We have seen some early surprises already this year in the WCC: BYU and Portland are off to 0-2 starts, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount off to 2-0 starts, etc. Yet one thing that has remained the same is Gonzaga and St. Mary’s being cemented at the top, as they are a combined 3-0 going into their match up Thursday night in Spokane. The Zags have looked inconsistent on the offensive end in their home wins over Bay Area schools Santa Clara and USF, but the defense looks vastly improved with the addition of Angel Nunez to the lineup. The improved D was on full display against the Dons, where they held a team rated in the Top-50 according to Adjusted Offense to just 0.60 points per possession. Currently, the Zags rate 82nd in the nation in Adjusted Defense thanks to their last two performances (they were in the low 100’s going into the slate against the Broncos and Dons).
St. Mary’s on the other hand bounced back offensively against the scrappy Pacific Tigers, as they beat the Tigers 88-80 in front of a pro-Tigers crowd in Stockton. While the Tigers are new to the WCC, the win is nothing to shrug off for Gaels fans: Pacific was a tournament team a year ago, and they were 9-2 and rated 110th in the nation according to Ken Pom going into the contest. However, after three straight losses in Hawaii (to teams rated in the 100’s at the time of their games), the Gaels were clicking on all cylinders on the offensive side of the ball. The Gaels scored 1.33 points per possession and didn’t have a regular player under 110 in terms of offensive rating. Furthermore, they also took care of the ball (only eight turnovers to the Tigers’ 11) and were able to create plays in the halfcourt, as evidenced by their 18 total assists for the game (compared to the Tigers’ eight). Even though the game got close toward the end, the Tigers were hard-pressed to come back in the second half, as the Gales were up as many as 13 with 2:26 left in the game.
Offensively, there is no question St. Mary’s may be the most efficient team in the conference and arguably the country. The Gaels play the slowest tempo in the WCC (64.6 pace), but they remain in a similar mold to Gaels teams of the past: great outside team shooting and a good post player who can get it done inside and keep opposing teams honest. We all know about players such as Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova who could absolutely torch opposing teams from outside the arc. But, it was the presence of post players like Omar Samhan and Rob Jones that made those guys, and the St. Mary’s offense, effective as well. It was the presence of such an inside-outside combo that made the Gaels a difficult team to defend on a nightly basis.
This year, coach Randy Bennett hasn’t changed things much. The Gaels still have effective shooters, as evidenced by guards Stephen Holt, James Walker and Kerry Carter, who all have 50-plus three-point shot attempts this year (and none have a 3 point percentage less than 43 percent). Furthermore, Beau Levesque, has proved to be a Daniel Kickert-esque forward who has been effective inside (55.3 eFG percentage) and outside (43.6 three point percentage). Thus, it makes sense that not only are the Gaels one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the country (43.3 percent, 4th best in the nation), but that they rely on the three point shot for a good portion of their points as well (32.6 percent, 54th highest percentage in the nation).
But the glue that puts it all together and has made the Gaels so effective offensively has to be big man Brad Waldow, who is posting an insane 134.5 offensive rating and 64.2 effective field goal percentage with a usage rate of 26.1 percent (highest on the team). To put Waldow’s junior campaign into context, Waldow’s offensive rating, if the season ended today, would be almost 16 points higher than Samhan’s best year (his junior season in 2009) and his eFG percentage would be almost 10 points higher than Samhan’s best mark as well (Samhan’s junior season). Considering Samhan’s impact and legendary status with the Gaels, the fact that Waldow’s junior year has made Samhan’s best year pale in comparison bodes high hopes that the Gaels can be WCC contenders as long as Waldow can maintain this kind of efficiency over the course of conference play.
For the year, the Gaels rank fifth in the nation in Adjusted Offensive efficiency (118.2). That being said, their defensive inefficiencies make this a vulnerable team at times, as evidenced by their performance in Hawaii. Statistically, the Gaels ranked 176th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive efficiency according to Ken Pom. While they defend beyond the arc reasonably well (they allow a 29.8 percent three point percentage, 42nd best in the nation), they struggle to defend in the paint, as they rank 182nd in the nation in 2 point percentage allowed. Compound that with mediocre steal (235th in the nation) and block (148th in the nation) and it makes sense numerically why the Gaels rate so lackluster on the defensive side of things.
When you watch the Gaels in person, it makes sense why they struggle to defend teams at times. As good as Waldow is, athletically he doesn’t strike an intimidating presence. Much like Samhan, he has that “un-athletic” build, and he can get beat to the hoop or fall asleep defending his area in the zone at times. He doesn’t possess elite jumping or shuffling ability, and the fact that he is able to post the rates that he does not just in terms of scoring, but rebounding and defensively, is a minor miracle. Waldow isn’t alone though, as the Gaels do struggle at times to match up with more athletic players or teams, whether it is in the post or even perimeter (though less likely in the latter). This is evidenced by the Gaels creating a lot of fouls as a team, as they just aren’t able to keep proper defensive position due to their disadvantages athletically. The Gaels are allowing teams to average 44.5 free throw attempts a game, which is 4 points higher than the national average and 240th in the nation. The Gaels draw a lot of fouls themselves (they average 46.5 free throw attempts per game), but their tendency to foul a lot and not get a lot of steals either display the struggles they will face in WCC play this year against more athletic, “drive it to the hoop” squads.
That being said, the Gaels have overcame this lack of athleticism and size before. They thrashed second seeded Villanova en route to the Sweet 16 even though the Wildcats had obvious athletic advantages over the Gaels with players such as Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena (who were all on the Final Four squad a year ago). Last year, Middle Tennessee State was a popular pick to make a deep run due to their athletic defensive-oriented squad. And yet, the Gaels were still able to pull off a 67-54 win in the “play-in” first round game. The Gaels may not impress people with their roster or when one takes a look at them in warm ups, but its obvious that they are magicians in terms of creating offense and getting points, and Bennett deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that kind of consistency even though the players he’s recruited haven’t athletically been much better than former Gaels in years past.
So, can the Gaels be able to win a WCC regular season and/or tournament crown with their current approach? It will really come down to how they play against Gonzaga this year, who is not only in their ballpark offensively (they rank 11th in the nation in Adjusted Offense) but are better defensively than the Gaels, especially with the addition of Nunez, whose long frame presents a lot of match up problems in the Austin Daye and Micah Downs mold. St. Mary’s though can certainly make a statement on Thursday, as the statuses of Sam Dower and Gary Bell are in question, and if the Gaels can light it up early, it may be tough for the Zags to come back with two of their go-to guys out. However, a loss for the Gaels wouldn’t hurt them dramatically, as they will have another shot at the Zags at the end of the year on March 1st (last regular season WCC game of the year).
While St. Mary’s will probably improve defensively over the course of the year (though how much is a question), they will need their offense to have a shot in the WCC and to earn a NCAA Tournament berth. Bennett has done this before with similarly made up squads, and though they may not have the “elite” guard like Paddy Mills, McConnell or Dellavedova from seasons past, the scoring balance they show on the perimeter, and the presence of Waldow, who is having a massive season efficiency wise, will probably keep this team in the WCC Championship hunt. The defensive issues are glaring statistically and in terms of the eye test, but I don’t think they are bad enough to keep this St. Mary’s squad from finishing any worse than second in the WCC (especially after BYU’s start).