Zags have been kings of WCC, but Gaels are closing the gap
There are no set rules about rivalries.Colleges don't have to be within bicycling distance of one another, like Duke and North Carolina, and they don't have to be state schools separated only by the labels "University of" and "State." The 866 miles that separate Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are as hard and unfriendly a road as any in college hoops, and it's an ongoing conflict that has defined the West Coast Conference for the past decade.
"It was a defining moment for us as a program," Bennett said. "We have a picture from that game in our office, and it's amazing sometimes just to look at the NBA-caliber talent that was there. Adam Morrison was there, that was Ronny Turiaf's last season. Derek Raivio was a sophomore." The Zags and their future pros did end up exacting revenge with a 80-67 victory in the 2005 WCC championship game. Despite no other wins against top-50 RPI competition, the selection committee was so impressed by the Gonzaga win that the 25-8 Gaels were granted a ticket to the Big Dance as a No. 10 seed. Saint Mary's has hung tough in the series since, and the days of blowouts are long gone. The Gaels came within a Sean Mallon free throw of possibly toppling the Zags in Spokane two seasons ago, and split the season series last year.
From what I've heard, they've had a great program for eight or nine years now. What I've heard is that this is a really big rivalry, and it's great to have rivalry games like this that everyone looks forward to. Come Monday, we're all going to have to put our best foot forward."
Saint Mary's freshman Patrick Mills
"From what I've heard, they've had a great program for eight or nine years now," Mills said. "I've heard that from Australians who have played there too, like [former Zags and current Australian national league star] John Rillie. What I've heard is that this is a really big rivalry, and it's great to have rivalry games like this that everyone looks forward to. Come Monday, we're all going to have to put our best foot forward."And one of Australia's favorite sons says there are plenty of budding Saint Mary's fans back home, and his countrymen will have a chance to see what WCC basketball is all about.
"One thing I've been shocked about is how much media [Saint Mary's] is getting back home," Mills said. "A couple of our games already have been replayed on TV there, and the Gonzaga one will be played back there live. It's great to know that we have all that support."Mills isn't the only reason why the Gaels are achieving national -- and global -- coverage. When he isn't scoring himself, he's usually distributing to SMC's other two double-figure scorers -- 6-11 broad-shouldered sophomore Omar Samhan (12.4 points, 7.9 rebounds per game) and long, athletic junior forward Diamon Simpson (12.7, 9.4). The relative youth of the squad, combined with its early success on the national stage, would seem to indicate the Gaels are poised to challenge Gonzaga's title as conference kings not only in the short term, but for years to come. "Right now, we're in the moment with this team, the present is all we're focusing on," Bennett said. "But we've worked hard to be in this position, and we have a lot of good, young players. We're a young team with promising freshmen and sophomores, and whatever we're able to do this year, we have the chance next year to be even better." But the Saint Mary's coach knows there's plenty of work to be done to bridge the gap and achieve parity with Gonzaga, and he has a set milepost in mind as a goal.
"When our fans stop storming the court when we beat them," Bennett said. "That's when I'll know the rivalry is truly even."Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.