Arizona has unlocked a whole new level of offensive domination in the postseason. The Wildcat offense is operating with the smooth precision of a brand-new car engine.
For just the third time in its NCAA Division I history, Arizona eclipsed the 100-point plateau when it beat North Dakota 100-82 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. The second-seeded Wildcats scored 54 points in the paint and shot 58.1 percent from the field against the Fighting Hawks. They have averaged 90.3 points per game in four postseason contests, including their three-game run to the Pac-12 Tournament title.
If any team is equipped to curtail that offense, Saint Mary's might be the one to do it. The seventh-seeded Gaels allow just 57.1 points per game and rank second in scoring defense among NCAA Division I teams. Saint Mary's has not allowed 80 or more points this season and has allowed 70-plus points just six times – including Thursday's 85-77 win over VCU in the first round.
Arizona holds a 4-2 lead in the all-time series with Saint Mary's and has won three straight over the Gaels dating back to 2000.
West Region: No. 7 Saint Mary's Gaels (29-4) vs. No. 2 Arizona Wildcats (31-4)
When: 7:45 pm ET (Saturday)
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City)
Line: Arizona - 4
Keys for Saint Mary's
Getting into a track meet with Arizona is not a good idea. The Gaels function best when they can slow the pace and run a deliberate offense. It lets them be patient, work the ball around for high-percentage shots and use their interior size to open up the floor.
Good things happen when Saint Mary's can control the tempo. The Gaels score 15.3 more points per game than their opponents. They shoot 49.7 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from the perimeter.
Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson form a potent inside-outside combo. Landale leads the team in points (16.9) and rebounds (9.4) per game and has recorded 16 double-doubles this season. Hermanson is Saint Mary's best scorer in the backcourt. He averages 13.1 points per game and shoots 44 percent from long-distance.
Keys for Arizona
Winning the rebound battle will be critical against Saint Mary's. The Wildcats are normally good at getting defensive rebounds, but often fall short at crashing the offensive glass. They can't afford to do that against the Gaels. Saint Mary's has one of the best rebounding margins in the nation. The Gaels collect 9.3 more rebounds per game than their opponents.
Arizona has a talented big man to counteract Landale. Freshman center Lauri Markkanen can step out from the basket and light it up from the perimeter. He also can do damage in the paint.
Markkanen is averaging 20.0 points per game in the postseason and has led the Wildcats in scoring 14 times and rebounding 18 times this season. If he can get the edge inside over Landale, it can neutralize one of the main strengths for the Gaels.
A golden opportunity lies ahead for Saint Mary's in its quest to step out of Gonzaga's shadow. Reaching the Sweet 16 has the potential to cement the Gaels as more than a curiosity or a blip on the college basketball radar. Winning against Arizona won't be easy. The Wildcats struggled against WCC opponents Santa Clara and Gonzaga in non-conference play while dealing with injuries and suspensions. Now at full strength, Arizona has evolved into an offensive juggernaut that can hold its own against even a tough Gaels defense.
Prediction: Arizona 75, Saint Mary's 66
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.