Friday, February 10, 2012

The key for St. Mary's: don't let the Gonzaga loss spark another collapse

Last season, St. Mary's had the inside track to becoming the first team not named Gonzaga to win an outright WCC title since 2000.

They were sitting two games up on the Zags with three to play in the league, meaning that even with a loss to Gonzaga in the second-to-last game of the regular season, the Gaels controlled their own destiny. But the Gaels frittered that opportunity away. After losing to one of the worst teams in college basketball in San Diego, St. Mary's lost to Utah State in their BracketBusters game. Throw in their third loss of the season to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament title game, and it was enough to send the Gaels to the NIT.

The Gaels are in the same position this season.

Heading into Thursday's date with Gonzaga, the Gaels were in a position to move three games in front of the Zags, Loyola Marymount and BYU in the WCC standings with just four games left on their schedule. Kevin Pangos had other ideas, however, as he went for 27 points, hitting 5-6 from three, as the Bulldogs knocked off the Gaels 73-59 in front of a raucous crowd at the Kennel. Gary Bell added 12 points -- including a pair of big threes down the stretch -- while Robert Sacre and Elias Harris combined for 22 points and 18 boards.

There's no question that this was a big win for Gonzaga. Its yet another quality win for the Zags, who are playing more for seeding in the NCAA Tournament than an at-large bid, and it keeps them within striking distance of notching another WCC regular season title.

But the bigger question, at least for those of us watching from the east coast, is whether or not this will end up being the beginning of another late season collapse for the Gaels.

Frankly, I don't think it will.

St. Mary's came into this game winners of 12 straight. They won a pair of quality games on the road in the past two weeks, coming away victorious at both LMU and BYU. They have one of the most underrated back courts in the country in Matthew Dellavedova and Stephen Holt. They have a junkyard dog at the forward spot in Rob Jones. they have size, they have depth and they have three point shooting.

In simpler terms, they have all the pieces that you look for in a team that can make a run down the stretch of the regular season and put together a couple of wins during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

The issue is going to be whether or not last season creeps into their heads.

Confidence can be a tricky thing in sports. When you play with it, a player and a team can reach entirely different levels. Confidence can carry a team to an upset and to a winning streak. But confidence can also disappear in the blink of an eye. All it takes is one loss to allow the seeds of doubt to start creeping in. In this case, a loss at Gonzaga can easily trigger memories of last season's collapse, one that saw the Gaels go from the top 25 to the NIT in the span of three weeks.

The Gaels get Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount at home before closing out the season with three straight road games, including a BracketBusters date at Murray State.

On paper, the Gaels look like a safe bet to win the WCC and cruise into the WCC Tournament with there at-large status solidified.

But we could have said the same thing about the Gaels last season.

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