To get a West Coast perspective on Sunday’s mid-major heavy weight bout in Vegas we reached out to Alex Crook with The Collegian, the official newspaper of Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.
UAB and Saint Mary’s have never met on the hardwood and it’s likely most Blazer fans don’t get many chances to watch the Gael’s or West Coast Conference games.
Let’s see what Alex thinks of the #15 ranked Gael’s two weeks into the season.
TDD: Saint Mary’s had a fantastic season last year winning 29 games and advancing to the quarterfinals of the NIT. Do you feel that through four games this season this team has the ability to eclipse those marks?
Alex: I think Saint Mary’s has definitely shown they have the tools to eclipse those marks. The Gaels are returning all five of their starters from one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the country.
One of their weak spots has been a soft preseason schedule, but the Gaels proved they can pick up those key wins after running through a Nevada team that was picked to be second in a very competitive Mountain West and grinding out a true road win at Dayton.
The backcourt of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar can only get stronger. The chemistry is there. Dane Pineau has been monitored with back problems, but Jock Landale has stepped up in a big way as the team leader in total rebounds (38), rebounds per game (9.5), blocks (5) and scoring (21.3).
Through these initial four games, this team appears very focused on getting better and taking that next step and returning to the NCAA Tournament by making sure they take care of business in practice and on a nightly basis.
TDD: I mentioned in my preview article that Landale and Naar might be the best front and back court pairing in all of college basketball. Would you agree?
Alex: I’m not sure about all of college basketball yet, but the duo has definitely passed early tests and shown they have the looks of a good pairing: passing, assisting, defense, ball security and leadership.
They have the potential to be one of the best in the country. Naar’s place in category is solidified – he led the team with 14 points per game and landed on the All-WCC first team.
Now, is Landale just having a really good early season or is he for real?
The Gaels still have a good mid-major match-up against Western Kentucky and then of course a competitive conference slate, so we may need to watch more games to answer that question.
TDD: Who do you consider to be the “X-factor(s)” on the team that is vital to the teams’ success but might not often get the headlines similar to a Andre Iguodala or a Matthew Dellavedova?
Alex: Definitely the younger players. The Gaels have a number of guys coming off redshirts like Tanner Krebs and Dan Sheets. They haven’t seen the court a lot in the early going, but give them reps in practice and in time they’ll make big plays this year.
Stefan Gonzalez is shooting 50 percent from three this year and 53.3 percent total from the field in just 38 minutes of play. That’s the efficiency that’s put the Gaels near the top of the national stat sheet
TDD: Do you feel like the game taking place in Orleans Arena, site of the WCC championship, is an advantage for the Gaels? Would you say because of the obscurity of the arena’s layout that it might be a bit tough for both teams to adjust to?
Alex: It may be an advantage in the sense that they’ve played there before in the conference tournament, but with a team as focused as Saint Mary’s, I don’t think the location of the game will be a factor.
Saint Mary’s and UAB could play in a high school gym and the intensity from each team would be the same. Part of college basketball – and in the Gaels’ case, taking the next step towards the Tournament – is playing in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places. It’s how you show you can take the next step up. Both teams will need to adjust, but it shouldn’t matter as long as SMC and UAB both stay focused on the task at hand.
TDD: I’m sure you’ve dug into UAB’s roster and have a pretty good feel for their key players. Who or whom impresses you the most, and what about the Blazers do you think the Gaels could have trouble with?
Alex: William Lee has been a force with blocking shots for the Blazers, so it’ll be interesting to see how Landale and the rest of the Gaels’ inside scoring corps combats that.
UAB likes to shoot from inside the 3-point line and get to the foul line with Hakeem Baxter and Dirk Williams getting to the line and putting up 42 free throw attempts.
Saint Mary’s will have to do their best to avoid foul trouble as Landale and Calvin Hermanson have combined for 28 of the Gaels’ 79 personal fouls this year.