BYU and St. Mary’s will meet in Las Vegas Monday night in the semifinals of the WCC tournament. The winner of this game will go on the face the winner of Gonzaga vs. San Francisco in the finals on Tuesday.
BYU and St. Mary’s earned their spots in the semifinals in markedly different ways. BYU came on strong at the end of the regular season winning their final nine games, including a 91-78 statement win over a top-5 Gonzaga squad on February 22nd in Provo. As a result, they earned the 2-seed for the tournament which means this will be the Cougars first game of the tournament because of the double-bye structure.
On the other hand, the Gaels of St. Mary’s received the 3-seed and found themselves in a battle on Saturday night against Pepperdine. The Gaels managed to pull out the win but needed double-overtime to do so. St. Mary’s star point guard Jordan Ford saw his only rest of the night come at halftime as he played all 50 minutes in the 89-82 win.
BYU hasn’t played in 8 days whereas St. Mary’s is coming off a hard fought win. The long layoff for the Cougars may be a blessing and a curse. Rest is great, but rust is a different story. St. Mary’s is in a similar situation in that they could ride the momentum of a big win on Saturday, or the hard fought double-overtime win may have been enough to zap their legs and emotions.
The Cougars will look to ride their trio of outstanding seniors to propel them to a win and keep their conference title hopes alive. It would be their first WCC title since 2001. Big man Yoeli Childs along with guards Jake Toolson and TJ Haws were voted to the WCC all-conference first team. Their play speaks for itself, but as seniors they also bring a level of maturity and leadership to the game which can’t be overstated in this era of the 1-and-done.
Childs led the WCC in scoring this season by averaging 22.2 points per game while Toolson and Haws both averaged essentially 15 per game. Childs also added nine boards per game and Toolson proved to be a true deep threat making 82 3-pointers on the year. Look for the Cougars to play inside out by feeding Childs and when he draws extra defenders Toolson, Haws and the rest of the BYU squad will look to capitalize on kick out jumpers which are generally some of the most open shots in the game.
BYU has all the tools necessary to string wins together. The only intangible that’s almost impossible to predict is how they’ll react to the long layoff. Will they come out flat and take time to get back into the flow of the game or will they be refreshed after such a long grind to finish the regular season?
The Gaels enter this contest with their eyes on the WCC trophy as well. Many of the “bracketologists” are projecting St. Mary’s to be an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament no matter how they finish in the WCC tourney. Unfortunately for the Gaels, that’s not exactly a comforting statement. Two years ago St. Mary’s finished the season at 28-5 yet they were passed over by the selection committee. The lesson there is don’t take anything for granted, go win the tournament and take it out of the committee’s hands. The Gaels will look get one step closer with a win on Monday night.
Clearly the Gaels won’t be lacking for motivation, but will they have enough left in the tank after the extra sessions in that tough win over Pepperdine on Saturday? Jordan Ford is the engine that makes this team go. As mentioned before, he played every minute against Pepperdine on Saturday. His colleagues in the back-court also logged significant minutes as Tommy Kuhse and Tanner Krebs each played 45 of the 50 minutes as well. Not only did Ford not see the bench, he was also responsible for nearly half the Gaels scoring as he put up 42 of the team’s 89 total points. And therein lies the rub, as they say.
St. Mary’s biggest Achilles heel is that they are so unbalanced and way too one-dimensional. If they are going to have a chance to win this game, forwards Malik Fitts and Dan Fotu will have to be a factor, especially on the boards. That’s a fairly big ask though as they’re going against Yoeli Childs, but not impossible.
In their previous two meetings this year each team has one win and Fitts exploded for 29 points on February 1st in Provo, but it’s important to note that Childs got into foul trouble and only played 22 minutes. Also, despite Fitts’ performance the Cougars still managed to secure a tight 81-79 victory.
Betting Line & Pick
Oddsmakers opened BYU as a 3.5-point favorite with a total of 145.5. Both those numbers have increased since the open and they now stand at -4 and 147. It’s no surprise that money appears to be coming in on the Cougars as they likely have enough fans in Vegas to move that number a bit whereas St. Mary’s isn’t exactly known for a large, rabid fan base.
The good news is that even at -4 there is still value to be had here. The breakdown can be summed up quite simply: St. Mary’s doesn’t have enough defense to slow down the Cougars’ outstanding senior trio. Pepperdine is far cry from BYU and Jordan Ford will not be able to beat the Cougs single-handedly like he did to the boys from Malibu. Finally, St. Mary’s is coming off not just a physically taxing game, but it was also emotionally draining.
One of the biggest things that often gets overlooked in college sports is the “let down” spot after a big win. Professional athletes are just that, professionals. They’re grown men who get paid to stay on an even keel, but college athletes often haven’t developed those skills yet and can fall victim to coming out flat after a big win. St. Mary’s could easily fall into that trap and get down by double-digits in a hurry.
Take BYU -4 and look for the Cougars to win by 6-12 points or possibly more if the Gaels are still suffering the effects of Saturday’s thriller vs. Pepperdine.
Pick: BYU -4
*Odds provided by VegasInsider