- Matt Cox
Today's mashup is a celebration of a beautiful basketball game between the two west coast powers who have been jockeying for the WCC throne for over a decade. In a year where scoring efficiency has taken a dip across the board in college hoops, watching Saint Mary's surgical half-court execution and Gonzaga's fluid playmaking and shotmaking was like undergoing a month long detox juice cleanse.
So from all those out there willing to admit a bias for teams who can score over teams who can defend, we thank you Zags and Gaels - as our official spokesperson Adam Morrison once said, "If it weren't for offense, I'd play defense."
Today's mashup is also a boycott of the Pac-12 and Big 10. Apologies in advance to those of you looking for scorching hot takes on Maryland / Minnesota or USC / Oregon (hey, way to go USC nice roady win), but you won't find them here today...
The Big Boys
(Power 6 + AAC, A10, MWC, MVC & WCC)
St Mary's @ Gonzaga: After jotting down a laundry list of random reactions to last night's gorgeous game in Spokane, I realized I'm completely incapable of organizing my thoughts into a succinct story. The only other viable option was barfing out a nonsensical flow of bullet points - enjoy!
- "Zags frontline gets Jock'd": Both the Gaels and Zags entered last night's tilt with top-10 nationally ranked offenses (per kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency metric) - point is, we knew both teams had enough ammo to put points on the board...
But the real advantage for Gonzaga was supposed to lie on the other end of the floor where the Zags' top-20 defense had a clear edge over Saint Mary's pedestrian 127th ranked defensive unit - in fact, if the season ended today, the 2017-18 Gaels would go down as the 2nd worst defensive team Randy Bennett has ever had in his 17 years in Moraga.
So should we be shocked that Jock Landale absolutely cooked Jonathan Williams III (who got the bulk of the Landale assignment) and the other Zags bigs down low? Perhaps not... While Landale was a non-factor in the first meeting between the two last season (fouled out after only 19 minutes of action), he responded with a 24 pts / 8 reb performance in the rematch back home. And in Gonzaga's only regular season loss last year, BYU's Eric Mika went bananas down low to the tune of 29 & 11 as the Cougars stunned the Zags in the Kennel.
I think we'd all agree that from a low-post defense standpoint, the JWIII / Tillie duo is a significant downgrade from the Karnowski / Collins tandem, which the "Land-ale from Down Under" exposed last night. Synergy data indicates the Zags were a respectable post-up defense coming in, ranked in the 75th percentile nationally ("Very Good"), but they had yet to face a legitimate post-up threat all season - Villanova and Florida rely on more perimeter-oriented offensive attacks and calling Mo Bamba a "low-post scorer" for Texas would be a huge mischaracterization of his game.
The bottom-line: Few teams have a weapon like Landale who can carve up opposing defenders in the paint, so there's no need for the Zags to sound the alarms quite yet - just be aware that the Gaels may have given some of the bigger Power-6 schools a blueprint to beat them come tournament time.
- "RUI RUI RUI RUI ROCKIN' EVERYWHERE!": There's no rhyme or reason to it, but this Bubba Sparxxx anthem was on repeat in my head every time I heard Rui's name called last night on the telecast - and trust me, it was a Rui-a-thon in every way possible...
Rui's development since the PK80 has accelerated at an unprecedented rate, evidenced by his transformation into a defensive swiss army knife capable of guarding all five positions (he has a 7'2 wingspan kids!). The Japanese native showcased this versatility last night as he drew the Naar and Landale assignments on separate occasions in the 2nd half, proving just how much confidence Mark Few has in his new toy. Oh, and if he ever masters the 15-18 foot jumper, I fear for all WCC opponents for the rest of his tenure in Spokane - but that time period is shrinking by the second as NBA scouts continue to drool over the endless possibilities of what Rui might evolve into at the next level.
- "RIP NWG": As much as I like Silas Melson and Josh Perkins, the Zags SORELY miss Nigel Williams Goss. When the game got tight and the pace came to a screeching halt down the stretch, the Gaels looked noticeably more comfortable being patient and working through their methodical half-court sets. On the other end of the floor, the Zig Zags often looked confused as to who should get the ball and who they should play through as their ball and player movement became stagnant. The late game and late shot-clock situations are where NWG thrived - he was elite in 1v1 isolation and high pick-n-roll situations, neither of which the Zags excelled at last night when they needed to.
(All the other guys - yes, that includes you SWAC)
It 'twas a great night for mid-major hoops - a few rumbling on the OVC, CUSA and CAA below...
OVC: Murray State and Belmont did battle in Nashville last night for the outright lead in the OVC and the home team Bruins prevailed thanks to a barrage of 3s in the 2nd half. While I had a minor man crush on Jacksonville State earlier this season, the Racers and Bruins remain the two best teams in this league and is it's a travesty that these two perennial mid-major powers won't face off again this year because of the new 18-game schedule setup. Belmont now sits alone atop the OVC standings at 6-1 with Murray and Jax State knocking on the door at 5-2 - but if any of you degenerates caught the Gamecocks near-debacle against Morehead State last night on CBS Sports Network, you'd agree that Jax State should probably be 4-3 with three head scratching losses to Morehead, Tennessee State and Austin Peay (by 20 at home!). I remain relatively high on all three of these squads and will be rooting hard for one of this trio to take the OVC tournament crown when Championship Week rolls around in March.
CUSA: Middle Tennessee traveled to West Virginia to take on the Thundering Herd last night, but may have been looking ahead to their date with Western Kentucky tomorrow. Jonny Elmore led Marshall to a 10-point victory over Kermit Davis and company, vaulting the Herd to 4-2 in league play and a 2-way tie for 4th with UAB. Speaking of the Blazers, they were in Bowling Green last evening facing the tall task of slowing down a WKU team that appears to be firing on all cylinders. Dwight Coleby played Chris Cokley to a stalemate and the Tops 'topped' the Blazers to keep their CUSA record unblemished with the big MTSU showdown looming tomorrow.
CAA: Two of the bigger surprises this year in the Colonial have been Northeastern and William & Mary, who squared off last night in Williamsburg. Each roster was ravished this offseason by untimely graduations of key players, but both are ahead of schedule in their respective rebuilds. Both the Tribe and Huskies carve up defenses up with perpetual motion offenses that opens up countless looks on the perimeter for a bevy of long range snipers. Northeastern stunned the Tribe with a 20-point route in their building, which slots them into a 3-way tie with the Tribe and Hofstra atop the CAA leaderboard.
One more quick note here - I can't for the life of me figure out this Charleston team. I continue to remain stubborn that Earl Grant will get his veteran bunch rolling soon, but the Cougars have drifted to a 4-3 league record as their once robotic defense now looks human. Charlie's defense is currently ranked a mediocre 5th in the CAA and has dropped to 136th nationally - for comparison, Grant's defensive units ranked 20th and 66th nationally in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Sun Belt: 'The Fun Belt' has not really lived up to its nickname this year, at least in my eyes, which is mostly attributable to UT-Arlington sleepwalking for most of the season - this spell continued last night as a Louisiana Lafayette team oozing with talent came into Arlington and dispatched UTA on their home floor by 12...
With a 1-2 punch like Erick Neal and Kevin Hervey - along with a feared paint protector in 7'0 Johnny Hamilton - there's no excuse why the Mavericks are sub.500 in the conference after 7 games. This Mavs squad in many ways resembles the 'Chattanooga chokers' from last year - a veteran team coming off a successful season returning all of their key cogs that fails to make the expected leap forward. While there have been no reported locker room fights like what we saw with 'Nooga last season, there is clearly something off with the Mavs from a mental and chemistry perspective. Matt McCall, the former coach and now victim of the Chattanooga collapse last season, would likely empathize with the situation Mavs head coach Scott Cross is in now - a guy on the precipice of being a legitimate contender for a Power-6 head coaching job, only to be pushed off the cliff by their team spiraling into mid-major oblivion.