PORTLAND, Ore. – We know the drill when it comes to college basketball. In the heartland of the Midwest, we mostly didn’t care about West Coast basketball. We’ll see Indiana, we’ll see Purdue, we’ll see a lot of other Big Ten games, but that’s about it. Heck, most people won’t even see Notre Dame in the state of Indiana.
As a group, we are very short-sighted.
We’re not interested in watching Pac-12 games that start well after 10:00 p.m. ET most nights, mostly because of the late tip time, but more because We can’t stand listening to chump Bill Walton as an ESPN analyst.
Even Gonzaga, with all his #1 cuteness and postseason runs, doesn’t care about the Midwest. And most of them don’t know anything about the league they play in, the West Coast Conference. I’m sure most of you never watched a minute of Saint Mary’s basketball – Gonzaga’s biggest West Coast rival – before beating Indiana 82-53 in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday night.
However, what you’re missing out on if you’re not watching is some really high-quality basketball. And that’s why Saturday night at the Moda Center in Portland is supposed to be a lot of fun. Indiana is long gone, but there are two great games lined up – UCLA vs. Saint Mary’s and No. 1 Gonzaga vs. Memphis – that will really show just how good West Coast basketball really is right now.
The game between Saint Mary’s and UCLA begins at 7:10 p.m. ET (TV: TBS), with Gonzaga and Memphis following 30 minutes later. This game is also on TBS, the final of eight second round games on Saturday.
“We are happy to be here. You play Indiana in your first game and UCLA in your second and it doesn’t get any better,” said Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s coach. “I think that’s the first and third most championships in an NCAA tournament. We were looking forward to playing Indiana and now we’re looking forward to being in this game.”
UCLA and Saint Mary’s are No. 4 and No. 5 in the East Regional, and they’re playing each other for the first time since 1990. Gonzaga is #1 in the West Regional. Pac-12 rival UCLA, Arizona, is No. 1 down south. They are all really good. Ditto for San Francisco, who made it into the tournament but lost to Murray State in overtime. Their trainer, Todd Golden, was in high demand and was hired by Florida on Friday.
Saint Mary’s put on quite a show against Indiana, with smothering defense and accurate attack leading to good looks. They hit 10 threes against Indiana and are now 26-7 in the season. You’re number 18 in the country – and for good reason.
And even though they have an older, experienced team with several international players, the history of UCLA and Indiana doesn’t matter to them.
You only know the here and now.
“Part of that is her age. They don’t know,” said Bennett, who is 59 and has been a coach at Saint Mary’s for 21 years. “I grew up with (UCLA coaching legend) John Wooden, that’s the guy I followed, I read on. I could tell you every bit of this story. But as with everything else, they weren’t there for Indianas when they won all the national championships either, even the US guys probably don’t know.
“They definitely don’t know it as we know it, but they’re still good programs, they’re in the NCAA tournament, UCLA was in the Final Four last year, Ben Howland had them in three years out of four. so they’ve had some championship-like success lately. Our boys probably know this better than Indiana and also because it’s on the west coast. But yes I think it is. I think they’re just not as old as us.”
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Saint Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse, who has been with the school for six years, plays like a veteran. The 6-foot-2 Mesa, Arizona native knows all about UCLA and its 11 national titles. He knows all about Wooden, a native of Martinsville, Indiana who has won more titles (10) than anyone.
“The name definitely carries weight and John Wooden obviously plays a big part,” said Kuhse. “I read books about him and stuff like that. We know they are a good team and that’s all we’re worried about. We’re actually not too worried about the story.”
Senior guard Logan Johnson, who scored 20 points against Indiana, began his career in Cincinnati, where he played for current UCLA coach Mick Cronin. He’s learned a lot from him in that one year and is looking forward to playing him on Saturday.
“That’s one of the people that helped me convey that on the court, all the time, always tough, always physical, never expecting anything,” said Johnson, who is from Mountain View, Calif. and is happy to be closer to his to play home. “I think that was one of the things that I was able to transfer very easily to Saint Mary’s was this physical way of playing. I know Tommy Kuhse previously talked about ramping up practice when I came on campus, and I kind of embodied myself in always playing hard and never expecting anything.
“So I definitely thank him for that. I thank him for many things, of course, but that’s my type, through and through.”
Saint Mary’s has an identity and it matters. They’re a top-15 team nationally in team defense, and no possession comes easy, Indiana learned Thursday night.
“Yes, I would describe our style of basketball as trying to be tough defensively, not giving teams light hits, keeping them out of transition, keeping them off the offensive boards. The basic things that I think you need to win.” Bennett said, “I think when you start playing against better teams and in the NCAA tournament, you better be good in those areas.
“It’s not difficult. I think that because of the way we defend, it often becomes a difficult game for the opposing team and then a game with fewer goals. Offensively, there’s international influence. We have so much watched, we.” had international players. You study basketball. You’re trying to figure out how to score as a team. I think we’re at the forefront of using on-ball (screens) in college basketball.
“We made it pretty tough early on, back when we had Mickey McConnell and Matt Dellavedova in 2010. It’s a big part of our offense, how we recruit, why we recruit and why we always try to play with two point guards and I think these two guards that we have as starters now, Tommy and Logan, are an example of that . They’ve improved and become good guards and attack you and use balls and we play that off a lot.
Indiana learned that the hard way on Thursday. Bennett even mentioned it while praising the Hoosiers after the game that Saint Mary’s are difficult to prepare without practice. Outside of hotel tours, Indiana really hasn’t bothered to shed their offensive tendencies.
Saint Mary’s is now in the last 32 and they have every intention of beating UCLA on Saturday night as well. They are ready and they are confident.
“Well, we have to play well. We played well (Thursday vs. Indiana) and I said that,” said Bennett. “I spoke to our team about it. I said you can take care of all these things and do this, do that, but you have to play well. You have to take shots. You can’t turn the ball around. You should know better what you do defensively UCLA they can get you a lot of ways yeah they have good players good balance and they have four guys that can really score and you better figure out how you’re going to handle those four, and then don’t give them second shots.
“We are confident. You talk about confidence, sometimes people gush and pretend they’re confident, but they’re not. When you beat a good team like Gonzaga or other good teams – and we’ve beaten other good teams – and gain confidence in the process. If you do, it’s real. You can feel it the next day at the gym while working out. Balls go into the basket at a much higher speed. It’s crazy. That’s the advantage we have Gonzaga in our league. We usually do 1st place 3 times a year, at least twice a year. After that we just feel like whoever we play against is not going to be any more talented than them, no better trained than them, isn’t going to be a better team as they. We know that. If you can beat them then you feel like you can play with anyone.”
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