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Big East Coast Bias: St. Mary’s lost their two leading scorers from 2017-18 in Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson, not to mention Landale was also their leading rebounder. Was the expectation going into this season more subdued than the past few seasons?
Will Maupin: They also lost a three year starter at point guard in Emmett Naar. That was, in my opinion, the best recruiting class in Saint Mary’s history. When those three were juniors in 2017 the Gaels spent the entire season ranked in the AP Top 25. So, last year, their senior season, expectations were higher than ever.
This year it was certainly more subdued. Both relative to the buzz around the team over the previous two seasons and because it was clearly a rebuilding year in Moraga. But there were reasons to be excited, too.
Jordan Ford, who we’ll get to in a minute, showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch last season. Over the summer, as the non-conference schedule started to come out, fans got excited about games against quality teams — LSU, Mississippi State and New Mexico State, among others — away from home. Saint Mary’s poor scheduling in recent seasons kept the Gaels out of the NCAA Tournament more often than not, and this year appeared to be a correction of that trend. Saint Mary’s likely wouldn’t be in the dance without that win over Gonzaga, but going into the game they were on the bubble almost entirely because of their schedule strength.
BECB: Jordan Ford stepped up in a huge way and did a lot of the heavy lifting on offense in Landale’s absence, leading the WCC in scoring this season. What makes him so special on the offensive end?
WM: He’s a high IQ guard both on and off the court. The guy is a champion chess player. He’s a perfect fit for Randy Bennett’s fluid, constantly in motion offense. For someone asked to do so much of the scoring and carry the load down the stretch in close games, he almost never makes mistakes. His turnover numbers are incredibly low for someone with his usage rate. He’s a lethal scorer because of his lightning quick release from three and complete lack of conscience from way downtown. When he attacks the basket he’s nimble and balanced. There’s a very good chance he will be compared to Steph Curry at some point in the game.
BECB: I remember watching Malik Fitts a bit at South Florida, and he showed flashes of being a good player but was inconsistent. Do you think sitting out a year as a transfer allowed him to develop more into the player he turned into this season?
WM: Without a doubt. Over the Gaels’ decade-plus as a nationally relevant college basketball program they’ve often had impact transfers who played at a higher level for Randy Bennett than they did at their previous college. Joe Rahon, Garrett Jackson and Rob Jones, who came from Boston College, USC and San Diego, respectively, are all good examples of that. Fitts has been asked to take on a much bigger role with the Gaels, much like the three players I mentioned above, and he’s thriving in it.
BECB: It goes without saying that Villanova has been a special team for the last few years, but this year’s team spent nearly the entire year reeling from losing four players to the NBA. Who could step up and be an x-factor for the Gaels?
WM: Senior center Jordan Hunter doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers. He’s not usually much of a scoring threat, but his impact on the offensive end is enormous. The 6-foot-10 Aussie is liable to pull down five or more offensive rebounds in the game. That is, if the Gaels miss enough shots for that to happen. Villanova has been exploited on the boards this season, especially in losses, so I expect Hunter to be attacking the glass at every opportunity.
Plus, he’s coming off a 12 point, 15 rebound performance in last week’s win over Gonzaga that helped him earn WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors.
BECB: What, if anything, could be a fatal flaw for St. Mary’s in this game?
WM: Three point shooting. Saint Mary’s is shooting a very respectable 37.8 percent from three this season. That’s because they hit 42 percent of their threes inside of McKeon Pavilion. Away from home the Gaels hit just 33.2 percent of their threes. Thursday’s game is not in McKeon Pavilion.
BECB: Finally, who wins and why?
WM: I’m biased, because I see a lot more of Saint Mary’s than I do Villanova, but I’m going with the Gaels. I was in the building last week when Saint Mary’s completely shut down Gonzaga. The Zags have scored more points per possession this season than any team in the KenPom era, including those high-octane Villanova offenses of recent seasons. Saint Mary’s slowed the Zags’ well oiled machine to a crawl and controlled every aspect of the game.
The Gaels are as confident as ever coming off of that win. Which, I think was less of a blueprint of how to beat Gonzaga than it was a blueprint of how Saint Mary’s will try to beat whatever team stands in its way. Fortunately, Villanova is a lot more comfortable than Gonzaga is at playing a slow paced game. It should be a good one.