Gonzaga has been unstoppable at the top of the West Coast Conference for many years now, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that in its own way that adjective also can apply to Saint Mary’s and its place in the conference.
Names change, players come and go, obstacles arise in the form of NCAA probation, and yet the Gaels remain on their perch as the Bulldogs’ perennial challenger, as well as one of the best programs in the West. We’re seeing it again this year, as Randy Bennett’s team has reloaded after losing five starters and has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the nation early on.
Saint Mary’s continued its good start with a 93-63 win over Cal Poly Monday night. The Gaels shot 60.3% from the floor and drained a school-record 19 three-pointers. Calvin Hermanson nailed five and scored a career-best 23 points. Point guard Emmett Naar hit four triples and loaded the stat sheet with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Stefan Gonzalez made five off the bench for 15 points.
Nineteen three-pointers anyplace, anytime is eye-catching; adding another layer to this performance is that the Gaels singed a Cal Poly program that is known for defense and was holding opponents to 28.9% three-point shooting. As noted in head coach Joe Callero’s bio on the school’s website, the Mustangs have led the Big West in scoring defense each of the last five seasons and were among nation’s top 40 in scoring D in four of the last five years.
Hermanson and Naar epitomize the way players have repeatedly made big jumps after biding their time in the SMC program. Hermanson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore three-point bomber, saw little action last year, averaging 2.5 points per game, but this year his minutes have tripled and he is up to 9.4 points per game. Naar was more of a regular but primarily served as a set-up man last year, averaging 6.3 ppg as well as 3.9 assists per game. This year, the sophomore is leading the team at 15.0 ppg and is among the national leaders with 7.0 apg.
Dane Pineau (3.8 ppg and 3.7 rebounds last year; 9.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg this season) and Jock Landale (2.1 ppg in 2014-15; 9.0 ppg and 4.3 rpg this year) are two more who have moved from reserve roles and now form the core of the Gaels’ inside game. It’s a trend we’ve seen repeatedly with this program: going back through the years, guys like Brad Waldow, Matthew Dellavedova, Mickey McConnell and Omar Samhan all moved from supporting to starring roles.
Admittedly the schedule has been friendly-SMC has played just one road game-but the Gaels already possess a 17-point hammering of Stanford plus wins over UC Irvine and UC Davis, last year’s Big West champions. Saint Mary’s also had a near miss at California on Saturday, leading deep into the final minute before Jabari Bird hit a go-ahead 3 with 15 seconds left, Boston College transfer Joe Rahon missed the front end of a one-and-one with a chance to tie with 1.5 seconds left, and the Golden Bears tacked on two free throws for a 63-59 win.
There’s still more to find out about this team, such as if it can take one from Gonzaga and if it is clearly better than new WCC rival BYU. At the bare minimum, though, it’s looking like a ninth straight 20-win season for a program that now seems to collect such seasons like candy at a Christmas parade.
- Action on the court Monday was light. Saint Mary’s rival Gonzaga played NCAA Division II member St. Martin’s (Wash.) and dominated as expected, 86-50.
- Tennessee State is off to a very surprising 7-2 start after what was the best game of the night, as the Tigers defeated Stetson 93-90 in two overtimes. TSU won just five games all of last year.
- North Florida is now 8-4 and remains primed for a run at the Atlantic Sun title. The Ospreys handled Florida International 94-72 on Monday. Other games saw Coastal Carolina win at Wofford 71-63 and Columbia won a matinee over Robert Morris 78-71 behind a career-best eight three-pointers and 26 points from Maodo Lo.
- It’s an ironic and unfortunate twist of Duke and North Carolina’s well-known rivalry that the two schools both received bad news on the injury front on Monday. Duke forward Amile Jefferson is out indefinitely with an injury to his right foot, as announced by the school. Jefferson is averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game this year and has drawn high praise for his all-around work inside for the Blue Devils. Meanwhile, UNC will be without a key forward of its own as Kennedy Meeks will be out for what is termed as “likely two weeks” with a bone bruise on his left knee. Meeks is averaging 12.3 points and 7.4 boards per game this year.
- Texas A&M freshman forward Elijah Thomas is planning to transfer, according to a report Monday by Gary Parrish at CBSSports.com. Thomas was part of a touted recruiting class for the Aggies this year but has played just 13 minutes over their last four games after averaging nearly 16 minutes over their first four.
- The national TV schedule, to be blunt, is weak. With all due respect to the participating teams, with few exceptions guarantee games don’t belong on national television; nevertheless, you can watch Georgia Southern at Duke (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2), Norfolk State at Cincinnati (7 p.m., ESPNU) or Longwood going to Oklahoma State (9 p.m., ESPNU) this evening if you choose.
- Far more worthy games for a national TV date would’ve been Louisiana Tech at Mississippi or UC Irvine taking on Oregon. If you have access, you can see these games on the home teams’ respective conference networks.
- The best game on the tube nationally is actually on Fox Sports 1, whose deal with the Big East continues to furnish excellent games. Monmouth at Georgetown (7:30 p.m.) might’ve looked benign coming into the season, but the Hawks’ early season performance makes this game of the must-watch quality.
- Southern at Memphis may not seem like an interesting game at first glance, but the Jaguars are an impressive 7-2 with wins at Mississippi State and Wyoming and at home against Tulane. It’s a team that is fearless on the road under coach Roman Banks and won’t scare easily despite the Tigers’ obvious size/athleticism advantage.
- On the Wisconsin roller coaster, you never know when a tough game will pop up, so keep an eye on their contest with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which is also 7-2 and has won six straight. This one is a rematch of the Islanders’ only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007, when they built an early 18-point lead before the Badgers fought back and won 76-63.
- Finally, Sun Belt preseason favorite Louisiana-Lafayette is 3-4 but gets a chance for a signature win when it takes on surging UCLA. Bruins must beware of a letdown.
Have a super Tuesday.