The guards have it

So it comes down to this in the final week of the WCC season: three teams are in play for post-season glory, each of them with a different set of anxieties.

Gonzaga, the overwhelming favorite to sweep to its umpteenth WCC title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, is flailing with the HBO cameras running. Under the spotlight of a documentary entitled “March to Madness,” Mark Few’s troops might be giving a new twist to HBO’s intentions.

Tied with Saint Mary’s at 13-3, the Zags have to sweep their remaining two conference games on the road, plus win the WCC Tournament to guarantee their 18th straight NCAA appearance — and justify HBO’s attention. As unreal as it sounds, the Zags can’t count on just a WCC championship appearance to earn a ticket to the dance — they might have to win it all or contemplate the glories of an NIT bid.

To add another level of pressure, the Zags must win their final two conference games to even be in the conversation for an at-large NCAA bid. And where does the season find them this Saturday when the season comes to a close? Among the deranged multitudes of BYU fans in the cavernous Marriott Center in Provo. Zag loyalists like to brag about how raucous and supportive are the 6,000 or so fans who cram their home court, but you could fit three McCarthey Center sellouts into the Marriott Center.

And BYU, hanging just outside the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga orbit at 12-4, faces its own pressure-packed situation: it, too, must win out and capture the WCC Tournament title to have a shot at the NCAAs. The Cougars have already beaten Gonzaga in Spokane by a whisker, 69-68, and have a history of finishing strong in WCC play. Their goal is to beat the Zags and hope for a Saint Mary’s stumble in one of its two remaining game to force a three-way tie at the top with a 14-4 record. By having swept the Zags, BYU would be assured of no less than a second seed in the WCC Tournament and a slightly easier path to the championship game.

Let’s say they — and their rabid fans — will be motivated.

What about the Gaels?

That leaves our Gaels in the most enviable position of the three contenders heading into the final two WCC contests: at home Thursday against Santa Clara, whom it crushed 81-59 on the Broncos’ home court, and “away” against San Francisco, a 74-52 loser in Moraga. The path is clear for Saint Mary’s to claim at least a tie for the WCC title and a no. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

Alas, the Gaels face the same lose-or-go-home pressure in the WCC Tournament as  BYU and Gonzaga, thanks to a lackluster season record with a dearth of notable wins. Turns out, sweeping Gonzaga for the first time in 21 years doesn’t carry the cachet it used to when the Zags were stronger. As numerous NCAA bracket “experts” recite endlessly, the Gaels have defeated no top-50 teams this year.

There is no doubt Randy Bennett’s charges are riding high heading into the last two games. After enduring some soul-wrenching road wins over Pacific, San Diego and Portland, the Gaels put it all together with a 63-58 win at Gonzaga last Saturday. But Bennett doesn’t have to dig too deep into the archives to remind his team how important it is to stay focused to the end.

Although no one doubts that this season’s Gaels are superior to last’s, it is useful to remember that the 2014-15 group was similarly positioned as the conference neared a conclusion. With a 13-4 conference record heading into games with San Francisco and Santa Clara, the Gaels had second place and a no. 2 WCC Tournament seed seemingly in their grasp. They cleared the first hurdle with an overpowering 84-53 win over San Francisco, but inexplicably stumbled against Santa Clara, 71-70, to drop into a tie for second with BYU and a third seed in the WCC tourney.

They continued their swoon with a loss to Portland in the opening round of the WCC Tournament, then completed a three-game slide to ignominy by falling meekly to Vanderbilt, 75-64, in the first round of the NIT. It was a heartbreaking collapse, one which this year’s squad is determined not to repeat.

Guarded optimism

Bennett completely retooled his team this year, going from a veteran, all-senior starting five to one with no returning starters and bevy of freshmen and sophomores counted on to lead them. And it has worked, as the Baby Gaels have compiled a 22-4 season record and combined a balanced, efficient offensive attack with a gritty, sometimes overpowering defense.

They are not perfect, however, and one of their weaknesses will be tested mightily in their last two conference games. Opposing WCC teams have exposed a weakness in the Gaels’ perimeter defense, unleashing a number of talented guards to penetrate the paint and rack up points. Whether it was Pepperdine’s Amadi Udenyi scorching guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon for 14 points in  five-minute burst that led to a Pepperdine upset of the Gaels in Moraga, Portland’s Bryce Pressley shooting 11-15 and totaling 25 points in the close win over the Pilots, or Josh Perkins going off for 21 points to keep Gonzaga close last Saturday, the pattern is clear: attack the Gaels from the back court.

Both Santa Clara and San Francisco are well-equipped to inflict the same damage as other Gael opponents. The Broncos’ back court tandem of KJ Feagin and Jared Brownridge totaled 28 points in their team’s earlier loss to the Gaels, and Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating will surely have them cranked up to do even more damage Thursday night. Gael fans will do their best to forget Brownridge’s 23-point onslaught in 2014, including the game-winning three-pointer as the clock expired to give Santa  Clara a 57-56 win.

San Francisco’s duo of Devin Watson and Ronnie Boyce is even more dangerous because those two are quicker than the Santa Clara guards. Watson is sitting near the top of WCC scoring race with a 20 PPG average and Boyce, playing much more than he did in the Gaels’ first game against San Francisco, has pushed his average to 10 PPG. The Dons’ other offensive threat, Tim Derksen, averaging 16.5 PPG, is listed as a guard but plays more of a small forward role.

Watson and Boyce are both whisper-thin attackers who often fall into can’t-miss shooting streaks. They force themselves into the paint and count on quickness and ingenuity to pull out baskets that look impossible. As will Santa Clara, San Francisco will be playing fast and loose because its season is going nowhere. Unless, of course, they pull off the kind of upset that wrecked the Gaels last year.

The Gaels have to counter with poise and execution to let that mythical fat lady sing their praises instead of their doom.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett hopes to lead his team all the way to the finish line this week against Santa Clara and San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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