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West Coast Conference loaded with shooters

Gonzaga opened in a zone defense against San Francisco on Saturday.

“First time in my career,” 17-year head coach Mark Few said after the Zags’ 102-94 overtime road win. “Two guys with ankle and foot (issues) and they were playing small.”

San Francisco, Santa Clara and Saturday’s opponent Portland are examples of WCC teams trying to spread out opposing defenses and operate beyond the arc or via dribble penetration.

The Dons went with four guards – 6-foot-3 Tim Derksen spent most of the evening guarding 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer while 6-11 Domantas Sabonis found himself occasionally defending Derksen. It was a tug-of-war with the Zags exploiting their size advantage at one end – Sabonis (ankle) and Wiltjer (foot) combining for 65 points – and USF starting guards shooting and driving at the other to the tune of 83 points and 14 3-pointers.

The WCC hasn’t had its finest preconference season but it did rally in the last half of December with a collective 15-4 record. The WCC checks in 16th in CBSsports.com’s conference RPI, well below last season, but stands 11th in KenPom’s rankings.

What hasn’t changed is the conference still has its usual collection of shooters. The WCC often takes a beating in national circles as a weaker conference but the numbers demonstrate that the skill level remains high. The WCC ranks third in 3-point percentage (36.2). Saint Mary’s is second at 46 percent, nosed out when Kansas (46.3) made 11 of 22 treys against Oklahoma in Monday’s triple-overtime classic.

Portland is sixth in 3-pointers made (119) and fourth in attempts (445). Gonzaga has steadily improved its 3-point percentage to 37.3, 68th nationally. BYU ranks 40th at 38.5 percent with Portland a fraction behind at 38.4.

The Gaels’ Emmett Naar’s 56.9 percent would rank second but his 2.1 made 3s per game is below the 2.5 NCAA requirement. Saint Mary’s has five regulars shooting at least 41.4 percent and a sixth at 37 percent. Portland’s Bryce Pressley is 11th at 48.8 percent. Pressley, BYU’s Chase Fischer and Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge rank in the top 20 in 3-pointers made.

It’s quite a contrast for the Zags, whose nonconference schedule is stocked with numerous athletic, high-flying opponents – Washington, Texas A&M, UConn, Arizona, UCLA, Tennessee and SMU this season – before stepping into conference play.

“It’s always been a really skilled league,” Few said. “All of a sudden you get in league and have a ‘5’ man step out and shoot 3s, and there’s still a little bit of that. Teams are really going small in our league.”

Gonzaga’s defensive numbers have slipped of late. GU’s last five foes have averaged 77 points and three have hit double-digit 3-pointers. It didn’t help that Jared Brownridge and San Francisco’s Devin Watson and Ronnie Boyce hit numerous shots in the face of Zag defenders.

“I talked to our guys about that,” Few said. “We can’t get our heads down about those, where we have to get our heads down is the other breakdowns we have and maybe we get a little too sensitive so then we’re opening up massive driving lanes and not helping each other. Eric (McClellan) was draped all over Brownridge on a few of those, as was Silas (Melson), same with Watson and Boyce, where they just raised up and shot a 25-footer.”

Karnowski on mend

Zag players and coaches have visited center Przemek Karnowski in the hospital. The 7-foot-1 senior center had season-ending back surgery last week.

“He looks a lot better,” guard Kyle Dranginis said. “You can just tell in his face, he has more color, just a little more happy and chipper.”

“He’s still part of the team so we’re going to let him know that,” guard Josh Perkins said. “A big leadership role is missing, but other guys stepped up. We miss his inside presence, everything pretty much.”

Players in rotations of 3 or 4 visited Karnowski on Sunday.

“He’s back to his old self, goofing around, telling jokes,” McClellan said. “But the stories he told me about how they cut him open, the operation, it’s crazy man. Sending all my prayers to him. We need him, not physically, but spiritually and mentally.”

Healthy minutes

Wiltjer, who didn’t practice Friday between the Santa Clara and USF games, didn’t practice Monday. Sabonis was on the floor.

“We’re trying to rest (Wiltjer) up,” Few said. “He’s playing a lot of minutes.”

“They’re capable of playing heavy minutes and have shown they can function,” Few added. “It’s more about limiting their reps and things in practice.”

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