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Saint Mary’s Preview: Here We Go

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It’s finally Saint Mary’s Week

Last time we saw these two teams play, the Gaels were pulling off a monster upset in the WCC championship game. It seems like the full conference season is already over by the time they face off this year. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s will play each other twice in the final three weeks of the season, starting Saturday in Moraga.

Gonzaga is coming off a relatively easy win against LMU at home, while the Gaels had to exert a lot of extra energy to squeak by San Diego on the road. Jordan Ford hit a floater with 20 seconds to go to ice the game, but they trailed at multiple points in the second half.

Meet the Opponent

Saint Mary’s Gaels: 20-5, 7-3 in WCC (KenPom 31)

Randy Bennett’s team has hit the 20 win mark for the 13th consecutive season. They scheduled much better in the non-conference this year, with wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State, and Utah State. They also lost to Dayton. Their WCC portion of the schedule has been kind of all over the place. They started with a quadruple overtime loss to Pacific and a home loss to Santa Clara, but they also swept San Francisco and beat Pepperdine on the road. After splitting with BYU, the Gaels lay firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. The majority of bracketologists have them in the field, but a win over Gonzaga would certainly help cement their case.

Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts are ballers. Combined, they are over 50 percent of Saint Mary’s usage rate, which means they rely on them very, very heavily. With Jordan Hunter gone to graduation and Matthias Tass out for the season, Randy Bennett has basically gone small ball. Fitts and Dan Fotu start in the front court, with freshman Kyle Bowen coming off the bench. None of them are taller than 6’8. Jock Perry and Aaron Menzies are legit seven-footers, but haven’t gained the trust to play significant minutes.

With no true, dominant big man like year’s past, the Gaels don’t use as much pick and roll two-man game. Instead, they typically use ball screens to get mismatches and isolations for either Ford or Fitts. They assist on just 47 percent of their shots, which is in the bottom third of the country, but an uptick from *dead last* a season ago.

Ford, Fitts, and Tanner Krebs all shoot above 40 percent from deep. Heading into Thursday night, they were second in the nation in three-point percentage. They finished a season-worst 1-for-15 from distance against San Diego, which means a breakout may be coming Saturday night.

The chess match of this game will be fascinating. Saint Mary’s is not a very good defensive team, and they’ve been dominated inside multiple times this year. Their two-point defense is 201 in the country, while Gonzaga’s two-point offense is fourth. However, the Gaels cause a ton of match-up problems themselves on the offensive end, and lineups with Timme and Petrusev on the court together have the potential to be exploited by Fitts, or even worse, they get switched onto Ford.

Which leads to the biggest question: Will Killian Tillie play? It sounded like if Thursday’s game was important enough, he would have given it a go. That’s an encouraging sign for Saturday. His versatility will be much needed on both ends of the court, but moreso defensively as he can match up better with Fitts or a guard than the other two bigs.

Neither team turns the ball over, so this game will be won on offensive execution and perhaps the rebounding battle, where Gonzaga should have a big advantage. But the three-pointer is always the biggest equalizer and if the Gaels get hot, watch out.

Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham will have the call on ESPN (yes, main channel ESPN) with tip-off set for 7 pm.