Saint Mary's (Cal)-Gonzaga Preview
The most anticipated West Coast Conference matchup in recent history hasn't produced much drama the last two seasons.
While Saint Mary's is showing signs of recovery from last season, Gonzaga has also stepped it up.
If the Gaels are going to end the nation's longest home winning streak Thursday night, they'll need to slow down the third-ranked Bulldogs' efficient offense while developing some scoring of their own against an opponent that has consistently shut them down.
The conference rivals, which met in the conference title game for five straight seasons before playing in the semis a season ago, have had six matchups in the previous two seasons. Gonzaga (18-1, 7-0) has won them all by an average of 17.0 points, and in the last four, the Bulldogs have limited the Gaels (15-3, 7-0) to 50.8 points and 32.0 percent shooting.
This time around, Gonzaga enters as the top-shooting team in the country at 53.0 percent with an 11-game winning streak since suffering its only loss in overtime at then-No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 6. The latest victory was Saturday's 72-55 win at Loyola Marymount, with the Bulldogs limiting the Lions to 15 of 58 (29.3 percent) from the field.
For the season, they're holding opponents to 38.5 percent.
"Our defense is our staple," said guard Byron Wesley, who had 14 points. "When we come and play defense, we're able to get a lot of good shots on the offensive end."
Gary Bell Jr. scored 17 points to end a three-game slump during which he was held to 4.7 points.
"I finally got some shots to go," he said.
Gonzaga completed an opening stretch of conference schedule in which it played five of seven on the road. Eight of its last 12 are at home, where Gonzaga has won nine this season by an average of 32.8 points as part of a 34-game winning streak.
The Bulldogs have taken 30 straight at home in conference play.
Saint Mary's has rattled off nine straight victories after Saturday's 82-77 home win over BYU.
"I've never had a nine-game streak that didn't feel like we had a streak at all. It feels like it's been just one tough game after another," coach Randy Bennett told the school's official website. "I knew with San Diego, BYU, Gonzaga and Portland we had a pretty tough stretch coming and we're in the middle of it.
"Gonzaga's ranked high, they're a very good team and they're always tough up there. It'll be a good test for us."
Saint Mary's leans heavily on Brad Waldow, who had 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting against BYU. The forward, averaging 20.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 58.2 percent from the field, was limited to 9.3 points and 39.1 percent in three games against Gonzaga a season ago.
Two of Gonzaga's top three scorers will be new to Saint Mary's, with Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer (16.6 points per game) and Wesley (11.4), a USC transfer, joining Kevin Pangos (12.5).
Wesley's former USC teammate, Garrett Jackson, scored 20 points in the win over the Cougars.
The Gaels have dropped five games against top 5 opponents in the last 15 seasons by an average of 21.0 points - the last four coming against Gonzaga.