After taking a couple of the much-needed days off to rest their bodies and clear their minds for Finals Week, the Gonzaga Bulldogs reconvened for practice Tuesday afternoon and started preparations for what might be the most daunting road trip in the school’s history.
The Zags (9-2), who moved up two spots to No. 16 in the latest Associated Press Top-25 poll after manhandling Washington 97-77 last weekend, will travel to Duluth, Ga., on Friday to take on the Georgia Bulldogs (6-1) in Saturday’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Classic.
From there, they make a return visit to New York’s Madison Square Garden to face perennial national power Duke (9-1) on Dec. 21.
“This is probably as tough as we’ve had,” GU coach Mark Few said of his team’s upcoming eight-day eastern swing.
What concerns Few almost as much as the competition is the fact that the two games will be played during the time of the year when some of his past teams have struggled – particularly in mid-December 2002 when the Bulldogs wrapped up final exams, flew to Atlanta for their first appearance in the Peach Bowl Classic and lost to Georgia 95-83 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close.
“Traditionally, we’ve always had a hard time with this game right after finals,” Few said. “Obviously, I think their minds are fried afterward. They’re really mentally drained.
“And the last time we played in Atlanta after finals, we just got blistered. Hopefully, it won’t be like that again, where we’re out of it by the first media timeout.”
Despite Few’s wariness about the potential pitfalls his team faces, the GU players seem eager to close their books on Finals Week and head back out on the road with the rare opportunity to concentrate on nothing but basketball over the holiday break.
“I didn’t get much sleep these last two nights,” admitted freshman guard Matt Bouldin, who is experiencing Final Week for the first time. “I didn’t realize how important finals were. I didn’t realize they were such a big part of our grade. In high school they weren’t.
“But it’s kind of exciting, because after this week it’s just focus on basketball – no schoolwork. It’s all basketball from here on out, basically.”
Junior forward David Pendergraft took the last of his final exams Tuesday but still has “quite a few” papers to finish.
So he, too, if looking forward to getting back on the basketball court.
“It’ll be in a hostile environment, but it’ll be a lot of fun,” he said of Saturday’s game against Georgia in Gwinnett Arena. “I know I’m looking forward to it.”
Of the Duke game in the Big Apple the following Thursday, Pendergraft added, “You always want to have fun in New York, but it’s a business trip. You don’t get a chance to play Duke in Madison Square Garden too many times, so I think we’ll stay focused.”
Few pointed out that long road trips like the one coming up can wear on a team mentally.
“Just being on the road so long like that, you sometimes get that hotel lethargy,” he said. “So, hopefully, we can move our guys around a little bit and keep them busy.”
Sean Mallon, a fifth-year senior forward who has experienced just about everything there is to experience on the road, is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead the next eight days.
“We’ve definitely had some tough (road trips) in the past, but this one ranks right up there,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of the Oklahoma State-Missouri one we had a couple of years ago. That was tough, I remember. And this one ranks right up there with that one.”
Having already earned his degree, the Ferris High product is not feeling the same academic pressures as some of his younger teammates.
“But I’ve been there before, and I know it can be a stressful time,” he said. “But we’ve got bright guys on this team, so I’m confident they’ll find that balance.”
The much-anticipated debuts of last year’s midseason transfers Micah Downs (Kansas) and David Burgess (BYU) won’t correspond, as initially expected, with the certification of first-semester grades.
Downs (broken foot) and Burgess (knee) were hoping to contribute immediately after becoming eligible at the end of the semester, but both must wait for medical clearance.
Downs is still hoping to make his GU debut Dec. 30 when the Bulldogs take on Nevada in the Battle in Seattle, but Few is taking a wait-and-see approach on the 6-foot-8 shooting guard’s availability.
Burgess is still limited primarily to 1-on-1 drills at practice and probably won’t be ready until sometime next month.
In addition, freshman forward Theo Davis continues to recover from surgery to repair the left shoulder he injured in the Zags’ first practice of the season, and sophomore guard Larry Gurganious remains sidelined by a stress reaction in a lower vertebrae.
Davis is lifting weights, running and doing some 1-on-1 work with student managers, but has not been cleared to practice. Gurganious is still waiting to undergo another MRI – perhaps in the next couple of weeks – to learn more about the status of his back injury.