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Zags host to Larry Brown’s tough SMU squad

It didn’t take long for the arrival of one of the biggest games on Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule.

No. 22 SMU, one of two Gonzaga opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25, visits the McCarthey Athletic Center tonight (Monday). The Zags take on No. 2 Arizona on Dec. 6.

The 13th-ranked Bulldogs understand nothing will come as easy against the athletic, experienced Mustangs as it did in a season-opening 104-58 rout of Sacramento State on Friday. SMU handled Lamar 93-54.

“Just high-level athletes, a tough and hard-nosed defensive-minded team that can really be difficult to score on,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re legit, a top 15 team and they’re hungry from not making the (NCAA) tournament last year.”

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown started SMU’s turnaround by guiding the Mustangs to a 15-17 record in 2013. Last year they were 23-9, tied for third in the American Athletic Conference and ranked No. 25 when they gathered for a festive Selection Sunday party. The selection committee passed on SMU, which went on to lose in the NIT finals in the school’s first postseason appearance in 14 years.

The Mustangs return 11 players from that 27-10 team, led by All-AAC guard Nic Moore (13.6 ppg, 4.9 assists). Forward Markus Kennedy, second-team All-AAC last season, is academically ineligible, but the front line remains formidable with 6-foot-11 Yanick Moreira (19 points, 4 rebounds vs. Lamar) and 6-10 Cannen Cunningham (15 points, 4 rebounds).

SMU, seventh nationally in field-goal percentage defense last season, held Lamar to 31.4 percent shooting.

“He (Brown) demands toughness, holds players accountable and it shows,” Few said.

Prized recruit Emmanuel Mudiay opted to play professionally in China, but pollsters still think highly of the Mustangs, who are ranked in both major polls and picked to finish second in the AAC behind defending national champion Connecticut.

Gonzaga breezed past Sac State as four newcomers made strong debuts. Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points. Domas Sabonis added 14 points and eight rebounds. Byron Wesley had 12 points and seven boards. Josh Perkins chipped in eight points and six assists.

“We hope it’s quick because we have a game on Monday,” said Wiltjer, when asked how long it might take for the Zags to mesh. “On any good team, you just want to improve from the last game. SMU is going to be really tough. We know they’ll be ready.”

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