By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Basketball Writer
The challenge that faces Gonzaga coach Mark Few is the same one facing Saint Mary’s counterpart Randy Bennett this week: Avoid looking past must-win mid-week games to their showdown on Saturday night in Spokane, Washington.
The Bulldogs first have to play San Diego on Thursday night; the Gaels take on Pacific an hour earlier.
“I hope we’re feeling that his thing is winding down and we’re getting closer,” Few said. “We’ve got three games left.”
None bigger than that one Saturday, though.
No. 12 Gonzaga (23-5, 12-2) is a game back of No. 15 Saint Mary’s (24-5, 13-1) in what is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested races in the West Coast Conference in years. It will be the 11th time the two teams have played when both were ranked, the Gaels got the better of the last meeting with a 78-70 overtime victory earlier this month.
The Bulldogs have won six straight regular-season titles since sharing with Saint Mary’s in 2016. But assuming the Gaels get past the Tigers on Senior Night, they will have an opportunity to not only sweep Gonzaga but clinch their first outright conference championship since 2012, when they went on to beat the Bulldogs for the league tournament title.
“It’s all about compartmentalizing,” the Gaels’ Logan Johnson said. “We talked about it a lot last year — we had BYU, San Francisco, San Diego, Gonzaga to finish at home. That’s a tough stretch. And this is no different here. It’s all about taking it piece by piece, possession by possession. You can’t think about the next game or what’s around the corner.”
The first matchup between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s this season was epic: The Bulldogs led by eight at halftime, Mitchell Saxen’s layup for the Gaels with 8 seconds left forced overtime, and freshman phenom Aidan Mahaney dominated the extra session as Saint Mary’s pulled away for its 10th win over its rival since the 2009-10 season.
“We are making this a thing now where we want to be able to rival with them every time,” Mahaney said afterward. “This isn’t an upset or anything like that. We’re not going to just talk about it. We’re going to put in the work.”
BIG GAMES IN THE BIG 12
The Big 12 has been the toughest league in the country by almost any metric this season. Six teams are in the Top 25 this week, and according to various projections, anywhere from seven to nine teams could land NCAA Tournament bids.
Third-ranked Kansas headed to No. 24 TCU on Monday night to kick off another brutal week in the Big 12. Ninth-ranked Baylor visits No. 14 Kansas State and No. 23 Iowa State visits No. 8 Texas on Tuesday night. Then on Saturday, Texas and Baylor highlight a slate that includes the Wildcats visiting NCAA bubble team Oklahoma State, fellow bubble team West Virginia visiting the Jayhawks, Oklahoma heading to Iowa State and the Horned Frogs visiting Texsa Tech.
BIG EAST BUSINESS
The toughest race besides the Big 12 might belong to the Big East, where No. 10 Marquette has one-game lead on No. 16 Xavier, No. 19 Creighton and No. 20 Providence. And the Golden Eagles and Bluejays face off Tuesday night in Milwaukee in a game that could go a long way toward determining the champion.
The Friars have a tough game Wednesday night against No. 19 UConn, which has fallen four games behind Marquette and will try to play spoiler down the stretch. Xavier plays Villanova and Seton Hall this week.
Tennessee has been one of the standard-bearers in the SEC all season, but Texas A&M returned to the poll this week for the first time since November. The No. 11 Volunteers face the No. 25 Aggies on Tuesday night in College Station.
No. 2 Alabama leads the Aggies by a game in the league standings. The Crimson Tide visits South Carolina on Wednesday night before a tough game against Arkansas on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH
No. 3 Purdue leads the Big Ten by 1 1/2 games over No. 21 Northwestern with a showdown coming Saturday against No. 14 Indiana, which is another game back. The Hoosiers have to get by Michigan State on Tuesday night.
In the ACC, sixth-ranked Virginia has a half-game lead over No. 13 Miami with trips to Boston College and North Carolina this week. The Hurricanes visit Virginia Tech before facing Florida State on Saturday.
Fourth-ranked UCLA has a 1 1/2-game lead in the Pac-12 over No. 7 Arizona — the teams meet in their regular-season finales on March 4. But first, the Bruins visit Utah and Colorado this week while the Wildcats face Arizona State.
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