We can probably make this statement without a whole lot of equivocation, as regards Tuesday night's West Coast Conference championship game between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Saint Mary's Gaels in Las Vegas:
Saint Mary's isn't going to beat Gonzaga.
They're not going to do it, no matter what kind of style they play, on offense, or what kind of defensive tactics they use. There's a class difference here that just can't be ignored.
So as these schools get together at the Orleans Arena for this 9 PM ET start, the only question is whether the underdog can keep the game reasonably competitive.
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Ideally, Saint Mary's would like to be a thorn in Gonzaga's side, and indeed they are the last team to beat the Bulldogs in the WCC tourney, which happened in 2012. But things like that have happened way too seldom. Gonzaga has been a dominant presence at this level, winning 18 consecutive games in this particular event.
Saint Mary's got to this point by beating San Diego, a team that had made a very gallant effort but also had to be tired. Jordan Ford had 21 points and Malik Fitts added 19 points with 12 rebounds. Saint Mary's is 21-11 straight-up and 18-14 against the spread. A win on Tuesday would of course, land them a spot in the Big Dance. But with a NET ranking of 37, if they lose, they are on the tournament "bubble" at best.
In the March Madness basketball betting odds posted on this game by the folks at BetAnySports, the 'Zags are big favorites:
Gonzaga Bulldogs -14.5
Saint Mary's Gaels +14.5
Over 140.5 points -110
Under 140.5 points -110
Gonzaga 30-2 SU, 21-11 ATS) has an awful lot to play for. Certainly, they are the #1 team in the country in both major polls, in addition to those NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings, so there is that to protect. There is also the matter of a #1 overall seed in the tournament, which would put them in the most favorable position possible. If they fail here, they'll pay the price, because the Selection Committee doesn't have a whole lot of respect for this conference to begin with.
In both meetings this season, Gonzaga has shown a certain degree of dominance - first by a 94-46 score that represented Randy Bennett's worst loss as a head coach, and then a 69-55 margin at Moraga, as Saint Mary's tried to really slow down the game. That was encouraging for one half of basketball, but that was it.
What has to get your attention when you look at those two contests is that the 'Zags owned all the territory inside the arc. They shot a combined 53-81, or 65.4%, which to give you some perspective, is even better than the 62.5% from two-point range that leads the nation. And as for Saint Mary's, they were a combined 32 of 87 for 36.8%,.which is six percentage points lower than what Gonzaga allows in two-pointers, which is fifth-best in the nation. Brandon Clarke had seven blocked shots, and SMC's inside guy, Fitts, shot just 6-of-18.
So it would appear that Saint Mary's best chance is to go out to the perimeter and hope to get hot. They're not bad shooting three-pointers (38%, which is 27th in the nation), but the 'Zags are pretty well-equipped to deal with that too (allow 31% - 29th in the country). So Mark Few's team has all the bases covered.
One thing we would not expect is for the Gaels to suddenly start resembling Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount's teams of old. They are 349th in offensive tempo, taking an average of 20 seconds to shoot, so they are already of a mind to limit the number of possessions to keep things tight, and we should expect that to be taken to another degree. Sure, Gonzaga has the capability to cover this number, but their defensive prowess, along with the expected style of play, point us toward an UNDER.
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