WCC Game of the Year: Gonzaga at St. Mary's

IT'S THE GAME OF THE YEAR IN THE WCC WHEN GONZAGA VISIT ST. MARY'S

Gonzaga is very well positioned to get at least a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. And, there's a chance they could grab a #1 if the other top teams keep losing! The power mongers of the sport are pretty greedy with those top seeds. But, an impressive win by Gonzaga Thursday Night at St. Mary's would provide the final big statement the Zags need to make their case.

Though we're often skeptical about Gonzaga when it comes to the Dance, we will give them credit for mirroring Duke in their ability to take advantage of a tough early schedule. Good coaching on a smart team pays off most in November and December when other teams are still learning how to play together. Gonzaga basically made themselves a Big 12 team this year and earned these results.

Gonzaga beat West Virginia 84-50
Gonzaga beat Oklahoma 72-47 (neutral court)
Gonzaga beat Kansas State 68-52
Gonzaga beat Baylor 94-87
Gonzaga won at Oklahoma State 69-68

Wow...great results! The win at Okie State looks even better now than it did at the time. The three teams below West Virginia are likely to go Dancing. You just can't accuse Gonzaga of dodging challenges. You can say they can go all out in those early games while the Big 12 teams were pacing themselves for later. But, there's no evidence there that Gonzaga is a pretender. They CRUSHED the Big 12!

Focusing on the Big 12 leaves out a few blemishes:
Gonzaga lost to Illinois 85-74
Gonzaga lost to Butler 64-63 in a game they seemingly had won
Gonzaga barely won at Washington State
Gonzaga barely won at San Diego

We're usually skeptical, particularly about Western basketball in general. We're confident now that Gonzaga will be overseeded. We would have them as more of a #5 to #6 seed based on true tournament potential...as would the whole world if the team had to play a grueling week-to-week schedule in a major conference. But, we're fully aware that they can beat anybody in the tournament in a one-game showdown...and that they have a real chance to be relevant. We just don't think they'll play to their seed if they do get one of the Elite Eight spots in the brackets.

Let's see how they match up with St. Mary's, the second-best team in their league. Gonzaga won the first meeting at home. This road test will represent their toughest road challenge the rest of the season. Will this be a game they have to sweat, like at San Diego or Washington State? Or, will Gonzaga seal the deal for a power seed?

WON-LOST RECORDS
Gonzaga: 23-2 (10-0 in the West Coast Conference)
St.  Mary's: 21-4 (10-1 in the West Coast Conference)

These teams are 19-0 when not playing each other in WCC action, which gives you a sense of how weak this conference is once again this season. BYU was supposed to add a dangerous third wheel, but has been a disappointment to this point.

COMPUTER RANKINGS
Gonzaga: #12 with Sagarin, #9 with Pomeroy
St.  Mary's: #35 with Sagarin, #22 with Pomeroy

The computers (Jeff Sagarin of USA Today and college basketball guru Ken Pomeroy) don't have Gonzaga as high as the polls do (currently #5 in the AP), but they are showing respect to the program. That's still a #3 seed for the Zags if a computer composite was determining the seeds. We'll stick with our proprietary data that has them slightly worse. That won't matter in terms of making selections though until the Dance arrives...and possibly not even until the Round of 32 in the Dance given the caliber of opponent Gonzaga is likely to draw in their opener. There's less agreement between the computers with St. Mary's. Pomeroy has them in the top 25, while Sagarin barely has them in the top 35. Our own numbers have them worse than Sagarin does. This conference and West Coast basketball in general has been getting repeatedly exposed in postseason play in recent years. We believe we've adjusted to that better than anyone else in the market.

COMPUTER STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE RANKINGS
Gonzaga: #81 with Sagarin, #77 with Pomeroy
St.  Mary's: #138 with Sagarin, #134 with Pomeroy

The computers are showing more agreement this week in strength of schedule rankings than team rankings. Both are hit hard in this category by playing in such a weak conference. Gonzaga was much more battle tested outside of the league.

WON-LOST RECORDS VS. SAGARIN'S TOP 50
Gonzaga: 5-2
St.  Mary's: 0-1

Look at this! We've reached Valentine's Day and St. Mary's has only played one game against a top 50 team...and that was their earlier meeting with Gonzaga. Cowards! Big edge here to Gonzaga in terms of big game toughness and readiness for the Dance. Frankly, we don't even have St. Mary's as a Dance team at the moment. What does Joe Lunardi think over at ESPN?

JOE LUNARDI'S BRACKETOLOGY
Gonzaga: projected #2 seed
St.  Mary's: projected #12 seed

He barely has St. Mary's in right now. They're one of his "last four in" on the most recent posting. Lunardi has Gonzaga as a #2 seed...it's very tough to see the selection committee coming with something worse than that if the Zags keep winning as favorites down the stretch.

POMEROY'S ADJUSTED OFFENSE RANKINGS
Gonzaga: #4
St.  Mary's: #7

Both teams grade out very well offensively. Though, this particular ranking system over the years has overranked Western teams in terms of Dance potential. Gonzaga won't look like the #4 offense in the Dance most likely. St. Mary's wouldn't look at all like a top 25 offense let alone top seven. You can make all the adjustments you want for strength of schedule and pace. But, when a team rarely faces good opponents, you're still flying blind in a lot of ways.

POMEROY'S ADJUSTED DEFENSE RANKINGS
Gonzaga: #44
St.  Mary's: #96

Gonzaga's rank is going to look awful in a Dance context once you're down to the last 32 teams (assuming they win their opener). They look great defensively in a bad conference. Put them on the floor with top 20 defenses from the better leagues, and it will strike you as night and day. If you've been watching the last several tournaments, you know what we mean. Gonzaga doesn't look like it's stat rankings (even the best publicly available modern analytics) once their facing top teams on neutral courts in March.

POMEROY'S ADJUSTED TEMPO RANKINGS
Gonzaga: #202
St.  Mary's: #184

These teams are extremely similar in pace, with 18 spots down at that level hardly meaning anything. That's a fraction of a possession. Not tempo issue in this game, as the teams will settle in to a tempo both are happy with.

BEST EXPECTATION
We'll be skeptical of Gonzaga in March. We're skeptical of St. Mary's NOW! We'll have to see where the Vegas line settles before making a final decision here. JIM HURLEY is in close contact with his Wise Guy sources in Las Vegas and offshore. He'll make sure you get the right side at the right price...or he'll pass this game and focus on these others for serious Thursday Night play...Plus the Under-The-Radar Game of the Month goes Thursday and the NBA TNT Doubleheader.

#9 Arizona at Colorado (rematch from a controversial ending!)
Northwestern at #13 Ohio State
#20 Wisconsin at Minnesota
UCLA at California (the two teams who won at Arizona!)
Miami at Oklahoma City in the NBA (championship rematch, championship preview?)
LA Lakers vs. LA Clippers

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Back with you Friday for a look at an early Saturday basketball showdown in the Big East, as our WALL-TO-WALL BASKETBALL coverage continues here in the NOTEBOOK. Be sure you're linking up every day with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK for BIG, JUICY WINNERS!

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Aug

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