.
“The NCAA tournament stuff, there’s so much more season left,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “What registers is we’re trying to play for a conference championship. We don’t need to find ways to make this bigger because it’s going to be big.”
The GU-SMC rivalry has grown because the Gaels have been able to sustain their run of success while other challengers have come and gone during Few’s 14 seasons as head coach. Saint Mary’s has won four of the last eight in the series. The Gaels made the NCAA tournament in 2008, 2010 (advancing to the Sweet 16) and 2012.
“These games attract a lot of interest because it’s a good game and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Bennett said. “You don’t know for sure.”
There is also uncertainty away from the court. ESPN.com reported in September that the program is being investigated by the NCAA for potential recruiting violations.
In the first meeting last month, Gonzaga played one of its best halves of the season and led by 19 with 14:45 left in the second half. The Gaels mounted a comeback that fell short when 2012 WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova missed an open 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
“Their bigs played well in the second half, their guards played well in the second half,” Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk said. “We kind of jumped them, put a game plan in that worked really well the first half and they put in some adjustments and we didn’t adjust to their adjustments very well.
“Hopefully we can put together a 40-minute effort.”
Dellavedova had a tough night, scoring 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Gonzaga, protecting a three-point lead, tried to foul Dellavedova before he could attempt his 3 but he eluded Gary Bell Jr.
“We’d take that look anytime for him,” Bennett said. “I think Matt knew they were trying to foul him and he kind of rushed the shot a little bit.”