Wednesday January 6th, 2016

Could a team besides Gonzaga win the West Coast Conference? Not many believed so at the start of the season. Ask the question now, though, and the Saint Mary’s Gaels seem to be the top contender.

Saint Mary’s has had one of the most surprising starts to the season of anyone. Consider this: When the 2015–16 campaign began, the Gaels were No. 143 on kenpom.com. They were picked to finish fourth in the WCC, did not receive a first-place vote and did not have a player make the conference’s preseason All-WCC team. As of Wednesday, the Gaels are 13–1, No. 18 on kenpom.com and received 23 votes in this week’s AP poll.

But those numbers only begin to tell the story of how the Gaels have been so successful this season. They’ve compiled a smorgasbord of elite stats through their first 14 games. The Gaels’s three-point shooting percentage (47.8%) is No. 1 in the country. Their assist-to-turnover ratio (2.04) is .20 better than any other team in D-I. And their effective field-goal percentage (63.9%) is—you guessed it—also No. 1.

The astounding stats don’t end there, either. Saint Mary’s ranks top 5 in both scoring defense and scoring margin, No. 13 in kenpom,com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 15 in rebound margin and No. 18 in effective field goal percentage on defense.

Coach Randy Bennett’s squad is led by sophomore guard Emmett Naar, whose 13.5 points per game is first on the team and goes along with 6.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds. Forward Dane Pineau is next with 11.2 points per game (on 62.2% shooting), and Calvin Hermanson, Joe Rahon and Evan Fitzner round out five Gaels players who average at least 9.5 points.

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All of the above has helped the Gaels pick up wins over Stanford, UC Irvine and WCC foe BYU, the latter being a statement to the rest of the conference that they are serious about contending for the WCC’s automatic NCAA bid. If there’s a reason to be timid about Saint Mary’s success so far, start with its strength of schedule, which ranks amongst the worst in the country. It’s a fair criticism to point to that, but the Gaels have gone 3–1 in their top-100 contests so far.

Another concern for the Gaels is their youth. The team’s roster features seven freshmen, three sophomores, three juniors and zero seniors. That’s great news for the future of the program, but its current inexperience could cost Saint Mary’s in critical games down the stretch or in a potential NCAA tournament appearance. One the other hand, two of the Gaels’ top four scorers are juniors and the other two are sophomores, so they aren’t forced to over-rely on the rookies.

In short, this is a young team that shoots the ball extremely well, takes care of it and crashes the glass. Last year, Gonzaga rode the nation’s top field goal percentage (52.4%) all the way to the Elite Eight. This year’s Zags have underperformed a bit, leaving the door open for a team like Saint Mary’s to snag the WCC’s auto-bid. Can the Gaels get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2012–13, when Matthew Dellavedova was running the show? For the first time since then, Gonzaga will be sweating in the WCC.

Icon Sportswire via AP

Player to Watch: Oakland guard Kahlil “Kay” Felder

Just how good has Kay Felder been this season? Through 14 games, the 5’9” junior is averaging 26.1 points (No. 3 in the nation), 9.2 assists (No. 1 in the nation), 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 44.7% from the floor and 83.5% from the free throw line. And this isn’t a case of a talented player feasting on weaker opponents—it seems that the bigger the opponent, the more Felder elevates his play.

He scored 37 points in a recent narrow overtime loss to No. 1 Michigan State (without Denzel Valentine), which directly followed a 34-point effort against Toledo and a career-high 38-point performance against Washington. Not even a week after Oakland’s loss to the Spartans, Felder poured in 30 points on No. 5 Virginia and its stingy defense. The junior can light up the scoreboard in a hurry, as evidenced by his 21-point first half against Michigan State and 17-point first half against the Cavaliers. Felder is one of the most fun players to watch in college basketball, and he should be in the spotlight soon.

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Game of the Week: Valparaiso at Oakland (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

This should be a good one. Not only can you watch Felder in action yourself, but this is also a marquee Horizon League matchup. Valpo and Oakland were picked to finish one and two, respectively, in the conference’s preseason poll, and the teams’ two matchups this year (the other comes on Feb. 19) could very well determine the regular-season title.

Stat of the Week: 3

That’s how many players nationally are averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Two of those players are at mid-majors: Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney, who averages 20.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg, and New Mexico State's Pascal Siakam, who averages 23.5 ppg and 11.6 rpg. The third is LSU’s Ben Simmons. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

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