Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saint Mary's Destroys Gonzaga

Saint Mary's 83, #23 Gonzaga 62
This game was actually relatively close in the first half, with the Saint Mary's lead peaking at around nine points, but the Gaels pulled away in the second half. The Gaels were tremendously efficient, totaling up 21 assists and only 5 turnovers as a team. Matthew Dellavedova was on fire (5-for-10 on threes, 5-for-6 on twos) and Brad Waldow added 17. The front line was the biggest concern for Gonzaga, which was surprising after how well Robert Sacre and Sam Dower have played the past few weeks. Sacre actually got benched to start the second half, though it didn't really help.

The difference between first, second and third place in the WCC is going to be huge this season. The WCC gives double-byes for the 1 and 2 seeds, right into the WCC tournament semifinals. In addition, this year the conference has added BYU, a third elite team. No other team in the conference is remotely in the same league as Gonzaga, Saint Mary's or BYU. Earning the 1 seed means a double-bye to the tournament semis, against a relatively easy opponent. Earning the 2 seed means a double-bye, but then likely having to beat the other two elite teams to win the tournament. The 3 seed will have to win a quarterfinal game before even having to win those two straight games over elite opponents. And right now, Saint Mary's has held serve on their homecourt, taking care of both BYU and Gonzaga. But that said, Saint Mary's has been a very different team at home and on the road road the past decade, and so it wouldn't be that surprising if they fall in their two road games.

The Gaels have an easy upcoming schedule, getting Portland, Pepperdine, Santa Clara and Loyola-Marymount as their next four opponents. Their road game at BYU will be January 28th and their road game at Gonzaga will be February 9th. At 15-2 with this win and a win over Northern Iowa, and only one iffy loss (Denver), even a 12-4 conference record should lock Saint Mary's into the NCAA Tournament. So even if they lose to both BYU and Gonzaga, they still will be fine unless they suffer a few upsets to lower-tier WCC teams.

This was Gonzaga's first game this season against either Saint Mary's or BYU. They'll be disappointed in their level of play, but the reality is that on Selection Sunday it will just be a single loss on the road to a quality opponent. Saint Mary's is great at home, and Gonzaga was an underdog here. They are 13-3 now with wins over Xavier and Arizona and no bad losses. An 11-5 conference record will put them in the NCAA Tournament, and they'll even have a good shot if they go 10-6 and do some damage in the WCC tournament. They're 3-1 now and have a pretty easy next couple of weeks (at Loyola-Marymount, vs San Francisco, vs San Diego, at Portland).

New Mexico State 80, Utah State 60
The WAC has been a tight battle at the top all season long. Back in April I picked New Mexico State as the narrow favorite over Utah State. I thought Nevada would be another quality team, and put them third. But then Troy Gillenwater entered the NBA Draft and I switched my pick back to Utah State, the three-time defending WAC regular season champions. In non-conference play, Utah State was actually the weakest of the three. Other than an upset of BYU in their season opener, they didn't have any quality wins, and they had bad losses to Pacific, Weber State and Texas A&M-CC. I was willing to give them a pass until they got into WAC play, though. Neither New Mexico State or Nevada was that much better, and Stew Morrill always seems to find ways to win in the WAC, even with four starters missing from last season.

But that was before Utah State got into conference play. Yes, this game was at New Mexico State and things will be very different at the Spectrum, but this game was a romp. New Mexico State had eight more offensive rebounds, four fewer turnovers, and shot the ball better. And Utah State is coming off a home loss to Nevada. I don't see any signs that this Utah State team is going to turn things around, and for now I've got to drop them from the top of the WAC.

Who is the new favorite in the WAC? I think it has to be New Mexico State. They only have one big win (New Mexico), but also came very close to upsets over Southern Miss (twice) and Arizona. They're up to 85th in the Pomeroy ratings, and 66th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. It's unlikely that they're going to make a play for an at-large bid, but for now they're the WAC favorites.

New Mexico State will play Idaho later today, and then will head to San Jose State for a game on Thursday. Utah State will play at Louisiana Tech later today, and then at Seattle on Thursday. Seattle is still an Independent officially for this season, but next season will be part of the WAC, so this will be something of a dress rehearsal.

California 57, Colorado 50
Believe it or not, this was something of a "reality check" game for Colorado. The Buffaloes had gone 6-4 in non-conference play against Division I opponents with zero quality wins and bad losses to Maryland and Colorado State, but then had jumped out to a 3-0 start in Pac-12 play. I know that the Pac-12 stinks, but... still, you had to figure Colorado's lead was on borrowed time. California, Stanford and Arizona have all been clearly better teams this season (Arizona has been my pick all season long to win the conference).

Colorado actually led most of the way here, but a 12-2 run by the Cal Bears turned this game around, and they ended up pulling away in the final couple of minutes. Harper Kamp led the way with 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting, helping the team overcome a brutal 2-for-17 shooting performance by Jorge Gutierrez (who also went 1-for-4 at the line and missed a pair that could have put the game away with 22 seconds to go). Richard Solomon also gave them a nice spark off the bench, with six points and a pair of steals in only 12 minutes.

This result gives us a big logjam atop the Pac-12. Five different teams have a single loss this season, including Stanford, California and Arizona. California gets a home game against Utah today, which you'd think should be a 20-30 point romp, though nothing is certain in the Pac-12 this season. Next week they'll head on the road to play the two Washington teams. Colorado has a tough road game later today against Stanford. Next week they'll be at home to play the two Arizona schools.

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