Nineteen games into a 29-game season, Saint Mary’s finds itself in sole possession of first place in the WCC at 8-1, boasting the league’s highest RPI (37) and contemplating the possibility of winning a conference championship for the first time since 2012.
Randy Bennett has taken a team with no returning starters, no seniors and nine freshmen and sophomores into a position few would have envisioned at the season’s offset. And I don’t mean Mark Few, who was undoubtedly one of those coaches who pegged the Gaels for fourth in the league standings.
No game was more emblematic of what the Gaels have become in 2016 than Saturday’s 89-74 win over Portland. Coming just two days after an exhilarating but draining 70-67 win over Gonzaga, no one would have been surprised to see a flat effort. Instead, the Gaels shot 61.5% in the first half, then, deciding that wasn’t good enough, 63% in the second.
They began the second half by making their first 11 shots to extend a seven-point half-time lead to 67-55. And even though Portland stayed close by unleashing a seemingly unending supply of three-point shooters, the Gaels never took their foot off the pedal. Dane Pineau, who was crucial in bringing the Gaels back against Gonzaga with three second-half buckets in the paint, made his first 10 shots before muffing a bunny in the game’s final seconds. By then the lead was see-sawing between 15 and 20 points, however, so it became a point of good-natured ribbing from Pineau’s teammates.
Concentration most important factor
The effort was not funny, though, and gives more hope than any other aspect of the Gaels’ game. The offense, surely continuing to lead the nation in field goal percentage when stats come out on Monday, has been a thing of beauty. The defense has been mostly stalwart, although Bennett will undoubtedly worry about Portland’s 45.9% overall and 45.8% three-point (11-24) shooting percentages. That’s fine, coaches need something to plan their practices around.
But Bennett will not have to spend any time worrying about motivating this bunch as it heads into the back half of the conference season with six of nine games on the road. The matter-of-fact manner in which it eliminated any serious threat from Portland portends a no-letdown conclusion to what has so far been a seamless journey. With 19 assists on 35 made baskets against Portland, with four players in double figures and one (Hermanson) just outside that mark with 9, with Naar sinking 7-10 shots to shadow Pineau’s 10-11 effort, the team is hitting on all cylinders.
Evan Fitzner, who looked early on as if he could become the Gaels’ top scorer, followed an exquisite 20-point effort against Gonzaga with 13 against Portland on 5-6 shooting, including 3-4 three-point attempts. Bennett seems to be waging a psychological battle with Fitzner, trying to ensure that the youngster remains both confident and motivated.
Bennett allowed Fitzner only 19 minutes against Portland even though it seemed he could score at will and was dialed-in on defense. That followed a nerve-wracking (to me, at least) spell on the bench for Fitzner in the second half against Gonzaga. Bennett surely understands the potential of Fitzner to become one of the Gaels’ all-time leading scorers, yet he sees something in the gangly 6-10 redshirt freshman that calls for caution.
I’m content with Bennett’s reading of Fitzner’s psyche, given his track record with hundreds of Gael athletes ranging in temperament from level-headed (Dellavedova) to mercurial (Tron Smith), and everything in between.
Opponents’ road ahead
There is only one surprise at the WCC season’s half-way point, and that is Pepperdine’s usurpation of BYU’s assumed top-three position. By stopping the boys from Provo on Saturday in Malibu by 71-65, Pepperdine vaulted into third place behind Gonzaga’s 7-2 record at 6-3. BYU, which has played one fewer game than the conference leaders, is at 5-3.
The Gaels, who have yet to play BYU in Provo or Gonzaga in Spokane, certainly have a challenging February ahead of them, but their opponents have some things to worry about also. Gonzaga, which has been shaky at best on the road in the WCC — squeaking by Santa Clara and San Francisco, losing to the Gaels and stumbling to a 10-point win over Pacific last Saturday after leading by one at the half — must still face Pepperdine in Malibu and BYU in Provo.
BYU has the most comforting second half, with mostly home games. The Cougars have an opportunity to two-time Gonzaga, whom they beat earlier in Spokane, and gain revenge against Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine, both of whom beat them in the first half. Pepperdine has a chance to upset Gonzaga in Malibu, but must face Saint Mary’s and BYU on the road.
As far as the Gaels have come this season, they still have a long way to go before the WCC tournament opens on March 4 in Las Vegas.
As head coach Randy Bennett makes some points with his players, his assistant coaches remain riveted to the game in progress. From right going down the bench: Marty Clarke, David Carter, Danny Yoshikawa, partially obscured, leaning back, and Marcus Schroeder. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.