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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

For traveling Zags, it’s time to play basketball

When opening the college basketball season nearly 6,000 miles from home at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Butler in Okinawa, Japan, Xs and Os share time with the bigger picture.

The Zags have done their requisite preparation for Friday’s game against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Classic, as well as experiencing daily life on a military base and learning more about Japanese culture.

Even before leaving Spokane, coach Mark Few went into great detail expressing his appreciation for being involved in the centerpiece of ESPN’s annual tribute to America’s Heroes, a five-day initiative honoring veterans and troops.

“We’ll get a great experience and really get to do some cool things,” Few said. “And then we’ve got to play a game.”

The game portion of Gonzaga’s memorable trip has arrived as the ninth-ranked Zags and Panthers meet at 4 p.m. PST – 9 a.m. Saturday in Okinawa – on a portable court inside Foster Fieldhouse.

The Panthers were picked 10th in ACC preseason polls. They’re coming off a 19-15 season and first-round loss to George Washington in the NIT. Head coach Jamie Dixon, entering his 13th season, has guided Pitt to 10 NCAA tournaments and has a 73.4 career winning percentage, 10th among active coaches on a list topped by Few’s 81.0 percent.

“It’s amazing how your perception of them is kind of as grinders, they’ve always been great defensively and great rebounding and a little offensively challenged but they were in the top 20 or so in offensive efficiency last year,” Few said. “It’s a program with a lot of pride.”

And a lot of familiar faces returning. Four starters are back, including 6-foot-9 Michael Young (13.4 points, 7.3 rebounds), 6-7 Jamel Artis (13.6 points, 6 rebounds) and senior guard James Robinson (8.9 points, 5.1 assists).

Pittsburgh added three graduate transfers – forwards Rafael Maia (Brown) and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond) and guard Sterling Smith (Coppin State) – with a combined 222 career starts. Smith averaged 13.9 points last season and has made 159 career 3-pointers.

“We know they’re aggressive, we know they’re really tough,” Gonzaga senior guard Eric McClellan said. “We have to bring our hard hats.”

Gonzaga sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis, who took a hard fall on his lower back in Saturday’s exhibition game against Eastern Oregon, practiced Thursday and hopes to play against the Panthers.

The Zags are breaking in a new starting backcourt to go with the talented frontcourt trio of Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski. GU committed just nine turnovers against Eastern Oregon but struggled beyond the 3-point arc, making just 5 of 31 attempts.

GU at times plans to play the 6-10 Wiltjer, 6-11 Sabonis and 7-1 Karnowski together, which creates interesting matchups at both ends of the court.

“They have tough, experienced guys and their bigs are step-out, Stacy Davis-type players,” said Few, referring to Pepperdine’s standout forward. “It’s going to be a real challenge for us. They have a muddling kind of pace and our guards have to be mature enough to function in that type of game.”

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