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John Blanchette: Gaels senior Jock Landale rules in land of bigs

Internet Fanworld is an amusement park of delights, earnest thoughts tossed into the anonymity Mixmaster with heavy amounts of vitriol and outrage in a struggle to survive. As with major urbs and the Mohave, brief visits are digested far better than permanent residence.

But it’s important not to dismiss all you see there.

A few seasons back, in the wake of another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s mashup, a Gaels devotee wrote how happily he anticipated three more years of head-to-head big-guy matchups between his team’s Jock Landale and the Zags’ Domantas Sabonis.

Yes, it seemed ridiculous at the time.

Gonzaga followers were already worrying how long they could hang on to Sabonis and, indeed, he was off to the NBA after his sophomore year. And as a freshman, frankly, Jock Landale was as anonymous as a message board poster.

And now?

He’s only college basketball’s most efficient player, which some nights is just a poor synonym for dominant. And that’s what the 6-foot-11 senior demonstrated with cool nonchalance in the Gaels’ 74-71 victory over Gonzaga at McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday night – a season-changer for the Gaels.

For the Zags, well, it’s something less than DEFCON 1, but it’s an alert nonetheless.

And yet, not an upset.

Remember, it was the Gaels who were the nearly unanimous pick of West Coast Conference coaches to win the league back in the fall – coach Randy Bennett not being allowed to vote for his own guys. Back-to-back losses in the Wooden Legacy tournament at Thanksgiving – the first to Washington State – soured the hooperati and banished the Gaels from the polls, to which they’ve yet to return. Well, until next week.

And yet, it always feels like an upset when the Zags lose at home.

“We had to play at a high level to do what we did,” Bennett said. “You play OK, you are not winning it. Not against these guys. And some of it’s their place, but most of it’s the team.”

The Zags played at a pretty good level, too – for about 30 minutes. Then the Gaels figured out how to keep Rui Hachimura and his mates from getting to the rim so easily. And they made all the poise plays.

Poise was not the Bulldogs’ friend, and while the barstool grousing will focus on Josh Perkins’ 1-of-9 night, there were a number of other telling instances.

“We didn’t make our possessions count when it mattered,” guard Silas Melson said. “In a low possession game like this, that’ll bite you in the butt.”

But poise comes easier when you can throw it to Landale.

“It’s handy to have a guy like that who’s able to score almost every time,” teammate Tanner Krebs said. “Without him, we don’t get that win today.”

The numbers were 26 points and 12 rebounds, but volume was only part of it. Starting with the bucket that pulled Saint Mary’s even at 63, the ball found him six of the last nine times the Gaels were on offense – and he delivered each time. He also had an important block of Melson at the rim with the score tied at 68, and came out to contest Perkins’ air ball to tie at the end.

The poor soul who kept watching the ball go through the net was Jonathan Williams, who couldn’t have put up stiffer resistance in all the post combat had he a brought a bayonet. The Zags offered but a few token double-teams, wary of the Gaels’ other weapons like Calvin Hermanson – who burned them anyway.

“In all honestly, he’s probably the toughest defender I’ve gone up against,” Landale said. “He just makes me feel uncomfortable the whole time we’re playing.”

Landale is yet another of Bennett’s long line of Australian imports, but he really had to hunt him down – a late bloomer not groomed at the country’s Institute of Sport. But more to the point was Landale’s own drive toward development after a “wasted” sophomore year during which he felt he’d been “childish, letting myself down.” A complete body remake followed, and after a breakout season a year ago he’s even more polished now, as well as perhaps the most durable big man in the college game – averaging 37 minutes a game in WCC play.

And he’s also a part of the most experienced Top 25-quality team in the nation – and yet one that still needed a defining win.

“Oh, it’s huge,” Landale admitted. “They’re a really good team and it’ll be a good look on our resume. … We’ve got to make sure when they come to our house we have to do the job again, because it’s not going to be an easy task.”

Nor, obviously, for the Zags, who don’t have the same defensive options they had a year ago for one of the toughest inside matchups in college basketball.

At least somebody saw that coming.