I realize it's sacrilege to consider any rivalry the equal of the spirited and long-running discussion that's taken place between two rather well-known ACC schools, but indulge me for a moment and consider one data point:
Over the past four seasons Duke and North Carolina have combined to win 75 percent of their conference games. No surprise there, right? We know the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels have long reigned supreme over the ACC, even when UNC's infamous "down" year (5-11 in 2010) is taken into consideration.
But if you want to see a league that's been flat-out dominated by its top two teams, you need to look at the West Coast Conference. Over the past four years Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have combined to win an astounding 84 percent of their conference games. During that time no other WCC team has even tied for second place, much less first. And while the arrival of Brigham Young in the league this season was supposed to help break up this particular logjam, Saint Mary's 98-82 shellacking of the Cougars in Moraga on December 29 suggests that the newcomers from the Mountain West still have some work to do before they can join the WCC's Big Two.
So even in a newly configured BYU-equipped WCC, tonight's game between the Zags and the Gaels in Moraga takes on all of its old significance. Once again the two teams are tied atop the league, and once again the winner of this head-to-head matchup will claim sole possession of first place. Let's break down these two teams, with an eye toward what we might see from them not only tonight but also in March.
Saint Mary's is better than people think.
The Gaels are currently lurking just outside the top 25 in both major polls (Gonzaga is No. 23 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll), and the most common refrain heard regarding Randy Bennett's team is that "they haven't beaten anyone." It's true that up to now SMC's had only one shot at a ranked opponent, and they lost to Baylor 72-59 last month in a game played in Las Vegas.
Then again you may have noticed that the 16-0 Bears are pretty good, and since Saint Mary's lost that game they've won five straight. More to the point, the Gaels have rather quietly been ripping through the start of their WCC schedule like a West Coast version of Syracuse. In 271 possessions in conference play, Bennett's team has racked up 337 points, good for 1.24 points per trip. That's quite simply as good as an offense can get, and while that number will drop as the season progresses it can drop a long way and still be outstanding.
SMC's shooting the lights out.
If you've seen the Gaels in recent years you won't be surprised to learn their shooting's been uncannily accurate this season. Bennett's offense revolves around Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones, two high-usage upperclassmen who hit shots from both sides of the arc. So maybe it's not news that Saint Mary's leads the WCC in both two- and three-point accuracy in conference play. But "leading the league" hardly does justice to the effectiveness of a group that's hitting 56 percent of its twos and 47 percent of its threes.
Nor have Dellavedova and Jones had to carry the load on offense all by themselves. Sophomores Jorden Page and Stephen Holt have both proven to be reliable contributors -- Holt scored 21 on 8-of-10 shooting against BYU -- and this year Bennett has even introduced a new wrinkle in the form of surprisingly robust offensive rebounding. To this point in WCC play the Gaels have pulled down exactly 40 percent of their misses. That's the best mark in the league (sensing a theme?). To "stop" this Saint Mary's offense you have to do a lot of things right, because SMC does a lot of things very well.
Strength vs. strength: Saint Mary's offense vs. Gonzaga defense.
If any WCC defense can stop Saint Mary's, it's Gonzaga. Mark Few's team has played superb D all season long, and that run has continued into the early stages of conference play. No WCC opponent has been able to make shots or even hold on to the ball against this defense. With 7-0 Robert Sacre and 6-7 Elias Harris starting and 6-9 sophomore Sam Dower coming off the bench, the Zags have put up numbers for defense every bit as good as what the Gaels have done on offense. I can't wait to watch this D face the SMC offense.
Not that the Zags can't score in their own right.
This week I declared Kevin Pangos the best freshman point guard in the country, and in a year where Trey Burke is calmly piloting Michigan into the top 15 nationally that's saying something. Pangos won't record many highlight-reel dunks, but he's remarkably effective as both a scorer and as a distributor. And in tonight's game against Saint Mary's, watch to see how well Gonzaga as a team performs in terms of getting to the line. To this point in WCC play, free throws have been the Zags' most deadly weapon.
Watch for Saint Mary's -- and BYU -- to join Gonzaga in people's estimations.
By my lights the Zags are correctly appraised nationally right now: I think this really is the No. 23 team in the country, give or take a few spots. I just happen to believe that both Saint Mary's and BYU are also about that good. (Yes, the Cougars were blown out by the Gaels in Moraga. BYU will have a chance to return the favor in Provo in two weeks.) In the new nine-team WCC the conference schedule is a 16-game round-robin, so if I'm right the Zags, Gaels, and Cougars should find themselves in a photo-finish in the standings at the end of the season. None of these teams figures to reach the Final Four (of course neither did Butler or Virginia Commonwealth last year), but I can envision any or even all of them living to see the second weekend of the tournament. And I have no doubt the conference race will be great TV, as the WCC's Big Two makes room for a third rival.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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