Once again, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are expected to rule the West Coast Conference, and we're taking a look at both teams on the NCAA basketball futures odds board.
It's not that I don't enjoy watching blue blood college basketball rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville or Georgetown-Villanova. It's just that some of the rivalries outside the bigger conferences excite me as much, if not more.
There's none better in my book than the one out in the West Coast Conference between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Saint Mary's Gaels. And just as they've been for years now, the two will once again serve as the cream of the WCC, making for must-watch TV when they collide twice early in 2017.
Zags Thinner Down Low, But Strong On Perimeter
Both the Bulldogs and Gaels enter the season as top 20 teams in the preseason polls, Gonzaga No. 14/13 in the AP and Coaches Poll, respectively, Saint Mary's checking in at No. 17/19. Despite those rankings suggesting something in the 5-7 seed range, the NCAA basketball futures don't really like either to make a deep run into next year's tournament that concludes with the Final Four in Phoenix.
Bookmaker, one of the leading on-line sports books, has the Zags priced at nearly 60/1 while the Gaels are considered long shots on a 175/1 return.
Only Gonzaga made it to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and even then as a No. 11 seed. Despite being the lower seed in the first two rounds, Mark Few's crew were slight favorites on the NCAA basketball odds when picking up wins and covers over No. 6 Seton Hall and No. 3 Utah to advance to the Midwest Sweet 16. There, the Bulldogs fell to No. 10 Syracuse.
Gonzaga did lose a couple of key contributors, forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, each now in the NBA. Returning are senior center Przemek Karnoski and soph guard Josh Perkins. Perkins should be joined in the backcourt by transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Matthews to give the Bulldogs one of the best long-range shooting trios in the country. It's no surprise to see Gonzaga favored to win the West Coast for a 16th consecutive season.
Saint Mary's beat the Bulldogs twice in the regular season, but lost to them in the WCC Championship to close out a 27-5 campaign. Despite that record, the Gaels were left out of the NCAA's and landed instead in the postseason NIT. Following wins over New Mexico State and Georgia, the Gaels lost to eventual runner-up Valparaiso in the quarters.
Maybe they'll use that NCAA snub as motivation this year, and Randy Bennett has all eight of his top players back. Bennett also brought in a talented freshman class led by guard Jordan Ford who also received offers from Gonzaga, among others. Ford should eventually join the rotation, but it will be tough to get guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon off the floor. Bennett has three experienced players down low in forwards Dane Pineau and Calvin Hermanson plus sophomore center Evan Fitzner.
The knock on both has been the weaker conference they play in, but they each have a couple of early tests that could show what they have outside the WCC. Saint Mary's has November road dates at Dayton and Tennessee, plus an opening game at Minnesota in the Golden Gopher Invitational. Gonzaga also faces Tennessee in Knoxville in December, giving us some excellent comparisons to go by, as well as a tough matchup with Arizona in Los Angeles.
The games I'm really interested in come January 14 when Gonzaga hosts Saint Mary's, and about a month later when the Bulldogs travel to take on the Gaels in Moraga. Both matchups will get here sooner than you think, so keep an eye out for free college basketball picks right here at SBR.