Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s to sort out the WCC pecking order? A big deal.
Senior Night for three Zags? Also a big deal.
The confluence of a big conference matchup on the same night Gonzaga fetes the contributions of three key seniors should make for an interesting Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The Zags (21-6, 13-2) can clinch at least a share of the conference title, which would be their 15th in the last 16 seasons. Saint Mary’s (21-4, 12-3), which rallied for a 70-67 victory over GU in Moraga, can forge a tie with Zags and the Gaels would own the season series.
“Some look at Senior Night as a bad thing but I think it’s more of a celebration of not only my career but the other seniors,” said Kyle Dranginis, who has five years invested in Gonzaga’s program. “Senior Night and a huge game for us, it’s going to be loud and crazy.”
Three primary reasons Gonzaga is positioned for another WCC championship are Dranginis and fellow seniors Kyle Wiltjer and Eric McClellan. Senior center Przemek Karnowski, who had season-ending back surgery Dec. 31, said earlier this week he won’t go through festivities and he’s keeping his options open for next season.
Wiltjer is simply one of the best scorers and shot-makers in program history.
The 6-foot-10 forward arrived with much fanfare after transferring from Kentucky. He earned several All-America honors last season when he averaged 16.8 points and led the team in 3-point accuracy (46.6 percent).
That prompted a brighter spotlight and he was named CBSsports.com’s preseason national player of the year. Wiltjer is averaging 21.3 points – the most by a Zag since Adam Morrison’s 28.1 in 2006 – and he’s hitting nearly 43 percent from 3 and 87 percent at the free-throw line.
“He came here with a lot of hype and he’s really backed it up,” coach Mark Few said. “All the while he’s just been an awesome teammate, a model student, a high-character guy. He took a big chance leaving Kentucky because he believed in this place and in us, and it’s paid off for him.”
Wiltjer, despite battling a nagging foot injury earlier this season, has improved his low-block game and bumped his rebounding average from 5.5 last year to 6.4. He’s had five 30-point games this season and poured in 45 against Pacific last season, third highest in school history.
Wiltjer, who carries a 3.76 grade-point average working on his Master of Business Administration, was named to the WCC All-Academic team.
“No regrets,” Wiltjer said. “It’s been an amazing ride. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been in college that long. I love Gonzaga and I’m just glad everyone welcomed me with open arms.”
As Dranginis began discussing his lengthy GU tenure, guard Dustin Triano couldn’t resist.
“You’re basically a senior citizen,” needled Triano from an adjacent cubicle.
Dranginis arrived with a recruiting class that included Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., but the 6-5 wing from Nampa, Idaho, redshirted his first season. He’s been a reliable, versatile contributor the last four years.
Dranginis is averaging career-highs in points (6.4), rebounds (4.4) and assists (3.26). His 3.52 assist-to-turnover ratio is best on the team.
“It’s nice to see him playing the way we all hoped and envisioned he would play his senior year,” Few said. “It’s no surprise the team is playing better now that he’s playing better.”
Dranginis has been at his best over the last month. In WCC play, he’s improved his field-goal percentage to 50, 3-point percentage to 44.7 and free-throw percentage to 71.4.
“I’m just playing a little more loose, free flowing, with more confidence,” said Dranginis, who made the WCC All-Academic team with a 3.88 pursuing his Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership. “I’m just out there having fun, it’s my last year, my last go-around, so why not.”
The 6-3 guard has traveled an unlikely path to Gonzaga after starting his career at Tulsa and transferring to Vanderbilt. It didn’t end well in Nashville as McClellan was suspended for an undisclosed academic violation and booted when a misdemeanor theft charge came to light.
The Zags offered a second chance and McClellan has made the most of it.
“I felt like I did it my own way,” the Austin, Texas, native said. “It’s been an incredible run here, looking at all the events that transpired and changed the whole trajectory of my life. It could have been a complete disaster if I had not made the right decisions, if I had not learned my lessons from my previous stops.”
McClellan has started every game this season and emerged as the team’s third leading scorer (9.9). He has been at his best in several of Gonzaga’s bigger games. He had 15 points against UConn, 13 against Tennessee, 15 against Pepperdine in December and 23 against Saint Mary’s.
“His game has grown a lot since he’s been here,” Few said. “He’s just been a huge part night in, night out, whether it’s what he brings defensively or some big games offensively.”
McClellan said his best friend, who happens to be his mom, Kim, will be in attendance.
“She’s everything,” he said. “You can’t put that woman into words. She’s a piece of work for sure, I get it from her. I don’t know if I’ll be emotional or not. I’m just looking forward to playing the game I love in front of these fans.”
– Few made special mention of senior manager Tim Stoddard, who will also be honored Saturday.
“He’s one of the most amazing guys I’ve been associated with in all these years,” Few said. “He’s been accepted to medical school. We’ve had some phenomenal managers but the effort, energy and detail this guy goes about every day … it’s inspiring.”
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