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Game Preview: Zags vs. Saint Mary’s

Zags host their first ranked team in 2022

NCAA Basketball: San Diego at St. Mary’s Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga plays Saint Mary’s on Saturday night, the second ranked opponent to play in the Kennel this season. The Zags have won their conference games by an average of 30.5 points while averaging 98.2 points. The Gaels have not given up more than 77 points this season, which they surrendered on Tuesday in their upset loss at Santa Clara.

After hosting former Zag and five-star recruit Jalen Suggs on Thursday night, the Zags entertain another five-star guard in California’s Jared McCain. While it’s not a lock like a Kraziness in the Kennel event is, seeing a bloodthirsty Gonzaga team against the closest thing to a rival can’t hurt.

Draftkings has yet to release the line, but KenPom has Gonzaga as an 80-66 favorite against the Gaels.

Meet the opponent

#22 Saint Mary’s Gaels

20-5 (8-2), KenPom #20

We’ve been looking for a test for this Gonzaga team for a while now. When the Zags tipoff on Saturday night it will be 56 days since their last game decided by less than 15 points, when they beat now 9th ranked Texas Tech by 14 in Arizona. Saint Mary’s was supposed to be that team to give one last real test for a Gonzaga team that’s seemingly playing their best basketball up to this point in the season.

The Gaels and head coach Randy Bennett have a scheme to potentially cause frustration. The Gaels have the 18th ranked adjusted defense in KenPom which pairs nicely with a slow-as-molasses tempo that slots them in as 332nd slowest. Bennett’s team is incredibly intentional with their defense, trapping opponents into tough 2-point shots and with a stifling man defense that tries to limit passing into better looks.

Saint Mary’s is also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country, allowing just 21.9% opponent rebounds (sixth-best in Division I). It’s a recipe to keep games close against superior offenses while also capping any potential athletic disadvantages.

However, the issue for the Gaels this season has been matching their defensive wit with any offensive firepower whatsoever. They’re not terrible on offense, but it’s a clear reason that Bennett prioritizes keeping the opponent scoring so low. The Gaels shoot a decent 52% from inside and 35% out. It’s good enough to make them one of the three 20 win teams in the WCC this far into the season. But there is no offense initiator and scorer that scares you.

Senior Matthias Tass leads the team in scoring but he’s not the imposing force that previous Gaels bigs have been. The senior backcourt of Logan Johnson and Tommy Kuhse was supposed to take another step when they returned for one last season. But instead, Kuhse is now coming off of the bench and Johnson’s offense has regressed.

What to watch for

Can the Gaels slow Gonzaga down?

The lowest-scoring game for the Zags came against pesky Tarleton State where they finished with just 64 points. The only way for Bennett’s team to stay in this game is to dribble the air out of the ball for 40 minutes. It’s worth noting that Saint Mary’s does not have the cleanest stat sheet when it comes to turnovers. They rank 116th when it comes to turnover percentage. Gonzaga’s been playing their best defense of the season the last month or so and it will likely be the biggest test for this senior backcourt for Moraga.

What in the world does Bennet do about Chet Holmgren?

It’s been an ongoing issue for every coach in the WCC in terms of limiting the hyper-efficient unicorn 7-footer that is also the 27th best 3-point shooter in the country. Chet has been a statistical anomaly all season and a matchup against one of the more plodding frontcourts in the conference could only amplify that. Tass is going to need to stay down low to worry about the preseason All-American with an effective field goal shot of 61%. Is 6-foot-7 Dan Fotu or 6-foot-8 Kyle Bowen going to be the answer to stopping perhaps the best player in college basketball who is shooting 75% from 2-point, making Dirk Nowitzki fadeaways now and has an offensive rating of 131? I guess call me skeptical?

What will the margins look like?

Considering that this Saint Mary’s team is built to kneecap the advantages a team gets by being a hyper-athletic, potent offense that likes to get out in transition when will the breaking point be for this game? Gonzaga is first in the country in effective field goal shooting at 60.5% and first in defensive effective field goal shooting at 42%. That disparity is stymieing. It is suffocating. Games are decided by a matter of attrition. We’ve seen teams stick around for 10 minutes and we’ve seen teams stick around for 20 in conference play. When will we see a team stick around for 30+ minutes again?

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.