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Preview: First place Gonzaga visits Portland Thursday

A national television audience will get to see the West Coast Conference's two northwest teams on Thursday night.

Gonzaga's Eric McClellan guards Portland's Alec Wintering earlier this season in Spokane.
Gonzaga's Eric McClellan guards Portland's Alec Wintering earlier this season in Spokane.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-5, 11-2) at Portland Pilots (11-15, 5-8)

When: Thursday, February 11 at 8 p.m. Pacific
Where: Chiles Center, Portland, Ore.
Watch: ESPNU
Last meeting: Gonzaga won 85-74 in Spokane on January 1, 2016

Alone atop the West Coast Conference and on the cusp of breaking back into the top-25 (32nd AP, 27th Coaches), Gonzaga is rounding into form just as the season turns onto the home stretch. Before a weekend trip to face No. 16 SMU the Zags have to head to upset minded Portland, another team that seems to have turned a corner at exactly the right time.

Junior point guard Alec Wintering (19 ppg, 5.5 apg) is coming off a monster week for the Pilots in which he averaged 24 points, 7 rebounds and 6.5 assists over two games, both wins. The 5-foot-11 dynamo will be leading a team that has already pulled off two major upsets this season: first over BYU at the Chiles Center back in January then last week at Pepperdine, tarnishing the Waves' unblemished record in Malibu.

Portland is a team that loves to pull the trigger from distance. In their upset wins this season they've done just that and done it well.

Against BYU the Pilots hit 10 of 26 three pointers and made nine of 16 at Pepperdine. In their loss at Gonzaga? Just four of 20. Perhaps more shocking than the fact that Gonzaga has spent much of this season on the NCAA Tournament bubble is that the Zags are hanging their hat on the defensive end. Specifically, on their three point defense. Historically an Achilles heel for Mark Few coached teams — per KenPom's stats, the Zags finish in the top-100 about as often as they finish below 200 nationally in three point percentage defense — this year's Zags rank second in the nation by holding teams to a paltry 28% from long range.

But, the Pilots are more than capable of lighting it up and if the Zags look past them with SMU just around the corner things could get ugly quickly.

Gonzaga spent most of this season underperforming relative to expectations and playing without consistency. That's changed, as the Zags have gone on a convincing five game winning streak thanks to balanced, composed play. While the frontcourt duo of Kyle Wiltjer (21.8 ppg) and Domantas Sabonis (17.4 ppg, 11.7 rpg) get the lion's share of the attention, it's a fifth-year guard who has keyed the transformation.

Senior Kyle Dranginis spent his Gonzaga career playing behind the likes of David Stockton, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. This year he watched as underclassmen like Josh Perkins (9.8 ppg), Silas Melson (5.5 ppg) and Bryan Alberts (3.6 ppg) took turns starting in the backcourt. But over the past five games, which have all been wins, Dranginis has been in the starting five and playing arguably the best basketball of his career.

His 6.8 points per game over that span won't jump off the page, but he's dished out 4.2 assists and grabbed 5.6 rebounds per game. As the only upperclassman in the Gonzaga rotation to spend his entire career in Spokane he is providing a spark and the kind of senior leadership this team needs to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Mark Few.