Next for Zags: You-know-who, with an itch to scratch

If ever Saint Mary’s might be spoiling for a fight with Gonzaga, you’d think it would be Thursday night in Spokane, when the two WCC unbeatens renew unpleasantries. As steady as the Gaels have been under Randy Bennett, there’s always Gonzaga looming out there, ready to back-burner Saint Mary’s out of the national consciousness.

Not that Gael frustration with Gonzaga is a recent phenomenon, but consider what’s happened in just the past four years:

2014: Gonzaga beats Saint Mary’s, 70-54, in the WCC tournament final, sending SMC to the NIT.

2016: Got to think this might have been the apex of exasperation for Saint Mary’s, which for the first time since 1995 sweeps the home-and-home series against a Gonzaga team trying to find itself. Well, the Zags do indeed do that, and their 85-75 win in the WCC tournament wins them another NCAA berth and again shunts the Gaels to the NIT for a third straight year.

2017: Saint Mary’s pieces together a marvelous 29-5 season, winning a game in the NCAA tournament and giving Arizona all it can handle in the round of 32. But any acclaim due Moraga is drowned out as the Zags mount their first run to the Final Four, and all Saint Mary’s gets out of it is the check Gonzaga annually earns for the rest of the WCC.

It seems staggering to think that Bennett and Mark Few have jousted 43 times in 16 seasons as head coaches -- and who can forget Bennett's blow-by handshake after a game not long ago -- with Few having a 34-9 edge. But the games pile up when virtually annually, you’re playing three times.

Not to say the Gaels haven’t had their moments. They had a court-storming 89-81 victory in Adam Morrison’s sophomore year of 2005, Bennett’s first win over Few. Omar Samhan led them to an 81-62 victory in the WCC tournament final of 2010, the rare year that Saint Mary’s went farther in the NCAA tournament (Sweet 16) than Gonzaga (round of 32). There was Mickey McConnell’s runner in Spokane near the buzzer of a 73-71 SMC win in ’11, followed by an 83-62 rout fueled by Matt Dellavedova in 2012.

Funny, but it strikes me the wins by the Gaels seem to stand out more, which may be a way of saying as much as this is a rivalry, Gonzaga has mostly dominated. When the Zags win, it’s business as usual.

Now, Gonzaga’s profile has receded (some, anyway), and the Gaels have rebounded from a crummy November. So they have to believe they have a puncher’s chance in Spokane.

A handful of numbers tell us why:

52.4 -- Saint Mary’s leads the nation in field-goal percentage. Its floor spacing is tough to guard, and the Zags struggled at times at San Francisco to keep the Dons’ guards away from the basket.

1.85 -- The Gaels’ assist-turnover ratio is No. 2 in the nation. They commit only 9.6 turnovers a game. On the other hand, playing at a methodical tempo ranked 343rd nationally by KenPom, they create only 10.5 turnovers.

.777 -- Don’t foul them; they rank 16th at the free throw line.

.449 -- Saint Mary’s defensive field-goal percentage doesn’t flatter the team’s profile; it’s 242nd in the country. The Zags shoot .512 themselves -- against a better schedule -- and they’ve tended to shoot well against Saint Mary’s. It’s usually what happens at the other end -- Zags defending the Gaels -- that writes the script in this series, and that’s probably where it’s at Thursday night in the Kennel.