Q&A: Bay Area reporter Steve Kroner on SCU's Podziemski, Gaels' Mahaney and stout defense
Feb. 1—Santa Clara and Saint Mary's have two of the West Coast Conference's most impactful newcomers in the Broncos' Brandin Podziemski and Gaels freshman Aidan Mahaney.
The two are probably at or near the top of the scouting reports as No. 12 Gonzaga prepares for a big week in the WCC title chase.
For more intel on the Broncos, who visit GU on Thursday, and the 18th-ranked Gaels, who entertain the Zags in Moraga, California, on Saturday, we turned to the San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Kroner.
Q: Podziemski has been terrific all season and he's coming off a career-high 38 points against Pacific. What makes the Illinois transfer so difficult to contain?
SK: The short answer is he can score from beyond the arc (42%), in the midrange and inside. He's not lightning-quick, but he has a very good sense of whether to shoot a 3, drive the lane and dish or drive the lane and take it to the hoop. He's strong enough to absorb contact and clever enough to create a shot when it appears he's in a tough spot.
Q: The Broncos are 4-4 in conference, but they have one of the better starting units in the conference. They have solid numbers offensively but give up nearly 78 points per conference game. What are one or two keys for the Broncos in Thursday's matchup?
SK: One is their defense has to improve. They've lost their past two games, at Saint Mary's and at home to Pacific. The Gaels shot 52.6% from the floor, including 45% from beyond the arc, and the Tigers shot 53.2% from the floor, 54.8% from long range. Another key for the Broncos is to have at least two of their top three scorers — Podziemski, forward Keshawn Justice and guard Carlos Stewart — put together big offensive games.
Q: Mahaney leads the Gaels at 14.7 points and hits 43.3% on 3-pointers. He scored 25 points in a season-opening win against Oral Roberts in his first collegiate game and drained the game-winner against BYU in Provo last Saturday. Describe his game and how he operates offensively?
SK: The word many people use to describe Mahaney is "poised." The freshman is rarely rattled. He has a feathery jumper, but he's not only an outside shooter. He'll use a high ball screen to get in the lane and then is creative in ways to get off a shot.
Q: Saint Mary's has had quality teams for the better part of two decades under Randy Bennett. How does this one rank with his best squads?
SK: This ranks with his best defensive teams, anchored by guard Logan Johnson and forward Kyle Bowen. I don't think it's as good offensively as some of his best teams, but the Gaels definitely are better offensively now than they were in mid-December. There's not one dominant offensive player such as Patty Mills, Omar Samhan, Jock Landale or Jordan Ford, but Johnson and Mahaney have become a very effective backcourt and the Gaels usually get offensive production from forward Alex Ducas or center Mitchell Saxen — and sometimes from both.
Q: The formula rarely changes for SMC, which usually controls the tempo and features an efficient offense and quality defense. Why has this defensive crew been among the best statistically in the nation?
SK: Randy Bennett addressed this after the Gaels beat Santa Clara on Jan. 21. He said it starts with Johnson and Bowen, but that none of the other players is someone you'd have to hide defensively. In fact, Mahaney was the main defender on USF's Khalil Shabazz when Shabazz went 1 for 11 from the floor on Jan. 14. Saint Mary's doesn't commit a lot of turnovers, so that cuts down on opponents' fast-break opportunities. Also, Saxen and Bowen rank in the top five in the WCC in rebounding heading into Thursday's games, meaning the Gaels don't give up a lot of second-chance points.