Gaels vs. the UC system

The Saint Mary’s basketball season has unfolded as if designed by a fitness instructor: ease into action, gradually increase the effort, achieve peak activity, taper off.

Thus the season began with a DII opponent, San Francisco State, followed by a recognized DI competitor (Manhattan) and peaked with a game against Stanford. A tapering-off period ensued with a week off following the Stanford win, culminating in last Sunday’s rout of Cal State Bakersfield.

“Take a deep breath now,” you can almost hear the instructor saying, “We’ve got some big ones coming.”

Indeed, over the next eight-day activity period (Dec. 4-12), the Gaels will undertake a stepladder assault on three outposts of the University of California system: UC Davis on Friday (4th), UC Irvine on Sunday (6th) and then the Big Kahuna, UC-Berkeley on Dec. 12 (Saturday). The Cal game in Berkeley will mark Saint Mary’s first foray outside McKeon Pavilion.

Tapering-off will be observed then, courtesy of Cal Poly and Southern Utah at home, before the conference season begins against San Francisco on Dec. 21.

The first rung

UC Davis probably doesn’t see itself as a rung in anybody’s ladder. The Aggies achieved a program breakthrough last season, winning their first Big West Conference regular-season title. A disappointing loss to Hawaii in the Big West Tournament relegated Davis to the NIT, where it lost in the first round to eventual champion Stanford. Still, for a program recently advanced to DI status, 2014-15 was a milestone.

Under widely-respected coach Jim Les, who took Bradley to the Sweet 16 during his tenure there, Davis figures to battle Irvine for the Big West  crown again this season. It has to overcome the graduation of sensational three-point shooter Corey Hawkins, who led the nation by shooting nearly 50% from distance while scoring 20.9 PPG, but has a strong nucleus returning.

Chief among them is junior post man Neal Monson, a 6-10 rebounding machine who was named the Big West sixth man of the year last season. He is older, having completed a two-year mission following graduation from high school in Utah, and used to playing in a successful system. He was an honorable mention All-American junior college star for Salt Lake City Community College before transferring to Davis.

Monson is joined in the frontcourt by 6-6 senior Josh Fox, averaging 16 PPG and 12 RPG so far this season. Bay Area fans may remember Fox from his days at Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco. Monson and Fox will provide a good challenge to the Gaels’ three-headed frontcourt contingent of Evan Fitzner, Dane Pineau and Jock Landale.

After revenging an earlier loss in Sacramento, Davis moved to 4-2 on the season with a home victory over Sacramento State Wednesday night. Don’t scoff at Sac State, as it already has victories over Arizona State and the WCC’s Pacific Tigers. The  Aggies’ other loss was to North Dakota State, and they have wins over the WCC’s Portland and the Gaels’ Dec. 28 opponent, Utah Valley.

Putting the “big” in Big West

Ladder two is the formidable UC Irvine Anteaters, anchored by 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Irvine took the Big West tourney championship and NCAA bid that Davis coveted last year, and almost survived some typical mid-major seeding bias that pitted them against fourth-seeded Louisville in the opening round. They lost a squeaker (57-55) to Louisville, but whetted their appetite for greater success this year.

Sunday’s game will be a rematch of a classic from last season, which the Gaels won 72-69 behind 28 points from Brad Waldow. Waldow battled Ndiaye and his 7-2 backup Ioannis Dimakoupoulos heroically in that game, capping his effort with two free throws that gave the Gaels the lead with seconds left. The free throws came after a fifth foul by Ndiaye, who notched 14 points in just 15 minutes of action.

In addition to its bigs, Irvine has the excellent guard tandem of Alex Young and Luke Nelson back, along with super-sub Mike Best, a 6-10 senior from San Rafael who is averaging 10.1 PPG. The Anteaters are 5-2, with wins over the WCC’s Loyola Marymount, UC San Diego, University of Central Florida and Boston College.

The Gaels hope that their careful pacing will withstand the Davis-Irvine challenge and put them in position to challenge the Cal  Bears in Berkeley on the 12th. Take a deep breath now.

Next: Looking closely at the Bears.

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