Unranked and sporting a 4-3 record is unfamiliar territory for the Gonzaga men’s basketball team.
The Bulldogs have never been 4-3 in Mark Few’s previous 11 seasons as head coach. They’ve been 5-2 five times (2000-03, 06), 6-1 five times and 7-0 in 2009.
It doesn’t get any easier this week for the Zags, who face road tests against rival Washington State (5-1) on Wednesday and No. 23 Notre Dame (8-0) on Saturday. The Fighting Irish will be Gonzaga’s fourth ranked opponent, following losses to current No. 14 San Diego State, No. 5 Kansas State and No. 16 Illinois.
“We really need to bounce back the way we did in the Marquette game,” Few said. “We had a good mindset, a good approach and we put the one situation away (loss to K-State) and learned from it as much as we could. With another game comes another opportunity.”
The Bulldogs fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 last week. They dropped out of the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 this week.
“We’re not doubting anybody on our team,” junior center Rob Sacre said. “The coaches picked this group of guys for a reason. We’re not peaking early obviously. We’ve peaked sometimes (the last few years) a little too early for our own good. This year we’re going to have to learn the hard way, slowly but surely, and we’ll just keep grinding away. We have to slowly climb up the hill to get to the peak.”
Gonzaga always plays a rugged non-conference schedule, but the Bulldogs appear to be catching foes that are meeting or exceeding preseason expectations. San Diego State is undefeated and has climbed 12 spots since opening just outside the ESPN/USA preseason rankings. Notre Dame has gone from receiving no votes to No. 23.
“Not taking anything away from last year’s team, but the teams we played maybe outside Michigan State didn’t pan out like everybody thought,” senior guard Steven Gray said. “This year it’s a young squad trying to learn what it takes to win these games. If you take out those lapses, we’re playing some pretty good basketball. I think it’ll make us stronger and better toward the end of the year.”
Gray doesn’t have to worry about feeling lonely on the court. Opposing defenses are paying special attention to the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. That’s a change from his first three seasons at Gonzaga.
“I’m just trying to keep a positive head and not force things,” Gray said, “and think about if I’m not scoring or getting the looks I’m accustomed to that there are ways to impact the game. That means getting other guys in situations they can be successful and still being a leader whether things are going well or poorly for me.”
Few said Gray is handling the added attention.
“It’d be nice if we could develop somebody on the perimeter to give him a blow, but right now nobody has been able to consistently function out there,” Few said. “We rest him in practice and he’s in great shape. We probably didn’t get him enough screens (against Illinois), but we were having some success going inside. I don’t think he’s going to be the leading scorer in the country because we have some good bigs we can throw the ball to, so that was the play (Saturday).”
Just before Monday’s practice, sophomore forward Elias Harris said his bothersome Achilles tendon was “feeling great” and he credits acupuncture as one of the reasons.
“I was really surprised because I didn’t know a couple of needles could help out that much,” said Harris, who has had two acupuncture sessions. “That was a good thing.”