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Game Preview: Gonzaga hosts Saint Mary’s with first place on the line

These two are at it again.

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary's at Gonzaga
Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams dunked all over Saint Mary’s last season in Spokane.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the preseason No. 1 team versus the team that has owned this league for two decades. Who runs the West Coast Conference this season? We’ll find out on Thursday.

There will be a lot on the line when the No. 13 Gonzaga Bulldogs (16-3, 6-0 WCC) host the Saint Mary’s Gaels (17-2, 6-0) Thursday night. The winner takes first place in the West Coast Conference, and earns some serious bragging rights. It’s a lopsided rivalry — Gonzaga’s won the past four meetings, two of which have come in WCC Tournament finals — but a good one nonetheless. And, oh yeah, these just so happen to be two really good basketball teams with some really good basketball players.

So, what are we going to see at 6 p.m. Pacific on ESPN?

Buckets!

Let’s talk about that Saint Mary’s offense again, shall we?

For the better part of the past three seasons the Gaels have been playing some of the most efficient offensive basketball at any level of the game. Back in August, our Kyle Cajero broke down the film and called it a “work of art.” And these artists have only grown more skillful in the months since.

Only Duke (124.9) has scored more points per possession this season than Randy Bennett’s Gaels (124.0). They get it done in the half court better than anybody. First-time observers, of which there will be plenty on Thursday, may feel compelled to scream “shoot it” at their TV multiple times each possession. Saint Mary’s works the ball around the floor, pass after pass after pass, burning nearly 20 seconds off the clock on average.

Calvin Hermanson (12.2 points per game) will get an open look from the corner but skip it back to Emmett Naar (9.4 assists per game), who will inevitably find Jock Landale (21.7 points per game) wide open under the basket as the shot clock winds down.

But Saint Mary’s’ offense isn’t the only one to watch. In fact, Gonzaga’s might be even better than the Gaels’.

Since the start of conference play, Gonzaga’s had a KenPom offensive efficiency rating of 128.7 and is averaging 89 points per game. Saint Mary’s, due to its slower tempo and tougher slate over the first six games, clocks in at a 122.1 rating and 79.5 points per game.

Looking at the entirety of the season, Gonzaga ranks fourth nationally, just two back of Saint Mary’s, in offensive efficiency. The Zags have scored on just about everybody this season, which doesn’t bode well for Saint Mary’s lackluster defense.

Big names!

Jock Landale is the best player in the WCC. He’s recorded 12 double-doubles this season and ranks second, behind Oklahoma’s Trae Young, in KenPom’s statistical player of the year rankings.

Landale’s great, but his job is made much easier by point guard Emmett Naar, who ranks second nationally in assists.

Gonzaga doesn’t have anybody quite on Landale’s level, but the Zags could legitimately place five guys on the WCC’s 10-man all-conference team.

Senior forward Johnathan Williams (14.1 points per game) is Gonzaga’s leader, but sophomores Rui Hachimura (10.7 ppg) and Killian Tillie (11.8 ppg) are the ones landing on NBA mock draft boards.

Energy!

The students are back in Spokane. Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center is a formidable venue where the Zags are 188-17 all-time. But for the past month, because of winter break, it’s been a shell of itself.

Thankfully, the students will be back on Thursday. With an ESPN crew in the house and the Kennel Club rocking right behind them, this rivalry game will get the attention and passion it deserves.