You kind of have to feel for Saint Mary's.
Think about it: Back in the spring, it was already clear coach Randy Bennett had a chance of putting his best team ever on the floor. After a surprise 29-6 season and the program's first regular-season sweep of Gonzaga since 1995, the Gaels were bringing basically everybody responsible for their potent offensive breakout back. They would rightfully set their sights higher than simply receiving an NCAA tournament bid they missed out on a year ago.
Gonzaga's prospects, meanwhile, looked as uncertain as ever. Stars Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis were gone. So was consummate glue guy Kyle Dranginis and senior guard Eric McClellan. Four starters departed from a team that needed to scrap past Saint Mary's in the WCC tourney title game just to get into the tourney as an 11-seed. Back in the spring, Przemek Karnowski's basketball future remained an open question; no one knew how good transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams would be; Cal grad Jordan Mathews hadn't transferred yet. Freshman Zach Collins was a promising four-star center, not a likely one-and-done draft pick. Even, say, four months ago, those of the Moraga, California, persuasion could squint hard enough to convince themselves that, at least for their unremitting annual crusade against all things Gonzaga, 2016-17 could shape up to be a big year.
And it has been! This is, quite possibly, the best Saint Mary's men's basketball team ever.
The only problem: The same goes for Gonzaga.
What once might have been construed as an uncertain collection of transfers and new faces (plus a big man battling a bad back) now looks like a terrifying, all-devouring juggernaut. It's at once the most talented, deepest, most versatile and just plain all-around best team 18th-year coach Mark Few has ever had in Spokane, and arguably the best in college basketball. Their Saturday visit to McKeon Pavilion (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) -- a fixture big enough to attract the College GameDay crew, by the way -- is the last, best chance before March for Gonzaga to lose.
It is, likewise, Saint Mary's best chance (if not their last -- there's always the conference tournament) to satisfy their honor. The first meeting between the two teams on Jan. 14 was a competitive, hard-fought game for 30 minutes. For the remaining 10, it was a disastrous blowout (79-56 Gonzaga). Before the final run(s) arrived, the Zags were already prodding at the Gaels with ruthless savvy. Center Jock Landale -- one of the nation's best and most efficient players, in any league or any level -- found himself in early foul trouble but got back on the floor early in the second half, at which point the Gaels' potent inside-out offensive engine began to spin up. And then Gonzaga ended this brief interlude of competitive basketball by throwing Landale into one ball screen after the next, begging him to overhedge and foul. He promptly complied.
With Landale on four (and soon enough, five) fouls, the Zags dropped all pretense and spent the final minutes of the game unfurling a blistering 21-4 run. It was the basketball equivalent of Sweet Chin Music, and just as fun to watch.
That was the first time Gonzaga truly looked like a worthy No. 1 team. It has looked like nothing less since.
Consider: Collins, the 7-foot freshman, boasts a 126.6 percent offensive rating, shoots 69 percent from 2-point territory, grabs 12.5 percent of available defensive rebounds, blocks eight shots per 100 possessions and draws 7.4 fouls per game -- and he plays just 43.4 percent of Gonzaga's available minutes, usually off the bench. Or consider: Williams-Goss, the team's leader in points, assists and steals per game and a legitimate All-America candidate, sprained his ankle in the first half of Gonzaga's win at BYU last week, scored 24 points in the second half while playing on a sprained ankle, then sat out the next game at Santa Clara, which Gonzaga won 90-55.
The Bulldogs are the only team in the country to rank in the top five in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They're so good and so deep and, for most of the West Coast Conference, just downright unfair.
Fortunately, Saint Mary's isn't most of the WCC. The Gaels lack Gonzaga's depth -- a problem they share with almost every other team in the sport -- but they are absolutely good enough, particularly on their home floor, to topple Gonzaga over 40 minutes. Landale has to stay out of foul trouble. He needs to be smart, sure, but the Gaels also have to keep him out of problematic spots, away from ball screens and, ideally, free of as many one-on-one post assignments against Karnowski and Collins as possible. Landale does his best defensive work on the weak side, where he gobbles up opponents' misses at a 27.8 percent rate. That's harder to do if you're the target of every opposing set.
Just as in January, there is always the chance that Gonzaga's unbeaten march to March will end at the hands of an unexpected upset. Most likely, though, Saturday's trip to Moraga will be the last real chance any opponent will have of stopping Few's team from finishing the regular season 30-0. In many ways, the Gaels have been unlucky in 2016-17, fielding the program's best team in ages the same season Gonzaga went Super Saiyan. Then again, perhaps that misfortune runs both ways.
No. 2 Villanova at No. 24 Xavier, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Fox
If Gonzaga isn't your preferred honoree in the category of "nation's best team," Villanova probably is. Either answer is acceptable, provided you're not just being one of those people who reflexively assumes Gonzaga is overrated for no apparent reason whatsoever. People used to say that about Villanova. We all know how that turned out.
Saturday's trip to Cintas Center in Cincinnati is the first of a three-game road stretch for coach Jay Wright's team, which is operating on the same calculus the Wildcats have exploited so effectively in the past few seasons: Villanova almost always shoots more 3s than its opponents, sometimes by a considerable margin. In Big East play alone, ongoing player of the year favorite Josh Hart & Co. are hoisting 44.8 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, most in the conference. Their opponents are attempting just 41.7 percent of their shots from 3. Throw in the fact that conference teams make just 32.2 percent from deep against Wright's team, and the math -- simple, cold and cruel -- starts to get extremely unfavorable, even against good teams (like Xavier) on their home floor.
No. 11 Cincinnati at No. 25 SMU, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Bearcats' visit to Moody Coliseum isn't just the game of the American Athletic Conference's regular season, though it is definitely that. It is also a chance for SMU to prove just how good it really is. The Mustangs' lone loss since November came on Jan. 12, by a bucket, at Cincinnati. With all due respect to the rest of the American, none of the rest of its teams can touch either Mick Cronin's or Tim Jankovich's, which means the Mustangs -- and particularly superefficient Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye -- have spent most of the season putting up impressive per-possession numbers in relative obscurity. Sunday is a chance to make a rather loud and forceful announcement that the 1.18 points per trip SMU is hoisting on its hapless conference foes are the real deal. Cincinnati will no doubt have something to add on the matter. Either way, it's going to be fun.