Don’t Sleep On Saint Mary’s in the WCCPosted by AMurawa on January 2nd, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences. He filed this report from Saturday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine.
When you talk about the West Coast Conference, generally the beginning, middle and end of the conversation revolves around Gonzaga – and rightfully so, as the Bulldogs have now won at least a share of 11 straight conference titles. And with the addition of BYU to the WCC this offseason, the Cougars jumped right to the top of the list of the biggest challengers to the Zags’ throne. But there’s that little school in Moraga, you know, Saint Mary’s, the one that most recently made a Sweet Sixteen run itself in 2010, and this week served notice that they’re a force to be reckoned with and every bit as likely to win the conference title as their other two, more famous, competitors.
Thursday night, BYU kicked off its stay in the WCC by traveling to McKeon Pavilion and promptly getting taken apart by the Gaels. While the Cougs’ talented forward Brandon Davies took advantage of the SMC frontline to the tune of 28 points on 18 field goal attempts, Gael senior forward Rob Jones went a long way toward counteracting Davies’ performance, tossing in 24 points of his own while grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out four assists. But it was the Gael backcourt that shone the brightest this weekend, not only in the win Thursday, but in their 29-point takedown of Pepperdine in Malibu on Saturday. Against BYU, the three-man backcourt of junior Matthew Dellavedova and sophomores Stephen Holt and Jorden Page combined for 52 points, 18 assists and 11 rebounds, while hitting 9-of-17 from deep. On Saturday it was 44 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on 7-of-14 from three. Given that the trio of guards are really the only guards on the Gaels’ 11-man roster, head coach Randy Bennett needs to make sure he can get consistent production out of those three. And so far he has.
Page got his first chance to start for the Gaels this week, as senior forward Clint Steindl injured an ankle against Missouri State just before Christmas and remains out, but the Gaels didn’t skip a beat. Page was impressive throughout the weekend, but especially against Pepperdine he provided an early spark for the team, hitting two threes on the Gaels first four possessions and never looking back from there. Not only can he knock down the long balls, but he is terrific off the dribble, either creating for himself or finding his teammates spotting up. “He’s just touching the surface of what he can do,” Bennett said after the game Saturday. “We see him in practice, so we know what he can do, but he’s a guy that needs minutes. He’s at his best when he can get loose a little bit, make shots, and have some freedom. And with Clint out, he’s been able to do that.”
The three guards are going to need to play a lot of minutes (they combined to play 109 out of a possible 120 minutes against BYU and another 104 minutes against the Waves), but because all of them are capable of sharing duties (each is an effective three-point shooter, can run the point if needed, and a solid defender) and mostly because all of them are very, very good, the Gaels are in good hands. “I can play point, obviously Matt can play point, Steve can take over; it’s all good,” said Page. “We’ve got three guys who can potentially play point guard. And we’re rolling. It’s a good feeling. Hopefully we can keep it up.”
Up front, the situation is less clear for Bennett. Jones is a fixture on the front line for the Gaels, but his game is more fit for a power forward while his 6’6” frame is more fit for a three. Steindl is a lights-out shooter (his 62.5% eFG this season is no fluke), but isn’t great at anything else on the floor and is a sub-par defender. And the five possible bigs (freshman Brad Waldow, senior Kenton Walker, juniors Mitchell Young and Tim Williams and Northwestern-transfer Kyle Rowley) are a mixed bag. Waldow has been the main man in the middle of late, averaging 17 minutes, nine points, almost five rebounds and more than a block per game in December, but Young has been the best of the bunch historically. Last year, the junior scored in double figures 19 times and had a handful of truly great games (28 points on 18 shots against Long Beach State stands out), but he has been slowed by an early groin injury this year and has yet to regain his form. “Mitchell was out a while, and he’s taken a while to get back,” said Bennett. “Plus he’s seen his minutes shortened a bit, so it is tough for him to totally get his confidence back until he gets more minutes. But we’re starting to play him some more at the four now, we’re playing a little bigger and he should see some more minutes.” So far, the front line play has been good enough to limit the opposition to offensive rebounds on just 23% of their misses, good for third in the nation, but with Gonzaga’s imposing front line looming between SMC and the WCC title, the Gael frontcourt has more tests ahead.
More importantly, the Gaels need to overcome their reputation as a team that is strong in December and January before fading in February and March. Last year, Saint Mary’s rode into a mid-season non-conference road trip to Vanderbilt with a 17-2 record and went 8-7 the rest of the way, ceding an almost-certain WCC title along the way with an inexplicable loss to a terrible San Diego squad. Three years ago, it was four losses in five games in late January and early February that turned an 18-1 squad into an NIT team almost overnight. So while the lesson to the basketball nation at large may be “don’t sleep on Saint Mary’s,” the lesson that Randy Bennett and his veteran quartet of Dellavedova, Jones, Steindl and Walker need to drill into the team is “don’t sleep on San Diego,” or whatever tedious WCC road trip is waiting to drag them down in the middle of the conference schedule.