Is there a more bitter and heated rivalry on the West Coast than when St. Mary's and Gonzaga face off? I understand that it is not the most storied rivalry in the world but when these two teams have matched up in recent years, you really get the sense that they hate one another. Gonzaga has been the top dog in the West Coast Conference for so many years but St. Mary's has signified the rebirth of this once very competitive conference. The Gaels, along with the University of San Diego, have challenged Gonzaga's dominance the past few years and last year the Torero's broke through with their upset of the Zags in the conference tournament. It will be a three horse race once again in 2008-09 and Gonzaga better be ready for Saint Mary's or else they may lose their stranglehold on the conference.
Last Season's Results: St. Mary's was outstanding a season ago. They came out of the gates red hot, losing only one of their first 13 games. Their sole loss came to Southern Illinois but during that stretch they took down Drake, then #11 Oregon, and Seton Hall. The pleasure cruise ended abruptly against 14th ranked Texas but the Gaels would go on to lose only three of their remaining regular season games. They lost in the conference tournament semifinals against San Diego but still received a bid to the NCAA tournament. Many picked the Gaels to be a Cinderella team in the tournament but they lost in the first round to Miami. Overall, St. Mary's finished 25-7 including a 12-2 record within the WCC. They only lost one game on their home floor to Kent State. Gonzaga and St. Mary's split their regular season series with each defending their home floor. Thankfully, Todd Golden is no longer enrolled at St. Mary's. The fifth year senior went 6-6 from three point land in Gonzaga's road loss in Moraga. It was a banner year for SMC and they will only improve this season as they graduated a few role players in Golden and Tron Smith who averaged 7 and 8 points a game, respectively.
New Faces: The Gaels will have four fresh faces taking the floor this season. Reaping the benefits of their recent successes, Saint Mary's was able to secure two solid recruits from the states in Collin Chiverton and Tim Williams. Chiverton took some time to realize his potential in high school but in his senior season he blew up and was one of the top players to come out of the state of California. Chiverton is a walking match up problem at the small forward position. At 6'5'', 200 lbs, Chiverton will be able to play inside and outside in the WCC. Many questions have been raised about whether or not Chiverton should be redshirted this season because of the Gaels' depth. With his talent, I'm sure Coach Randy Bennett will be able to find a spot for him in the rotation this season. Tim Williams, now listed at 6'9'', 235 lbs, racked up around 20 scholarship offers from all over the nation. At the power forward spot in high school, Williams was a double double machine. Much like Chiverton, Williams is a California boy who decided to stay close to home. Also like Chiverton, there are questions about Williams' playing time as a freshman. Those questions are being raised due to the arrival of Ben Allen. Allen, a 6'11'' transfer from the University of Indiana had to sit out last season due to transfer rules. He will be ready for this season and should serve as a solid backup to Omar Samhan. Allen, a native Australian, was a top recruit a few years ago and will enter Saint Mary's as a redshirt junior. He played sparingly at Indiana, starting only six games in two years but his inside-out game should be a welcome addition for Randy Bennett's squad. Another new face for St. Mary's is Clint Stendl. Stendl is another Aussie but he will probably take a year or so to develop. From all indications, Clint is a lights out shooter but will have to work on the rest of his game before entering the rotation at the guard position.
Players to Watch: Unless you were living under a rock during the Olympics, you heard the name Patty Mills. I have not seen this much hype surrounding a WCC player since Adam Morrison was shooting teams out of the building. Mills broke out on the international stage over the summer, leading the Australian Olympic team to a nice showing. He had an outstanding game against the United States and since then, Patty Mills has become a player everyone expects to compete for a spot on the All-American team. Mills averaged 14 points and 3.5 assists a game last season. I think Mills is an outstanding player but I think he makes a better shooting guard but since SMC doesn't have any other proven point guard, Mills will have to assume the responsibility. Much like Jeremy Pargo in his early years, Mills made some questionable decisions a season ago. If he corrects his turnover issues, Patty will soar; but that remains to be seen. Mills is outstanding, but the driving force of this team is Diamon Simpson. If I could steal one player off of any WCC team and put him on Gonzaga, it might have to be Simpson. The 6'7'' senior forward plays with a mean streak and does everything right. He is outstanding on the offensive side of the court, averaging nearly 14 points a game and he is equally, if not more impressive on defense. Simpson was rewarded for his abilities by being named WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Another player that could have gone in the new faces portion of this breakdown is Wayne Hunter. Remember Wayne? Hunter averaged nine points a game two seasons ago but redshirted last season. A super-athletic shooting guard, Hunter will see plenty of time and I believe that he should start alongside Mills. He showed flashes of excellence in 2006 and can fill up the stat sheet. If Hunter sees quality minutes, he could be another player that puts in double-digit point totals. I struggled between writing about Ian O'Leary and Hunter. Watch out for O'Leary though, if he plays well, the Gaels seem to always win.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: How can I not be worried? There is no team in the WCC that I dislike and fear as much as Saint Mary's. Like most Gonzaga fans I can't stand the "Beat the Zags" shirts and when Samhan runs up and down the court screaming and cursing at Gonzaga fans. I do respect what Randy Bennett has done with their program. Realistically, I see Gonzaga splitting the season series with SMC again. I don't see them coming to Spokane and taking down the Bulldogs however. If Patty Mills doubles his assist total from last year, Gonzaga could be in some serious trouble in both games. That's the key.
What We are Watching for: There will be so many story lines heading in to the Zags-Gaels match ups. You have to believe that this is a game that Jeremy Pargo is looking forward to. The WCC Player of the Year last year has been overshadowed by Mills over the off season. Some writers even believe that Mills is a better point guard than Pargo at this point. The match up should be excellent but I don't think one will dominate the other. Just like last year, both will get their share of points but the game will come down to who can find the open man the best. Both teams have so many weapons at their disposal that the point guard match up may be a total wash. It's going to be a great match up in the front court. Saint Mary's has some talented bigs with O'Leary, Simpson, and Samhan but the Zags can counter that with their lineup of Downs, Daye, and Heytvelt. Samhan is a good post player but I think Josh is going to explode this season and can win that match up. The intriguing piece for Gonzaga is how to guard Simpson. Downs is probably Gonzaga's best defender and can match up with his size. Few may even try some Ira Brown to push Simpson around. Brown gives up a lot of height to Simpson but his sheer density should give the Zags some quality minutes. There is plenty to watch for but the rotations of both teams are still very much up in the air, we will soon know the answers to these questions when the season kicks off.