by Michael Vernetti
There are several reasons Gael fans shouldn’t fixate on last year’s conference sweep of Gonzaga in puzzling out this weekend’s rematch in Spokane.
First of all, it is a considerably different Zag squad suiting up on Saturday night than Saint Mary’s faced in a 63-58 victory last Feb. 20. Gone are NBA first-round draft picks Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, perimeter defender Eric McClellan and do-everything swing man Kyle Dranginis.
Only one starter from the 2015-16 Gonzaga team, guard Josh Perkins, will face the Gaels. Zag Coach Mark Few has reaped the benefits of the D-1 transfer market to bring in power forward Johnathan Williams from Missouri, wing Jordan Matthews from California and, most importantly, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington in rolling to a 15-0 record. Add rejuvenated post giant Przemek Karnowski and Gonzaga is a mystery to every Gael player except Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson and Dane Pineau — who go back two years to when Karnowski previously prowled the lane for the Zags. Jock Landale was a freshman bench-warmer that season.
Williams-Goss is the biggest catch in the transfer bonanza, leading the Zags in scoring at 15.3 PPG. He was an all-conference performer in two years at Washington, and has been the most consistent contributor to the Zags’ undefeated season and no. 5 national ranking. Flu slowed him in conference games against Pepperdine and Pacific, but he recovered in time to scorch San Francisco for 36 points on 12-15 shooting in last Thursday’s 95-80 win over the Dons.
So, they’re different from last year, but are they better? The answer to that question contains another reason Gael fans have to adopt a different attitude in judging this year’s games against the Zags.
The Gael sweep
When Saint Mary’s rolled into the McCarthey Athletic Center last February, they carried with them a rousing 70-67 win over the Zags a month earlier in Moraga. That was the famous Bonehead Game in which Gael guard Joe Rahon deliberately fouled McClellan after Rahon made a free throw to put the Gaels up 68-67 with a few seconds remaining. Rahon mistakenly thought his team had a foul to give, but it was actually a one-and-one opportunity for McClellan. Fortunately, McClellan clanked the front end of the one-and-one, allowing the Gaels to escape.
Not only had Saint Mary’s defeated Gonzaga in their previous meeting, but the Zags had lost five other games as well, including one to BYU at home. They were not the juggernaut they have become this year with the infusion of new talent and the return of Karnowski from a back injury that sidelined him most of last season. On paper, it seems unlikely the Gaels will repeat the defensive shutdown they engineered last February.
But the game will be played on hardwood, not on paper. The Gaels are also a different specimen from last season, although they have not undergone the lineup reshuffle that Gonzaga has. Where Pineau was the fixture at the post position last year and Landale a valuable sub, Landale has become a dominant starter, averaging 18.4 PPG and 9.7 RPG. Pineau now bounces back and forth between power forward when Landale is on the floor and his old post position when Landale sits.
Evan Fitzner, who had his two best games of the season against Gonzaga — 20 points in the win at Moraga and 13 in the rematch — still starts at power forward, but gives way to Pineau for most of the game. Gael Coach Randy Bennett has chosen Pineau’s defense over Fitzner’s offense, and the results have been a second-in-the-nation opponent scoring average of 58.1 PPG.
The Gaels still rely on the back court tandem of Rahon and Naar, which was effective in both wins over Gonzaga last year. Both guards successfully drove Zag big men Sabonis and Wiltjer, and can be expected to probe the paint against Karnowski and his precocious back-up, 7-foot freshman sensation Zach Collins.
Reflecting the Gaels’ improvement on defense, small forward Calvin Hermanson has become a quality defender, often matching up against opposing guards. Hermanson can be expected to challenge Matthews’ comfortable wing position, where he has been knocking down three-pointers as defenders concentrate on Karnowski and Collins, abetted by another talented freshman, Killian Tillie, in the middle.
The Zags have four quality bigs to worry about — Karnowski, Collins, Williams and Tillie — instead of just two, plus the improved back court with Williams-Goss. The Gaels will need superior efforts from all quarters if they are to stun the frenzied Gonzaga fans for two years in a row.
Portland more familiar
The Portland Pilots, under the guidance of first-year Coach Terry Porter, present a more familiar face to the Gaels. Their unquestioned leader is guard Alec Wintering, who is capping off a four-year run of increasing excellence by averaging 21 PPG this season. Wintering is joined by sometimes-sensational guard Jazz Johnson, averaging 17.7 PPG, and three-point specialist D’Marques Tyson, who made 86 three-pointers last season.
The Pilots want to get down the floor and put up shots before the defense settles in. They are not particularly suited to the deliberate half-court game the Gaels prefer, and their front court is somewhat small with 7-footer Philipp Hartwich — listed at 250 pounds but appearing thinner — and 6-8 forward Gabe Taylor. Valuable substitute Jarrel Marshal has been injured, and his status for Thursday’s game is not known.
Porter, the former Portland NBA star and community favorite, is taking his first swipe at coaching college hoops, and has seen his team look good — as in a 53-45 win over Oregon State — and bad, as in a recent 70-42 loss to Santa Clara. They have compiled a 9-6 record, including 2-1 in WCC play, and are coming off a light week since their Saturday game against Gonzaga was postponed because of snow and ice in the Portland area. It won’t be a warm welcome on Thursday, but at least the game will be against a team the Gaels have seen and beaten repeatedly.
Calvin Hermanson, shown above in a game against Cal Poly, will have to improve on his three points and four fouls in the Gaels’ recent win over San Francisco if his team is to defeat Gonzaga on Saturday in Spokane. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.