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Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s collide in WCC men’s basketball with plenty on the line

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, right, react to a call in the Portland game on Jan. 9. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, right, react to a call in the Portland game on Jan. 9. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd has been compiling the scouting report on Saint Mary’s for seven years.

He inherited the scout when Leon Rice left to take Boise State’s head coaching position. Lloyd has planned for 13 regular-season matchups against the Gaels and another five in the WCC tournament.

Lloyd may know the Gaels better than anyone not employed on the Saint Mary’s coaching staff. He knows from hours of watching videotape that the Gaels present a unique challenge.

“They’re not super complicated, but they’re so good at executing what they do that you have to find solutions,” he said. “It’s not your standard team. They force you to make decisions, and based on that they usually can counter. A lot of teams don’t have that many tools in their tool box.”

No. 1 Gonzaga (25-0, 13-0 WCC) and No. 20 Saint Mary’s (22-2, 12-1) collide Saturday at McKeon Pavilion with major implications for both teams.

The Zags can put a stranglehold on the WCC title and sidestep the biggest remaining obstacle to an undefeated regular season. Gonzaga is chasing not only a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the top overall seed.

Saint Mary’s can pull even atop the conference standings, elevate its NCAA seeding and knock the rival Zags from their No. 1 perch. The Gaels can put an end to the Zags’ run at perfection and a dent in their quest for a top seed.

“Anytime you play Gonzaga, there’s a lot of hype,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “With them being ranked what they are, and both teams are having a good year, just in that alone it would be an extremely hyped game.

“Now you throw in this (ESPN) GameDay crew, I have no idea where that takes it. You know what? It’s going to be exciting.”

For both teams.

“All the team is locked in,” GU freshman forward Killian Tillie said. “I think it’s the biggest game of the season so we’re really enthusiastic.”

Gonzaga thumped the Gaels in the first meeting, 79-56 in Spokane. The Gaels were sluggish in a 51-41 win over Portland on Thursday while the Zags crushed Loyola Marymount 90-60.

“We’re going to enjoy it (having GameDay in Moraga),” Gaels guard Joe Rahon said. “I’m sure part of that is a carryover from last year. We also know that (GameDay) probably isn’t coming here unless we’re playing the other team.

“We know that and we’re going to have a chip on our shoulder. We’re going to be ready to fight.”

Slowing the Gaels’ efficient offense usually involves two priorities: solid ball-screen coverage and post defense. Gonzaga kept guards Rahon and Emmett Naar in check in the first meeting and junior center Jock Landale was in foul trouble throughout.

The Gaels are in no hurry at the offensive end. They harness the pace and often make opponents defend for nearly the duration of the shot clock. The Gaels average 52.7 shot attempts per game compared to Gonzaga’s 60.

“They hit you with both (ball screens for Rahon or Naar and the low-block presence of Landale),” Lloyd said. “They’ve traditionally had a post that can handle a high volume of post touches and is pretty efficient 1 on 1.

“They can get you with the post, the ball screens and then they surround it with good perimeter shooters.”

So let the chess match begin. Or not.

“For the most part, both teams are going to do what they’ve done with some subtle changes,” Lloyd said. “We’re not going to go crazy.”

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