The madness has officially begun! As conference tournament week starts to really heat up, we have seen several teams punch their tickets to the dance. Liberty, Gardner-Webb, Iona, Bradley, Murray State, and Wofford are all safely in the field of sixty-eight after winning their respective conference tournaments. Many fans don’t spend too much time paying attention to the smaller conferences, but I will tell you what, this year, there is more talent playing in mid-major conference than ever before. If you don’t think that Murray State and Wofford are the real deal, just wait, and watch them bust your bracket.
Two more teams that are the real deal that are playing for an automatic bid into the tournament tonight from a small league are the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the St Mary’s Gaels. We all know how good this Gonzaga team is right now. They are ranked number one in the country, and if they win tonight, they are all but assured a top line seed. This is the 22nd straight WCC conference tournament finals appearance for the Zags.
Their opponent, the Gaels of St Mary’s, aren’t getting nearly as much press as they have in the past, but make no mistake, this is a solid team. The Gaels started the season out a bit sluggish, but they haven’t lost to a team not named Gonzaga since January. The Zags are -14-point favorites. The game total over-under is set at 136.5 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 PM PST from the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
What else can be said about this Gonzaga Bulldogs team this year? They are 30-2, with both of their losses coming to teams that are competing for number one seeds, North Carolina and Tennessee. They are ranked number one in the country, and if they take care of business tonight in Vegas, they will very likely lock up the number one overall seed in the tournament. But what if I told you this team was about to get even better?
The Zags welcomed big man Killian Tillie back to the floor last night as they Frenchmen has missed most of the season with various injuries. And he sure looked healthy last night as he scored nine points in just fifteen minutes of play, hitting all three of his shots from beyond the arc. The Zags already had one of, if not the, best frontcourts in the country with Rui Hachimura and Branden Clarke. Throw a healthy Tillie into the mix, and I am just not sure how teams are going to be able to stop this attack down low.
The Zags have made a mockery of what was a decent league this year in the WCC. They won league games by an average of nearly thirty points, running the table for a perfect league record. When you look at the two matchups between Gonzaga and St Mary’s this season, neither game was remotely competitive. In Spokane, the Zags pounded St Mary’s by nearly fifty points. In the rematch, on the Gael’s home floor, Gonzaga won by fourteen and led by as many as twenty points in the second half.
As I mentioned above, St Mary’s didn’t start the season out well. They started out 3-4, with losses to Utah State, Mississippi State, Harvard, and UC Irvine. It looked like the season was over before it started for the Gaels. But Randy Bennet’s squad has really picked things up in the second half of the year, as they finished by winning eight out of ten, with both losses coming against Gonzaga. The recent run of success has put the Gaels on the selection committee’s radar, but in all reality, if they don’t win tonight and get the auto-bid, they aren’t getting into the tournament.
So, what makes this game any different from the first two times these squads matched up? Technically this is a neutral site game, but anybody that has been to these games in Vegas knows that just isn’t the case. The Orleans Arena may as well be Spokane south, as it is all Gonzaga fans in the stands. The Zags have ridden this quasi-home court advantage in Vegas to five straight conference tournaments titles, they are looking for number six tonight.
And they are going to get it. I know just how hard it is for one team to beat another team three times in one season. But the gap in talent between these teams is enormous. We saw that the first two times these teams matched up, and the Zags dominated. And that was without Killian Tillie on the floor. The play of Clarke and Hachimura have made some people forget just how great Tillie is. He came into this season as the Zags best player and won the WCC player of the tournament last year in Vegas when he hit thirteen three-pointers.
Getting Tillie back into the mix boosts the Zags already formidable national title hopes. The Blue Devils look lost without Zion, LSU just fired their head coach, Tony Bennet can’t win in March. The signs are all pointing to Gonzaga finally breaking through and winning a national title. That run starts tonight in Vegas. I think the Zags win and win by a lot. It wouldn’t shock me to see them run the score up by twenty or more points. Remember, the Gaels are the Zags biggest rival and have always been a thorn in their side, so they are going to be happy to kick them when they are down. Give me the Gonzaga Bulldogs laying -14-points tonight in the WCC conference tournament finals!