It is easy, and pretty routine, to over emphasize the importance of any individual game in the course of a season. The common cliche is that the most important game of the year is the next one but Thursday night's game against Saint Mary's is one of those games that does mean more. It has blossomed into one of the most passionate rivalries in the entire country and is probably the best one going on the west coast. Combine that with the fact that we are rounding the corner into March, and you have a heated rivalry game with plenty on the line. For Gonzaga, we all know what is on the line. While the Zags are past the 'bubble' phase, they have a very important goal in mine: two-seed or better in the tournament. For Saint Mary's, they are kicking off a ten day stretch that will either land them a spot in the NCAA Tournament or will leave them hoping they get the auto-bid or they'll be NIT bound.
Also on the line Thursday night for both teams is the West Coast Conference regular season crown. A Gonzaga win would put them securely in the drivers seat while a Saint Mary's win would make things very interesting. While most folks seem to think the West Coast Conference is a one horse race, the Gales are just a half game back and are poised to make a late run to win their second straight regular season conference crown.
If that is going to happen, they will need a much more consistent performance out of their star guard, Matthew Dellavedova. The senior guard who will go down as one of the best players in school history struggled mightily when Saint Mary's came to town back in January. He did not score until the nine-minute mark in the first half and wound up scoring just 14 points in the contest. The Zags will likely not be so lucky on Thursday night as Dellavedova has been a star in McKeon Pavilion against Gonzaga in recent memory. He's averaged about 24 points per contest against GU when playing at home.
Looking at the numbers, there doesn't appear to be any way that this game isn't an absolute barn burner. Both squads tout exceptionally efficient offenses and both rank very high in most major statistical categories. In order to slow down the Gaels, it is imperative that Gonzaga doesn't allow one of their secondary options to have a big night. It almost buried them in the first matchup when Stephen Holt channeled his inner Dellavedova and scored 23 points. Thankfully, the Zags had a 31-point barrage from Kelly Olynyk to combat Holt's big night. If Holt, who has struggled lately, Waldow, or Levesque are able to go off, it could be a very disappointing night for the Bulldogs.
As someone that typically lacks confidence when heading into Moraga, I honestly can't help but think this is a game that Gonzaga will win. The Zags have played solid defense for a good chunk of the year and, for the most part, have not backed down when they have been challenged. I continue to think back to Gonzaga's New Years Eve contest against Oklahoma State when they played a great basketball game and fought to the end to grab a huge road win by a point in a hostile environment. I think they do the same on Thursday night and all but lock up the West Coast Conference regular season title.