LAS VEGAS — Cue it up again, another version of Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s. Only “Rocky” had more sequels.
Monday night’s meeting in the West Coast Conference men’s final is the 15th time in five seasons they’ve confronted each other, and I’d guess that’s unequaled in all of college basketball.
Penn and Princeton used to trade titles in the Ivy League, but that’s a thing of the past. Duke and North Carolina give to one another in the ACC, but there are interlopers to their fiefdom. Even the addition of Brigham Young to the WCC has only introduced a third-place team.
“It’s a familiar foe,” said Randy Bennett, the Saint Mary’s coach. “We’ve seen them a lot.”
Like five straight seasons now in the WCC title game. Naturally, they split the four from 2009-12.
I’d suggest there are two twists we haven’t seen in the past 14 games — one that could heighten the frenzy Monday night, if that’s possible, the other a more nuanced part of the whole Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s/WCC equation.
This is the first time Gonzaga has been No. 1 when it faced Saint Mary’s, and for fans in the Gael force in whom the Zags bring out a special disdain, you can only imagine how a No. 1-wrecking victory would make them feel. The automatic bid to the NCAA tournament might rank second on the thrill meter.
Then there’s what happened to the Gaels 10 days ago. They were roughed up by the NCAA for a “failure to monitor” the program — that’s something short of a lack-of-institutional-control rap — and Bennett was docked for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
The Gaels didn’t get any postseason sanction, but neither of those are exactly raving recommendations on how to run a program.
Essentially, they ran afoul of the actions of a former assistant coach, and of an organized training program for players out of season that Bennett knew about. For their indiscretions, they got scholarship reductions, a ban on regular-season tournaments, a one-year ban on Bennett recruiting off campus, and a five-game suspension for him next year at the start of the WCC season that covers all coaching activities.
As always, there’s the inevitable post-mortem about whether the Gaels deserved it, whether the little guy gets singled out by the NCAA while the blue bloods run free (ask USC about that theory) and whether it was all excessive, a road Bennett has gone down.
“It will have an effect on our program, but I feel confident we’ll work through it,” Bennett told reporters March 2 when the sanctions came down. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a hole we put ourselves in.”
The easy conclusion: This is what it takes to compete with Gonzaga in the WCC. That’s way too pat, and no doubt Bennett would vehemently disagree, but it can’t be denied that Gonzaga sets a bar in the league that is nigh impossible to match over a sustained period. And there have to be temptations.
Saint Mary’s has competed famously with the Zags lately, winning four of the past nine. (In the aforementioned 14 games, Gonzaga is 10-4). The Zags won both meetings this season, having to work for both victories.
Robert Sacre, the ebullient former Zags center, used to talk about the mutual hate between the two programs. There wasn’t a lot of that being tossed about Sunday.
“Hate’s a pretty strong word,” said GU center Kelly Olynyk, “and people throw it around kind of casually. That was Rob’s personality kind of coming through.”
It’s the 16th straight year Gonzaga has played in the WCC final. It only seems like most of them have included Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova, of whom Zags coach Mark Few said, “It’s such a cerebral game when Dellavedova has his hands on it 90 percent of the time.”
Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s sophomore center, retold the story of Saturday night, when, in SMC’s overtime win over San Diego, he had a tooth knocked out of his mouth by an errant elbow, and in the resulting hubbub, tried to hand it to Bennett as he ran to the bench.
Bennett declined the thing and after the game, Waldow was sent to an oral surgeon to have two teeth “glued back in.”
Waldow will play, of course. It’s Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s.