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Game Preview: Gonzaga visits Saint Mary’s in a top-15 clash

Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s Part II

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary's at Gonzaga
Rui Hachimura and the Zags look to stop Emmett Naar and the Gaels from running away with the WCC.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Gonzaga Bulldogs at No. 11 Saint Mary’s Gaels

When: Saturday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. Pacific
Where: McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, California
Watch: ESPN2

There have been plenty of big ones in this rivalry before. But outside of the conference tournament, there have been none bigger than this.

According to the AP Poll, at least.

With Saint Mary’s sitting at No. 11 and Gonzaga at No. 12, this is the first time the two teams have met while both ranked in the top-15. It’s also the first top-15 clash in West Coast Conference history. Last year, Gonzaga was setting program records. This year, it’s Saint Mary’s. The Gaels have won 19 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. Gonzaga’s lone loss in conference play gave the Gaels their 13th win of this run.

So there’s a bit of revenge in play here, too.

Saint Mary’s used a late comeback to take down Gonzaga 74-71 in Spokane back on Jan. 18. Jock Landale, who has been unstoppable all season long, went for 26 points and 12 rebounds. The Gaels were picked to win the WCC in the preseason, much to the chagrin of Gonzaga fans, and they backed it up that night. They could all but lock up their first regular season title since 2012 with a win in Moraga this weekend.

Scouting the Gaels

Senior center Jock Landale (22.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game), a Wooden Award Finalist, gets all the attention. He deserves it. But Saint Mary’s is a lot more than just the big Australian.

Fellow Aussie Emmett Naar just became the school’s all-time leader in assists with 769. Considering the Gaels’ snail’s pace style of play — Saint Mary’s has ranked in the bottom three nationally in possessions per game in each season since 2016 — and that he spent the last two years in a two-point-guard lineup with Joe Rahon, getting that record is pretty insane.

It’s also a testament to how good this team is offensively.

Guys like Calvin Hermanson (11.5 points per game and 46.2 percent from three) and Jordan Ford (9.2 points per game and 43.8 percent from three) can light it up anytime, and will make Gonzaga pay if the Zags try to double down on Landale.

Don’t expect Saint Mary’s to run up the score, but don’t expect many empty possessions either.

Scouting the Zags

Six guys average double-figures scoring for this deep and balanced squad. Senior power forward Johnathan Williams leads the team with 13.5 points per game while senior shooting guard Silas Melson ranks sixth at 10.0 points per game.

But that scoring punch has weakened of late. They still rank fifth nationally with an average of 86 points per game, but the Zags have been held to just 69, 68 and 71 points over their previous three games.

Gonzaga’s length and athleticism can’t be matched by Saint Mary’s. The 6’9 Williams puts the “power” in power forward while the 6’10 Killian Tillie and 6’8 Rui Hachimura are more finesse athletes in the frontcourt. But none of them has the body to hold off Landale in the low post.

6’11 freshman forward Jacob Larsen had a few possessions guarding Landale last time out, but he was easily schooled by the all-American and has largely fallen out of the rotation since.

X-Factors

For Saint Mary’s, it’s defense.

This team was awful on that side of the ball for the first month of the season. Washington State, a terrible team, lit the Gaels up for an 84-79 victory back on Nov. 24. The Cougars scored 1.25 points per possession in that one, and back then, giving up well over a point per possession was the norm for Saint Mary’s.

In their first seven games of the season, Saint Mary’s allowed over one point per possession five times. In the 19 games since, it’s happened just six times. This team has turned a corner defensively.

For Gonzaga, it’s Hachimura.

The sophomore from Japan went for 23 points on 11-16 shooting against Saint Mary’s in Spokane. He’s Gonzaga’s sixth man, but the team’s leading scorer at 12.9 points per game since the start of conference play.

With his tenacity, Hachimura is a handful inside, but he’s got great touch that extends into the midrange and out to the three-point line. WCC teams, Saint Mary’s included, can’t contain his athleticism. Hachimura is drawing 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes in league play and has connected on 83.3 percent of his free throws.