Lost in the sauce of Gonzaga's one-loss regular season and their continued dominance in the West Coast Conference, where they've advanced to the conference tourney's title game for a mind-boggling 20 years in a row now, is a Saint Mary's team that has flown under the radar despite being 28-3 and ranked in the Top 20.
Most people don't get excited about the conference tournaments until later this week when the bigger programs get into the semifinals of their league's respective postseason soiree's. But if you want a sneak preview of a team that could be a major bracket buster in March Madness, you need to get a look at St. Mary's tonight before the NCAA's tip off next week.
The Gaels, led by forward Jock Landale's 22 points and 10 rebounds, smashed the BYU squad that upset then-No. 1 Gonzaga less than two weeks ago by 31 points in the WCC semi's. The Bulldogs looked less than impressive and perhaps not worthy of that much-coveted No. 1 seed that they're hoping for in the NCAA's by struggling to put Santa Clara away in the other semifinal.
"You want to go into Gonzaga game playing well," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "Both teams are look forward to playing this game, I'm sure. It's two of the top teams in our league going at it, the way it should be."
Of St. Mary's three losses this year, two of them came at the hands of Gonzaga.
"I think the team that wins is the team that gets the game at their comfort level," BYU coach Dave Rose said at the press conference after his team got smacked by St. Mary's. "The Zags are so good making the game their tempo. They have great size and strength, and so does Saint Mary's."
Thus far, Gonzaga has had St. Mary's number, scoring in a variety of ways with their multi-faceted attack and giving them the business both in the paint and from deep. The Zags depth and inside-out weaponry is what makes them so dangerous and a good bet to at least get to this year's Elite Eight.
Keep your eyes on the aforementioned Landale tonight. The 6-foot-11 post player will have his hands full with Gonzaga's exceptional frontcourt of Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins . Landale will have to be a horse down low and rock out with a supreme double-double, but he is very well capable of doing so.
And success in the tournament is always predicated on great point guard play, which St. Mary's boasts in floor general extraordinaire Emmett Naar, who thus far has 22 assists versus only three turnovers in the Gaels two WCC tournament games. Naar can shake loose to probe the paint before making the proper pass and setting up his teammates with easy buckets.
If St. Mary's can tighten things up on defense, they have the classic ingredients for a Cinderella storyline.
."We have to slow them down defensively," Naar said of tonight's matchup against this formidable Gonzaga squad. "They have hurt us inside. We have to do a better job of making them take tougher shots. We look forward to having another crack at it."
His matchup against the Zags excellent point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, the WCC Player of the Year, will be worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Gonzaga is the known quantity heading into March Madness this year. But don't sleep on St. Mary's. They're better than you think.