LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Bigger tests figure to come down the road, but the Gonzaga men’s basketball team should receive three rather large progress reports at the Old Spice Classic.
As expected, the ninth-ranked Bulldogs (2-0) have breezed to a pair of home victories, but the competition stiffens at what many regard as the toughest tournament in the country. Gonzaga opens against Oklahoma State (4-0), which has hit the century mark three times (counting two exhibitions) and scored at least 90 points in five of six outings. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. (Pacific) at The Milk House.
Gonzaga’s second-round opponent will be No. 5 Michigan State (2-0) or Maryland (3-0).
“It reminds me of the Maui (Invitational) field a couple years back,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “It looks like there’s seven, hopefully, NCAA teams. That’s quite a statement out of eight … and some that are going to be up for 1, 2 and 3 seeds.
“The downside is somebody is going to end up 0-3 and a couple are going to end up 1-2. You could still have a really good squad, but you won’t feel like at the time.”
Seven of the Old Spice participants made the postseason last year, including five in the NCAA tournament. Four are ranked, three in the top 12, and two others (Siena and Oklahoma State) are receiving votes.
The eight teams are a combined 20-1 – the lone loss Wichita State’s 66-63 setback against University of Missouri-Kansas City. Gonzaga is no stranger to high-profile, neutral-site matchups, whether in single-game or tournament settings.
“To be honest, it’s the biggest week of my career here,” senior point guard Jeremy Pargo said. “A lot of people have high hopes for us and we have high hopes for ourselves, but once you’re judged at a certain rate the big tournament can solidify you as a top team in the country or it can hurt you and show that you’re not as good as some people think.
“Our biggest goal is to win every single game.”
That starts with Oklahoma State, which was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 Conference preseason poll. However, first-year coach Travis Ford has a fairly experienced team that is running, pressing and firing up 3s.
“Sounds like fun to me,” Pargo said.
Sounds a little like GU to Few. “They play a lot like us,” he said. “They’ve really been bothering people with their traps and pressure. And you have to defend them. We have to stay together and not get too spread out.”
The Cowboys rely on guards, including senior point guard Byron Eaton, the school-record holder for steals who is just 24 points from 1,000 in his career. Eaton, listed at 5-feet-11 and 210 pounds, has dropped more than 35 pounds since last season, but don’t get the impression he wasn’t effective in 2007-08. He scored 26 points in a 61-60 upset of eventual national champion Kansas.
Terrel Harris has already had games with 20, 21 and 23 points. James Anderson is the team’s leading scorer at 19.5 per game. Both wings are shooting well above 50 percent from the floor and 80 percent at the free-throw line. Obi Muonelo, another 6-5 wing, leads the team in rebounding at 9 per contest. Reserve guard Keiton Page (10.3 ppg) and 6-11, 230-pound center Ibrahima Thomas (10 ppg, 4.8 rpg) give OSU five double-figures scorers.
The Cowboys made 15 of 39 3-pointers – the former tied a school record, the latter set a new standard – against Grambling State.
“They’re going to big, athletic and strong,” Bulldogs senior wing Micah Downs said. “We’re going to have to raise our intensity, raise everything up one extra notch.”
The Bulldogs point to a scrimmage earlier this month against No. 6 Texas as good preparation for OSU because both Big 12 teams prefer fast-paced basketball. But GU is concerned about going eight days between games.
“We tried like crazy to get a game Saturday or even Sunday,” said Few, whose team thumped Idaho 80-46 on Nov. 18. “We’ve been able to put some new things in and maybe get farther along with our whole offensive package.”
Gonzaga boasts four double-figures scorers, paced by Austin Daye’s 15.5 and center Josh Heytvelt’s 15.0.
“They are 8 or 9 deep,” OSU’s Ford said. “They have a kid (Steven Gray) who’s not even starting that made seven 3s in the loss to Davidson last year. It’s interesting to go through each position and all of them are tough matchups. Their big man inside is a concern for us.”
Few boiled his concerns down to two.
“Take care of the ball first,” he said, “and stay with our defensive philosophy and keep them in front.”