MORAGA -- For the Saint Mary's College men's basketball team, Gonzaga's status in the national polls is of little significance.
Instead, it's the No. 5 Bulldogs' position at the top of the conference standings that has Saint Mary's attention. In order to earn a third consecutive West Coast Conference regular season title, the Gaels face essentially a must-win situation in Thursday's 8 p.m. game against their fiercest conference rival.
"You see it," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said of Gonzaga's ranking. "We're aware of it, but we see them as the team we have to play to win the league. That's what sticks out the most when we size them up."
Added senior guard Matthew Dellavedova: "It's just a number next to their name, it doesn't really mean anything."
A win in the nationally-televised game would pull the second-place Gaels (21-4, 10-1 WCC) even with the Bulldogs (23-2, 10-0 WCC) in the loss column of the conference standings with three weeks left.
Beating Gonzaga would also be beneficial to Saint Mary's NCAA tournament résumé, which needs some work. Despite their good-looking record, the Gaels sit on the bubble because their best win is against a BYU team with a RPI of 62. Saint Mary's RPI is 49.
"Every win helps, and a win over a good team really helps," Bennett said. "But we have three weeks, six games, a lot can happen."
For now, the Gaels are focused on defending their conference title.
The two squads have split their last eight meetings since 2010, and the Gaels have won nine straight games since losing 83-78 in Spokane on Jan. 10.
"We had a chance to tie it with 10 seconds to go after playing a terrible first half," Dellavedova said.
And the Gaels believe they are better now, having made defense a priority immediately after that loss. Instead of spending 30 minutes of practice time on defense, the team now spends close to an hour each day.
"It was a key point in our season," Bennett said. "If we wanted to be a top team in this conference, we had to get better in one area, significantly."
Gonzaga, which is up to No. 3 in the Coaches Poll in addition to its No. 5 Associated Press ranking, will be the highest-ranked team in decades to play the Gaels in Moraga. The last time a top-five team came to town was No. 3 DePaul in 1984.
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