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How Gonzaga can beat Saint Mary’s on the road

For once in a long while, the road to the championship doesn’t go through Spokane.

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary's at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs find themselves in a weird position this year. Normally, the old adage has been the West Coast Conference championship goes through Spokane. This year? Not so much. Gonzaga heads to Moraga, California, to take on the undefeated (in conference) Saint Mary’s Gaels. If the Zags are to win the WCC this year, they have to pick up a win on Saturday.

Does it matter if the Zags win the WCC this year? In the grand scheme of things, not really. But no one actually wants to see Saint Mary’s succeed around these parts. Of course, beating Saint Mary’s at home is one of those “easier said than done” tasks, especially considering how well both teams played in a 74-71 nail-biting loss for Gonzaga earlier this year.

Part of what will make the game so difficult to predict is both teams’ offenses need to be playing at their peak—and that peak will pretty much just match each other.

On the season, the Saint Mary’s Gaels average approximately 1.2204 points per possession. The Gonzaga Bulldogs average approximately 1.2136 points per possession. In the last matchup, which featured 62 possessions per team, the final score according to that law of averages should have been Saint Mary’s, 75.6648 to Gonzaga, 75.2432.

Now, obviously, scores can work out like that, but on just an average night between these two offenses, they are virtually evenly matched in total output. There were a couple of indicators in the game that favor Gonzaga, however. Those, and a couple of other factors, might provide some hope for Gonzaga.

Both teams offenses were a bit under their averages in the first game

It was how they were under that benefits the Zags the most. Saint Mary’s scored 1.19 points per possession against Gonzaga’s 1.15. The method in which Saint Mary’s left those points on the floor is a bit harder to generate, however. In the win earlier this season, the Gaels shot slightly below their average from two-point (55 percent in-game vs. 58 percent on season), and well above their average from long range (61 percent in-game vs. 42 percent on season).

The Zags, on the other hand, left a lot of points on the floor from afar. Gonzaga was just 6-of-22 from afar, where they normally shoot 36.4 percent on the season. Had Gonzaga shot merely the average from long range, that would’ve been an extra six points.

Both teams also left a bit on the free throw line, and that was the one area Saint Mary’s performed poorly. The Gaels only hit 6-of-12 from the charity stripe, and normally average around 16 attempts per game, hitting 75 percent. That would’ve been an additional six points. The Zags were just 7-of-9, and normally average almost 20 attempts per game, hitting 72 percent. The Zags, if they were just shooting for the averages, left seven points there.

The Zags need to pass the ball more

Gonzaga averages 16.5 assists per game this season. Against Saint Mary’s, they only had 11. Most importantly, in a second half where the Zags were outscored 36-29, the Zags only had three assists (all from Josh Perkins). Even more importantly, in the second half of the second half, where the Zags were outscored 20-10, they had zero assists.

Even in a game like the one against Texas, facing a defense much more capable than Saint Mary’s, the Zags notched 20 assists. Unfortunately, the lack of a coherent half court offense has surfaced from time to time, and Perkins and Zach Norvell can be a bit too quick on the trigger finger with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. The Zags have demonstrated a better, and smarter, offense this season and Saint Mary’s doesn’t have the defensive pressure to dictate how Gonzaga plays that end.

Jock Landale is going to score, but make it a bit harder for him

The biggest takeaway defensively from this game was how Landale scored with relative ease on Johnathan Williams. The Zags defensive game plan involved Tillie coming over for help, but much of it wasn’t an issue for the Australian big man. Landale responded with 26 points, but the key factor of those 26 points was the efficiency: 80 percent from the floor.

Eighty percent is not a sustainable number. I would expect to see the Zags throw some different looks at him, and I wouldn’t expect him to put up such gaudy numbers again so easily. The danger, of course, in doubling up on Landale is that the Gaels are too good of a three point shooting team to sacrifice an extra man on defense. As mentioned above, the Gaels shoot 42 percent as a team from long range, sixth-best in the nation.

Now of course, this is a whole load of easier said than done. Ken Pomeroy gives the Zags a 42 percent chance to win, predicting a 76-74 loss. It isn’t going to be easy, but the immediate aftermath of the first loss had a lot of us feeling like Saint Mary’s was the better team for that game, but it wasn’t immediately clear they are the better team overall. Since the win over Gonzaga, two of Saint Mary’s recent five WCC wins have been by three points a piece.

By no means do the Zags have the upper hand, but they have more than a decent shot to pull away with the win. It will be a question of if the coaching staff, and the players, can respond with a learning opportunity after the loss in mid-January.