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I was curious to see what would happen when St. Mary's hosted Gonzaga in front of a raucous home crowd last night. The result? The Gaels just about knocked off the under achieving Bulldogs, even though Patty Mills was on the sidelines.
Yes, the team that spent much of the season in the top 10 and has four guys that look destined to be drafted barely hung on to beat a team that cracked the top 25 (even with a 16-1 record) for just one week before their star player, and only future pro, broke two bones in his hand.
What does that tell you?
That St. Mary's, not Gonzaga, is the team to beat in the WCC—when Patty Mills is healthy. If last night's performance wasn't evidence enough for you, does their first match-up convince you? Before Mills left with the injury, the Gaels were putting it on the 'Zags. They were up 29-21 and Mills had scored 18 with three minutes to go in the first half. At Gonzaga.
With Patty Mills, the Gaels are extremely dangerous. Their front line of Diamon Simpson, Omar Samhan, and Ben Allen is good enough (and, more importantly, big enough) to match-up up with the front-line of any team in the country—Samhan and Allen are 6'11" while Simpson is 6'7" but has extremely long arms and plays more like someone 6'10".
The Gaels also have a number of shooters on the perimeter that helps spread the floor for their pick-and-roll offense.
Running that pick-and-roll offense is what makes them so dangerous when Mills is healthy. It also is why they are no where near the same team without him.
You see, there may not be a player in the country quicker than Mills (just ask Chris Paul or Coach K). There are not many people that can keep Mills in front of them on the perimeter, but he is a good enough three point shooter than you can't go under a ball-screen against him.
This creates a situation where the big man guarding the screener is either going to have to switch, hedge out hard (meaning he doubles Mills until the guard is able to recover), or simply hope that the guy defending Mills is able to get over the screen without allowing Mills to penetrate.
Regardless of what the defense does, the ball screen is going to put St. Mary's in a position where they have a mismatch some where on the floor—either with a big man on Mills and a guard on a post, or a situation where Mills is going to be penetrating into the lane.
Sounds pretty simple, right? That's because it is.
Until you don't have a healthy Mills to rely on.
Without Mills, the Gaels have no one that can really run the point for them. No one else on their roster has the ability to break down a defender like Mills does (not many people in the country do, for that matter).
Their best option is probably Carlin Hughes, who is a heady senior that can knock down an open shot and doesn't turn the ball over. He can get in the lane from time to time, but it is not the same as when Mills is out there.
St. Mary's really struggled in their first three-and-a-half games without their star, but they are still a talented team. While they look like they are starting to figure out how to play without Mills, it is clear that their NCAA tourney hopes hinge on Mills returning in time for the conference tournament.
While St. Mary's is (was) having a great season, Gonzaga has really struggled. Well, as much as you can struggle while going 18-5. To be honest, I really don't understand why they are not better than they are. They are as talented, position by position, as any team in the country.
I think the answer lies with Jeremy Pargo. Don't get me wrong, the kid has as much raw talent as anyone. He is strong, he has great size (6'2", 210), he is quick and athletic, he can score in a variety of ways, and he is an excellent passer.
The problem is, this team has three or four other guys than can be considered stars; that can put up 20 points on any given night.
The 'Zags don't need Pargo to be a score first, ball-dominating point guard. They need him to be a guy that will set up the offense and get other players the ball where they need it to be effective. Early on in the season, when the 'Zags ran through the Old Spice Classic, Pargo was playing extremely well, and made it onto a lot people's early all-american lists. In his last eight games, Pargo is averaging 8.9 ppg, 3.4 apg, and three takeaways while shooting 38 percent from the floor.
Pargo is a great player, but is not the kind of player that will run a team—he is a scorer. Until he regains that ability to run the team (like he was doing early in the season), Gonzaga is going to be mediocre.
But back to St. Mary's, I believe that they still have a chance at an at-large bid, but two things are going to need to happen. They are going to have to play at least three or four games with Mills. And in those three or four games, they are going to need to prove to the committee that they are one of the best 34 at-large teams.
In other words, in those three or four games they need to whoop up on whoever they end up playing, reaching the conference tourney finals (or losing to Gonzaga in the semi's, should they get the four seed).
Or take the guess work out of it. Win the WCC and get the automatic bid.