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Area teams gear up for league play

TUESDAY, JAN. 4, 2011, 3:12 P.M.

Conference play starts this week with Gonzaga expecting to take everyone’s best punch and Idaho and Eastern Washington hoping to deliver a few.

The Bulldogs (12-4), with six-straight West Coast Conference titles, are at Portland on Saturday; Idaho (7-5) is at Nevada on Thursday (televised on ESPNU at 8) and home for Fresno State to start the Western Athletic Conference; and defending Big Sky Conference champion Eastern Washington (4-8) is home against Portland State Saturday afternoon.

The spotlight is on Gonzaga, coming off two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 last year.

“What I like about our team is its ability the last few years to change its mindset,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “We’re the marked team, we’re going to get everybody’s best game. That’s why I say we have to change our mindset. They’ve handled that well in the past.”

The Bulldogs went 14-0 in the first and last seasons of their six title runs and are 77-7 in that time. They play their first three on the road against the expected three toughest opponents, Portland (9-6), Pepperdine (7-5) and Saint Mary’s (8-7).

“I haven’t really paid attention, I get too caught up in our games,” said Graves, who has 98 league wins in 10 years with the Zags. “I follow the scores and see the records. I assume Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s are good, they have good records, and they’ve played a tough schedule, tougher than us.”

Tough test for Idaho

The Vandals aren’t going to ease into league play with Nevada (11-2), off to its best start in history, and defending champion Fresno State (9-5).

“We had a good nonconference season,” third-year Vandal coach Jon Newlee said. “We played some tough teams and a lot of road games, which hopefully prepared us for travel in WAC.”

He said the top three, which includes Lousiana Tech (8-5) is what he thought, followed by parity. Seven teams are between 9-5 and 6-8.

“The key is you have to win your home games,” Newlee said. “Then you go out on the road and take your chances. The last couple of years we’ve been a pretty good road team.”

The Vandals are a little banged up in the back court but are still improving.

“From offensive standpoint we’ve come together well as far as sharing the basketball, making the extra pass, not relying on one person,” Newlee added. “We’re finally making progress on the rebounding side but we can still get tougher rebounding.”

Eagles, Big Sky struggling

The preseason didn’t quite go as planned for a team with high expectations. Facing a PSU team (7-6) that won the league tournament doesn’t help.

“Part of it is we’ve played some really good teams,” 10th-year coach Wendy Schuller said. “Some actually ended up being better than we thought they’d be, so we’ve had a challenging non-conference schedule.

“We didn’t do a good job of finishing games right before Christmas and we struggled on the road. January in (conference) is full of road games so we better figure that out.”

The issue is a combination of dynamic Chene Cooper becoming the starting point guard and the learning curve of five freshmen.

“I was a little bit disappointed … but it is part of the learning process for her and the rest of the team working with her,” Schuller said. “(And) you go through growing pains with those new players. We played better in December but finishing those games is critical.”

As for the league, favorite Montana is limping along at 5-8. Sherri Murrell’s Vikings and Idaho State (9-4) are the only teams with winning records.

“Nobody established themselves as a favorite,” Schuller said. “I think the league was like us as the season went on, it got better and better.”

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