Ann Killion: Is Saint Mary's the new WCC king? Gonzaga showdown looms large - Sports Illustrated

Is Saint Mary's the new WCC king? Gonzaga showdown looms large

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MORAGA, Calif. -- The Saint Mary's Gaels say they are a mentally stronger, more confident team now, thanks to their Sweet 16 experience of a year ago.

Good thing. They're going to need to tap into that confidence this week, a stretch with NCAA tournament implications.

One of last year's tournament darlings -- with a charismatic mix of delightful Australians, media-friendly Californians and gritty guards -- St. Mary's popped into the AP Top 25 last week. The Gaels (17-3, 5-0 WCC) popped out just as quickly after a 19-point loss at Vanderbilt over the weekend (though they remain ranked at No. 24 in the coaches' poll).

Up next: the dangerous double dip of the West Coast Conference, with a road trip to both Gonzaga and Portland. The Gaels have been swept on the Northwest trip the past two years and haven't won in Spokane since most of their players were in diapers, in 1995.

"It was hard to find a place to put that Vanderbilt game," Randy Bennett said before his team headed to Tennessee. The game was the second half of a home-and-home, following Vanderbilt's trip to the Bay Area in November of 2009.

"I guess I didn't look at what was behind it when I scheduled it."

What's directly behind it is Thursday's WCC rivalry game, imbued with new intensity in the wake of St. Mary's wresting the WCC crown and automatic bid from Gonzaga in last March's conference tournament.

Despite their long-standing troubles at Spokane, this could be the Gaels' chance to break the road streak. St. Mary's is in first place in the WCC and despite the Vanderbilt outcome, that was the first time they've been challenged since a loss on Dec. 1 at San Diego State, now ranked fourth in the nation. The Gaels' lone other loss preceded that game, to BYU, now ranked No. 9.

In the stretch between the San Diego State and Vanderbilt losses, St. Mary's won 11 straight games with relative ease, though visiting University of San Diego put up a fight last week.

"We hadn't had a close game in a month," Bennett said. "We've had seven or eight games we were supposed to win. That puts a lot of pressure on us."

Gonzaga -- which faces that kind of pressure routinely -- is coming off its own rough trip, losing to both Santa Clara and San Francisco last week. The Bulldogs (13-7, 3-2) haven't lost three consecutive conference games since 1997.

St. Mary's senior guard Mickey McConnell -- who scored 26 points in the WCC title game last year -- continues to be the driving force for the Gaels. He leads the team in scoring with 14.6 points per game. Sophomore guard Matthew Dellavedova, one of Bennett's Australian imports, has scored in double-figures in nine straight games and is 21st in the country in assists. Junior transfer Rob Jones is a versatile forward.

Missing this season is graduated center Omar Samhan, who dominated the boards and charmed the media during the tournament.

"We don't give quite the same amount of quotes this year," Bennett said.

"We're different. We're not as big on the boards, but we're harder to guard. We're able to bring more pressure defensively."

And the Gaels are especially different because of what they did last March, knocking off Gonzaga in the WCC tournament title game, then No. 7 seed Richmond and No. 2 seed Villanova in the NCAA tournament subregional in Providence, before falling to Baylor in the round of 16.

"Guys are mature," McConnell said. "We're confident with each other. Our confidence from last year kind of carried over."

Bennett sees that, too.

"There's a high level of belief," he said. "It's real confidence. Legit.

"I've had good teams where the moment was too big. But the moment won't be too big for us."

There's another moment coming, Thursday night in Spokane.