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Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s: Game Preview

The Zags head to Moraga as the underdogs.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at St. Mary’s Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs head into the lion’s den on Saturday evening as they face off against their WCC rivals, the Saint Mary’s Gaels, in Moraga, at 7:30 pm.

The Zags are riding a three-game winning streak and have gotten that home win streak going again with one game after a convincing win over the Santa Clara Broncos. Four Zags scored in double-figures, led by a fantastic game from Anton Watson, for the first full 40 minutes of good play win in WCC play we’ve seen for quite some time from the Zags.

Things have been a bit more stressful for the Gaels as of late. They escaped from the Marriott Center with a one point win and then coughed up a 13-point second half lead against San Francisco, ultimately winning the game 68-59.

KenPom gives Gonzaga just a 32 percent chance of winning this game, perhaps the lowest mark against a WCC opponent in recent memory.

Meet the opponent

Saint Mary’s Gaels, 20-4, KenPom No. 7

There are plenty of familiar faces on this squad. Logan Johnson slid over to take over point guard with Tommy Kuhse gone. Alex Ducas is still causing havoc on the wing. Kyle Bowen is holding down the post and Mitchell Saxen has admirably stepped into the starting role at center.

The biggest addition is local Bay Area product Aidan Mahaney. The four-star freshman is leading Saint Mary’s with 14.7 points per game and shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He is one of four players with double-digit points, helping bolster the Gaels offense as a top 50 caliber outfit.

In addition to Mahaney, Johnson and Ducas are each shooting over 40 percent from three, giving the Gaels plenty of legitimate shooters to threaten from outside whenever Gonzaga’s defense collapses on the interior. That is probably going to happen often this game. The Zags have been pretty dreadful on dribble-drive penetration all year, and someone like Johnson, who has attempted 58.3 percent of his field goals at the rim this season, is going to have a feast.

Enough about the offense though. The real strength of this Saint Mary’s squad is the defense, currently ranked No. 5 in the country. The Gaels accomplish this through a few specific metrics. First, they completely eliminate second-chance opportunities, holding opponents to just a 21.6 offensive rebound percentage, good for the third-best mark in the nation.

Second, their defense makes it awful for teams to run their offense, with opponents notching an assist on each field goal made just 36.1 percent of the time, which is also good for third-best in the nation. That corresponds with the final piece. The Gaels are great at denying three point attempts, while at the same time limiting two point shot effectiveness. Opponents shoot a three point attempt out of every field goal just 31.6 percent of the time (No. 26 in the nation) and opponents shoot just 43.4 percent from two (No. 11 in the nation).

What to watch out for

Gonzaga needs to play like it did on Thursday and then some.

This is kind of a no brainer but so it goes when you enter the game as an underdog. Saint Mary’s is favored for a reason tomorrow. All of the metrics favor them. They’ve had a couple of close contests as well (one point win on the road to BYU and three point win on the road to Santa Clara), but otherwise have comfortably taken care of business most every other conference game.

Drew Timme has in general been lights out and we all witnessed the Julian Strawther explosion against Portland. But basketball is a team game and the Zags, as a team, just need to play like they did on Thursday if they want any hope of winning this game. Saint Mary’s does not turn the ball over enough or give up enough offensive rebounds to allow the Zags to make mistakes and get back into the game that way. Gonzaga, as a team, needs to be as efficient as possible on every single possession.

Can Drew Timme expose the front line?

Randy Bennett relies heavily on his starters, with each player basically on the court for 30 minutes a game or more. Saxen and Bowen are the key cogs down low, but after that, Bennett’s options are two freshmen in Joshua Jefferson and Herry Wessels. Neither Saxen nor Bowen foul prolifically, but Timme is one of the best in the nation (17th best to be exact) at drawing fouls each game.

Also, Randy Bennett tends to leave his guys in the game with two-fouls more often than most. Saint Mary’s ranks No. 37 in KenPom’s two-foul participation (percentage of remaining minutes played in the first half after a player picks up his second foul). It isn’t much, but it is an edge Gonzaga could possibly exploit.

How does Gonzaga get its offense going?

This will honestly be what determines whether or not the Zags have a chance in this game. Gonzaga’s defense is too average at this point in the season to really make any sort of impact at all. Saint Mary’s runs an efficient offense that makes good use of their slowed-tempo opportunities. The onus will be on the Zags’ offense to flex some of that magic and demonstrate why it is currently ranked No. 6 by KenPom. That is one of those “easier said than done” tasks considering the pedigree of the Gaels’ defense