The Gaels woke up on this fine January morning and smiled at what their WCC brethren had wrought over the Thursday-Saturday weekend: BYU knocked off Gonzaga 69-68 in Spokane, giving the Zags an unheard-of third home loss. More importantly, it evened the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s conference loss record at one each, bringing them into a tie for first place at 6-1 (following the Zags’ ritual destruction of San Diego by 88-52).
As if that weren’t enough collegial cooperation, the spunky Portland Pilots dropped BYU 84-81 following the Cougs’ inspiring — and apparently depleting — upset of Gonzaga. That gave BYU its second conference loss and produced a nice break between the Gaels and Cougs. As of today, the top half of the conference looks like this:
Saint Mary’s 6-1 (15-2)
Gonzaga 6-1 (14-4)
BYU 4-2 (13-6)
Pepperdine 4-3 (11-7)
Pacific/Portland 3-4 (5-12, 9-11)
This is a nice position for the Gaels, but what the basketball gods give they are also prepared to take away. Thus, this week’s home contests with the ever-formidable Zags and the unpredictable Pilots present a crucial test for Saint Mary’s. Sweep both and gain a one-game advantage over Gonzaga heading into the second half of the conference; lose one or both and fall a game or more behind.
Schedule gets tougher
If that were not enough of a challenge, the WCC schedule grows considerably more difficult in February. The Gaels will play six of their next nine games on the road, including two back-breaking combinations — the Feb. 4-6 swing through BYU-San Diego and the Feb. 18-20 Northwest Passage against Gonzaga and Portland.
Clearly, making WCC hay while the sun shines in Moraga (briefly, through the raindrops) is imperative. Are the young, over-performing Gaels ready to seize their destiny? As the inimitable Warner Wolf famously proclaimed, “Let’s go to the tape!”
Okay, let’s go to the stats since no one has made a tape of the season thus far. Statistically, the Gaels are fine. They lead the nation in field goal percentage at .534 and are among the leaders in three-point shooting accuracy at .447. They boast an enviable assist-to-turnover ratio of roughly 2-to-1, and the guard tandem of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar average 6.8 and 6.4 assists per game, respectively.
The Gaels have four players averaging double-digit points per game — Naar 13.8, Dane Pineau 11.1, Calvin Hermanson 10.6 and Jock Landale 10.4. Rahon lurks just outside the double-digit range at 9.5 PPG, and one assumes could easily join the club if he chose to shoot more. Similarly, starter Evan Fitzner at 8.5 PPG is in range of double digits with considerably fewer minutes played than anyone except Landale.
Landale, of course, is not a starter, so the best way to look at his production is in combination with the person with whom he shares the post position — Pineau. Together, the Pineau-Landale contribution in the post is 21.5 PPG.
Randy Bennett has crafted an efficient, unselfish offensive machine out of the bits and pieces left over from last season. Although the construction of this year’s team was not as haphazard as most Gael observers assume — Bennett had been carefully cultivating Pineau, Landale, Hermanson and Fitzner and knew what he had in the transfer, Rahon — it is, nonetheless, a monument to his team-building ability.
Even more impressively, if overlooked, is the defensive tenacity of the Gaels. Until Pacific broke the 60-point barrier in last week’s 78-62 loss, Saint Mary’s had been routinely holding opponents around 60 PPG. The Gael key, actually, is team field goal percentage, and they strive mightily to hold opponents under 40%. Pacific, again, broke that barrier with 42% shooting, so Bennett has a clear objective in this week’s practices — restore the defensive spine of his team before taking on free-wheeling offensive squads in Gonzaga and Portland.
Okay, so it’s not Monmouth quality yet, but Gael bench-sitters Ben Sheets, Tanner Krebs and Jordan Hunter do their best to support the team. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.