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Heavily favored Gonzaga not taking Pepperdine lightly

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 3, 2018, 5:24 p.m.

Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams drives into the key during the first half of a Dec., 2016, game against Pepperdine at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams drives into the key during the first half of a Dec., 2016, game against Pepperdine at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga dusted two West Coast Conference opponents last week and the easy assumption is to expect more of the same against two foes pegged for the bottom half of the conference.

On paper, it would appear that way as No. 19 Gonzaga (12-3, 2-0 WCC) travels to face Pepperdine (3-11, 0-2) on Thursday and Loyola Marymount (5-8, 0-2) on Saturday.

Pepperdine (3-11, 0-2 WCC) owns the worst record in the conference and probably the longest injury list. The Waves haven’t fielded their projected starting lineup once. They’ve been without two starters in eight games. Four starters have missed time.

The Waves have gone with a makeshift lineup – three freshmen and one other newcomer started in their last game – and the results have been predictable, but not as lopsided as some expected.

They were blown out by Oklahoma State and handled by Belmont. Then No. 16 Texas A&M beat the Waves by 16 but led by just six with less than 7 minutes remaining. Other than those three games, it’s been a string of losses by 10 points or less.

Zags coach Mark Few takes nothing for granted, even with Gonzaga winning 33 straight in the series with Pepperdine. Few has seen some of his best teams forced to battle to the buzzer against underdog conference foes, particularly on the road, over the years.

“We’re not in a position where we can overlook anybody and not come ready to play,” said Few, whose team slipped 18 spots to No. 66 in NCAA RPI after crushing Pacific and Santa Clara by a combined 82 points last week.

Nobody knows what Pepperdine would look like at full strength. Sophomore forward Kameron Edwards, who missed last season with a broken jaw, has been sidelined for five games with a concussion. Edwards averages 15.9 points and scored 20 against Texas A&M. Senior point guard Amadi Udenyi missed last week’s games with an ankle injury.

Injuries have forced seventh-year coach Marty Wilson to shuffle numerous players into the rotation for the third straight season. Three true freshmen, guards Colbey Ross, Jade Smith and Trae Berkhow, have been impressive despite being pressed into additional minutes. Ross is the only Wave to start every game.

Guard Eric Cooper, who sat out last season after transferring from Nevada, has added scoring punch (11 points) since returning from a shoulder injury five games ago.

“I think our attention to detail in games like these has to go up because, I think one of you guys said it, maybe the opponents may not be as talented as us,” GU senior guard Silas Melson said. “But if we stay attentive and stay with game plan, we shouldn’t be running into any bumps.”

Gonzaga hasn’t lost to the Waves since 2002. Pepperdine hasn’t defeated a ranked opponent since 2004.

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