In NCAA basketball, it generally doesn’t matter if you win your conference cuz it’s all about the Big Dance. Y’know, March Madness, the NCAA Tournament–arguably the most exciting event in organized team sports. But when you’ve won 11 conference titles in a row, and are trying to tie a record set by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins (winners of 13 straight in the Pac 8), winning the conference does matter. They’ll likely make the Tourney regardless, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs and their fans (myself included) certainly want to keep this streak alive.
If they get there, it’ll be due in large part to the performance they put in on Thursday, beating the 16th ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels behind a big performance by Canadian point guard Kevin Pangos, who poured in 27 points, hitting five of six three-pointers in the process. (I still can’t buy his jersey online, though!) Vancouverite centre Rob Sacre added 12 points and nine boards in a game that should’ve been shown on The Score instead of an ugly Pac-12 blowout that, last time I checked, didn’t showcase the future of Canadian basketball. But I digress. Having lost to Saint Mary’s and WCC newcomers BYU on the road, the Zags still need to win one more conference game than the first-place Gaels for a share of the conference title.
This won’t be easy, as Gonzaga definitely has the tougher schedule, with games remaining against the next best WCC teams in Loyola Marymount (tonite at 8 Eastern) and BYU, while St. Mary’s plays LMU at home, but has already dispatched the Cougars twice. Both teams also travel to San Francisco (not much of a trip for the Moraga, CA-based Gaels), who’ve been known to pull off an upset or two on their home court. The Gaels also have a big game remaining in Murray, Kentucky against the no-longer-undefeated Murray State Racers that has no bearing on their conference, but should certainly affect their NCAA tournament seeding. Unlike last year, when a late-season loss to San Diego and a conference tournament setback against the Zags sent St. Mary’s to the NIT, it’s safe to assume that both these schools will be going to the Big Dance–barring an epic collapse by either over the next five games. And regardless of what happens in the Bluegrass State, the Gaels just have to win out in the WCC to end Gonzaga’s streak. Furthermore, they (just barely) got San Diego out of the way last weekend, which can only serve as a good omen.
Assuming that each team takes care of the 0-11 (8-16 overall) Santa Clara Broncos and wins heavily-favoured road games in San Diego (Zags) and Portland (Gaels) respectively, it’s going to come down to two common opponents: Home to LMU and @ San Fran. Of course, Gonzaga has the added onus of avenging an 83-73 loss to BYU as well, but if the Zags match the intensity they played with on Thursday, I think the Cougars will find they’re not the only team that’s virtually unbeatable on their home court.
Likewise, the Zags should still be hyped up from the win two nights ago as they host the 9-3 (16-9) LMU Lions tonite. It’s definitely worth noting that LMU is 6-0 on the road in conference play, including an upset win @ BYU, and that they took Gonzaga down to the wire in L.A. about a month ago. If Coach Few’s smart (and he clearly is), he’s not going to let off the gas pedal, knowing this game is just as big as the last one. On the other hand, the Gaels host LMU three days before they take that much talked-about trip to Kentucky. It might be easier for them to overlook the third-placed team in the conference…
On the other hand, Saint Mary’s travels across the Golden Gate Bridge on February 25th, when the conference will be all but decided–unless they lose to the Lions. Looks like the Zags have their work cut out for them these next two weekends, and they’re gonna need a little help as well. In a conference comprised of faith-based institutions, would it be wrong to ask for a little divine intervention–say tonite in Moraga, where the SCU Broncos are still in search of their first conference win? Santa Clara, what was she the patron saint of, again?
No matter what happens, I’ll still be rocking my outdated number 23 jersey from here till March Madness…
GO GONZAGA! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!
UPDATE 10:55 PM: Gonzaga gets the job done, jumping out all over LMU early and never letting up. Final score: 78-59 Zags. Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara tip off at 11, but I’m not getting my hopes up…
UPDATE 1:05 AM: And Saint Mary’s wins by 15. We’re not gonna catch ‘em this week!
UPDATE 2/16: Dunno how I missed this last nite, but LMU came through, beating Saint Mary’s 75-60 in their own gym. Now the ball’s in Gonzaga’s court. If they win out, they keep the streak alive! Go Zags!
UPDATE 2/18: Heartbreaking one-point loss for Gonzaga on the road @ USF. Forget about the WCC title, they need to beat BYU on Thursday to avoid falling to third place!