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Preview: First place Gonzaga heads to Malibu to face the fourth place Waves

Finally back atop the standings, can Gonzaga become the first WCC contender this season to emerge from Firestone Fieldhouse with a win?

Senior guard Kyle Dranginis has started the past four games and helped right the ship for the Zags.
Senior guard Kyle Dranginis has started the past four games and helped right the ship for the Zags.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-5, 10-2) at Pepperdine Waves (14-9, 7-5)

When: Saturday, February 6 at 9 p.m. Pacific
Where: Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, Calif.
Watch: ESPN2
Last meeting: Gonzaga won 99-73 at home on December 12, 2015

Back in the West Coast Conference's driver's seat after Saint Mary's stumbled at BYU on Thursday, Gonzaga looks to avoid falling to a Pepperdine Waves squad coming off its first home defeat of the season.

Both Gonzaga and Pepperdine came into this season with very high expectations. Gonzaga was expected to run away with the league and make yet another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine, on the other hand, returned all five starters from the previous season and was picked to finish third in the WCC behind Gonzaga and BYU. But both teams showed early that those expectations were not reasonable.

Pepperdine and Gonzaga both failed to impress during the non-conference. Since WCC play began the two teams have improved, but Pepperdine has now lost three games to inferior conference opponents. Gonzaga, though, seems to have finally found its stride.

Scouting the Zags

The Zags head to Malibu coming off back-to-back blowout victories over San Francisco (86-48) and Loyola Marymount (92-63). Small sample size sure, but those games represent the first instance of sustained, balanced basketball this team has played all season.

It's no longer just Kyle Wiltjer (22 ppg) and Domantas Sabonis (17.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg) having to carry the load. Senior guard Kyle Dranginis has stepped up and plugged what was a gaping hole in the Gonzaga backcourt. Dranginis' offensive rating in conference play is 136.5, which is the highest in the WCC.

Dranginis and fellow senior Eric McClellan have solidified the backcourt that was struggling with freshman Josh Perkins (1.7 assist to turnover ratio) running the show alongside Silas Melson.

With their dominating frontcourt no longer being run into the ground every game, the Zags have finally achieved the kind of balance needed to live up to expectations.

Scouting the Waves

Do not let Pepperdine's loss to Portland fool you, this is a team that can beat anybody at Firestone Fieldhouse. The Waves are 9-1 at home this season with victories over BYU and Saint Mary's. However, they have a tendency to play to the level of their opponent. Hence, losing twice to Portland. That does not bode well for the Zags.

Senior forward Stacy Davis (14.6 ppg) is coming off a 27 point night Thursday that put him just 60 points shy of the Waves' career scoring record (1,701). Fellow senior Jett Raines also poured in 27, in what was a departure from the normally balanced offensive approach taken by Marty WIlson's Waves. Davis, Raines and Lamond Murray Jr. (15.7 ppg) all average double figures in scoring while all five starters average at least eight a night.

Starting point guard Jeremy Major needs just two assists to move into ninth place all-time at Pepperdine. Currently in ninth place is head coach Marty Wilson.

When they're playing their style of basketball the Waves are a steady and controlled on offense and hard to break down defensively. At home Pepperdine has shown the ability to control the tempo and style of play regardless of opponent. They slowed BYU down enough to beat the run-and-gun Cougars while stifling the first-in-the-nation offense of Saint Mary's. But, they've not yet managed to break through against the WCC's Behemoth: Gonzaga.

Pepperdine has lost 30 straight games to Gonzaga, though last season at home they came just two points short of upsetting a Zag team that went on to make the Elite Eight.