From a pure basketball standpoint, there hasn’t been a better rivalry game on the West Coast than Gonzaga vs. St. Mary’s. A non-hoops fan likely couldn’t put either school on a map (Spokane, WA and Moraga, CA for the handful of you reading this), yet these two schools continually play a high brand of basketball when they lock horns three times each year. Speaking of Maps – this Saturday, ESPN will give viewers a global geography lesson, as they profile the six Australians that St. Mary’s has plucked from down-unda’ and the plethora of international Zags recruited by assistant Tommy Lloyd. Both teams being ranked in the top 12 adds intrigue to what was already going to be a great game in the confined quarters that is St. Mary’s gym. If you’ve never been to a basketball game in Moraga, CA, you will notice that the gym is pretty small. Then if you leave the high school gym you are in, head down a windy, turkey-filled road to St. Mary’s College, you will notice the gym you are now in is really small. It would be safe to say that of all the basketball gyms in California, St. Mary’s isn’t in the top 500 for seating capacity. In terms of bodies per seat on Saturday night, St. Mary’s will rank #1 in the world. The aisles will have droves of people in them, as apparently the fire marshal in Moraga isn’t too concerned with job security.
Despite being rather one-sided, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s has developed into a rivalry in-part because there literally isn’t anyone else in the WCC that matters. The Zags have developed into a national power, but the Gaels remain a tough thorn in their side that has been known to draw blood at least once every couple of years. To put the combined Zags-Gaels dominance over the WCC into perspective, these two schools have met in the WCC Tournament Championship Game in 8 of the last 10 seasons. To put Gonzaga’s dominance over St. Mary’s into perspective, the Zags have won six of those eight meetings. The two outlier seasons in which the Zags and Gaels didn’t meet resulted in Gonzaga taking down BYU. At the time, it seemed the guard could be changing for the right to play second-fiddle in the WCC, as Randy Bennett didn’t have enough miles on his account to make his usual recruiting trips to Australia and BYU was benefiting from a post-Jimmer renaissance. But the tide has turned back to St. Mary’s being the best conference foe Gonzaga has, at least for this season. In fact, St. Mary’s was actually picked by the WCC coaches to win the conference this year, as coaches were wishful in their thinking that Gonzaga’s loss of All-American Nigel Williams-Goss, lottery pick Zach Collins, and silent-assassin Jordan Mathews would result in a National Title Game hangover.
But the Zags had their ibuprofen and Gatorade ready, as they started the season hot and picked up wins over Ohio State, Texas, Washington and Creighton. But in January, after leading for 38 minutes, they lost to an unranked St. Mary’s squad up in Spokane. Can the Zags return the favor this time around? They will need to figure out a way to contain Jock Landale, who is an absolute issue in the paint. Mark Few will counter with a balanced cast of characters, as the Zags have six players averaging double-figures in conference play. Rui Hachimura has been great off the bench and is climbing draft-boards as we speak. Zach Norvell looks like the next coming of Ray Allen, and Silas Melson is filling the super glue-guy role to perfection. The Zags are good, the Gaels are good, and this game should be highly entertaining. Both teams shoot well, are highly skilled. A Zags win would set the stage for an imminent rubber-match at the WCC tourney in Vegas next month. If history repeats itself, put your money on the Zags.