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Zags up to challenge

STILLWATER, Okla. – Gonzaga sophomore guard Gary Bell Jr. had just finished describing the challenge of defending Baylor standout Pierre Jackson when he was reminded of his next assignment.

“You get a real break against (Oklahoma State freshman) Marcus Smart, don’t you,” a reporter kidded.

“I don’t think so,” said a smiling Bell, shaking his head. “He’s definitely a good guard, probably stronger and definitely bigger than Pierre. I have my work cut out for me.”

Bell won’t be alone in that regard when the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (12-1) tangle with No.22 Oklahoma State (10-1) today at 3 PST at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Gonzaga is the first ranked nonconference opponent to visit Stillwater in 23 years. The Cowboys handed No. 16 Memphis a 93-66 loss on Dec. 5, 1989. OSU is 180-4 in its last 184 nonconference home games dating to 1987.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few called the challenge “gigantic. It’s going to be one heck of an environment. It sounds like the place is sold out, thanks to a little help.”

OSU mega-booster T. Boone Pickens purchased and donated 4,000 tickets to help fill the 13,611-seat arena.

Gonzaga, 4-0 versus Big 12 schools this season, has won three straight after falling at home to Illinois. The Cowboys have won five in a row following an 81-71 loss to Virginia Tech. They’ve relied on defense, limiting foes to 55.5 points per game on 35.8-percent shooting, ranking 12th nationally in both categories. Five opponents have failed to reach 50 points and only Virginia Tech has surpassed 65.

The Cowboys block 5.5 shots per game and they’re strong on the boards (plus-5 per game). Smart ranks in the top 16 in the Big 12 in those two categories, as well as scoring (12.5 points), assists (5.1) and steals (2.7).

Few coached Smart as an assistant on Billy Donovan’s Team USA staff at the FIBA Americas U18 Tournament in Brazil last summer. The U.S. captured gold, 81-56, over Brazil. Smart finished with 10 points, three rebounds, four assists and six steals in the title game.

“I watched him in Brazil with the whole country raining down on us and our team in dire straits just strap us on and win the game with his heart and defense,” Few said. “He picked this Brazilian guard like six times and the kid is a pro. They basically had to take him out. He was the guy that was hitting 3s and their crowd would go crazy. He just dismantled him.”

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smart is doing the same things for Oklahoma State that he did for Team USA, Few said.

“From the day we went to the Trials, he was our leader,” he said. “Everybody followed him. He’s just a warrior of a kid and he’s changed (OSU’s) program.”

Smart isn’t a one-man show. Sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash is the leading scorer at 14.9 points, junior guard Markel Brown is next at 14.0 and freshman guard Phil Forte averages 10.9 points coming off the bench.

“From what I’ve seen and what I remember from (GU’s 73-52 win over OSU) two years ago, they’re going to be a physical, smart team that runs up and down really well,” Bulldogs forward Elias Harris said. “We need to be prepared and play with poise and a lot of confidence.”