How Can Saint Mary’s Beat Gonzaga?

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 22nd, 2015

According to Ken Pomeroy’s latest prognostications, Gonzaga is better than a 90 percent favorite in 10 of its 12 remaining games. The two games in which that is not the case come in late February when the Bulldogs travel to Saint Mary’s (February 21) and when they host BYU in the final game of the regular season (February 28). Tonight, Saint Mary’s gets its first crack at the Zags and, despite being a 15-point Vegas underdog and the Gaels having just an eight percent chance of winning this game, this is a match-up between teams that are a combined 14-0 in West Coast Conference play. Furthermore, the Gaels have been the only team in recent history to seriously and regularly challenge the Bulldogs’ spot atop the conference. Still, the Bulldogs have won all six games in this series in the past two seasons, and in several cases, decisively. So, the question becomes: What can Saint Mary’s do to beat Gonzaga?

Brad Waldow Will Need To Shine Against The Big Gonzaga Front Line (Getty Images)

Brad Waldow Will Need To Shine Against The Big Gonzaga Front Line (Getty Images)

As those Pomeroy odds indicate, the Gaels’ actual chances in tonight’s game are not strong. We could point out several minor data points – like the fact that the Zags won at Pepperdine by only two points while the Gaels won by nine there; or those unblemished conference records – to convince ourselves that this game of WCC titans is bound to be a battle. But the fact is that there isn’t a lot on St. Mary’s resume this season to suggest that it’s got the horses to win in Spokane tonight. The Gaels beat BYU on Saturday night in what easily represents their best win of the season, with wins over Pepperdine, UC Irvine and a fading Creighton team really the only other things of substance (note: “substance” used with great looseness here). But more than anything else, the Gaels have winning experience going for them. Of their seven players who factor most significantly into their rotation, they’ve got five seniors – four of those who have spent time at other schools before landing in Moraga. All of these guys have played plenty of road games against elite teams and rivals many times before, so when they roll into The Kennel tonight, they won’t be scared.

Although it is a bonus for a team to avoid butterflies before tip-off, you don’t get extra points for experienced players lacking fear; the Gaels are going to have to put the ball in the basket and prevent the Zags from doing same, and it all starts with 6’9” senior center Brad Waldow who takes better than 80 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim and makes 63.3 percent of those attempts. Going against a Gonzaga team with three nearly interchangeable frontcourt guys standing at 6’10” or taller, Waldow will need to be his usual efficient self. The problem is that Waldow hasn’t had a lot of historical success against the Zags. For instance, in three games against a Bulldogs’ team that was smaller last season, he averaged just 9.3 points and three rebounds per game, shooting just 9-of-19 from the field. Suffice it to say that a repeat performance will not work tonight. He’ll need to stay out of foul trouble and act as a workhorse for his team on both ends of the court. Likewise, junkyard dog senior Desmond Simmons (formerly of Washington) and undersized senior forward Garrett Jackson (formerly of USC) need to be madmen in the paint, getting on the boards and defending like crazy against the combination of Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Saint Mary’s has enjoyed plenty of success on the glass this season (they’re fifth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage and 28th in offensive rebounding), but they will need to at least battle the Zags to a draw on the boards to have a fighter’s chance in Spokeane.

Truthfully, getting into the paint and regularly scoring against that wall of 7’1”, 6’10”, 6’10” bodies is probably a fool’s errand. While big things are needed from the Gaels’ frontcourt on the boards, they’re going to need efficient scoring from their backcourt to win the game — a fine proposition considering that seniors Kerry Carter and Aaron Bright (formerly of Stanford) are the team’s second and third-leading scorers. While Gonzaga is susceptible to guards who can attack Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell off the bounce, Carter and Bright are explosive three-point shooters who can get hot in a hurry, as is sixth-man Emmett Naar. Likewise, Jackson and Simmons are both capable of drawing defenders away from the hoop and knocking in an occasional three themselves. This will need to happen. For example, St. John’s hit eight threes against Gonzaga in a reasonably close seven-point loss. Given that the Johnnies have significantly more explosive athleticism than the Gaels, let’s put the minimum number of threes at 10 for Randy Bennett’s team to have a chance. And stranger things have happened, as the Gaels hit 15 triples against Cal Poly in the fifth game of the season.

Finally, let’s just say that the Gaels need a good helping of some luck. You’re just not going to beat a top five team in their building without a few bounces going your way. The Zags turned it over 17 times against St. John’s. Against BYU, the Cougars outscored Gonzaga by 12 points from the line. At Pepperdine last weekend, the 70.2 percent-shooting Zags inexplicably shot 14-of-33 from there. Something weird like that needs to happen for the Gaels to have a realistic shot to win. But the good news is that this is college basketball. Weird things happen all the time.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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