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Bulldogs focus like underdogs

The Gonzaga Bulldogs, apparently in full embrace of the underdog role they insist they have recently inherited, close out one of the strangest and most unpredictable regular seasons in recent memory with a difficult West Coast Conference men’s basketball road trip to the Bay Area and San Diego.

First up is today’s 12:30 p.m. game against the University of San Francisco in War Memorial Gym, followed by Monday night’s regular-season finale against USD that tips off at 7 in the Toreros’ Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Working in favor of the short-handed Zags (19-10 overall, 9-3 in the WCC) is the momentum they’ve gained from a splendid second-half effort in last Saturday’s 78-77 overtime loss to eighth-ranked Memphis and Monday evening’s 87-68 rout of Portland.

“It’s never easy going on the road, especially in conference,” said fifth-year senior forward Sean Mallon, who played only five ceremonial minutes in Monday’s Senior Night win over Portland because of an ankle sprain suffered against Memphis. “We get everybody’s best shot, but we know what we need to do.

“And we’ve got some momentum going now, so we’re going to try to build on that.”

In USF (12-16, 7-5), the Bulldogs face, perhaps, the most athletically gifted team in the conference, which has been on a nice roll. The Dons, despite losing at Saint Mary’s on Monday, have won five of their last seven games to assure themselves a first-division finish in the WCC standings.

They fell to Gonzaga on the road earlier this year by a decisive 72-56 margin. But Bulldogs coach Mark Few warns against reading too much into that game, pointing out that USF’s senior guard Armondo Surratt was sick and teammate Antonio Kellogg, who is averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 3.4 assists for the Dons, missed the game because of a school-imposed suspension designed to give the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard additional time to concentrate on academics.

Surratt, who was named the WCC’s newcomer of the year last season after transferring from Miami, has missed USF’s last four games with a knee sprain, but could return today.

“This will be a whole different San Francisco team,” Few said. “Surratt will be back, it sounds like, for our game. And with Kellogg, too, who is probably one of the most talented kids in our league, they have two high-level players in the backcourt.”

In addition, the Dons boast one of the conference’s most productive and versatile low-blocks performers in 6-9 senior Alan Wiggins, who is averaging 14.6 points and team-high seven rebounds – and who will be operating against a makeshift GU front line that has been gutted by suspensions and injuries.

Josh Heytvelt, a 6-11 sophomore forward and the Bulldogs’ top rebounder and second-leading scorer, remains suspended indefinitely after being charged with felony possession of drugs, and Mallon’s status remains questionable because of his ankle injury.

“I would assume with us being where we’re at, that they will attack us inside as much as they can with Wiggins,” Few said of the Dons. “I told our guys we’re underdogs in every game from here on out and that we’ve just got to scratch and claw and find ways – like we did the other night against Portland.

“Again, our guys flew around and were opportunistic and played hungry the last two nights out. And that’s how we have to play the rest of the way, because if we don’t, we’ll get squashed.”