They’re a juggernaut in the West Coast Conference, possessing a gaudy record and a light-it-up offense (4th in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per kenpom.com), and they’re marching towards an at-large bid this year despite few marquee wins. Sound familiar? For once, it’s not Gonzaga! Saint Mary’s, the constant sidekick to Gonzaga’s superhero, has flipped the script this year, sitting at 17-2, 8-1 in the league, with wins over big brother Gonzaga and fellow power BYU, and looks like a real threat to make a run come March.
All of this is happening despite the Gaels losing 5 of their top 6 rotation players last year. How is that possible? I wasn’t completely sure myself, having picked Randy Bennett’s squad to fade to 4th in the conference this year, and so I felt like I needed to take a closer look. Join me on a deep dive of one of the most intriguing squads of the 2015-16 year!
The first thing you notice about Saint Mary’s is the absurd, ludicrous shooting. They are currently second in the country in three-point percentage and second in two-point percentage; that deadly combination has them leading the country in effective field goal percentage (a measure that weights three-point shooting due to it being worth more). But the Gaels aren’t just in first this year – the three highest eFG%’s recoded in kenpom’s database are 60.2%, 59.6%, and 58.9%; Saint Mary’s is at a blistering, record-setting 62.7% (a special shout-out to the Hoosiers of Indiana, also on a record-setting pace at 61.3%). All of this shooting creates acres of space on the offensive half of the court – look at this possession against the Zags:
Because of the threat of gunners all over the floor, Eric McClellan and Domantas Sabonis (red circles) can’t come far enough off their guys to deter penetration, causing all kinds of mayhem.
Aside from the plethora of shooting, the second major key to Saint Mary’s offensive success is the double-point guard lineup – both Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon can facilitate the offense, which makes it extremely difficult for a defense to key on one guy. Also, at the college level, very few teams have two lockdown on-ball perimeter defenders. The luxury to just give it to the guy with the weaker defender (and have the other guy be a great spot-up option across the floor) is one very few teams can exercise.
Teams that truly play two point guards a lot have had a ton of success throughout recent college hoops history – USC this year is a great example (29th in OE with Jacobs and McLaughlin), as is Kansas (14th in OE with Mason and Graham). It’s not an easy system to employ, though – it’s hard enough to just find one very good point guard, much less two. One way the Gaels take advantage of this is through the pick-and-roll, as both Naar and Rahon can shoot, drive, and pass as the ball-handler.
Naar, weaving and hitting a floater:
Rahon, re-using the screen and burying a 3 when the defender goes under:
Notice that both players cross-over after receiving the screen – Naar and Rahon love to re-use the ball screen, waiting for a better look.
They also can refuse the screen, as seen here (watch how Naar still has room to drive because #33 Hermanson’s defender can’t help). Great patience and vision from Naar here, waiting for Dane Pineau to finally come open:
The Gaels had to search far and wide to round up their double-barrel PGs. After the success of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova from Australia, Bennett dug up another apparent gem from Down Under – Naar has shown great ability as a passer (30.0% assist rate) and is an elite shooter despite his hideous form (33/56 from 3 – 59%!!!). And while Rahon is from down the coast in San Diego, he spent his first two years across the country at Boston College. Both have found a fantastic fit in Moraga. Because they never foul (5th and 114th nationally in least fouls committed per 40 minutes), both play basically the entire game (26th and 31st in % of minutes played), giving them ample opportunities to both score themselves and create for others.
The rest of the lineup falls perfectly into place around them to be a pick-and-roll, slash and kick steamroller. Joining the point guards on the floor is always 1) another wing who can shoot the lights out: Calvin Hermanson, 44% on 93 attempts from deep, or Stefan Gonzalez, 56% on 52 threes; 2) a stretch big man: Evan Fitzner, 46% on 59 threes, or Kyle Clark, 37% on 35 bombs; and of course, 3) a great rebounding big man to serve as the screener in pick-and-roll situations: Dane Pineau, shooting 67% from the floor and 7th and 94th nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding rates, or Jock Landale, shooting 65% from the floor and 161st and 47th nationally in offensive/defensive rebounding. The synergy of the roster protects the Gaels from foul trouble or stalling when starters rest, and the relentless assault of skill and tenacity is almost always enough to wear down any defense.
Landale and Pineau even give the team effective options as post scorers. Helped, of course, by the wonderful spacing, both guys have enough of an arsenal of post moves to consistently create points against one-on-one defense. Landale, in particular, is really starting to develop. He has great touch on a half-hook across the lane, and has recently started flashing this up-and-under as a counter (draws the foul against BYU here):
Having a back to the basket threat is almost unfair with the plethora of perimeter options in this offense. Landale's development will give the Gaels a necessary alternative against longer, quicker perimeter teams that it could see in the NCAA Tournament.
The scariest part of this Gaels squad? They’re 335th in the country in experience, with Rahon and Pineau being the only two juniors (no seniors) in the entire rotation. They’re only going to get better, and as long as the players don’t grow unhappy in their currently-perfect roles, Saint Mary’s could really be elite next year. So set your DVRs (or stay up late, if you’re a night owl) – it’ll be worth it to watch this offense hum.