Monson: A tale of two Western teams — Saint Mary’s and Arizona — and one high-stakes meeting

First Published      Last Updated Mar 17 2017 07:47 pm

The sincerity flowed freely from Jock Landale as he explained why he loves playing basketball for Saint Mary's College, a small school with a big game on a bucolic campus in Moraga, Calif., a game that will be tested against mighty Arizona on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament's second round.

"We're like brothers," he said. "… We fly under the radar a lot. It lets us just lock into what we want to do. We don't really get caught up in the hype. We have one of the best coaching staffs in the NCAA. They do an awesome job of helping us reach our potential."

Arizona, on the other hand, is a big-brand school that never flies under the radar, that always has big intentions.

"[Our program] speaks for itself," said senior Wildcat Kadeem Allen. "It's about developing, getting better, gaining confidence. … [We're] a confident program."

He wasn't bragging. He addressed the subject humbly, as did freshman guard Rawle Alkins: "Arizona basketball has a winning reputation. But we also know winning is hard."

Especially here and now.

There's much to look forward to in this particular showdown, considering the teams' varying makeups, the level at which they are coached, the places from which they have come, and the paths they took to arrive at this moment.

It is, after all, the West Regional here in Salt Lake City, and, fittingly enough, these teams are from the West, each representing a Western conference, one that thinks it is the best, the other trying to prove that the gap between the Pac-12 and the West Coast Conference, at least at its higher reaches, isn't much of a gap at all.

Arizona has been one of the West's big dogs — since Lute Olson showed up at the school in 1983, looking for a change, looking to change the fortunes of a basketball program that was an unloved loser. The year before Olson arrived in Tucson, the Wildcats won four games. Change that, he did. If you're any kind of college hoops fan, you know the history.

Saint Mary's, tucked modestly away in the hills of Contra Costa County, has been playing basketball for 108 years. You didn't know that. SMC used to be a cute little program that along an impressive ascent got a little less cute, and more mean, especially under Randy Bennett, who has been the school's head coach for 16 seasons, taking it to the NCAA Tournament a fistful of times.

The Gaels play in that WCC, a league comprised of schools with some sort of religious affiliation — the Church League, where Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have built a fierce rivalry. With the exception of BYU's Marriott Center, the league gyms — including Saint Mary's McKeon Pavilion — are small, but the passion is large. As is the self-perception that the realm in which teams such as Saint Mary's compete is disrespected.

But the Gaels have had their share of players through the years — Daniel Kickert, Patty Mills, Omar Samhan, Mickey McConnell, Matthew Dellevadova — before this specific group, which is probably Bennett's best-ever squad.

Fast forward to these particular teams, with Sean Miller coaching the Wildcats, Bennett coaching the Gaels, and intrigue sprouts everywhere. Both teams are coached to the nines, Miller having been named Pac-12 coach of the year, drawing and cultivating young players — six freshmen and five sophomores — from diverse backgrounds, including star forward Lauri Markkanen, a 19-year-old 7-footer from Finland, and Bennett having brought together a unique collection of talent, an unselfish veteran bunch willing to D-up and share the ball, that sports seven players from DownUnder.

"We're like family," Landale said. "We bond really well together. That connection makes us stronger and smarter as a team. It works in our favor. … We have that trust in each other, it really helps us to be efficient and effective from every position on the floor."

As for the Australian connection, he said: "Being Australian, everyone wants to come here."

Bennett knew 2016-17 had the potential to be a great season, on account of his having last year's eight leading scorers returning. He said in December he believed the Gaels could be "a top three or four team in the country."

That's Arizona's mindset every season.

Markkanen got to Arizona after Sen. John McCain expedited a visa process that was at first problematic. Markkanen arrived, bit by bit getting on track, on schedule to fulfill his substantial potential. And as the season wore on, the Wildcats, crowded near the top of the Pac-12 by Oregon and UCLA, broke out in the league tournament, beating both of those opponents en route to a championship. Markkanen is buttressed by talented teammates such as sophomore Allonzo Trier.

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