MORAGA, Calif. – Saint Mary’s lost five senior starters and 80 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last year’s so-so – by their standards – 21-10 season.
The Gaels were picked fourth in this year’s WCC preseason poll, but they’ve been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises. Junior point guard Joe Rahon didn’t play a minute last season but he could still see what most pundits couldn’t.
“I knew in practices these young guys were really talented, they were just playing behind really good players,” said Rahon, who sat out last season after transferring from Boston College. “I knew we could do something special. Now we haven’t accomplished anything so far, but I knew pretty early on we had the talent and style of play to be really good.”
Saint Mary’s (15-2, 6-1 WCC) and Gonzaga (14-4, 6-1) will battle for first place at McKeon Pavilion on Thursday. Gonzaga has ruled the WCC since the late 1990s. Saint Mary’s has been the Zags’ primary challenger for the last decade, earning a co-championship in 2011 and a solo title in 2012.
The Gaels have done the improbable, going from perhaps the WCC’s oldest team to the youngest and they’re winning big. True, they’ve played a soft, home-based schedule, but the numbers are still hard to ignore. They lead the nation in field-goal percentage (53.4), they’re second in scoring margin (20.5) and third in scoring defense (58.0).
“It’s going to be a huge challenge on their home floor,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They really see big rims there.”
The Gaels are 0-2 in games decided by fewer than 10 points, losing a late lead against Cal and falling to Pepperdine 67-64. They’re 13-0 at home, including a 78-61 drubbing of Stanford.
Saint Mary’s is putting up video-game numbers on offense. The Gaels were 15 of 18 from the field in the first half against Pacific, an 83.3 percent clip that equaled a WCC record that had stood since 1976. They set a school record with 19 3-pointers against Cal Poly. They lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“A big part of our success is just how unselfish everyone is,” said Rahon, who averages 9.5 points and 6.8 assists, the latter 10th nationally. “No one cares who scores, who gets the most shots. We always talk about getting great shots and having great possessions every time down the floor.”
Gonzaga’s chore will be defending an offense that relies on Rahon and guard Emmett Naar working off high ball screens. The Gaels have had success in coach Randy Bennett’s system behind past standouts Patty Mills, Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova.
“They’re good at picking up on defensive mistakes so we have to limit ours,” Zags guard Josh Perkins said. “With other teams, it’s usually one guard who initiates the offense but both of those guys know how to maneuver on the ball screen. But all of our guards know how to play defense. We’ll try to execute the game plan.”
BYU, in an 85-74 loss, is the only team to score more than 67 points against Saint Mary’s.
“We may not be the most athletic team,” Rahon said, “but we’re big, a long wing-span team so we can get in passing lanes a little bit. Everyone wants to talk about our offense and how well we shoot it, but we hang our hat on trying to hold teams to 40 percent (shooting) from the field.”
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