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Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s clash with first place in the WCC on the line

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 17, 2018, 6:29 p.m.

Their records are almost identical, their nonconference schedules not so much.

They are two of the nation’s top offenses even if they go about it in different ways. They had defensive issues at times during the nonconference, but that’s changed in West Coast Conference play.

They have arrived at the same place atop the WCC – until roughly 8 p.m. Thursday. No. 13 Gonzaga (16-3, 6-0 WCC) and Saint Mary’s (17-2, 6-0) will determine the pecking order, at least until their Feb. 10 meeting in Moraga, California, at 6 p.m. Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center, which should be its noisy self again with students back on campus.

Preseason WCC favorite Saint Mary’s, winner of 12 straight, is deliberate and efficient behind conference player of the year favorite Jock Landale, assist specialist Emmett Naar and a crew of quality 3-point shooters.

“They’re a tough out,” GU coach Mark Few said on his radio show. “They simply do not make mistakes. They play a very methodical, slow, steady brand of basketball.”

The Zags are the definition of balance with six players in double figures, led in scoring in WCC games by sixth man Rui Hachimura. They prefer a faster pace and have a 115-48 edge in points off turnovers in conference play.

Gonzaga has ruled the WCC with 16 solo or shared titles in the last 17 seasons. The Gaels, who play a weaker nonconference slate, have three titles, one solo, in the last seven years and nine second-place finishes since 2004.

The Zags have won 12 of the last 14 series meetings and they’re 40-9 against Saint Mary’s under Few.

It is the WCC’s marquee rivalry, despite being fairly one-sided, because they usually finish 1-2 in the standings. Gonzaga has lost more often to BYU, 7-5 in regular-season games, but the Cougars have finished third four times and shared second with the Gaels twice.

The 6-foot-11 Landale has 10 double-doubles in the last 11 games. The senior center has four 30-point games and made 13 of 15 shots in Saturday’s rout of Pepperdine. He is often on the receiving end of senior point guard Emmett Naar’s passes. Naar had 14 assists against the Waves and averages 9.4 per game.

Naar supplies what is needed, demonstrating as much in a three-game stretch when he posted a double-double against BYU (12 points, 10 assists) and followed it up with four points and 15 assists against Pacific and 24 points and one assist versus San Diego.

“They’re going to come down and run a middle ball screen with their two best players and make a read off that. In the course of the game they’ll probably do that 30 times or more,” Few said. “He (Landale) is the most efficient low-post scorer in college basketball. I know the Duke kids and all these guys are higher-level players and certainly better prospects for the next level, but just speaking for college basketball, there’s nobody more efficient than Landale.”

Saint Mary’s leads the nation in field-goal percentage (52.4) and ranks in the top 20 in free-throw percentage, 3-point accuracy and assists. Gonzaga is top nine in scoring offense, field-goal percentage and total assists.

It could come down to who plays better defense. The Zags allow 57.8 points per WCC game, 17 less than in the nonconference. The Gaels have improved on defense, from 67.5 in nonconference to 61 in conference.

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