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Offensive heavyweights collide when Saint Mary's hosts BYU on New Year's Eve

The Cougars' first game of WCC play comes at Saint Mary's, where the Gaels are off to a 10-0 home start and could put an early end to any conference title hopes that BYU might have.

BYU's Zac Seljaas after making a three pointer against Central Michigan earlier this season.
BYU's Zac Seljaas after making a three pointer against Central Michigan earlier this season.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

BYU Cougars (9-4, 0-0) at Saint Mary's Gaels (11-1, 2-0)

Where: McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, Calif.
When: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. Pacific
TV: ESPNU

Saint Mary's McKeon Pavilion is the sight of the first heavyweight battle of the WCC season. Perennial challengers to Gonzaga's throne meet on New Years Eve in what should be a stylistically contrasting offensive explosion. It might not yet be 2016 but the outcome of this game will go a long way to determining which of these teams title aspirations are legitimate.

For the 11-1 Gaels it doesn't matter that their gym seats 15,487 fewer people than BYU's vaunted Marriott Center, McKeon Pavilion is as tough a place to play as there is. That's why the Gaels are 10-0 this season in Moraga. However, that means they've played 10 of 12 games at home, which isn't exactly what the NCAA Selection Committee likes to see when looking for at-large teams. A home win over BYU would help bolster their case (as would a road win later on this season).

For BYU the stakes are a bit more dire. While they've gone out and played quality teams they haven't exactly impressed in those games. Until last week at the Diamond Head Classic, where they picked up wins over New Mexico and Northern Iowa, the Cougars hadn't really beaten anyone of consequence. Picking up a win in Moraga would give them their best win of the year and simultaneously start conference play on the right foot.

Scouting the Cougars

So far this season the Cougars are playing faster than they have in their four-plus year WCC history, according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted tempo metric. They average 83.7 points per game and have had just four games this season below 80 points.

They get up the court in a hurry and don't hesitate to let it fly. A point guard with great vision and an array of shooters make the Cougars' engine hum.

Cousy Award finalist Kyle Collinsworth leads that attack. The 6-foot-6 senior point guard recently set the NCAA career triple-double record (he now has eight) and is averaging 14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. He does most of his work scoring the ball by attacking the lane and getting to the basket. It is a testament to the kind of shooters head coach Dave Rose recruits and the offense he runs that his starting point guard can make just three of 17 shots from long range this season but it doesn't really matter.

That's because Collinsworth is flanked by a once-again hot-shooting Chase Fischer —he made ten threes last year against Chaminade but has been up and down this year— who leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points per game. The senior from Wake Forest is shooting over 50% from the field over the last two games, both wins, and put up a career high 41 points against New Mexico (9-14 3pt FG).

Then there are freshmen guards Nick Emery (15.3 ppg, 30 of 84 from three) and Zac Seljaas (7.4 ppg, 23 of 37 from three) who are more than capable if Fischer or Collinsworth can't find a shot.

If nobody can get a shot to go in then BYU has bigs like Kyle Davis (13.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg) who can clean up the mess on the glass. This is a stark contrast to last season when the Cougars were often forced to run out four or five guard lineups.

Scouting the Gaels

Unlike BYU, Saint Mary's doesn't put up huge numbers by running and gunning. The Gaels are simply a phenomenally efficient offensive team that makes the most of each offensive possession.

As of Wednesday the Gaels are among the nation's top-ten teams in the following offensive categories (tempo-free stats from KenPom, traditional stats from NCAA):

  • Field goal percentage (1st, 53.8%)
  • Effective FG% (1st, 63.7%)
  • Assist-to-turnover ratio (1st, 2.02)
  • Three point FG% (2nd, 45.2%)
  • Assists per game (5th, 20.2)
  • Turnovers per game (9th, 10.0)

They're on the complete other end of the spectrum when it comes to tempo, where they're in the top-ten slowest teams according to KenPom. Saint Mary's is a methodical offense that waits until it gets the best shot possible. Much like the NBA's Spurs, where former Gael great Patty Mills currently plays.

Having two point guards on the court nearly all the time helps. Sophomore Emmett Naar (14.2 ppg, 6.7 apg) and Boston College transfer Joe Rahon (10.7 ppg, 6.8 apg) have been an unstoppable two headed monster this season. Even when one of them has a down game it's normally been because the other was going off.

While BYU has been getting an increase in production from Seljaas and Fischer of late the Gaels have seen increases from forwards Dane Pineau and Evan Fitzner. Before laying an egg against Utah Valley on the 28th Fitzner had erupted for back-to-back 20-plus point games. Meanwhile Pineau has been steadily improving, having picked up his third straight double-double on Monday.

Oh, by the way, every Gael named above ranks in the top-100 in KenPom's individual offensive rating rankings, led by Fitzner at 19 and Naar at 25th. No BYU player ranks in the top-400.