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Healthy Gonzaga heads into WCC play

The first two months of the men’s basketball season have pretty much shown every side of the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

They started out ranked No. 12 and projected as national champions by two ESPN personalities. After losing five of seven games in a lackluster, injury-plagued four-week span, there was concern Gonzaga would enter conference play with a losing record.

That was washed away by their current six-game winning streak, during which the Bulldogs have been a force at both ends of the floor. They’re semi-close to returning to the Top 25, though polls don’t rank high on head coach Mark Few’s list of priorities. They’re very close to being healthy. Now that’s something Few truly cares about.

“We’re competing better, we’re handling adversity better and we’re getting healthier,” Few said. “That would probably be the No. 1 aspect, that we weren’t healthy at all during that (losing streak). Elias (Harris) is feeling better about himself and Steven (Gray) is rounding back into shape.”

Gonzaga (10-5) has made strides on offense and defense as it enters West Coast Conference play against Portland Saturday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

GU has held its last six opponents to shooting percentages between 32.3 and 36.7. Only Lafayette has made more than five 3-pointers. Three-point defense was one of the sticking points during GU’s 2-5 stretch and it will be a tested again in the WCC. Portland’s 44.4 percent accuracy from the 3-point line leads the nation. Saint Mary’s, which drained 11 3s while routing Loyola Marymount on Thursday, isn’t far behind at 41.3. Those teams could stage an entertaining game of H-O-R-S-E.

“We need to be aware,” Harris said. “Portland is a really good shooting team and they do a great job of finding their shooters.”

Gonzaga, meanwhile, has established inside options with Robert Sacre and Harris. GU routinely wins the points in the paint statistic and opposing ‘bigs’ often end up in foul trouble. The Bulldogs have attempted at least 22 free throws in their last six games. They’ve won making 50 percent of their shots against Wake Forest and 38.1 percent against Xavier.

Defense, rebounding and the bench have been key. The Zags have outrebounded their last four opponents, all by double figures. Opponents’ second-chance points, another sticking point earlier this season, have dried up. GU’s last five foes have combined for 24 second-chance points, the same number San Diego State had in a 79-76 win over Gonzaga on Nov. 16.

Seven of eight WCC teams have positive rebounding margins.

“We have to continue to get better taking care of the basketball and make sure the defense and rebounding stays a constant and this isn’t just a 5-6 game trend,” Few said.

The ‘Big Three’ of Sacre, Gray and Harris have been supplemented by timely contributions from numerous players. Of late, Mathis Keita was stellar versus Xavier and Wake Forest, and Manny Arop, David Stockton and Kelly Olynyk helped GU throttle Oklahoma State.

“We got put in situations (during a three-game losing streak) where we had to find anything, any combination of guys that would work and try and get the job done,” Gray said. “There wasn’t a whole lot going right during that stretch (but) coming out of that we got a lot of guys who had confidence they could play.”