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WCC’s favorites to clash

MORAGA, Calif. – With the 2004-05 West Coast Conference men’s basketball season still in its infancy, the national bother over tonight’s game between 11th-ranked Gonzaga University and Saint Mary’s College has been minimal.

And that’s just fine with Gaels coach Randy Bennett, who is trying to keep the stars out of his players’ eyes as they prepare for their early season showdown with the perennial bullies of the WCC.

Tipoff is set for 7 at SMC’s McKeon Arena, and word has filtered out that the school has oversold its 3,500-seat facility by at least a couple hundred tickets.

“It should be a great atmosphere,” said Bennett, who doesn’t have to worry about dealing with those fans without seats.

Things could, indeed, get wild as GU (11-2 overall, 1-0) and Saint Mary’s (13-4) – picked by league coaches to finish 1-2 – get after each other in an attempt to gain an early edge in what promises to be a engrossing WCC title chase.

“It’s a great time to play the game,” said Bennett, whose Gaels disposed of Portland 66-45 in Thursday night’s WCC opener. “It’s early in the season and both teams are projected to be near the top of the league, which just adds to the excitement.”

What Bennett hopes to guard against, however, is letting his players get caught up in all of that local excitement and treating tonight’s game as an end-all matchup.

“It’s sound like a cliché, but it only counts as one,” he warned. “I know there’s more excitement and emotion surrounding this game, but when all is said and done, it’s not going to count any more than the Portland game.

“Our kids want to play their best against the best, and we all know Gonzaga has been the best for a while, now. But we want them to also realize that after this game, we have Santa Clara (next Saturday), and that’s just as important. I’m pretty sure they understand that, but they might be tricking me.”

The fact that Saint Mary’s was picked to finish second to GU in this year’s preseason poll of league coaches did not surprise the Bulldogs’ Mark Few, who cast his vote for the Gaels.

“I thought Saint Mary’s was an NCAA Tournament team last year, with all of their talent and how well they were playing together at the end of the season,” said Few, whose Zags opened conference play with a 91-87 win over Santa Clara 91-87 Few said. “And again, we’re looking at a team that returns basically everybody from the team that played us for the (WCC) championship last season.

“That’s quite a luxury to have.”

The Gaels are loaded with veteran players who played key roles last season. Daniel Kickert, a versatile 6-foot-10 junior with outstanding range, and Paul Marigney, a 6-3 senior guard, were both named to the All-WCC first team last winter and rank 1-2 in scoring this year.

Kickert is averaging 14.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. Marigney, who missed the first nine games of the season because of academic problems, is averaging 12.8 points – and the Gaels are 8-1 since he rejoined the team.

“I said at the beginning of the year this should be our best team,” Bennett confessed, “and I think it is. It’s the best team we’ve had defensively, for sure, and Paul has helped us there since he came back.

“He obviously gives us more offense, but he helps us even more on defense. And I think our guys understand, now, what it takes to win at the highest level.”

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