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Game preview: Zags vs. Loyola Marymount

Zags look to add to their hot start in conference play

NCAA Basketball: Loyola Marymount at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

After an absolutely quiet, uneventful weekend and a reshuffling of the Top 25 that resulted in Gonzaga dropping to second in the AP poll, the Bulldogs look to get back to court Thursday.

And thankfully, that conversation is likely to be positive due to their opponent the Loyola Marymount Lions. During the preseason the Lions were tabbed as the darkhorse fourth tournament team behind Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s and ahead of San Francisco. Some idiot named Tuck Clarry said they’d finish third and compete with BYU for second in his conference preseason rankings.

But the Lions immediately stumbled out of the gate and never found their footing. They come to Spokane with a 9-8 record and a 2-3 conference standing where they’ve been outscored by 44 points. It took overtime for LMU to outlast the Pepperdine Waves. Here’s a peek under the hood for the stumbling Lions, who should be a great Washington Generals for the Zags yet rank just 21 spots behind the Missouri Tigers a team that almost took down the number one team in the country.

The line has not yet been released on DraftKings, but the Zags are 91-65 favorites on KenPom.

Meet the opponent

Loyola Marymount 9-8 (2-3), Kenpom 152

The Lions were pegged to be the sleeper team in large part of their returning cast. Swiss army knife and WCC First Team honoree Eli Scott decided to accept the extra year of college eligibility and return to Los Angeles to give it another go. Last year he averaged 18 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists playing in a role that could be best described as “point forward” akin to a modern NBA offense.

Scott has had turnover issues throughout his career, averaging 2.78 over his career and 3.8 last season, but the possession security has ballooned to a career-worst 4.4 turnovers. What’s particularly frustrating is that he still has the great components of his game that make head coach Stan Johnson and fans want the ball in his hands. He’s averaging 16.7 points and 3.4 assists this season and his shooting a career-best 54% from the field.

Ultimately, it’s been an unsustainable cost for a player who accounts for 28% of the possessions when he’s on the floor (114th highest in the country) and is playing nearly 35 minutes per game. But what truly exacerbated the issue is the lack of development from transfer guard Cam Shelton who joined LMU after winning Big Sky All Team honors last season.

Shelton was practically the entire offense for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, averaging 19.2 points and 4.2 assists. The hope was that he could provide a second option to initiate the offense for Scott while providing firepower himself. Instead, Shelton has regressed as both a scorer and distributor. He’s turned into a role player that opposing defenses sag off of when he has the ball in his hands, turning a career 34.4% three-point average to 20%.

It’s also been difficult for ball-dominant Shelton to find a place in the offense because he was asked to play alongside senior guard Joe Quintana, someone who also needs to shoot the rock to be effective. He’s been perhaps the sole bright spot for the Lions, averaging a career-high 13.3 points and still shooting over 42% from outside.

The fourth piece of the team was to be junior wing Dameane Douglas who showed potential in every year of his collegiate career but was annually hindered by a string of injuries that would shut him down. He averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 7 games this season before it was announced on Tuesday that he would be shut down for the season with an ankle injury.

The Lions have the pieces to be a dangerous team, but the chemistry and pieces have just simply not fit together.

What to watch for

Will the Zags look like the number one team in the country?

The shuffling of the AP poll the last two weeks has been a bit bizarre. It’s not often that a team at the top of a poll gets fewer votes than the second-ranked team, but it’s also pretty rare for the number one team to get leapfrogged for the top spot without losing a game.

Auburn is a deserving number one team in the country but they certainly did not show it last night against a hapless Missouri Tigers. It took Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin completely botching an end-of-game situation for Auburn to sneak out of Columbia, Missouri with a one-point victory.

All of this is to say that even against lowly conference opponents, conference play is conference play. While the Zags have dispatched every one of their conference foes handily this season, a late-game against a disrespected opponent can affect seemingly anyone.

What’s the offense going to look like?

After averaging 114 points their first three games a 78 point total against San Francisco may have been disappointing to some Gonzaga fans. But it’s worth mentioning that Todd Golden is one of the best schemers out there with the Dons playing a quality of defense good enough to be ranked 20th in Kenpom (third highest in the WCC behind Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga).

Loyola Marymount most certainly is not that caliber of defense. Ranking 175th in the same system, the Lions most recently surrendered 83 points against Saint Mary’s and gave up 97 to San Francisco to start conference play.

It’s a great opportunity for the Gonzaga offense to get right after shooting 27.8% from outside and a chance to eclipse the century mark yet again.

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