One of college basketball's best rivalries will be back in the spotlight Monday evening when Saint Mary's and Gonzaga square off for the West Coast Conference tournament championship.
No. 18 Saint Mary's (26-5, 14-2) vs. No. 25 Gonzaga (25-5, 13-3)
Game Time: 9 p.m. EST
Location: Orleans Arena: Las Vegas
Previous Meetings: Saint Mary's won 83-62 on Jan. 12; Gonzaga won 73-59 on Feb. 9
Favorite: Gonzaga by 2.5
If familiarity does in fact breed contempt, then disdain figures to be at an all-time high inside the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas Monday night when Gonzaga and Saint Mary's meet for the West Coast Conference tournament championship.
No pair of programs have met more in recent years than the two mid-major powers, who will be playing for the 12th time in four years on Monday. That stretch includes the past four WCC title games, three of which have been won by Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have actually won every league tournament title since 2004 outside of an 81-62 beatdown handed to them by Saint Mary's in 2010.
The Gaels and 'Zags have already met twice this season, with each winning handily on its home floor. Both teams own national rankings and are already assured of hearing their names called on Selection Sunday, but that doesn't mean the rubber match won't be saturated with intensity.
"Both teams and fans hate each other," said Gonzaga center Robert Sacre. "I think we have this mutual hate when it comes to a basketball court. I don't think there's anything like it in the country. It's one of those things where we don't want them to get the championship. We're Gonzaga. That's how we think."
NCAA Tournament seeding and bragging rights aside, the game is significant for Saint Mary's in that it presents an opportunity for the Gaels to win both of the conference's championships for the first time in program history. Gonzaga had won the WCC's regular season title in 11 straight seasons before this year.
"It's never happened at Saint Mary's, win the league outright and win the tournament," SMC coach Randy Bennett said. "These guys' goals were very high to start the season and one of their goals was to win the league outright. They accomplished that, so we have to reset some goals, and the conference tournament is an obvious one."
While the rivals have met frequently and clearly don't care for one another, that hasn't always - or often - resulted in classic games. Five of those 11 meetings over the past four years have been decided by double digits, including both games this season. Saint Mary's pasted Gonzaga by 21 in January, and then the Zags returned the favor with a 73-59 whipping at home on Feb. 9.
Both teams have a solid presence in the post, but it's been elite guard play that has led to each blowout victory in the series this season. For Saint Mary's, WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova drilled five three-pointers, scored 26 point and dished out six assists in its win over Gonzaga. For the Bulldogs, it was freshman Kevin Pangos who played hero, dropping 27 points on 5-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Pangos has built on that performance and emerged as Gonzaga's top offensive threat in the last few weeks of the season.
"He's an elite shooter," said Bennett of Pangos. "Every way you can get a shot, he knows how to get it. But he's more than that. I think he's become the head of the monster up there, the one that makes them go."
No team has dominated its conference tournament over the past decade like Gonzaga has, but they haven't run up against a team with the type of talent and experience this Saint Mary's squad has since they were pounded by Omar Samhan and the Gaels two years ago. Still, it'd be very surprising for Monday's championship game to be as lopsided as that one, or either of the two meetings between the teams this season.
Prediction: Saint Mary's 74, Gonzaga 69