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Gonzaga vs. San Diego State game preview: Last game of the non-conference slate

The Zags hit the road before hitting the WCC.

NCAA Basketball: North Dakota at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are closing out their non-conference slate with a road game against the San Diego State Aztecs on Thursday, Dec. 21.

The Zags are coming off of a convincing win over Indiana University of University of Purdue Indiana University Indiana aka IUPUI. The Zags averaged 1.36 points per possession, eclipsing the century mark for the fourth time this season. Killian Tillie led the way with a career high 27 points, and Johnathan Williams added 17. Both players also started the game on the bench.

San Diego State is coming off a heartbreaking loss to the California Golden Bears on Saturday. The Aztecs led 62-58 with a minute to go in the game, but a flurry of turnovers and missed free throws allowed Cal to escape, 63-62.

Meet the opponent

San Diego State Aztecs, 7-3, KenPom #61

The Aztecs have a few familiar names on them, perhaps none more so than senior center Malik Pope. At the time, Pope was a coup for the Aztecs, who beat out Kansas and the Zags for his services. Although a good player, Pope has never quite fulfilled the lofty expectations his recruitment had. He averages 12.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and has slowly but surely began to realize his shot blocking potential.

A majority of the offense runs through junior point guard Devin Watson, who leads the team with 13.4 points per game. Watson is an aggressive guard who, alongside Jeremy Hemsley, like to score a healthy amount of points at the free throw line.

This is a night and day squad from last season, however. San Diego State’s tempo ranks No. 53 in the country, compared to No. 309 last season. The Aztecs like to run the ball, but they lack the shooters to truly punish opponents. San Diego State only shoots 31.5 percent as a team, and a majority of their points come from two-pointers. If the Zags slow the game up a bit and play the defense they know and love, it will be hard for San Diego State to pull off a victory.

What to watch out for

Mark Few’s message apparently landed.

For the first time in a long while, both Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie didn’t start the game, and for good reason. Williams has been dreadful for three out of the past four games, and outside of a solid effort against Creighton, Tillie wasn’t lagging far behind. Few inserted Rui Hachimura and Jakob Larsen into the starting lineup to send a message, and the message was received. Tillie finished with 27 points and Williams added 17. Most importantly, both players ceased their wild turnover ways, combining for just three turnovers. Williams and Tillie are as key as possible to Gonzaga’s success, and they need this solid play to continue.

Place an emphasis on defense again.

The Zags overall defensive rankings in Ken Pomeroy’s system have slowly slipped in the past few weeks—much of that coming from the two-point defense. Washington is a good team within the arc, and North Dakota is a slightly good team. Both opponents shot over 50 percent for two-point attempts, with North Dakota shooting an astonishing 60 percent. San Diego State, as a team, is middle of the road here, and the Zags will need to clamp it down in front of a rowdy home crowd.

Attack the offensive glass.

The Aztecs are a great defensive rebounding team, particularly when Pope is on the floor. The Zags happen to be a pretty good offensive rebounding team, especially when Williams is on the floor. Something has to give here, and hopefully the board bounces Gonzaga’s way.