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.

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On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2015

Two years ago, the debate raged. Did Gonzaga, the #1 team in both polls on Selection Sunday, really deserve a #1 seed? It was a question rarely faced by teams towering over the polls at such a late juncture, but the Zags’ 31-2 record didn’t impress everyone. Critics brought up the weak WCC. They pointed out an unflattering RPI ranking of #8. More anecdotally, they looked up and down the Gonzaga roster and asked — other than Kelly Olynyk — where all the pros were. The Zags claim to a #1 seed was as energized a debate as any on Selection Sunday in March 2013.

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zag's Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team's Spot Within The Bracket?

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zags’ Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team’s Placement Within The Bracket?

That story’s ending shouldn’t have escaped memory yet (Cliff Notes: #1 seed granted, but Sweet Sixteen appearance sold separately) and it may have more damage to deliver the Bulldogs. This season boasts an equally dominant Gonzaga outfit and a similarly helpless WCC, which puts Mark Few’s team on a crash course for a familiar Selection Sunday predicament. After easily knocking off San Francisco on Thursday night, the 15-1 Bulldogs look as poised as ever to rip through a soft WCC and reach Selection Sunday with just one loss, an overtime defeat at Arizona (who is kind of good!). Early results indicate competition for the four #1 seeds is likely to be even fiercer this season than it was two years ago, but this Gonzaga group also looks to be stronger as well. Dominoes in the race for a #1 seed will be falling from now until March — in both Spokane and elsewhere — but round two of the great Gonzaga debate is coming. There’s no reason not to begin considering the question now: Will the kings of the WCC deserve to be on the bracket’s top line?

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Who Won The Week? Texas, Amere May and Gary Payton II …

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker) on December 19th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Tacoma-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

WINNER: Texas

You know, I think the Longhorns have recovered from losing at Kentucky two weeks ago. And that’s a credit to their fantastic defense, which ranks third nationally in adjusted efficiency (thanks, KenPom!). Texas came out Saturday and held a not-entirely-terrible Texas State team to 27 points (and a cool 0.44 points per possession) in a 59-27 win, then followed that up with a comparatively pedestrian 103-61 win over Lipscomb in which the Bisons only scored 0.81 points per possession. Yes, that is a “comparatively pedestrian” 42-point win. That’s how good Texas’ defense is. Here’s some stats to back that up: The Longhorns are first in the nation in effective field goal shooting against, first in opponents’ two-point field goal percentage (32.7 percent!) and second in block rate, swatting nearly one in five two-point attempts. The defense is the third most efficient in the country despite being in the bottom five nationally in forcing turnovers. Oh, and by the way, the Longhorns are now 9-1, including 6-1 without injured starting point guard Isaiah Taylor.

Rick Barnes is Carrying the Big 12 Recruiting Flag This Week (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

It’s been business as usual for Rick Barnes and Texas. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

(Related winners: People who really like defense. Related losers: Texas State; Lipscomb, but mostly for making “Bison” plural by adding an “S.”)

LOSER: Connecticut

Not to be an alarmist or anything, but the defending national champions are running out of time to get some good wins. Now 4-4, Kevin Ollie’s Huskies had an opportunity against a stacked Duke team Thursday night on a neutral court and came away with a 66-56 loss. But with the American looking like it will have a down year in the wake of Louisville’s departure, the only chances for statement wins are at Florida and a pair of conference match-ups with Cincinnati. (I reserve the right to judge SMU until Markus Kennedy is playing for them, but the Mustangs have taken three non-nconference losses already. Not promising.) And the best UConn non-conference win thus far, against Dayton, will lose a lot of shine after the Flyers dismissed their two tallest players after a campus incident. Now what I find alarming is that UConn gave up more than a point per possession to lowly Coppin State on Sunday, owner of a bottom-10 offensive efficiency, proving that the Huskies took at least one night off. You can’t afford to do that when you need to stack up a gaudy record in a conference full of minnows. And you certainly can’t afford to do that when you can’t score above a point per possession yourselves, which has happened in each of the Huskies’ four losses.

(Related winners: Duke, which managed to overcome a nearly 50 percent turnover rate in the first half to win somewhat comfortably. Related losers: UConn stud guard Ryan Boatright, who has to be wondering what he did to deserve his woeful offensive supporting cast; the American, which needs all the good teams – and NCAA Tournament teams – it can get.) Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on December 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

Maybe finals were unusually hard this year, causing a build-up of aggression within WCC members. Maybe the conference is ready to establish itself alongside the Mountain West as one of the best outside the Power Five. Whatever the motivation, conference schools celebrated their first post-finals games with a handful of memorable efforts on Saturday.

Kyle Wiltjer has fit right in with a talented Gonzaga squad. (AP)

Kyle Wiltjer has fit right in with a talented Gonzaga squad. (AP)

  • Gonzaga toyed with UCLA as if the Bruins were a middling WCC opponent, leading wire-to-wire in an 87-74 romp at Pauley Pavilion.
  • Saint Mary’s broke Creighton’s 24-game home winning streak with a 71-67 overtime win in Omaha.
  • BYU went 2-0 on the road by topping Weber State 76-60 in Ogden.
  • Santa Clara notched its fourth straight win by knocking off Washington State 76-67 – its first home win against a Pac-12 school in 10 years.
  • San Diego trounced New Orleans 85-60 to remain undefeated at home.
  • Pepperdine almost made it an epic fail for the Pac-12 against the WCC, leading Arizona State 43-42 with less than 12 minutes left before ultimately succumbing, 81-74.
  • Only rebuilding Loyola Marymount went down Saturday, losing 71-69 to Northern Arizona.

It has been a mostly satisfying non-conference performance so far for the WCC, with only one team, Loyola Marymount, posting a losing record through December 13.

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O26 Weekly Awards: SMC, D.J. Balentine, Kyle Smith, Incarnate Word…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 16th, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.

Saint Mary's pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.

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Top of the O26 Class: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, WAC & WCC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Western region of the U.S: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference. Previous installments include conferences from the Northeast region, Midwest region, Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region and the Southern region.

Top Units

Mountain West

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II need to step up offensively for the Aztecs. (Ben Margot — AP)

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II will need to step up offensively for San Diego State. (Ben Margot/AP)

  • San Diego State – 2013-14 record: 31-5 (16-2). San Diego State will be very good defensively, that much we know, but whether it can replace do-everything guard Xavier Thames (17.6 PPG, 120.0 ORtg) is the most pressing concern this time around. The Aztecs – which have ranked among the top-20 nationally in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons – return several long-armed stoppers like Dwayne Polee II and 6’10’’ center Skyler Spencer (best block percentage in the league) while adding a highly-touted Arizona transfer in 6’9’’ Angelo Chol. But Thames was the only consistent offensive threat last year and points were hard to come by when he struggled, so the ability of guys like Polee and guard Winston Shepard to thrive in more prominent scoring roles is crucial. Steve Fisher’s club should win the Mountain West considering the talent he has on hand (five-star forward Malik Pope also joins the mix), but the team’s offensive development, especially in the backcourt, will determine its ultimate national stature.

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Saint Mary’s and San Francisco Depart Vegas on Markedly Different Paths

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2014

Both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco will be invited to participate in one of the other national postseason tournaments, but while their seasons may not be officially over, Monday night brought a close to any improbable NCAA Tournament dreams. Saint Mary’s was routed (again) by Gonzaga in one WCC semifinal, while San Francisco came up a play or two short versus BYU in the other, ultimately falling to Tyler Haws and the Cougars in overtime, 79-77. There are plenty of similarities on a paper resume between SMC and USF this season (both have RPIs in the 60s and 11 losses each), but that resemblance belies the current state of affairs of Bay Area WCC hoops. It would seem that Monday’s mode of exit is a far better illustration of where these two programs currently sit – and where they are headed. The young Dons appear ready to compete like they did in Vegas (and really, all season) on a consistent basis moving forward, but for their neighbors acros the San Francisco Bay in Moraga, the future may not be as bright. The talent pool has dried up for Randy Bennett and the Gaels, and the proudest era in Saint Mary’s basketball history could be on the verge of extinction.

Stephen Holt's Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary's Basketball Nearly Finished?

Stephen Holt’s Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary’s Basketball Nearly Finished?

We’ll take the good news before the bad and discuss USF first. Progress has been slow since Rex Walters arrived in 2008, but the Dons have increased their win total in every season except 2012-13 under the former NBA journeyman and former Jayhawk. Incremental growth ran a bit faster this season, as Walters’ team really began showing signs of life. The Dons went 13-5 in a WCC that finished ninth in conference RPI, and are set to return their entire rotation next season save for leading scorer Cole Dickerson. Dickerson’s crafty offensive game will surely be missed in 2014-15, but expectations should justly be enhanced with the Dons returning so much proven talent.

After winning back-to-back national titles in the 50s with two of the greatest players in basketball history leading the way, USF has made the NCAA Tournament just one time in the past three decades, and the last Don to play in the NBA retired more than 20 years ago. It’s been a long, confusing dry spell for a tradition-laden program, indeed. There isn’t any NBA talent on this USF roster (or next year’s, most likely), but as the program ascends the ranks of the WCC standings, the NCAA Tournament should again be within reach for Walters’ team. That statement alone constitutes progress, but anyone who caught a glimpse of this San Francisco team – either on Monday night or throughout its 13-win conference campaign – could tell you that things are looking up in the City by the Bay.

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Conference Tournament Primer: West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on March 6th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Tournament Preview

There are some new contenders, some elevated expectations and the hint of upset in the air. But, in the end, will it add up to someone other than Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s winning the WCC Tournament title next Tuesday and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? Those two have played in the championship game for the past five years – Gonzaga winning three – and the first change in 2014 is that they will not repeat that engagement. The Gaels and the Zags are in the same half of this year’s bracket; their clash, if it comes, will be in the semifinals on Monday, and only one will emerge to contend for the championship.

1

The replacement of Saint Mary’s by BYU as the tourney’s second seed and the emergence of San Francisco as a legitimate championship contender is the first major change in the tournament makeup. BYU and San Francisco tied for second place behind Gonzaga in the conference standings, with BYU earning the second seed by virtue of a sweep over San Francisco, and Saint Mary’s limped in at fourth. The other major change is a requirement that all teams in the tournament play at least three games. Gone is the WCC’s controversial practice of granting the first and second finishers a bye to the semifinal round. For the last five years, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s had only a semifinal game to contend with before squaring off for the title.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 27th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the Rush the Court’s correspondent for the West Coast Conference.

Looking Back

Perris Blackwell is pulling down rebounds for Washington, De’End Parker is leading Cal State San Marcos to the top of NAIA ranks, and Cody Doolin is plotting his comeback next year at UNLV. But Rex Walters has commanded a resolute Gang of Six anchored by senior forward Cole Dickerson to propel San Francisco to the brink of second place in the WCC with an outside chance of tying for the title. By holding off hapless Saint Mary’s and still-struggling Pacific at home last week, the Dons moved to 11-5 in conference play and into a virtual tie with BYU for the second spot (the Cougars have a half-game lead by virtue of having played one more game). If the Dons sweep Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount this week in Southern California and BYU and Gonzaga stumble in their final contests, Walters’ embattled troops will have pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in WCC history.

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could record an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

It is still a slight possibility that Cole Dickerson and USF could earn itself an improbable conference crown. (ISI Sports)

Gonzaga paved the way for this potential outcome by dropping both its road contests last week, first to an aroused BYU in Provo, and then to a scrappy San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. The Zags’ lack of depth was a factor in both losses, as Mark Few has narrowed his rotation to exclude anyone besides Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, Jr. in the frontcourt. Providence transfer Gerard Coleman, Louisville transfer Angel Nunez and two freshmen are anchored on the bench as the Zags plow unsteadily towards another conference championship and a top seed in the WCC Tournament, opening March 6 in Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Saint Louis (25-2) at Virginia Commonwealth (20-7) – 6:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Yes, this was our Game of the Week just two short weeks ago and yes, the Billikens all-but-clinched the Atlantic 10 crown by winning on their home floor. So why does the second iteration once again headline the week? Well, for one thing, it was a really good basketball game the first time around. Saint Louis held serve in Chaifetz Arena, sure, but not before VCU forced 17 turnovers and battled back from a double-figure deficit to make the final two minutes thrilling — it took a Rob Loe three-pointer with around 30 seconds left to ice it for the home team. And the defenses lived-up to their dominant billing, each limiting the opposing offense to well-under one point per possession on the afternoon. Even if you had tuned in for just five minutes of action, the high level of play and serious potential of both teams would have become quickly evident.

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (Chris Lee, AP)

And that’s the overarching reason why Saturday’s tilt — this time in Richmond — is the main event in an already-loaded week; Saint Louis-VCU isn’t merely a marquee A-10 match-up, it’s a marquee national match-up. Everything at stake in a high-profile power-conference game is also at stake here: perception, NCAA Tournament profile, late-season momentum, bragging rights, and in the case of the Billikens, a very long winning streak. Jim Crews’ bunch has reeled off 19 straight victories over the course of three full months, last losing way back on December 1 to still-undefeated Wichita State. Shaka Smart’s group, meanwhile — fresh off a painfully-close road loss to UMass last Friday — has not dropped a home game in more than a year, obliterating visiting opponents this season by nearly 17 points per contest. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Verizon Wireless Arena, and the basketball-watching public will be the beneficiary. KenPom has the home squad pegged as 62 percent favorites, which is to say, it’s more or less a toss-up. Tune in on Saturday — Round II should be great.

Four More to Watch

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 13th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The scramble for second place in the WCC continued unabated last week, as Saint Mary’s and BYU held off defeats that would have made any conference title dreams impossible. As things stand now, they’re only just unrealistic. San Francisco and Pepperdine, two other teams harboring dreams for a lofty finish, stumbled.

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Stephen Holt (right) had an outstanding week for the Gaels. (SMC Athletics)

Gonzaga’s three-game lead in the loss column over BYU and Saint Mary’s seems impregnable, but the schedule-makers have done the Zags no favors. After entertaining Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount at home this week, Gonzaga hits the road for four season-ending games that could prove harrowing. BYU, San Diego and Saint Mary’s must be considered at least potential upset opportunities, and even Pacific has showed its Tiger teeth occasionally this season. What better way to salvage a disappointing return to the WCC than by knocking off the Zags? Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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