Transfer Tape: Desmond Simmons, 6-7, 225 pounds, St. Mary’s (via Washington)

As with most teams in the college basketball universe, many teams in the WCC will be experiencing a plethora of incoming transfers this upcoming year. Thanks to the “senior rule” (where transfers do not have to sit out a year if they already have their degree), it is becoming more enticing for squads to get that “free agent” for a year to help boost their team’s chances for a NCAA Tournament berth for the upcoming season. The big squads that will be reliant on some big-time transfers are the usual suspects like Gonzaga (who will be depending on Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and USC transfer Byron Wesley) and San Francisco (who will be relying on a plethora of transfers that are too many to count), but St. Mary’s is a surprising squad that will be more transfer-heavy than usual. One of the more interesting players they bring to campus this fall is Desmond Simmons, a local Bay Area kid from Vallejo, California (a city that produced talent like DeMarcus Nelson and MLB great CC Sabathia) who went to Salesian High School, but ended up playing for a talent-stacked Washington Husky squad for three seasons. Now a senior, Simmons has returned to the Bay Area to play for Randy Bennett, hoping to not only help the Gaels return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season, but also to experience his first NCAA Tournament game as well (the Huskies never went to the Tournament in his time there despite playing with such highly-touted players like CJ Wilcox, Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, and Abdul Gaddy).

If you watched the video above from Simmons’ time with Drew Gooden’s Soliders AAU team based out of the Bay Area, its obvious that Simmons brings athleticism to this Gaels squad. While the Gaels have had their fair share of athletic forwards in Bennett’s time there (Diamon Simpson being the most prime example), Simmons may be one of the most athletic players to make his way to Moraga. At 6-7, 225 pounds, Simmons has the potential to play in both the post and the wing, and his combo ability should help out post centerpiece Brad Waldow, who while a talented offensive player, has struggled on the defensive end against more athletic and talented post players. While Beau Levesque, the player Simmons most likely will be replacing in the rotation, was extremely talented as a shooter and defensive rebounder, Levesque also struggled physically against bigger power forwards, as his offensive rebounding rate was meager at 7.7 percent. Look at the three year numbers for Simmons in his time at Washington, playing in a more talent-heavy roster, and in a more competitive conference (Pac-12).

Via KenPom.com

Though his offensive rebounding rates went down in his last year there, his offensive rebounding rate average is 11.1 percent, which is a significant upgrade over Levesque. Add that with already good offensive rebounders on the squad like Garrett Jackson (16.7 in 21 percent minutes played), Matt Hodgson (13.1 in 25 percent minutes played) and Waldow (13.7 percent last year) and Simmons should make stronger an already good offensive rebounding Gael squad from a year ago (35.8 percent offensive rebounding rate, 54th in the nation).

Another area which could be key to Simmons’ contributing to the Gaels squad will be his effectiveness on defense, which has not been a strength of the Gaels in Bennett’s time there. While Bennett has succeeded with strong-shooting, very good offensive-oriented squads, defensively, they have left a little to be desired. After ranking 46th in the nation in eFG percentage allowed in the 2009-2010 season, the Gaels have only cracked the Top-150 in eFG percentage allowed once since (2012-2013). Their main struggles as a team centers around giving up high 3-point percentages (165th, 296th, 274th and 300th in opposing 3P % the past four season), which is alarming considering they usually rank low when it comes to opposing 3-point shots allowed (they’ve been in the top-10 in fewest 3-pointers allowed 5 out of the past 6 years). One of the main issues is that they haven’t had the kind of athleticism in the perimeter or post to defend against that shot. Teams can hurt the Gaels with both on-ball and off-ball screens to free shooters on the perimeter, because the Gaels defenders aren’t strong or quick enough to go through or play around the screens quick enough to properly defend the shot. Add that with Bennett’s penchant for playing a shallow rotation, and the fatigue that sets in also has had an effect in terms of perimeter players losing their man (they are mostly a man-to-man based squad under Bennett) and giving up easy three point shots.

Simmons however could buck that trend. He’s long enough to contest three-point shots, and he has the speed to play adequate defense on the perimeter and the strength to go through screens and not allow space for the three pointer. Furthermore, Simmons comes from a defensive system where they excelled in defending against the the three point shot. Last season, the Huskies ranked 52nd in the nation in 3 point percentage allowed and two years ago when they won the Pac-12 regular season title, they ranked 94th in the nation. While Simmons wasn’t the sole culprit (Lorenzo Romar is known for recruiting athletic wings), the fact that he is been in that kind of defensive system and had the ability to play in it should be a huge boost to a Gaels program that has traditionally struggled in such an area.

The biggest question though is how Simmons’ offensive game will transition to minutes in Bennett’s rotation. As written in a post earlier in January, Bennett is not known for utilizing his bench much, and though this Gaels team will be deeper athletically in years past thanks to the slew of transfers, it is obvious that Bennett prefers a shallow rotation in comparison to most coaches in the WCC. It is also seen that Bennett prefers to have at least one post player who is able to step back and shoot the 3 pointer, and it is yet to be seen that Simmons has the shooting ability to fit into what the Gaels want to do offensively. Waldow is primarily a post player (only 1 3-point shot last season), and Simmons resembles the same kind of profile, as he only took 9 three point shots a year ago, a career low (he took 27 his freshman year). To make matters worse, Simmons overall shooting is pretty mediocre as well, as he sported an eFG percentage of 44.7, which was a career high. Considering Levesque had an eFG percentage of 49.2 percent last year, it doesn’t bode well that Simmons is exactly the type of 4 player that Bennett has typically played or wanted for his offensive system (which is primarily a 4-out style of offense).

But, even though he is not strong as a shooter, Simmons has gone a long way to develop his offensive game. His offensive rating of 104.4 was better than Hodgson (93.4) or Jackson (98.2) a year ago and against better competition (4th best conference in comparison to 9th best conference according to KenPom). And, Simmons is not a player who needs the ball in his hands to succeed offensively either, as his usage rate of 15.1 percent last year makes him more a complimentary piece on the offensive end, which is what the Gaels really need considering their main scoring option will again be Waldow next season. So, even though Simmons may not fit the mold characteristic of 4-position players that have come through Bennett’s system in years past, he is not a ball-killer kind of player (i.e. he doesn’t hog it and need a lot of possessions to be effectively offensively), and if he can put up similar offensive efficiency to what he did in Washington, that might be good enough for Bennett to keep Simmons in the rotation, especially considering the upside he can bring to St. Mary’s defensively.

It will be interesting to see how Simmons fits in the Gaels rotation, a team that initially looked to be in rebuilding mode until they landed high profile transfers such as Simmons and Stanford guard Aaron Bright. While Simmons may not be as high profile as some incoming WCC transfers (such as Wiltjer or Wesley for Gonzaga), he could be a complimentary piece that could help the Gaels bounce back after such a disappointing finish last season. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how Simmons affects Bennett’s recruiting in the future, as Simmons is very atypical of what Bennett has traditionally brought to Moraga in terms of profile and athleticism. If Simmons succeeds with the Gaels, and helps St. Mary’s to another tournament berth, it could result in the addition of more higher-profile and athletic wing players to the Gaels program, not only as transfers, but perhaps as incoming freshmen as well.

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Recruit Report: Evan Fitzner, 6-10, 215 pounds, St. Mary’s Commit

The first post player on the recruit report belongs to Evan Fitzner, a 6-10 forward from Francis Parker High School in San Diego. Fitzner signed with Randy Bennett’s Gaels on October, 8th and he should bring an interesting profile and skill set to the Gaels in 2014-2015. He is long, athletic and has very good touch from outside the arc, the perfect kind of player to fit Bennett’s “shooter-heavy” system.

Fitzner was mostly looking at schools on the West Coast, as he also received offers from Arizona State, California, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, USC and Washington. Just judging by the four other WCC School offers, there was a high possibility that Fitzner was going to be playing in the WCC somewhere next season. That being said, it appears that his visit and the program in general convinced Fitzner to take his talents up north from San Diego to Moraga.

Let’s take a look at some things about Fitzner.

What they Are Saying About Fitzner

From ESPN.com (71 rating, 3 star recruit)

Fitzner possesses a long and rangy frame with very long arms. He is a good athlete that runs well and his quickness and bounce have improved around the paint area. He has a remarkable touch that extends out to 22-feet and his ball skills are impressive.”

From Full Court Press.net (45th best player in SoCal area)

Skilled forward needs strength and bulk as well as toughness to be a factor in WCC.” 

From West Coast Convo

This is a big time commitment for the Gaels as next season they will lose 6’11 center Matt Hodgeson to graduation and had already lost power forward Chris Reyes this year who transferred out earlier this season. Fitzner is known more for his shooting ability at the stretch-4 position rather than interior play, but none-the-less should get good minutes next season in his first year as a Gael.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch video of Fitzner, there is a lot to like. He has a good looking shot, and his form and touch has improved greatly from his sophomore season. In fact, as an outside player, he seems very dangerous, as he can find his shot easily thanks to his ability to move around well for a big man, in addition to his height. In many ways, he seems to be a combo of former Gael Daniel Kickert (who was a big man with a strong propensity to shoot from the outside) and Gonzaga forward Austin Daye (who was a good shooter from the outside for a 6-10 player). I am not sure if he has Daye’s defensive ability (Daye was a very good shot blocker at Gonzaga), but he definitely shares the former first round draft pick’s combo skill set of shooting and size.

Much like Daye though, Fitzner needs to add strength, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll be able to get inside to score points or get to the line if his shot is not falling. The Gaels will return Brad Waldow next year, but Fitzner could be a player to take the ease off him in the post, which could not only benefits Fitzner’s game, but Waldow’s as well. That being said, there are going to be some good big men next year in the WCC in Przemek Karnowski at Gonzaga (who’ll be a junior) and Thomas van der Mars from Portland (who’ll be a senior), so it’ll be interesting to see how Fitzner adjusts to the nightly competition after playing at a small school in San Diego (though to be fair he has played against good AAU and tournament competition).  I don’t see Fitzner making an immediate splash, but I think his shooting skill set and height will make him a decent, if not solid contributor for the Gaels in his freshman season next year, which will be sorely needed as the Gaels routinely struggle with depth on their squad.

Data Sheet Analysis: A Look at How WCC Coaches Utilize Their Benches

If bench minutes history over the past four years means anything, those Gaels in the warm ups know their time on the floor is few and far between with coach Randy Bennett

I was looking up some data on Ken Pom.com (I know I’m addicted to that site), and I found something interesting. This season, many WCC programs rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of utilizing their bench. Only one team ranks in the Top-100 in terms of bench minutes percentage (Pacific), a stark contrast in comparison to years past from WCC teams. While you can access the Data Sheet on Bench Minutes on the “Data Sheets” Page, I’ll post the numbers right here to give you a context of the lack of time the bench players see in the WCC.

Team Bench Min % Nat’l Rank
Pacific 37.3 65
Santa Clara 34.2 120
Loyola Marymount 33.8 130
Pepperdine 33.7 132
Portland 30.6 201
San Francisco 30.1 217
Gonzaga 28.7 253
BYU 28.6 256
San Diego 27.5 274
St. Mary’s 23.1 333

 

Now, there are a variety of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench less than other rival coaches. For some, it all can depend on a coaches’ style. A team that presses more, plays more in transition is more likely to use their bench to keep fresh legs on the court to play to their system. This is the case for a program like Arkansas who leads the nation in bench minutes percentage at 45.3 percent. Mike Anderson, a former Nolan Richardson disciple, plays a full court, high-pressure defensive style (i.e. “40 Minutes of Hell”). In order to maximize his team’s effectiveness (especially on the defensive ends), constant bench usage is necessary. Of course, the correlation between tempo and bench isn’t always the case as BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation (77.6) but is in the bottom when it comes to bench minutes usage.

One big misconception though is that talent depth is a reason for more bench minutes usage. Teams who have more talent on the roster, should surely use their bench more than programs who are thin talent wise. So, if this thought is true, a team like Duke would be utilizing their bench than say a program like Montana State. That isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to the Top-50 for teams who use their benches the most, only six (Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa, Texas A&M, Houston, Georgia, Louisville, Oregon State) came from major conferences, and only one (Louisville) made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (though Iowa was certainly deserving). The same proves to be true in the WCC. The top-3 favorites (Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s) in the conference rank in the bottom of the conference in terms of bench minutes percentage while the ones at the top were relative afterthoughts going into the season (though Pacific did make the NCAA Tournament a year ago albeit as a Big West representative, a much weaker conference than the WCC).

But one year is just one year, right? After all, talent changes quite often and systems may differ depending on personnel. So, I wanted to take a look at which coaches tended to use their benches the most, and which ones did the least. To find this out, I went to Ken Pom.com, found each team’s bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014 and then averaged out the four year span. The results are shown in this graph:

As you can see the four year results provide some interesting trends. For starters, Randy Bennett seems to be the leading coach in the WCC who trusts his bench the least. His 26.4 percent four year average for bench minutes percentage correlates to the 23.1 percent bench minutes percentage we have seen from his squad this year (though even for his standards he trusts his bench even less so this year, as it is 3.1 percent below his four year average). Rex Walters has sort of employed the same “shallow rotation” with his Dons squads, as his 29 percent four year average is was second-least in the conference. Considering the amount of transfers Walters has seen in his tenure on “The Hilltop” it’s interesting to wonder if his “strict rotation” (or lack of bench utilizaiton) was a reason for a lot of his transfers or just one of the effects.

LMU leads the WCC in bench minutes percentage over the four year span with an average of 34.1, barely edging out Eric Reveno and Portland who finished with a four year average of 34. Portland’s finish is interesting because they never led the conference in bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014, but they finished second in the conference in 2012 and 2013, so that explains their close finish to LMU, who led the conference in bench minutes percentage in 2012 (they had the 37th highest bench minutes percentage in the nation that year as well).

The most eye-popping case is at Gonzaga with Mark Few as his bench minutes percentages have fluctuated wildly over the past four years. As you can see by his four year average, Few obviously numbers and minutes-wise utilizes his bench a decent amount, but that sharply contrasts from what we have seen this year (hence, their third-place finish in the four year average with an average of 33.7). In 2011, the Zags led the conference in bench minutes percentage at 38.5 percent (30th highest in the nation). Last year, they ranked fourth in the conference but still finished 81st in the nation (2013 was a year for bench players in the WCC as only BYU was outside the Top-200 in terms of bench minutes percentage) with a percentage of 34.8. But Few at times has showed years where he has relatively little trust in his reserves. In 2012, he trusted his bench less than the 4 year average, as the bench only averaged 32.7 minutes and this year, he showed even more of a lack of trust, as the Zags reserves are averaging only 28.7 minutes per game. Now, the lack of depth in the front court could be the main cause of this, but it is interesting to see how minutes have plunged at times in the Zags program, compounded by the fact that they have had many transfers over the past few years which ultimately led to this lack of depth for this Zags squad (just look at Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler who is starting for Oklahoma now). Few has showed a short leash with players on the bench, even though his teams have been the deepest in the conference talent-wise for years. Even this year’s team has a lot of depth on the perimeter, but as displayed from the numbers, he doesn’t utilize them as much as other, lesser-talented teams in the conference.

All these numbers are up for interpretation and as stated before, there are lots of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench more or less. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see the numbers laid out, and see how each coaches’ process will fare out for them over the conference season and into conference tournament play and beyond.

Can the Gaels’ Offense Carry Them to a WCC Crown?

Brad Waldow is in the Midst of A Career Season and Has Helped the Gaels Be One of the Best Offensive Teams in the Nation

We have seen some early surprises already this year in the WCC: BYU and Portland are off to 0-2 starts, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount off to 2-0 starts, etc. Yet one thing that has remained the same is Gonzaga and St. Mary’s being cemented at the top, as they are a combined 3-0 going into their match up Thursday night in Spokane. The Zags have looked inconsistent on the offensive end in their home wins over Bay Area schools Santa Clara and USF, but the defense looks vastly improved with the addition of Angel Nunez to the lineup. The improved D was on full display against the Dons, where they held a team rated in the Top-50 according to Adjusted Offense to just 0.60 points per possession. Currently, the Zags rate 82nd in the nation in Adjusted Defense thanks to their last two performances (they were in the low 100’s going into the slate against the Broncos and Dons).

St. Mary’s on the other hand bounced back offensively against the scrappy Pacific Tigers, as they beat the Tigers 88-80 in front of a pro-Tigers crowd in Stockton. While the Tigers are new to the WCC, the win is nothing to shrug off for Gaels fans: Pacific was a tournament team a year ago, and they were 9-2 and rated 110th in the nation according to Ken Pom going into the contest. However, after three straight losses in Hawaii (to teams rated in the 100’s at the time of their games), the Gaels were clicking on all cylinders on the offensive side of the ball. The Gaels scored 1.33 points per possession and didn’t have a regular player under 110 in terms of offensive rating. Furthermore, they also took care of the ball (only eight turnovers to the Tigers’ 11) and were able to create plays in the halfcourt, as evidenced by their 18 total assists for the game (compared to the Tigers’ eight). Even though the game got close toward the end, the Tigers were hard-pressed to come back in the second half, as the Gales were up as many as 13 with 2:26 left in the game.

Offensively, there is no question St. Mary’s may be the most efficient team in the conference and arguably the country. The Gaels play the slowest tempo in the WCC (64.6 pace), but they remain in a similar mold to Gaels teams of the past: great outside team shooting and a good post player who can get it done inside and keep opposing teams honest. We all know about players such as Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova who could absolutely torch opposing teams from outside the arc. But, it was the presence of post players like Omar Samhan and Rob Jones that made those guys, and the St. Mary’s offense, effective as well. It was the presence of such an inside-outside combo that made the Gaels a difficult team to defend on a nightly basis.

This year, coach Randy Bennett hasn’t changed things much. The Gaels still have effective shooters, as evidenced by guards Stephen Holt, James Walker and Kerry Carter, who all have 50-plus three-point shot attempts this year (and none have a 3 point percentage less than 43 percent). Furthermore, Beau Levesque, has proved to be a Daniel Kickert-esque forward who has been effective inside (55.3 eFG percentage) and outside (43.6 three point percentage). Thus, it makes sense that not only are the Gaels one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the country (43.3 percent, 4th best in the nation), but that they rely on the three point shot for a good portion of their points as well (32.6 percent, 54th highest percentage in the nation).

But the glue that puts it all together and has made the Gaels so effective offensively has to be big man Brad Waldow, who is posting an insane 134.5 offensive rating and 64.2 effective field goal percentage with a usage rate of 26.1 percent (highest on the team). To put Waldow’s junior campaign into context, Waldow’s offensive rating, if the season ended today, would be almost 16 points higher than Samhan’s best year (his junior season in 2009) and his eFG percentage would be almost 10 points higher than Samhan’s best mark as well (Samhan’s junior season). Considering Samhan’s impact and legendary status with the Gaels, the fact that Waldow’s junior year has made Samhan’s best year pale in comparison bodes high hopes that the Gaels can be WCC contenders as long as Waldow can maintain this kind of efficiency over the course of conference play.

For the year, the Gaels rank fifth in the nation in Adjusted Offensive efficiency (118.2). That being said, their defensive inefficiencies make this a vulnerable team at times, as evidenced by their performance in Hawaii. Statistically, the Gaels ranked 176th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive efficiency according to Ken Pom. While they defend beyond the arc reasonably well (they allow a 29.8 percent three point percentage, 42nd best in the nation), they struggle to defend in the paint, as they rank 182nd in the nation in 2 point percentage allowed. Compound that with mediocre steal (235th in the nation) and block (148th in the nation) and it makes sense numerically why the Gaels rate so lackluster on the defensive side of things.

When you watch the Gaels in person, it makes sense why they struggle to defend teams at times. As good as Waldow is, athletically he doesn’t strike an intimidating presence. Much like Samhan, he has that “un-athletic” build, and he can get beat to the hoop or fall asleep defending his area in the zone at times. He doesn’t possess elite jumping or shuffling ability, and the fact that he is able to post the rates that he does not just in terms of scoring, but rebounding and defensively, is a minor miracle. Waldow isn’t alone though, as the Gaels do struggle at times to match up with more athletic players or teams, whether it is in the post or even perimeter (though less likely in the latter). This is evidenced by the Gaels creating a lot of fouls as a team, as they just aren’t able to keep proper defensive position due to their disadvantages athletically. The Gaels are allowing teams to average 44.5 free throw attempts a game, which is 4 points higher than the national average and 240th in the nation. The Gaels draw a lot of fouls themselves (they average 46.5 free throw attempts per game), but their tendency to foul a lot and not get a lot of steals either display the struggles they will face in WCC play this year against more athletic, “drive it to the hoop” squads.

That being said, the Gaels have overcame this lack of athleticism and size before. They thrashed second seeded Villanova en route to the Sweet 16 even though the Wildcats had obvious athletic advantages over the Gaels with players such as Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena (who were all on the Final Four squad a year ago). Last year, Middle Tennessee State was a popular pick to make a deep run due to their athletic defensive-oriented squad. And yet, the Gaels were still able to pull off a 67-54 win in the “play-in” first round game. The Gaels may not impress people with their roster or when one takes a look at them in warm ups, but its obvious that they are magicians in terms of creating offense and getting points, and Bennett deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that kind of consistency even though the players he’s recruited haven’t athletically been much better than former Gaels in years past.

So, can the Gaels be able to win a WCC regular season and/or tournament crown with their current approach? It will really come down to how they play against Gonzaga this year, who is not only in their ballpark offensively (they rank 11th in the nation in Adjusted Offense) but are better defensively than the Gaels, especially with the addition of Nunez, whose long frame presents a lot of match up problems in the Austin Daye and Micah Downs mold. St. Mary’s though can certainly make a statement on Thursday, as the statuses of Sam Dower and Gary Bell are in question, and if the Gaels can light it up early, it may be tough for the Zags to come back with two of their go-to guys out. However, a loss for the Gaels wouldn’t hurt them dramatically, as they will have another shot at the Zags at the end of the year on March 1st (last regular season WCC game of the year).

While St. Mary’s will probably improve defensively over the course of the year (though how much is a question), they will need their offense to have a shot in the WCC and to earn a NCAA Tournament berth. Bennett has done this before with similarly made up squads, and though they may not have the “elite” guard like Paddy Mills, McConnell or Dellavedova from seasons past, the scoring balance they show on the perimeter, and the presence of Waldow, who is having a massive season efficiency wise, will probably keep this team in the WCC Championship hunt. The defensive issues are glaring statistically and in terms of the eye test, but I don’t think they are bad enough to keep this St. Mary’s squad from finishing any worse than second in the WCC (especially after BYU’s start).

Can Pacific Make a Statement Against a Reeling St. Mary’s?

Khalil Kelley (center with ball) and the Tigers Can Make A Strong First Impression in the WCC With a Win Over St. Mary’s on Monday

At first, I wasn’t totally sure about the decision to include Pacific in the WCC starting this season. For the longest time, the prime candidate to round the conference number at 10 seemed to be Seattle University, who used to be a basketball powerhouse (Elgin Baylor went to Seattle) and were looking to rekindle some of their lost luster with the hire of Cameron Dollar and the move from Division II to Division I a few years back. Add that with the fact that they were also a Jesuit Catholic school (like USF, Santa Clara, LMU and of course, Gonzaga), the move seemed natural for the Redhawks.

Instead, the school in the Northern California from the Big West was given the invitation, not Seattle, and while the “non-Catholic” school count in the WCC rose to three (including Pepperdine and BYU), the decision so far to include the Tigers seems to have been a sound one. The Tigers, under first year coach Ron Verlin are 9-2 to start the year with wins over Utah State (ranked 72 in KPR), Fresno State (154 in KPR) and UC Irvine (110 in KPR). While the Tigers were blown out by Oregon and Princeton (lost by 20 plus in both contests), they have showed that they should be taken seriously in conference, even though the WCC is a big step up in competition over the Big West.

Pacific will get a chance to make a statement on Monday against a St. Mary’s squad that is reeling after three straight losses in Hawaii (South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason) at the Diamond Head Classic. The Gaels continue their holiday travels on the road, and going to Stockton won’t be a walk in the park for this 9-3 Randy Bennett-led squad. After all, both San Diego and BYU had their troubles in their first conference road contests of the year, as they dropped games to underdog squds Pepperdine and LMU, respectively. While it will be difficult to say how the home environment at the Spanos Center will be with this Christmas Break still in progress, it won’t be an easy contest for a Gaels team that is probably road weary after a lot of travel and a rough tournament showing in Hawaii. Even Ken Pomeroy thinks this game has tremendous potential, as he rates it as the 4th best game of the day with a thrill score potential of 56.6.

But, this really isn’t about the Gaels. Yes, the Gaels need a win to rebound after a tough stretch. They need to stay ahead early on in conference play, especially since the conference seems so wide open with BYU’s recent loss and the Zags struggling in the post with Sam Dower out due to injury. That being said, this game is equally important to the Tigers. With a win,  they suddenly have a chance to snag a WCC crown that many people thought was well out of their reach in the preseason. With a loss, they may prove again to be another WCC team that feasted from a relatively soft non-conference schedule.

So what are the Tigers’ chances in this one? Ken Pom has this one close, as he projects a 74-73 win in favor of the Gaels, and gives the Tigers a 45 percent chances of winning. Those are good odds for the Tigers, even better than the odds the Lions had going into Saturday’s contest against the Cougars. But, looking past the individual game itself, this is a vastly different Tigers squad from previous squads under long-time coach Bob Thomasen, and it’ll be interesting to see if this “new-look” Tigers squad can continue to develop and earn a big-time win under their first-time head coach.

Verlin was a long-time assistant under Thomasen, so he is familiar with the program and the style that Tigers have preferred over the years. Under Thomasen, the Tigers were a slow-it-down team, their pace usually ranking in the low 60’s on an annual basis. This year, with full-control of the reigns, Verlin has elected to speed it up, as the Tigers have increased their Tempo to 68.7, which is higher than anything Thomasen has done since 2003 (the furthest Ken Pom’s stats go back). The plan to play a faster-kind of ball has worked well to the Tigers’ advantage, as they have been efficiently offensively, as evidenced by their 109.0 Adjusted Offensive rating, which is 69th best in the nation. They have shot the ball well beyond the arc this year (38.3 percent, 58th best in the nation), and have been overall a pretty solid shooting team, as evidenced by their 51.4 effective field goal percentage, which is just outside the Top-100. The faster pace has also made this Tigers a deeper team as well, as Verlin has relied heavy on his bench this year, as he utilizes his reserves 37.1 percent of the time. Considering how heavy Gonzaga and SMC have relied on their starters this year, the deeper Tigers may have an advantage over the long course of the season thanks to the experience the reserves earned during their non-conference slate.

Offensively this is a better team than the one that made the tournament a year ago (they had a 104 rating last year). But defensively, there are still issues that make one wonder how “real” the Tigers are. Last season, the Tigers ranked in the Top-100 in steal and block percentage. This season? They are 139th in block percentage and 269th in steal percentage. They have some size on their team, as evidenced by their +1.3 effective height rating and the presence of players such as 6-10 senior Tim Thomas (who leads the team in block percentage at 5.9 percent) and 6-8 forwards Tony Gill and Khalil Kelley. That being said, how the Tigers will adjust on the defensive end of the court may be the key to whether or not they separate themselves from middle of the pack in the WCC. The WCC has a lot of offensively-proficient squads, with St Mary’s and Gonzaga continuing that tradition (both rank in the Top 15 in Adjusted Offense), and San Francisco displaying amazing ability and efficiency on the offensive end (they rank 31st) if not on the defensive side of things (317th in adjusted defense). Pacific certainly can play with the best of them in the WCC when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop. Whether or not they can prevent other conference teams from putting the ball in the hoop will determine whether they are a possible 20-win squad, or just another middling team that hovers around .500.

There is some talent on this Tigers squad that makes a possible WCC crown possible. 6-7 senior Ross Rivera leads the team in offensive efficiency at 118.1, highlighted by a 60.6 true shooting percentage and 40.8 free throw rate (made better by his 90 percent FT percentage). Kelley has been a beast on the offensive glass, as he is posting a 16.4 offensive rebounding rate, 25th best in the nation. And though senior guard Samu Taku hasn’t necessarily been the most efficient player on this Tigers squad (96 offensive rating), he has improved from a year ago (91 offensive rating) and his numbers should improve if he can find the better shooting touch he displayed from a year ago (37.1 eFG percentage this year in comparison to the 43.5 percent he shot last year).

Sometimes, when a long-term assistant takes over a program, their are some growing pains and some coaches rarely realize the success of their predecessor and mentor. Ed DeChellis (who took over at Rhode Island for Jim Harrick) and Bruiser Flint (who took over at UMass for John Calipari) are prime examples of long time assistants who couldn’t match their former coach’s success. Verlin has a long way to go, and as stated before, the Tigers feasted on a non-conference schedule that probably could make even the most mediocre of coaches look good. That being said, St. Mary’s will be a good barometer check not only for Verlin, but this Tigers squad in general. An upset win, and Pacific will announce to the WCC world that their seasons debut may be the start of something special for years to come.

Were Gonzaga and St. Mary’s Exposed After Weekend Losses?

Even with the addition of BYU and Pacific, the WCC race within the past decade has come between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. Mark Few and Randy Bennett have been the staples of coaching success in the WCC, and on a regular basis the two schools have produced their fair share of talent (Adam Morrison, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk, Omar Samhan, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova just to name a few) which has resulted in a slew of victories and NCAA Tournament appearances for both programs.

That being said, both teams came into this season with a lot of question marks. The Zags lost mainstay forward Elias Harris and glue guys Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi to graduation, and saw Olynyk leave a year early (can’t really blame him) to become a first round draft pick by the Boston Celtics. As for the Gaels, not only did they lose all-conference stud Dellavedova, but they also lost big man Mitchell Young to graduation. While both teams returned a lot of key pieces from their successful 2012-2013 squads, they also lost some key players whose productions would have to be replaced in order to replicate last year’s successes and be competitive not just in the WCC, but at the national level again in 2013-2014.

How have the results been so far? So far good for both squads. Entering Saturday’s game, the Zags came to Wichita with a 10-1 record to face a talented, but inconsistent Kansas State squad. As for the Gaels, they were away for the holidays, traveling to Hawaii to take on South Carolina, another inconsistent squad that was coming off head scratching losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate in consecutive games, in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (another interesting subplot was if the Gaels took care of business, they could have faced Boises State, who are coached by former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice).

Contribute it to the travel or Christmas break or whatever, but things did not go as well as planned for both squads. The Zags struggled against an athletic and scrappy Wildcats team, and without the services of big man Sam Dower, who went down in the first half with a hip injury, the Zags’ lack of size was greatly exposed on both ends of the court. As for the Gaels, they were unable to stop the hot-shooting Gamecocks defensively, and they ended up getting surprised by a team that looked to be a bottom feeder for the second straight year in the SEC.

Is this a cause for concern for Gonzaga and St. Mary’s fans? Or is this another case of the “Christmas break letdown” blues? (This has been the case for Gonzaga a lot in the past decade). Let’s take a deeper look into both games:

Gonzaga versus Kansas State (72-64)

For the year, Kansas State has struggled to find offensive consistency for the year. Their adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy is 102.2 (roughly 1.02 points per possession), and their effective field goal percentage is 46 percent, 283rd best in the nation. Their inability to find consistent offense explains why they have some letdown losses to teams like Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (neutral court). However, if you want to give credit to second-year coach Bruce Weber (and I don’t like to give him credit for anything the way he drove that Illinois program into the ground), you have to applaud his ability to keep the Wildcats solid as a defensive squad. This year, their 94.3 adjusted defensive rating is 20th best in the nation, and they excel in terms of contesting and forcing bad shots and turnovers, as they are holding teams this year to a 45.1 effective field goal percentage (44th best in the nation) and have a turnovers forced percentage of 21.9 (27th best in the nation). The big story was this: could the sweet-shooting Zags succeed against a K State team that held teams in check on the perimeter and from beyond the arc (the Wildcats are holding teams to a 25.8 percent three point percentage for the year, 4th best in the nation)?

Well, Kansas State succeeded on the defensive end for the most part. Sans the performance of Kevin Pangos (more on him later), Drew Barnham and the limited performance of Sam Dower before he went out with injury, the Zags were immensely poor on the offensive end. While Karnowski shot well from the field (5-of-6), his 0-for-6 performance from the charity stripe hurt the Zags as he finished with an offensive rating of 92 for the game, according to Ken Pom. David Stockton and Kyle Draginis also provide mediocre performances on the offensive end, as they finished with offensive ratings of 92 and 90, respectively. But the worst offender of the game? Gary Bell, who has showed some strong consistency this year in his junior season, posted a rating of 64, as he struggled from beyond the arc, missing some key three point shots down the stretch and finishing 1-of-7 from the field with a mere 3 points. The Zags for the game finished with only 1.03 points per possession, greatly down from their 1.16 season average (which went down from that game, so it was higher but I don’t have the number yet). Kansas State needed to shut down the Zags on the offensive end to have a shot in this game, and when Dower went down, the Zags’s lack of size (minus-2.0 effective height for the year, 299th in the nation, and that is WITH Dower) and presence in the post was greatly exposed and the Wildcats were able to put more pressure on the perimeter with only Karnowski as the legitimate threat in the paint.

However, another story for the game was the Wildcats’ offensive breakout. Kansas State averaged 1.20 points per possession in this game, helped by 52.8 percent shooting on their two point shots (though they continued to struggle from beyond the arc, as they only made 5 out of 18). Furthermore, they were able to out rebound the Zags on the offensive end (10-8 on the offensive glass), get to the free throw line more as well (25 to the Zags’ 15), and they turned the ball over less than the Zags (4-to-12). Considering the Zags lost all four factors of this game, the fact that they only lost by eight is pretty remarkable. Forward Thomas Gipson proved to be the thorn for the Zags individually, as he scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, good for an offensive rating of 163 in only 21 minutes.

So, should Zags fans hit the panic button yet? Well, it all depends on the health of Dower. X-Rays have come back negative on Dower’s hip, but it’ll be interesting to see how he recovers and how this will affect his play for the year. While the Zags have transfer forward Angel Nunez eligible, he did not play in the Wildcats game, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get an increased role with Dower’s health a question over the coming weeks. That being said, I think this was the perfect storm game for the Zags, as the loss of Dower, combined with the rare offensive outburst of the Wildcats put the chips stacked against the Zags from the beginning. As I said before, the fact that they only lost by eight, despite losing all four factors of the game is pretty remarkable. I will say this: Pangos is certainly the backbone of this team, and I think it’s his “WCC Player of the Year” award to lose this year. Despite getting shut out in the first half, Pangos made the necessary adjustments in the second half and finished with 14 points, 6 assists and an offensive rating of 120. Pangos is proving he’s “The Man” on this Gonzaga team, and I think the confidence he got from this game will bode well for the Zags going forward, since they aren’t going to face a lot of teams that are as big a threat defensively as the Wildcats in WCC play.

St. Mary’s vs. South Carolina (78-71)

The big issue with Randy Bennett’s squads in the past is that they have played soft non-conference schedules. This year has been no different, as the Gaels have only played one game away from home (Boise State) and have not played anyone in the Top-50 according to Ken Pom’s ratings. So, while the 9-0 record was nice, many wondered how the Gaels would stack up against the Zags in conference play, since their record was padded by such an easy early schedule.

I expected a letdown of some sort from the Gaels in this tournament, but I did not expect it to come at the hands of South Carolina, a team that was coming off brutal losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate (rated 84th and 154th, respectively by Ken Pom). However, the Gaels, while again efficient on the offensive end (12th in the nation in offensive efficiency), have displayed inconsistency this year on the defensive end, as evidenced by their 101.1 defensive rating, 128th in the nation. The Gaels don’t cause a lot of turnovers (only an 18 percent turnover rate, 208th in the nation) and they don’t get a lot of steals (7.9 steal rate, 252nd in the nation), so they rely on their presence and ability to force bad shots in order to be effective on the defensive side of the ball. It has worked for the most part, as teams are only shooting an effective field goal percentage of 47.1, so when the Gaels are able to settle down defensively in the half court, they do show some ability on the defensive end to prevent points on possessions.

However, for whatever reason, the Gamecocks came lighting it up in Hawaii, as they shot 58.5 percent on their two points shots, and four of seven from beyond the arc. The offensive performance was a surprise for the Gamecocks, as they were shooting a woefully bad 44.9 on their two points shots this year, and post an overall effective field goal percentage of 46.5. And yet, the Gamecocks were able to shot almost 14 percent higher than their season average on two point shots, which lead to them scoring 1.24 points per possession against the Gaels. Surprisingly, the Gaels didn’t slouch on the offensive end, as they averaged 1.13 points per possession thanks to the performances of Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker, who posted offensive ratings of 137, 124 and 142, respectively. Waldow also scored a team-high 20 points, though his 112 offensive rating and 28 percent possession percentage made his performance less impressive to the other three.

So where did the Gaels go wrong? While the Gamecocks did get to the line more, they didn’t make it count, as evidenced by their 62.1 percentage from the charity stripe. One of the big factors had to be on the offensive glass, as even though the Gamecocks had less for the game, they had a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (44 percent) to the Gaels (38.2 percent). Add that with a superior shooting day for the Gamecocks, and the Gaels, despite playing effectively on the offensive end, just weren’t able to pull this one off. Guards Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice had effective games against the Gaels’ perimeter players, as they scored 13 and 11 points, respectively (good for ratings of 129 and 183). Additionally, they got excellent production off the bench from 6-11 big man Laimonas Chatkevicius (12 points 7 rebounds, 119 rating) and guard Brenton Williams, who hit two key threes in the game. This was a stark contrast to the Gaels, as they got limited production from their bench in this game, as only guard Kerry Carter had much of an impact as a reserve, and even he struggled to get going in this game (91 rating, 5 points).

Much like Kansas State against the Zags, the Gamecocks outplayed their usual output on the offensive end, and that proved to be the Gaels’ undoing, especially since they are not a team that generates a lot of turnovers on the defensive end (they depend more on shutting down opponents and limiting second chance shots). The Gaels are not a very deep team, as they only got 12 minutes this game from their other bench players other than Carter (who had 36), and their bench only has accounted for 24 percent of game minutes for the year, 322nd in the nation. This will be interesting to see come WCC play, for the Gaels could be in trouble if key players get into foul trouble (which they have avoided for the most part this year). One through Five, the Gaels can play with anyone, and their ability on the offensive end is for real as well. But the perimeter depth (though certainly not front court depth) of Gonzaga could pose problems for the Gaels when they face each other in WCC play. That being said, I still believe the Gaels are legitimate contenders in the WCC, even despite the soft non-conference schedule and loss to South Carolina on Sunday.