By John Crumpacker
While GONZAGA at SAINT MARY’S on Thursday night is the game of the year (so far) in the West Coast Conference, it is not, however, the Game of the Week. That distinction goes to Gonzaga at PACIFIC on Saturday at 1 p.m.
For obvious reasons, Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s is the focal point of the conference this week because both teams come into the game with 6-1 league records, with first place at stake at sold-out McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, where 3,500 souls will cram into the Contra Costa County cracker box and make the local fire marshal nervous.
“It’s getting a little crazy around here,’’ Saint Mary’s Calvin Hermanson told Steve Kroner of the San Francisco Chronicle.
That both schools are trying to burnish their resumes for the NCAA Tournament in March just adds a few logs to this crackling campfire of a game. It can be seen on ESPNU at 8 p.m. PT.
For both teams, the operative number is lucky 13. The Zags have won 13 games in a row to this point, the longest current streak in the nation, while the Gaels are 13-0 at home this season. Something’s got to give and if past is prologue, it will be Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga has an eight-game winning streak going against Saint Mary’s and has won the last three meetings in Moraga. The Gaels’ last win over the Zags came in the 2012 WCC championship game.
Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has won every WCC regular season title since 2000. The Gaels might be a little tired of standing in Gonzaga’s shadow, however. In last year’s game at McKeon Pavilion Saint Mary’s had a 17-point lead in the first half and still led by nine with six minutes remaining before falling 70-60 in a result that has to gnaw on those Gaels who took part in that contest.
“It’s just going to come down to finishing the job,’’ Hermanson told the Chronicle.
If the Zags don’t finish it first. Coach Mark Few’s team is probably happy to be away from home, where it has already lost four games this season for the first time in 25 years. Since center Przemek Karnowski went down and out with a back injury in November, Gonzaga has relied even more on Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis to shoulder the burden. The frontline pair is averaging 40.2 points per game.
Of late, 7-foot freshman Ryan Edwards has been more of a contributor as Few looks to rest his two stars whenever he can.
Asked how he sees his role, Edwards told Jim Meehan of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, “Rebound, be a big presence down low, whether scoring or doing a good job of rim protection. Everything, really, to help this team out.’’
Saint Mary’s can counter with its own improving big man, 6-11 sophomore Jock Landale, the WCC Player of the Week, along with forwards Hermanson and Dane Pineau. Nevertheless, the Gaels are still at a disadvantage when pitted against Wiltjer, who’s been brilliant this season, and the stalwart rebounder Sabonis.
Of the former, Gaels coach Randy Bennett told the Chronicle, “He’s a handful. He can score in the post, score on the three. He’s patient, clever and they do a good job of getting him the ball.’’
Saint Mary’s strength is in its balance and its rock-solid backcourt of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, two selfless guards who together average 13 assists per game. Gonzaga, in turn, has a rotation of five guards to throw at opponents, with the best of them being Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan. Perkins perked up when the WCC season began and is averaging 13.1 points and 4.4 assists in conference games.
Now, about that other game, the Game of the Week …
It seems the only hope Pacific has in an already difficult season is to catch Gonzaga either looking ahead at games to come or looking back at the Saint Mary’s contest when the Tigers and Zags tussle Saturday afternoon at the Spanos Center.
Pacific has been no pushover, though, especially in conference games. The Tigers defeated three teams below them in the standings – SANTA CLARA, SAN DIEGO, LOYOLA MARYMOUNT – and overall have lost four games by five points or less. There’s still some Tiger in that tank, a fact PORTLAND should be aware of when the Pilots visit Pacific Thursday night.
Another visitor that should exercise caution is BYU for its Thursday nighter at LMU. The Lions are coming off a road sweep of SAN FRANCISCO and SANTA CLARA and have never been more confident this season. BYU, meanwhile, has been a tad inconsistent in 2015-16.
PEPPERDINE has also been a little confounding this season but should not have much trouble with 1-5 SAN DIEGO on Thursday night at Firestone Fieldhouse. If it does, it will be a major Mali-bu-bu for the Waves.
The other game on Thursday night is a Bay Area staple – USF at Santa Clara. It could be quite a show if Devin Watson of the Dons and Jared Brownridge of the Broncos have their games in order and start percolating early.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s slate beyond the Gonzaga-Pacific Game of the Week, BYU at Pepperdine has the most interest as third place in the conference could be at stake.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.