Every year, Gonzaga releases its schedule, and every year we take a look at it. We say, oh that is a nice possible opponent in random Thanksgiving tournament A. We say, oh that is cool that random team B now has to come and play in Spokane. What we never say is, oh great, Saint Mary's is on the schedule.
We don't say this for the obvious reason: because Saint Mary's is always on the schedule. We also don't say this, because as a fanbase, the game in Moraga is always the scariest of all and any games the Zags can ever go play. There are hostile fanbases, and then there is the fanbase in Moraga, collectively sitting on the trigger to send the nukes and blow Spokane into smithereens.
This game has huge implications for Gonzaga and for Saint Mary's. Saint Mary's smells the blood in the water, no doubt. They know that for the first time in many years, Gonzaga is actually vulnerable and the WCC is wide open for the taking. They also know that to get to the NCAA Tournament, a win over Gonzaga is still a necessity. Saint Mary's, for all of its great offensive metrics and hype, still hasn't played any team resembling anything. If the Gaels go winless against the Zags, there isn't a NCAA appearance in the books for Randy Bennett's squad.
Gonzaga, likewise, can also use a win or two (or three or four) to pad the resume, and a win in Moraga would do exactly that, and even more. A win in Moraga would prove to the Gaels, that like always, Gonzaga is the top dog in this conference--and all statements that suggest otherwise need to be proved in Spokane.
There were a lot of big games on the schedule this year. This game is now by far the biggest.
Meet the Opponent
Saint Mary's Gaels, 15-2, KenPom #17
When you talk Saint Mary's, you talk offense. Let's just run down how good the offense is here. The Gaels have the No. 5 ranked offense according to Ken Pomeroy. As a team, their effective field goal percentage is 62.6 (best in the nation). As a team, they shoot 46.0 percent from three-point land (best in the nation). Saint Mary's is ruthlessly efficient on offense, and they are going to make the Gonzaga defense work, and then some.
It all starts with sophomore point guard Emmett Naar, who could easily make a case as one of the more under appreciated players in the nation. Naar averages 13.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.4 rebounds per game. He is doing this all while shooting 55 percent from the floor, including a mind boggling 59 percent from three-point range. All of this tallies up to an offensive rating of 135.4, just the seventh best in the nation.
He is complimented by Dane Pineau's 11.1 points, Calvin Hermanson's 10.6 points, and Jock Landale's 10.2 points per game. Landale, the 6'11 center, has especially turned it up as of late. He scored 24 points against Saint Mary's last win over Pacific. Pineau (yet another Australian), holds it down for the Gaels in the post. He is shooting 62.4 percent from the floor and gathering 8.1 rebounds per game. Hermanson is the other three-point threat, hitting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc, and taking over five attempts from deep each game. Oh, and amongst all of this listing of players to keep track of, there is junior point guard Joe Rahon, with 9.6 points and 6.8 assists per game. That is right, the Gaels basically have two stellar point guards.
Saint Mary's is a hard team to beat. Who cares if they haven't played anyone. They pass the ball as well as any other team in the nation and they hardly turn it over. This team so far hasn't imploded on the offensive end, and I highly doubt that will happen for the first time this season with the Zags rolling into town.
What to watch out for
Just how many points will Kyle Wiltjer score?
Wiltjer has been out of this world as of late. For a while there, after the Przemek Karnowski injury, it looked liked Domantas Sabonis was going to shoulder the load. Since conference play started, however, it has been all about Wiltjer. Wiltjer is averaging 28 points per game over his last six games, and scored 30+ points in three of those. Saint Mary's has some size in Evan Fitzner and Jock Landale, but those two are young, and will have their hands full already with Sabonis.
Wiltjer should be able to take advantage of the youth of the Saint Mary's frontcourt and punish them, relentlessly. No GU player has been as hot as Wiltjer, and he will be the biggest key to this team pulling off the upset on the road.
How does this team emotionally respond to the situation?
The Zags are in a rare spot. They are legitimately the underdog in this contest. If Saint Mary's wins, the fans storm the court. Good for them, they deserve to celebrate minor victories every now and then. Ken Pomeroy's projections have the Zags losing by eight. Vegas will most likely favor Saint Mary's. This is going to be the biggest road test for the Zags that they have seen this season, and the Saint Mary's faithful know Gonzaga is weak. That crowd is ready to dive on the floor and chew through the Bulldogs' Achilles before the game even starts. If the Zags get rattled, or show any signs of weakness, this game can get out of hand before it even starts.
Gonzaga needs all it can get out of Sabonis.
Sabonis was a non-factor in the loss to BYU, and that is one of the major reasons Gonzaga fell against the Cougars. The Zags are too reliant on both Wiltjer and Sabonis to have great games to survive when one of the two struggles. As the season has progressed, they have masked this shortcoming against lesser competition. Against better competition, that weakness was exposed. This is going to be a battle between the Gonzaga frontcourt and the Saint Mary's backcourt--each team going in with their respective strength as one of the best in the nation. The thing is, the Zags have the bodies to try and stop, or at least slow down, Rahon and Naar. Saint Mary's doesn't have the bodies to try and stop Sabonis and Wiltjer at the same time. Mark Few knows this, and has hopefully told his eager young players this. It will be up to the team to respond.
I've eschewed doing these because I don't like making predictions in games. I don't like predicting that the Gonzaga Bulldogs are ever going to lose because they never should lose. But, realistically, the Zags should have (and have) lost a bunch of games this season. Against Saint Mary's, on the road, facing a crowd that wants blood and then wants even more blood; it just seems too hard for the Zags to pull off the upset. That sounds weird enough to type in conference play--upset. All rationale thoughts and emotions say Gonzaga will lose this game. The beauty of sports is being irrational and driven by insanity at times. So yeah, Gonzaga should lose this game, but here is to hoping they won't.