The next step

by Michael Vernetti

As the curtain rises on the 2017-18 WCC season Thursday night, Saint Mary’s seems to have found its footing, the Zags are mortal, San Diego is better than anyone thought and Santa Clara is worse. Much worse.

In my conference forecast back in May, I had San Francisco competing with BYU for third place and gave Santa Clara a shot in fifth place. I picked San Diego to finish eighth, although the league’s coaches upped that to sixth place. It’s not enough to just swap San Diego and Santa Clara, however, as Santa Clara, with a woeful 3-9 record, should share last place with Pepperdine, which has a similar record.

You can make the case that Lamont Smith’s resurgent Toreros, sitting at 9-3, are the true challengers to BYU for third place, and I wouldn’t argue that case. Smith brought in a pair of Isaiahs, Wright and Pinerio, whom I didn’t include in my May roundup, and those two have led San Diego to impressive wins over Colorado (69-59) and Grand Canyon (72-63) — both on the road.

Wright, a 6-2 guard transfer from Utah, is trailing only the Gaels’ Emmett Naar as WCC assist leader (6.0 APG), while scoring at a 13.6 PPG clip. Pineiro, a 6-7 forward from Portland State, is leading San Diego in scoring (15.2 PPG) and rebounding (6.3 RPG). Those two, combined with Smith’s patented tough defense, have made the Toreros a tough out for anyone in the conference.

That is not to say that BYU is a pushover this year. Sharing the same 11-2 record as the Gaels, BYU has smoothly accommodated the loss of gunslinger guard Nick Emery, and conquered its home state with wins over Utah and Utah State. Its overall schedule is pretty weak, however, with losses to UT-Arlington (89-75) and Alabama (71-59). Imagine — losing to UT-Arlington.

So, although the main challenger may have changed with San Diego edging out San Francisco as a potential third place finisher, the status at the top of the WCC remains as it was in May, last season and into history: Saint Mary’s versus Gonzaga.

Breaking down the Zags

Gonzaga doesn’t have the same swagger as it did last year, as it swept though its regular-season schedule and marched to a national championship showdown with North Carolina, which it would have won with just a mediocre game from Przemek Karnowski. Instead of chipping in 10 points or so, however, Karnowski went 1-9 from the floor and the Zags lost a close game to deny them a national title.

Karnowski is gone this year, along with lottery pick Zach Collins, outstanding guard Nigel Williams-Goss and deadly wing three-point shooter, Jordan Matthews. It is not surprising that the Zags have lost three games in a tough schedule — Villanova, Florida and San Diego State are not exactly pushovers, and the Zags own top-50 or close wins over Ohio State (59), Texas (44) and Creighton (56).

The loss of Corey Kispert, who looked like a seasoned veteran instead of a true freshman when he was playing, seems to have rattled Gonzaga a little, and it is not certain when Kispert will return from injury. Another potential star freshman, Jesse Wade, has also missed time with an injury, although he has seen spot action in recent games.

The status of Kispert and Wade notwithstanding, the target of opportunity for Saint Mary’s lies in the post, where the loss of Karnowski and Collins gives the Gaels an opening. Jock Landale is not slowing down from last year’s breakthrough season, and Coach Randy Bennett’s decision to go quick and loose instead of strong and steady at the power forward position seems to be paying dividends.

It took Bennett and the Gaels most of the pre-conference season to decide whether three-point specialist Evan Fitzner could become the reincarnation of Dane Pineau as Landale’s front court partner, and they have finally decided not to worry about it. Bennett has replaced Fitzner with the quick and versatile Tanner Krebs on the front line, and that combination makes the Gaels more dangerous offensively and surprisingly tough on defense.

Krebs is 6-6 compared with Pineau at 6-9 and Fitzner at 6-10, but he will fool you. He is an in-your-face defender, and has a pair of quick hands that have garnered steals and slap-aways to make up for his comparatively small stature. He is probably a better three-point shooter than Fitzner, and, more importantly, is not afraid to launch. Fitzner always seemed uncertain whether to shoot or pass to someone else, and the offense often crawled to a stop with the ball in his hands. No such problem with Krebs.

The Gaels’ best showcase for their new approach was last Friday’s 95-69 romp over UNC-Asheville, the pre-season pick to win the Big South Conference. Landale went for 23 points and Krebs for 22, a showing that Pineau rarely approached. Furthermore, Krebs had seven rebounds, one block and three steals. That is the Gaels’ case for wresting the WCC title from Gonzaga: Landale is a beast in the paint and Krebs is a pest at the 4. The rest of the Gael lineup is as solid as last year’s, with Calvin Hermanson having an all-WCC season, Naar running the show with breathtaking efficiency and Jordan Ford replacing Joe Rahon with quickness and a more versatile offense.

The road to March Madness

The Zags’ recent stumbles — an 89-83 overtime win over unimpressive North Dakota and the loss to San Diego State — don’t change the math in the WCC. The Gaels need to beat Gonzaga at least once in the regular season and to advance to a championship battle with them in the WCC Tournament in March in Las Vegas. The Gaels’ RPI is improving — 49 at present — but they don’t want to go before the NCAA Selection Committee with any kind of a weak case.

It’s an open question whether a close loss to Gonzaga would earn Saint Mary’s an NCAA bid, but their best bet is to beat the Zags in Las Vegas. While Gonzaga would almost certainly earn an at-large bid after a Saint Mary’s loss, the same cannot be said about the Gaels. They have nothing to match those three top-50-or-close wins by the Zags, and their road wins are over weak sisters San Jose State and Cal compared with last year’s road win over Dayton. Leaving the question of a bid to the stone-hearted (to non-power five conferences) selection committee would make for a long, and possibly disastrous, Selection Sunday.

The Zags are vulnerable to the Gaels’ new-look attack, but it is up to Saint Mary’s to seize the opportunity. The drama unfolds Thursday against a scrappy Loyola Marymount team (5-6) in Moraga, and continues on Saturday with an always-dangerous trip to Provo to confront BYU.

Don’t touch that dial.

In a scene from last year that could easily have taken place in the current season, Gael Coach Randy Bennett confers with his wily point guard, Emmett Naar. Naar is averaging nearly nine assists-per-game, and has compiled an assist-to-turnover record of 4-1. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



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