Even with the addition of BYU and Pacific, the WCC race within the past decade has come between Gonzaga and St. Mary's. Mark Few and Randy Bennett have been the staples of coaching success in the WCC, and on a regular basis the two schools have produced their fair share of talent (Adam Morrison, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk, Omar Samhan, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova just to name a few) which has resulted in a slew of victories and NCAA Tournament appearances for both programs.
That being said, both teams came into this season with a lot of question marks. The Zags lost mainstay forward Elias Harris and glue guys Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi to graduation, and saw Olynyk leave a year early (can't really blame him) to become a first round draft pick by the Boston Celtics. As for the Gaels, not only did they lose all-conference stud Dellavedova, but they also lost big man Mitchell Young to graduation. While both teams returned a lot of key pieces from their successful 2012-2013 squads, they also lost some key players whose productions would have to be replaced in order to replicate last year's successes and be competitive not just in the WCC, but at the national level again in 2013-2014.
How have the results been so far? So far good for both squads. Entering Saturday's game, the Zags came to Wichita with a 10-1 record to face a talented, but inconsistent Kansas State squad. As for the Gaels, they were away for the holidays, traveling to Hawaii to take on South Carolina, another inconsistent squad that was coming off head scratching losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate in consecutive games, in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (another interesting subplot was if the Gaels took care of business, they could have faced Boises State, who are coached by former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice).
Contribute it to the travel or Christmas break or whatever, but things did not go as well as planned for both squads. The Zags struggled against an athletic and scrappy Wildcats team, and without the services of big man Sam Dower, who went down in the first half with a hip injury, the Zags' lack of size was greatly exposed on both ends of the court. As for the Gaels, they were unable to stop the hot-shooting Gamecocks defensively, and they ended up getting surprised by a team that looked to be a bottom feeder for the second straight year in the SEC.
Is this a cause for concern for Gonzaga and St. Mary's fans? Or is this another case of the "Christmas break letdown" blues? (This has been the case for Gonzaga a lot in the past decade). Let's take a deeper look into both games:
Gonzaga versus Kansas State (72-64)
For the year, Kansas State has struggled to find offensive consistency for the year. Their adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy is 102.2 (roughly 1.02 points per possession), and their effective field goal percentage is 46 percent, 283rd best in the nation. Their inability to find consistent offense explains why they have some letdown losses to teams like Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (neutral court). However, if you want to give credit to second-year coach Bruce Weber (and I don't like to give him credit for anything the way he drove that Illinois program into the ground), you have to applaud his ability to keep the Wildcats solid as a defensive squad. This year, their 94.3 adjusted defensive rating is 20th best in the nation, and they excel in terms of contesting and forcing bad shots and turnovers, as they are holding teams this year to a 45.1 effective field goal percentage (44th best in the nation) and have a turnovers forced percentage of 21.9 (27th best in the nation). The big story was this: could the sweet-shooting Zags succeed against a K State team that held teams in check on the perimeter and from beyond the arc (the Wildcats are holding teams to a 25.8 percent three point percentage for the year, 4th best in the nation)?
Well, Kansas State succeeded on the defensive end for the most part. Sans the performance of Kevin Pangos (more on him later), Drew Barnham and the limited performance of Sam Dower before he went out with injury, the Zags were immensely poor on the offensive end. While Karnowski shot well from the field (5-of-6), his 0-for-6 performance from the charity stripe hurt the Zags as he finished with an offensive rating of 92 for the game, according to Ken Pom. David Stockton and Kyle Draginis also provide mediocre performances on the offensive end, as they finished with offensive ratings of 92 and 90, respectively. But the worst offender of the game? Gary Bell, who has showed some strong consistency this year in his junior season, posted a rating of 64, as he struggled from beyond the arc, missing some key three point shots down the stretch and finishing 1-of-7 from the field with a mere 3 points. The Zags for the game finished with only 1.03 points per possession, greatly down from their 1.16 season average (which went down from that game, so it was higher but I don't have the number yet). Kansas State needed to shut down the Zags on the offensive end to have a shot in this game, and when Dower went down, the Zags's lack of size (minus-2.0 effective height for the year, 299th in the nation, and that is WITH Dower) and presence in the post was greatly exposed and the Wildcats were able to put more pressure on the perimeter with only Karnowski as the legitimate threat in the paint.
However, another story for the game was the Wildcats' offensive breakout. Kansas State averaged 1.20 points per possession in this game, helped by 52.8 percent shooting on their two point shots (though they continued to struggle from beyond the arc, as they only made 5 out of 18). Furthermore, they were able to out rebound the Zags on the offensive end (10-8 on the offensive glass), get to the free throw line more as well (25 to the Zags' 15), and they turned the ball over less than the Zags (4-to-12). Considering the Zags lost all four factors of this game, the fact that they only lost by eight is pretty remarkable. Forward Thomas Gipson proved to be the thorn for the Zags individually, as he scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, good for an offensive rating of 163 in only 21 minutes.
So, should Zags fans hit the panic button yet? Well, it all depends on the health of Dower. X-Rays have come back negative on Dower's hip, but it'll be interesting to see how he recovers and how this will affect his play for the year. While the Zags have transfer forward Angel Nunez eligible, he did not play in the Wildcats game, and it'll be interesting to see if he'll get an increased role with Dower's health a question over the coming weeks. That being said, I think this was the perfect storm game for the Zags, as the loss of Dower, combined with the rare offensive outburst of the Wildcats put the chips stacked against the Zags from the beginning. As I said before, the fact that they only lost by eight, despite losing all four factors of the game is pretty remarkable. I will say this: Pangos is certainly the backbone of this team, and I think it's his "WCC Player of the Year" award to lose this year. Despite getting shut out in the first half, Pangos made the necessary adjustments in the second half and finished with 14 points, 6 assists and an offensive rating of 120. Pangos is proving he's "The Man" on this Gonzaga team, and I think the confidence he got from this game will bode well for the Zags going forward, since they aren't going to face a lot of teams that are as big a threat defensively as the Wildcats in WCC play.
St. Mary's vs. South Carolina (78-71)
The big issue with Randy Bennett's squads in the past is that they have played soft non-conference schedules. This year has been no different, as the Gaels have only played one game away from home (Boise State) and have not played anyone in the Top-50 according to Ken Pom's ratings. So, while the 9-0 record was nice, many wondered how the Gaels would stack up against the Zags in conference play, since their record was padded by such an easy early schedule.
I expected a letdown of some sort from the Gaels in this tournament, but I did not expect it to come at the hands of South Carolina, a team that was coming off brutal losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate (rated 84th and 154th, respectively by Ken Pom). However, the Gaels, while again efficient on the offensive end (12th in the nation in offensive efficiency), have displayed inconsistency this year on the defensive end, as evidenced by their 101.1 defensive rating, 128th in the nation. The Gaels don't cause a lot of turnovers (only an 18 percent turnover rate, 208th in the nation) and they don't get a lot of steals (7.9 steal rate, 252nd in the nation), so they rely on their presence and ability to force bad shots in order to be effective on the defensive side of the ball. It has worked for the most part, as teams are only shooting an effective field goal percentage of 47.1, so when the Gaels are able to settle down defensively in the half court, they do show some ability on the defensive end to prevent points on possessions.
However, for whatever reason, the Gamecocks came lighting it up in Hawaii, as they shot 58.5 percent on their two points shots, and four of seven from beyond the arc. The offensive performance was a surprise for the Gamecocks, as they were shooting a woefully bad 44.9 on their two points shots this year, and post an overall effective field goal percentage of 46.5. And yet, the Gamecocks were able to shot almost 14 percent higher than their season average on two point shots, which lead to them scoring 1.24 points per possession against the Gaels. Surprisingly, the Gaels didn't slouch on the offensive end, as they averaged 1.13 points per possession thanks to the performances of Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker, who posted offensive ratings of 137, 124 and 142, respectively. Waldow also scored a team-high 20 points, though his 112 offensive rating and 28 percent possession percentage made his performance less impressive to the other three.
So where did the Gaels go wrong? While the Gamecocks did get to the line more, they didn't make it count, as evidenced by their 62.1 percentage from the charity stripe. One of the big factors had to be on the offensive glass, as even though the Gamecocks had less for the game, they had a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (44 percent) to the Gaels (38.2 percent). Add that with a superior shooting day for the Gamecocks, and the Gaels, despite playing effectively on the offensive end, just weren't able to pull this one off. Guards Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice had effective games against the Gaels' perimeter players, as they scored 13 and 11 points, respectively (good for ratings of 129 and 183). Additionally, they got excellent production off the bench from 6-11 big man Laimonas Chatkevicius (12 points 7 rebounds, 119 rating) and guard Brenton Williams, who hit two key threes in the game. This was a stark contrast to the Gaels, as they got limited production from their bench in this game, as only guard Kerry Carter had much of an impact as a reserve, and even he struggled to get going in this game (91 rating, 5 points).
Much like Kansas State against the Zags, the Gamecocks outplayed their usual output on the offensive end, and that proved to be the Gaels' undoing, especially since they are not a team that generates a lot of turnovers on the defensive end (they depend more on shutting down opponents and limiting second chance shots). The Gaels are not a very deep team, as they only got 12 minutes this game from their other bench players other than Carter (who had 36), and their bench only has accounted for 24 percent of game minutes for the year, 322nd in the nation. This will be interesting to see come WCC play, for the Gaels could be in trouble if key players get into foul trouble (which they have avoided for the most part this year). One through Five, the Gaels can play with anyone, and their ability on the offensive end is for real as well. But the perimeter depth (though certainly not front court depth) of Gonzaga could pose problems for the Gaels when they face each other in WCC play. That being said, I still believe the Gaels are legitimate contenders in the WCC, even despite the soft non-conference schedule and loss to South Carolina on Sunday.