SAN FRANCISCO – The game before the big game should be more competitive than Gonzaga’s first five West Coast Conference games.
It almost has to be, considering the Zags have vanquished four of their five conference foes by at least 30 points. They led the fifth, Loyola Marymount, by 25 before settling for a 19-point win.
Next up is San Francisco, which was picked fourth in the WCC coaches’ preseason poll and was in that neighborhood until Thursday’s last-second meltdown. The Dons took the lead on Souley Boum’s bucket with 3 seconds left, but Boum fouled LMU’s Jeffery McClendon on a desperation 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds remaining.
McClendon nailed all three free throws to give LMU its first conference win and hand the Dons’ a heartbreaking loss.
No. 15 Gonzaga (15-3, 5-0 WCC) and USF (10-8, 2-3) tip at 6:30 Saturday at War Memorial at the Sobrato Center. The Dons are one of just four WCC teams with a winning overall record.
“Now we kind of shift into the upper part of the league, so there’s going to be a real uptick in the level of play we’re facing,” coach Mark Few said after Gonzaga demolished Portland 103-57 on Thursday. “It’s a road game against somebody that’s scratching and clawing to finish in that top three or four in the league.”
Gonzaga is tied with Saint Mary’s (16-2, 5-0) atop the WCC and everyone else has at least two losses. The first of two Zags-Gaels showdowns is Thursday in Spokane.
GU senior forward Johnathan Williams left Saturday’s game after bumping knees with Portland’s JoJo Walker. Williams apparently has a contusion but no structural damage, according to Few. Williams was optimistic he would be able to play against USF.
Gonzaga and to a lesser degree Saint Mary’s have barely been pushed by conference opponents. They rank 1-2 in scoring offense and scoring defense. GU’s winning margin is 35.4, Saint Mary’s 17.4. The Gaels have faced a tougher league schedule to this point.
Gonzaga has been a handful in conference with the interior production of Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, and four starters, including Tillie, shooting above 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
The Dons return most of their key players from last year’s 20-win team in coach Kyle Smith’s first season. They’ve added firepower with Boum, a slender 6-foot-3 guard who has been a knockdown 3-point shooter with a knack for getting to the free-throw line. Boum averages 14.1 points in roughly 22 minutes per contest.
USF has 12 players averaging at least 9 minutes per game, led by returning guard Jordan Ratinho and wing Chase Foster, but they’re missing sophomore guard Charles Minlend, who has been sidelined all season with a shoulder injury.
The Dons rank last in the conference in scoring at 69.3 points per outing.
The Zags won a 95-80 shootout here last year behind Nigel Williams-Goss’ 36 points.
“I know every single year I’ve played San Francisco they’ve brought the fight,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “We aren’t expecting to sleepwalk into the gym and expect to walk out with the win. We expect to go hard and do the things we’ve been doing throughout the first five games.”