NCAAM Teams
Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer 278d

In a loaded weekend, Saint Mary's-Gonzaga is a must-watch

Men's College Basketball, Saint Mary's Gaels, Gonzaga Bulldogs

Simply put, the second hoops Saturday of 2017 is a doozy.

At noon ET on Saturday, No. 7 Duke, fresh off a road loss to No. 9 Florida State and another round of Grayson Allen-spurred controversy (thankfully quelled by FSU assistant Dennis Gates before it got really out of hand), will travel to No. 14 Louisville, home of the nation's most punishingly versatile defensive team. Elsewhere, No. 19 Virginia will play a Clemson team hungry for a big win after two close losses against No. 11 North Carolina (in overtime) and No. 20 Notre Dame (on the road).

Just as those end, the matchup between Big East title contenders No. 15 Xavier and No. 12 Butler will tip off. The aforementioned Seminoles, now 16-1 and atop the ACC standings, will take the court as well. They'll test their mettle on the road against UNC, one of the few teams in the country able to match (or exceed) FSU coach Leonard Hamilton's rotations in sheer athleticism and size. At 4:30 p.m. ET, No. 1 (for now) Baylor, coming off a 29-turnover, 21-point loss at No. 10 West Virginia, will meet a surprising No. 25 Kansas State group in Manhattan, Kansas. Those are just the highlights in a slate that also includes Iowa State at (also surprising!) TCU, Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, Wichita State visiting its biggest (only?) competitor in the Missouri Valley Conference (Illinois State) and No. 4 UCLA at Utah. Saturday is packed with a variety of entertaining, fascinating, downright awesome contests.

And none of them is Saturday's best.

That honor goes to one of the last games of the day: No. 21 Saint Mary's at No. 5 Gonzaga, a 10 p.m. ET tip from Spokane, Washington, featuring just about every positive quality one can ask for from a two-hour viewing investment.

After Baylor's loss on Tuesday, Gonzaga has formally locked down the 2016-17 "last unbeaten" honorific. Yet the Zags' 16-0 start carries far more weight than that: Thanks to both its own ability and the typical overall softness of the West Coast Conference, this team has a small but reasonable shot of joining 2014-15 Kentucky and 2013-14 Wichita State among the ranks of teams unbeaten until the NCAA tournament in the modern era. It's a rarer feat than the recency of the Wildcats' and the Shockers' accomplishments makes it sound, and an exceedingly difficult one. Yet with the Zags' combination of stifling first-shot defense and balanced offense -- they shoot 56 percent from 2-point range and nearly 40 percent from 3-point range while allowing their opponents to shoot just 42 and 29 percent from those ranges, respectively -- it's one this team appears capable of achieving.

Setting aside the odds of one or two unforeseen upsets along the way, there is one team that can stand in Gonzaga's way, and it just so happens to be the team visiting The Kennel on Saturday. If not for a weird loss to a pretty good UT-Arlington team in early December, the Gaels would be right there with the Zags in the last-unbeaten discussion. No matter: The rest of SMC's 15-1 start has gone pretty much exactly to preseason plan. Last season's breakout offensive surprise team is at it again, still running fluid sets, whipping the ball around and burying shot after shot. The Gaels are posting nearly the same effective field goal percentage as a season ago and an even higher ratio (nearly 66 percent!) of assists to makes.

It's the same fundamental recipe that netted the 2015-16 Gaels the regular-season WCC title and the program's first regular-season sweep of Gonzaga since the mid-'90s, with one crucial alteration: Jock Landale.

In the offseason, the Saint Mary's hype centered on the fact that the surprising Gaels would return their entire starting lineup -- and more specifically, guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, who played 93.6 and 92.9 percent of last season's available minutes, respectively, both top-15 marks nationally. No one said much about Landale, a promising but otherwise unsung 6-foot-11 bench big man who averaged around 14 minutes and eight points per game.

Yet here we are, nearly halfway through the 2016-17 season, and Landale is not simply starting. He's putting up 17.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per game ... and accounting for around 29 percent of SMC's shots and overall possessions ... and shooting 67 percent on 2s ... and grabbing 15 percent of available offensive rebounds and 28 percent of available defensive boards. Arguably the best Landale moment of the season thus far: On Jan. 4, one day before BYU's game at Saint Mary's, Cougars guard Nick Emery posted a video making fun of McKeon Pavilion's modest dimensions.

Landale then posted the following stat line: 26 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists on 11-for-13 shooting. Emery had nine points. BYU lost by 13.

Point is, he's an absolute beast, a bona fide All-America candidate and the early favorite for WCC Player of the Year.

The same day of Saint Mary's win over BYU, Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss had a 36-point, 11-rebound, 6-assist night (!) on 12-for-15 from the field at San Francisco. And as good as Williams-Goss has been, one could argue the Zags' most important player has been center Przemek Karnowski -- the planet-sized human with the feather-light touch -- around whom coach Mark Few's potent offense orbits.

Even better? As former Gonzaga center Robert Sacre put it so succinctly in 2013: "Both teams and fans hate each other." (His teammate at the time, guard Kevin Pangos, settled on "strongly dislike," which is almost better.) Saint Mary's has been Gonzaga's peskiest and most persistent challenge during the latter's two-decade reign of WCC dominance. The Gaels take a Herman Blume approach to the Zags and topple them just frequently enough that a big brother-little brother rivalry dynamic now elevates every game between the two. And as satisfying as SMC's regular-season sweep in 2015-16 may have been, Gonzaga's win in the WCC title game -- which kept Saint Mary's from the NCAA tournament altogether -- makes the idea of short-term payback a two-sided proposition.

So, to review: Saint Mary's at Gonzaga will feature the nation's last unbeaten team, its chief rival, two top-10 offenses, a handful of All-American level performers, hatred and revenge.

Schedule accordingly. Stay up late. There are plenty of good games on Saturday, but nothing will be better than this.


No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville, Saturday, noon ET, ESPN

Not that the first huge game of the day won't try. There's the Allen sideshow -- what will he maybe (or maybe not!) do this time?! -- lingering in the background, of course. That sound you hear is the world's leading internet documentarians preparing to point their iPhones at their blurry television screens every time Allen comes into contact with another human being. Hey, rightfully so. But unless (or until) Allen actually does something profoundly dumb on the floor again, the most fascinating thing about Duke will be how a team that is every bit as talented as expected in October has made it this deep into the season with so much remaining uncertainty. Will Allen, injured early in the season, unlock last season's remarkable productivity? Will forward Harry Giles reach his post-injury potential? Which lineups work best? Will forward Amile Jefferson miss another game? Can guard Luke Kennard maintain his remarkable offensive form? Are the Blue Devils good enough -- even with their iconic coach sidelined by back surgery -- to go on the road against the nation's stingiest per-possession defense, face whatever mind-bending scheme Louisville coach Rick Pitino throws at them and still win? How long until we know the answers? What if it takes until March?

No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

As discussed last week, the ACC's putative preseason contenders -- Duke, Virginia, UNC and Louisville -- have all suffered slipups early in conference play, some more than others. Florida State, meanwhile, keeps chugging along, now 4-0 in the league, with a win at Virginia and Wednesday's 16-point toppling of the Blue Devils. The only way this start could possibly get more impressive is if the Seminoles followed it up with a win in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is possible! It will be super difficult -- not least of which because the Tar Heels are every bit as big, physical and punishing on the interior as FSU, with just as much guard play to match. But it's still totally possible.

No. 15 Xavier at No. 12 Butler, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

No rest for the Bulldogs after this week's 11-point loss at Creighton, a score that belies just how easily the Bluejays handled coach Chris Holtmann's team throughout. That win put coach Greg McDermott's resurgent program in a tie at the top of the Big East with Villanova, the only team to beat Creighton thus far this season, and it sets up a potential dynamic in which Xavier and Butler -- by sheer attrition if nothing else -- fall off just far enough that the sole challenge to Nova's hegemony lies with the transfer-stocked roster in Omaha, Nebraska. Butler would love to get this win before its schedule eases up in the coming weeks. Xavier would, too, for the opposite reason, before Creighton comes knocking in Cincinnati on Monday.

No. 1 Baylor at No. 25 Kansas State, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU

It is better to be No. 1 and have lost than to have never been No. 1 at all.

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