SAN DIEGO – Gonzaga players didn’t bother hiding their enthusiasm for warmer weather on the 12th-ranked Bulldogs’ latest road trip.
“I’m excited to get out of the cold for a little while and see the sun,” senior forward Johnathan Williams said.
The forecast for Thursday’s game against San Diego State at Viejas Arena is a bit cloudier.
“It’s going to be a really hard game for us,” coach Mark Few said of Gonzaga’s final nonconference game. “They’ve had 12 days off to prepare for us. They’re a program with a lot of pride and they’ve been really good.
“They dropped off a little bit recently, but they have some transfers and some older kids in the program and I think they’re pointing at this as the year to get back into the NCAA Tournament.”
Gonzaga led by as many as 30 and crushed the Aztecs 69-48 last year in Spokane.
“We do know we beat up on them pretty bad last year,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “They’re probably going to come out with a chip on their shoulder and try to be the aggressors. We’re going to lock in on the scout, come in with some momentum and come in with some toughness and swagger.”
The Zags (10-2) are going to need deep supplies of toughness against the Aztecs, who enjoy one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball. SDSU is 173-25 at home since 2006 for a winning percentage of 87.4, 15th nationally.
San Diego State ranks 12th nationally in winning percentage (75.6) since 2011. Gonzaga is No. 1 at 84.1.
“I think if you look over the years, the McCarthey (Athletic Center), McKale (Center in Tucson) and down there at San Diego State are the three toughest venues out West,” Few said.
The Aztecs (7-3) are 0-3 against the Pac-12’s Arizona State, Washington State and California. Defense has been the foundation of the program and nothing’s changed under new coach Brian Dutcher, an 18-year assistant under former coach Steve Fisher. SDSU holds foes to 38.6-percent shooting, including 29.5 beyond the 3-point arc.
“We have to make sure we come out with the same assertiveness as we did (vs. IUPUI) and don’t turn the ball over,” Williams said.
The Aztecs have more firepower than last season with key additions in San Francisco transfer Devin Watson (13.4 ppg) and freshman forward Matt Mitchell (10.9). Senior guard Trey Kell (12.3) has made 93 career starts, but he’s questionable with a thigh bruise. Senior forward Malik Pope (12.6), who missed last year’s game with an injury, has been a four-year contributor.
Mitchell and Pope are two of the Aztecs’ better 3-point shooters. Mitchell has made 17 of 37 from distance after missing his first 10 attempts. Pope is 7 of 13.
The Aztecs have been one of the nation’s most deliberate teams but not this season. They’re averaging 78.9 points and they’re No. 53 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo. They were 309 last year and 321 in 2016.
San Diego State was picked second behind Nevada in the Mountain West preseason poll. Boise State, coached by former GU assistant Leon Rice, was third. The Aztecs (19-14, 9-9 MWC) slumped to sixth last season, their first season without an NIT or NCAA appearance since 2005.
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