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Game Preview: Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s take rivalry to new heights Saturday

The weekend’s biggest stage belongs to the two best mid-majors in the land.

Saint Mary's v Gonzaga Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

In a series entering its 94th meeting, it’s hard to imagine there could be any firsts left. But, in this one, there are.

When Gonzaga visits Saint Mary’s on Saturday night, it will be the first match-up of two West Coast Conference schools on ESPN’s College GameDay program. It will also be the first time these two schools have met while both ranked in the top-20 of the AP Poll.

And it will feature the team ranked first in the nation.

The No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (25-0, 13-0 WCC) face the final real obstacle in their pursuit of a perfect regular season when they take on the No. 20 Saint Mary’s Gaels (22-2, 12-1) Saturday evening in Moraga, California. Game time is set for 5 p.m. Pacific (8 p.m. Eastern) on ESPN.

Saint Mary’s lone conference loss came at Gonzaga, 79-56, on Jan. 14.

Over the years these two teams have met in countless big games. There won’t be an NCAA Tournament bid on the line — both teams are virtual locks for an at-large berth — as there have been for the nine WCC Tournament title games in which these two teams have met since 2003. Yet, this might just be the biggest game they’ve played. If only because neither team has ever been this good before.

Gonzaga’s 25-game winning streak is a program record and the longest in the nation. With a win, Saint Mary’s would reach 23-2 for the first time in program history. The Gaels are currently tied for their best start to a season, having last reached 22-2 in 2012. It was, naturally, Gonzaga which kept them from hitting 23-2 that season. But, about a month later Saint Mary’s won the WCC regular season outright, snapping Gonzaga’s streak of conference titles at 11.

So yeah, there’s history. So, how then, is this the best match up of them all?

Let’s start with Saint Mary’s. The Gaels’ brand of basketball is meticulous. In terms of tempo, Saint Mary’s is as slow as they come. Literally. The Gaels rank 351 out of 351 in possessions per 40 minutes (60.2).

On the offensive end, point guards Emmett Naar (10.1 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Joe Rahon (8.8 ppg, 5.8 apg) run a tight ship. The Gaels rank fourth in the nation with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.6.

Leading the scoring charge are juniors Jock Landale (16.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Calvin Hermanson (12.8 ppg). Landale, a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist, got into foul trouble in the previous match-up. This was understandable, considering he was going up against another Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist in Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski (12.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

The Zags’ offense hums along at the second-most efficient clip in the country, with an offensive rating of 122.0. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.7 apg) and shooting guard Jordan Mathews (10.6 ppg, 39.6% from three) join Karnowski on late-season finalist lists for their respective positional awards.

Amazingly, Gonzaga’s defense is even more impressive than its offense.

With the nation’s best defensive efficiency rating (86.7) Gonzaga has held opponents to 60 or fewer points on ten occasions this season. Gonzaga’s margin of victory, 23.9 points, also ranks first nationally.

But the Gaels are no slouches on the defensive end either.

Portland and San Diego, both at home, managed to put up just nine first half points against Saint Mary’s this season. The Gaels’ molasses-slow tempo limits their opponents’ chances, and is a huge reason why they rank second nationally in scoring defense (55.9 ppg).

It’s more than just tempo, though. Saint Mary’s makes teams work for every single one of their limited opportunities, holding teams to just 41.1 percent from the field.

In the end though, it will come down to tempo. Saint Mary’s wants to run clock, not up and down the court. The previous meeting this season, at Gonzaga, was a 59 possession affair. That’s the fewest Gonzaga has played in a single game since... the 2016 WCC Tournament Championship game against Saint Mary’s.

This might not be a high scoring game, but it should be one of the best played games on both ends, from both teams, this season.