Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga meet again in the WCC Basketball championship game; will the Gaels defend their title or can the Bulldogs take care of business this time?
TV schedule: Tuesday, March 10, 9:00 pm ET. ESPN
Arena: Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada
As seems to always be the case, Saint Mary’s (26-7) is a certain NCAA Tournament team with a chance for another conference title. This Gaels team hasn’t been world beaters all season long, but have really taken care of business in the conference tournament. They survived Pepperdine in a double-overtime thriller before dispatching of BYU in a defensive slugfest. They beat Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Basketball title game but can they repeat the feat?
The breakout star on Saint Mary’s is clearly senior guard Jordan Ford (21.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg). Ford has been an elite offensive player all season long, had 42 points in that win over Pepperdine and hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds against BYU. It’s also important to watch out for junior forward Malik Fitts (16.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg), who himself has had some impressive offensive outbursts. While he played poorly against the Cougars, senior guard Tanner Krebs (9.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is more than capable of having an outstanding game.
The Gaels are 36th in KenPom and 31st in the NET rankings. The metrics don’t exactly scream a comfortable at-large bid, but this team will certainly dance next week. They have an efficient offensive attack and one of basketball’s best weapons in Ford, who has really found his game in Las Vegas. Even if the offense plays to their full potential, the defense will need to have a standout effort, since there’s a big challenge ahead.
On the other side, Gonzaga (30-2) is the 2nd ranked team in the country and has an extremely potent offense. They’re also motivated to avenge last season’s title game loss and secure their place as a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve played dynamic basketball all season long, emerging as one of the highest-scoring teams despite all the changes on this roster.
There’s talent across the board, but we’ll begin with sophomore forward Filip Petrusev (17.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), the WCC Player of the Year. He just put up 27 points a week and a half ago against the Gaels and has emerged this season in a major way. Another dynamic player is senior forward Killian Tillie (13.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), who missed time with injury but had 19 points and 10 rebounds in their semifinal win over San Francisco. When you throw in junior forward Corey Kispert (14.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and three other players who average double-digit points, you realize that this is a deep and talented Gonzaga squad that has caused problems for teams this year.
In addition to sitting 2nd in the AP Top 25, the Bulldogs are also 2nd in NET and KenPom’s rankings. They top the nation in offensive efficiency and rebound the ball exceptionally well. Their size has made them a matchup nightmare for teams all season long, with the defense really showing up in their 30-point road win against the Gaels in early February.
For the Gaels, it’s important that Ford and the rest of their offense make their shots. They can’t afford to fall out of this game early again and their defense will need a much better job on Petrusev. For the Bulldogs, they win this game if they play it at their pace and their offensive machine continues to run. Their defense hasn’t been bad lately, but an above-average effort to contain Ford will almost certainly lead to a victory.
Revenge is a dish often served cold, though the Gaels have certainly tasted that twice already during the regular season. There’s so much talent on this Gonzaga team, but Saint Mary’s might have the hottest player. If Ford has another legendary performance, the Gaels can absolutely win another WCC title, but it’ll take another defensive effort like last night against BYU.