Why Gonzaga vs. St. Mary's Is the West Coast's Best Rivalry in NCAA Basketball

Hayden Deitrick@hdeitrickFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2013

Feb 9 2012; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Kevin Pangos (4) drives the lane against Saint Mary's Gaels forward Rob Jones (22) during the second half at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs would go onto to beat the Gaels 73-59. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Former Gonzaga center Robert Sacre put forth the best definition of the rivalry between GU and St. Mary’s last season; a rivalry that many consider to be the best rivalry on the west coast and in all of college basketball.

“They hate us and we hate them,” Sacre said. “It’s a love-hate relationship. They make us better. We make them better.”

St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett discussed the rivalry, saying, “As a player or a coach, you're a competitor and you look forward to tough challenges. This is a tough challenge. We all look forward to it that way. You try to bring your best when your best is needed and that's what we need."

There are a couple of aspects that can elevate a rivalry to an elite level.

Gonzaga and St. Mary’s display these characteristics and a whole lot more, and that is what truly makes this the best rivalry on the west coast.

Great Competition

To be an elite rivalry, there must be excellent competition and a thirst to be victorious.

A rivalry is only interesting if both parties can compete to win the proverbial bragging rights.

For the past five seasons, the WCC has been a two-horse race between these two elite mid-majors, and both teams looked to improve as they jockeyed for position.

Until last season, though, Gonzaga always finished first.  For the first time in 11 seasons, the Zags did not win the WCC regular season title or the WCC Championship.

Behind the incredible coaching of Randy Bennett and his talented roster, St. Mary’s went from the proverbial little brother to a nationally recognized giant slayer.  Last season’s WCC Championship was the defining sign that the Gaels had arrived.

This season, Gonzaga is looking to reclaim the WCC, and you have to think that based on their success this season, that they will do just that.

Don’t think for a second that the Gaels are going to go quietly into that good night, though.

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Recognition of Rivalry

A rivalry is worthless if it is not acknowledged by its participating members.

Beyond the numerous statements of players and coaches discussing this great rivalry, I’d argue that the very systems in place at these two schools are recognition of the intense rivalry.

St. Mary’s is loaded with talented players that can exploit many of Gonzaga’s weaknesses.  Gonzaga is likewise strong where St. Mary’s is weak.

In many ways, the competitive drive that pushes teams against each other makes the rivalry between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s special.  While both teams build their teams to compete nationally and in March, it is not surprising that their systems seem to be built to beat each other.

St. Mary’s is built upon the incredible play of their point guards. Matthew Dellavedova, who is averaging 17.4 PPG and 6.7 APG, is just the latest in elite point guards to come to Moraga.

Past point guards such as Patty Mills and Mickey McConnell were made famous for causing Gonzaga grief.  Behind strong point guard play, St. Mary’s frequently abuses the traditionally less than stellar team defense of Gonzaga.

Gonzaga, on the other hand, has long boasted a strong front court that normally stands a few inches taller and outweighs that of the Gaels.

This season, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are combining for 32.2 PPG and each pull down close to seven rebounds game in and game out.

This is within the model left behind by the likes of Robert Sacre and Ronny Turiaf.

These two very different programs are built for March, but don’t think for a second that they aren’t built to win the rivalry.

Nothing is Off Limits to Students

These teams may hate each other, but the opposing student bodies hate each other even more.

When it comes to digging up dirt on the opposition, no rock is left unturned.  When it comes to getting under a player’s skin, nothing is left unsaid.

Players expect this and look to prepare themselves accordingly.

Before visiting Moraga last season, Gonzaga shooting guard Gary Bell Jr. said, “They’re going to be saying stuff about my mom, my family, stuff I didn’t think anybody knew about. I think I’ll be ready for it.”

This is the game that fans circle on their calendars.  Both Moraga and the Kennel have their loudest moments because of this rivalry.

Chants of “overrated” by St. Mary’s are countered by chants of “we expect this” from Gonzaga.

Gonzaga signs that read “Dellavedova Likes Nickelback” are matched with St. Mary’s signs that read “Stockton’s a Daddy’s Boy”.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t speak to my brother for two days when he said he was applying to St. Mary’s. 

It’s nothing personal, it’s just rivalry.

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