MORAGA — A loaded backcourt leads the Saint Mary’s College men’s basketball team on its annual road trip to No. 8 Gonzaga.
The Gaels’ guards are good, no doubt.
The bigger question is how Saint Mary’s frontcourt will fare against Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and company in the 8 p.m. Thursday game that will be televised nationally by ESPN2.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett didn’t pause when asked about Gonzaga’s inside presence. The Bulldogs’ big guys are the best Saint Mary’s has seen so far.
“They’re deep, they’re good, I think that’s the strength of the team,” Bennett said.
Gaels senior forward Mitchell Young took it a step further.
“What I keep hearing is it’s one of the best frontcourts in the country,” he said.
If that’s the case, Thursday’s showdown between the two West Coast Conference rivals should provide a good barometer for where the Gaels’ inside game stands.
No single player has been able to consistently match the production of Rob Jones, who was a double-double machine for Saint Mary’s before graduating last year.
Instead Bennett has mostly used the combination of Young, Brad Waldow, Matt Hodgson and Beau Levesque inside. Young and Levesque, in particular, have upped their production recently and Bennett says he likes his front line.
But they haven’t seen a guy like Olynyk, who is 7-foot and possess guard skills in addition to his back-to-the-basket game.
Young remembers facing
Olynyk at the under-19 FIBA World Championships in New Zealand in 2009. Young, playing for Australia, described the Canadian Olynyk as a skinny perimeter player.
Olynyk was essentially that same guy his first two years at Gonzaga, earning only a handful of minutes each game before taking a redshirt year to reinvent himself. Now he leads the Bulldogs in scoring (17.1 points) and is the reigning WCC Player of the Week after a road sweep to begin conference play.
Harris, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, adds 15.1 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a game while 6-9 Sam Dower and 7-1 Przemek Karnowski also contribute.
“We’ve played against all these guys except for Karnowski, so it’s not like we haven’t seen them,” Bennett said. “We know what’s coming. We know what we’re dealing with.”
The game comes at a time when the Gaels are still figuring out their own identity. With so much depth at guard, Bennett has utilized a small lineup down the stretch in their last two games against Harvard and Loyola Marymount with winning results.
He thinks going small could be successful against Gonzaga, too, despite its massive and talented front line.
“That’s kind of where we are at as a team,” Bennett said. “What do we want our steady diet to be? Playing big or playing a little more downsized?”
Gonzaga won’t lack motivation against Saint Mary’s.
After winning 11 straight West Coast Conferences championships, the Bulldogs lost both the regular season and tournament crowns to the Gaels last season.
Count on the Bulldogs — and their supporters in the notoriously hostile McCarthey Athletic Center — remembering that Thursday night. They’ll a Gaels team that has lost three of its last four road games.
“The rivalry is probably at the highest point it’s been since I’ve been here,” Young said.