Gonzaga Bulldogs (14-4, 6-1) at Saint Mary's Gaels (15-2, 6-1)
When: Thursday, January 21 at 8 p.m. Pacific
Where: McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, Calif.
It has been the west's best rivalry over the past decade or so and Thursday night it will once again get its chance to shine when Gonzaga and Saint Mary's meet in Moraga. Up for grabs? Bragging rights, a resume building win and most importantly: first place in the WCC.
Having these two teams play for the top spot in the conference is not anything new, but it wasn't supposed to be like this this season. In recent years it's been BYU, not the Gaels, fighting with Gonzaga atop the conference. Back-to-back wins by the Cougars at the Kennel, including last Thursday, strengthened the case that BYU and Gonzaga, not the Gaels and Zags, was the most important rivalry in the WCC.
But quietly the Saint Mary's Gaels have put together an impressive 2015-16 season. Picked in the preseason by the coaches (and yours truly) to finish fourth in the conference standings, the Gaels now look down upon the Zags and everyone else. The Gaels, as of Tuesday night, boast the nation's best shooting percentage (53.4% FG) and rank first in assist to turnover ratio (2.1) as well.
Absurd chemistry on offense for a team that lost all five starters from last year.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, was a borderline top-ten team coming into the season and far and away the favorite to win the WCC. Kyle Wiltjer (22.4 points per game) and Domantas Sabonis (17.8 ppg, 10.9 rebounds per game) have lived up to expectations but just about everyone else, and as a result the team as a whole, fell short.
Inconsistent play from an inexperienced backcourt has haunted the Zags in four losses this season, three of which have come at home (tied for the single season record at the McCarthey Athletic Center). So, maybe it's a good thing the Zags are hitting the road. They are undefeated in three true road games this year, after all.
But... undefeated at home this season, the Gaels' offense is somehow even more potent inside McKeon Pavilion.
The Gaels just missed the NCAA record in the half which sits at 16-of-17 (94.1%) set by UNC in the second half against Virginia on 1/7/78.— Pacific Men's Hoops (@PacificMensBB) January 15, 2016
Even the opponent has to respect the efficiency of Saint Mary's. That tweet came at halftime of last Thursday's Tigers at Gaels game in which the Gaels shot 83.3% from the field and four of five from three in the first half.
That doesn't bode well for the Zags, who will not only have to face the Gaels' offensive firepower but take care of the ball against a two-headed perimeter monster of Emmett Naar (13.8 ppg) and Joe Rahon (9.5 ppg). While the Gaels rank just fifth in the WCC in turnover percentage on defense, the Zags rank sixth in turnover percentage on offense. A slow but steady improvement in decision making from the Zags guards is likely to come to a halt in front of a packed house in Moraga.
Not to mention the strongest aspect of the Zags' game is their frontcourt play, but the Gaels' Jock Landale is reigning WCC Player of the Week and Dane Pineau is shooting better inside the arc than anyone else in conference play.
Keys to the game
For Gonzaga it's the glass.
Domantas Sabonis crashes the boards like a madman, leading the WCC in defensive rebound percentage since the start of conference play. But in Moraga the Zags will need him to step up his game on the offensive glass (he's just 14th in the WCC on that end). Why? Saint Mary's ranks sixth in the nation in defensive rebound percentage. If the Zags' young guards start missing shots, or get rattled and take bad ones in such a hostile environment, Saint Mary's is going to run away with this unless the Bulldogs own the glass.
Actually, they won't run away they'll just walk. Saint Mary's plays at a snail's pace (345 out of 351 in adjusted tempo per KenPom). Which makes second chances all the more valuable against such a potent offense.
For the Gaels it's ball control.
This is a strong suit of the Gaels — not only do they lead the nation in assist to turnover ratio but they rank fifth with only 9.6 turnovers per game. It's also an area in which Gonzaga, defensively, struggles. But, there's one way in which the Zags are decidedly better than the Gaels and that's athleticism on the perimeter. Gonzaga's guards are faster and more high-flying than Saint Mary's. An errant pass here, or a picked pocket there, could lead to a thunderous dunk from Eric McClellan or Silas Melson that silences the home crowd and swings momentum in favor of the visitors.