Monday, January 22, 2018

Don't panic, Zags fans! Gonzaga has had to chase Saint Mary's before

Posted By on Mon, Jan 22, 2018 at 10:25 AM

click to enlarge Mark Few might have an Australia problem. - LIBBY KAMROWSKI
  • Libby Kamrowski
  • Mark Few might have an Australia problem.

It’s always those pesky Saint Mary’s Gaels, isn’t it?

Since the West Coast Conference added the BYU Cougars back in 2011, which brought a third good team into the league, Gonzaga has compiled a record of 115 wins to just 13 losses against conference foes. Five of those losses have come against BYU and five, including Thursday’s 74-71 defeat in the Kennel, have come against Saint Mary’s.

Over the six full seasons since BYU joined, only Saint Mary’s has proven to be a legitimate challenger to Gonzaga at the top of the league. In 2016, despite Gonzaga losing both regular season match-ups with Saint Mary’s, the teams finished with identical 15-3 records and shared the regular season crown.

Back in 2012 Saint Mary’s managed to claim both the regular season title outright and defeat Gonzaga in Las Vegas for the conference tournament title. That snapped what was then the second-longest streak of consecutive conference titles in NCAA Division I history; Gonzaga had won 11 straight, second only to the John Wooden-coached UCLA teams of the 1960s and '70s which won 13 straight in the Pac-12 (then known as the Pac 8).

Maybe Mark Few, who owns the highest winning percentage among active college coaches, is only susceptible to Australians. Be it Matthew Dellavedova and his giant mouthguard back in 2012 or big Jock Landale, who totaled 26 points and 12 rebounds on Thursday, this season.

Whether it’s some Australian fever, or just the fact that Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s Gaels are actually really good, this rivalry has added some drama to the otherwise monotonous, season-long accumulation of wins that we’ve come to expect from the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

And, it’s not really been all that bad for Gonzaga. Historically, at least. The Zags have gone 13-5 against Saint Mary’s since 2011.

But it could end up hurting them this year. Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, Thursday’s result will certainly cost the Zags when it comes to where they are seeded. Saint Mary’s is really good, but Gonzaga shouldn’t have lost to the Gaels at home.

You don’t have to look ahead to March to see how that loss will hurt the Zags. It knocked them off the pace in the race for the regular season title.

Saint Mary’s sits alone in first place with a sparkling 8-0 record in conference. There are currently four teams, Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga (7-1), BYU (6-2) and Pacific (5-3), with winning records in league play. Saint Mary’s has already won both scheduled games against Pacific and picked up wins at BYU and, sorry to bring it up again, at Gonzaga.

In other words, the Gaels are leading the pack and their toughest tests are behind them.

As for Gonzaga, the rockiest road lies ahead. Thursday’s game was just their second of the season against the league’s top-four teams. And both of those games came in Spokane. They’ve still got to go to Stockton to take on Pacific, where the Tigers fell just three points short of upsetting Saint Mary’s on Saturday.

Plus there are a pair of games remaining against BYU and the road game in Moraga against Saint Mary’s. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The lead-up to March Madness is going to be a lot more gripping than Gonzaga fans have grown accustomed to, that’s for sure.
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