The Gonzaga Bulldogs have almost made it look easy at times while winning 10 straight West Coast Conference basketball titles, perhaps adding to the national perception that the conference slate is essentially the softball portion of their front-loaded schedules.
That’s not the message veteran GU players are passing on to the newcomers about to embark on their first trek through the WCC.
“We’re not going to see the ranked teams we’ve been seeing, the athleticism across the board we’ve been seeing, but these games are the hardest games we’ve played all year,” senior guard Steven Gray said. “We let them know that when a team walks in here they want to beat us more than most teams. When we go on the road, their crowds are going to be into it and they’ll play better than they’ve played all year.”
That goes with the territory for Gonzaga, which again carries the label of favorite as it opens WCC play against visiting Portland on Saturday. The Bulldogs (10-5) have responded to a three-game losing streak in early December with six consecutive wins.
“I knew they’d be fine,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said. “It’s a process and they’re willing to risk taking some losses as part of that process. They’ve proven they’re all about what they can do in the postseason and where they’re at at the end of the year.”
Saint Mary’s, Portland and Loyola Marymount appear to be GU’s primary challengers. The Gaels (12-2) have finished tied or alone in second place six of the last seven years. Portland (12-3) has been in the hunt the last two seasons. The Pilots rank No. 37 in RPI rankings put out by collegerpi.com, with Saint Mary’s 41 and Gonzaga 44.
LMU (7-7) has a chance to send an early message when it entertains Saint Mary’s tonight.
For one of the rare times this season, the Bulldogs had every available player participate at practice. After early-season stretches with Elias Harris limited by shoulder/Achilles problems and Steven Gray’s recent bout with back spasms, GU had 12 players at Tuesday’s practice, plus three walk- ons who weren’t around over the holiday break.
“No more eight guys in a drill, 4-on-4s and 3-on-3s,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said.
Freshman forward Mathis Mönninghoff returned from a two-game absence because of tendinitis in the back of his ankle. He said his ankle is improving every day, but he’s not quite full speed.
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