No. 25 Saint Mary's Gaels (18-2, 9-1) at BYU Cougars (16-7, 7-3)
When: 7 p.m. Mountain, 6 p.m. Pacific
Where: Marriott Center, Provo, Utah
Online: Live streaming online for free at BYUtv.org.
Series: BYU leads all time 11-8 (Saint Mary's won last meeting, 85-74, on 12/31/15 at home).
The first place Gaels take on the third place Cougars Thursday in a game of contrasting styles within both the game and the season.
Thanks in large part to prolific offensive production this season, both teams are in the hunt for the West Coast Conference title and the NCAA Tournament. BYU got here by running and gunning, averaging the ninth quickest possession time in the nation per KenPom (while Saint Mary's ranks all the way down at 336th), and putting up a ton of points. Saint Mary's, meanwhile, runs a methodical offense that seeks out the best shot. And, as a result, the Gaels lead the nation in assist to turnover ratio (1.94), field goal percentage (53.2%) and effective field goal percentage (62.1%).
So, these teams will score. They'll just do it in very different ways. Similarly, each team has put itself in position to make the NCAA Tournament but with radically different philosophies on how to accomplish that.
At 18-2 the Gaels find themselves ranked, albeit only in the Coaches Poll, for just the first time this season. A non-conference slate that saw them leave home just once, for just a 15 mile road trip, and rather weak schedule no doubt calls their record into question. BYU, on the other hand, entered the season pegged to finish second behind Gonzaga in the WCC. A tough schedule in which the Cougars failed to pick up a good win until just weeks ago at Gonzaga, combined with stumbles at the likes of Long Beach State and Portland, have put the Cougars firmly on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture and looking in.
For Saint Mary's, a win in the capacity 18,987 Marriott Center would go a long way to solidifying an at-large résumé. For BYU a win is not a loss, and the Cougars simply can not afford to lose at this point, regardless of opponent.
Last time out, back on New Year's Eve, the Gaels took an 85-74 victory over the Cougars in Moraga. Saint Mary's managed that by stifling point guard Kyle Collinsworth (8 points) and holding him to his second lowest offensive rating of the season. The 6-foot-6 triple-double machine (15.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.5 apg) ranks fourth in the NCAA in assists and makes the BYU offense hum.
Without Collinsworth's creative abilities the Cougars' sharpshooters of Chase Fischer (18 ppg), Nick Emery (15 ppg) and Zac Seljaas (7.7 ppg) are forced out of their comfort zone.
Saint Mary's, which boasts a sneaky-good defense that ranks first in the WCC in efficiency, can key in on one guy on the Cougars. BYU does not have that luxury against the Gaels. Not to mention, the Cougars Achilles heel is defense.
Emmett Naar (13.9 ppg, 6.4 apg) and Joe Rahon (10 ppg, 6.6 apg) give the Gaels a two point guard look in nearly every possession. With those two top-15 nationally in assists running the show, everybody else benefits. Five Gaels are averaging double-figures in scoring this season including sophomore center Jock Landale (10 ppg, 4.9 rpg) coming off the bench.
In the previous meeting the Cougars' up-tempo style forced the Gaels into 68 possessions, one shy of the most they've played in a game this season. While BYU did indeed speed up the Gaels, they weren't able to dictate the tempo. This season BYU has played just two games with less than 68 possessions.
But at the Marriott Center don't expect a visiting team to dictate anything. Just ask Pepperdine. The Waves took down BYU two weeks ago in Malibu by holding them to 66 possessions. Saturday in Provo BYU ran away with an 88-77 win over Pepperdine by forcing them into 78 possessions.