No. 13 Gonzaga, Saint Mary's meet in West Coast showdown (Jan 18, 2018)
Before the season tipped off, Saint Mary's was a unanimous choice to unseat Gonzaga from the top of the West Coast Conference.
But back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia in November, combined with the Bulldogs looking like they hadn't lost all that much from last year's Final Four team, seemed to flip the script.
Since then, though, the Gaels have quietly put together a 12-game win streak, which they will bring to Spokane, Wash., as Saint Mary's and No. 13 Gonzaga square off Thursday for the first time this season.
Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has been happy to be out of the spotlight.
"I think some of it has to do with we got beat those two games. It kind of took us off the radar," he said, according to the (San Jose) Mercury News. "We've just kind of been doing our deal, just chopping away."
The Gaels' three-headed monster -- seniors Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar -- has accounted for almost 56 percent of the team's scoring.
Landale, a 6-foot-11 center, has played his way on to the Wooden Award's Top 25 list. The Australian has eight double-doubles in his past 10 games.
Fellow Aussie Naar leads the nation in assists with 9.4 per game.
"From where we were at the start of the year to where we are now, we're a much-improved team," Naar told the paper.
The Gaels (17-2) and Zags (16-3) managed to not get caught looking ahead to this matchup. They've both raced to 6-0 starts in conference play.
"Obviously, it's two of the top teams in league and it's going to be much anticipated," Gonzaga senior guard Silas Melson said after a 75-65 win at San Francisco on Saturday. "But over the course of league play I think we've done a pretty good job just focusing on the next game."
The Zags, whose national ranking had dropped from 12th to 20th after a Dec. 21 loss at San Diego State, were back up to No. 13 on Monday. Saint Mary's is the fifth team listed under "other receiving votes."
Most NCAA Tournament prognosticators have both teams in the field of 68 -- the Zags average a six seed and the Gaels about a 10. Thursday's game provides an opportunity to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Bulldogs point guard Josh Perkins said he would "never overlook an opponent," but admitted he knew this date was coming.
"It's just tough to not see Saint Mary's on Jan. 18," he told the (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review. "Just looking forward to the opportunity. It should be fun, real fun."
The one-two Aussie punch will be a big challenge for a Zags team that isn't a match for last season's squad on the defensive end.
"They have a great big man (Landale), great guard (Emmett Naar). They just play very disciplined and everybody knows their roles," Gonzaga 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams said. "We have to find ways to exploit them in different mismatches."
Williams and 6-foot-10 sophomore Killian Tillie will be tasked with trying to slow down Landale, who has averaged 23 points per game since WCC play began.
Saint Mary's is the best shooting team (52.4 percent from the floor) in the country.
The defense, however, is another matter.
The Gaels rank 244th in the nation, allowing teams to make nearly 45 percent of their shots, a problematic number as they face the Zags who make 51.3 percent of their shots from the field, fifth best in the nation.
Thursday's meeting is just the opening round for the two teams, who have combined to claim the past 17 WCC regular-season titles.
The Gaels will host Gonzaga on Feb. 10.