Gonzaga’s opportunities to make a favorable impression in national circles tend to dwindle this time of year.
Right or wrong, the perception is if the Zags win another WCC title they’re simply doing what is expected in a lightly regarded conference they’ve dominated, followed closely by the narrative that GU struggles to keep its competitive edge during the WCC season.
It’s one of the reasons Gonzaga coach Mark Few and then-Memphis counterpart John Calipari, battling similar perceptions of Conference USA, agreed years ago to a series that usually falls in the middle of their respective conference seasons.
The Zags and Tigers collide tonight at the McCarthey Athletic Center, their eighth meeting since 2006. Memphis has won six of the previous seven, including a comeback victory over the visiting Zags last February.
“This is going to be a great challenge for us,” Few said. “This is going to be as athletic a crew as we’ll face all year. I think it’s great preparation for us, how we’re going to handle that speed, that quickness, that play around the rim. It’s hitting us at a really good time.”
The Tigers (13-7), a member of the American Athletic Conference since 2013, received votes in preseason polls but they dropped four of their first seven games, all by double figures.
Memphis sits in fourth place in the AAC at 6-3, one of those losses a 14-pointer to SMU, which lost 72-56 at Gonzaga in November.
“We’ve had some epic battles with Gonzaga,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “We’re going to have to play great, but I like where we’re at and we’re getting better.”
An upset win over the third-ranked Zags (21-1) would provide a major boost to the Tigers’ postseason resume. Memphis is No. 79 in ESPN.com’s RPI.
“They are a top-five team with one of the best coaches to coach the game,” said Memphis junior forward Shaq Goodwin, a member of the 2012 USA U-18 team that included Few as an assistant coach. “With their RPI and all of that stuff comes into play, we are just looking forward to playing.”
Gonzaga is in the driver’s seat in the WCC, one game in front of Saint Mary’s. The Zags are well positioned for a top seed in the NCAA tournament if they continue adding to their 14-game winning streak.
“It’s great that we have this game halfway through the (conference) season because it’ll help us face athletes that WCC teams don’t have,” freshman forward Domantas Sabonis said.
The Tigers lost three starters and four primary scorers from last year’s 24-win team. Sophomore forward Austin Nichols leads Memphis in scoring (13.3), rebounding (6.0) and blocks (3.2). Junior forward Trahson Burrell contributes 9.1 points and 5.7 boards.
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