Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones and several of his key players have toured some of the toughest venues in college basketball.
The Tigers traditionally play a road-heavy nonconference schedule stocked with premier programs. First-year head coach Jones is familiar with tough arenas across the country and particularly in the SEC after a five-year head coaching stint at LSU.
Gonzaga and the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Tigers play Saturday at 7 p.m., present a unique challenge, Jones said.
“(Kentucky’s) Rupp Arena is obviously a great place and atmosphere, but Gonzaga is a beast of its own,” Jones said. “I’ve been following it and admired it over the years. I’ve never had the privilege of coaching there, but I’ve followed them even before Coach (Mark) Few took over.
“We certainly know the challenge in front of us. It’ll be good for our guys. There won’t be any other place that we go to that creates something similar.”
Jones has kept an eye on Gonzaga from near and afar. He was a basketball player at LSU when former Zag Robert Sacre’s father Greg was a Tigers football player. Jones said he essentially considers Sacre “a nephew or godchild.”
Gonzaga thumped TSU 97-69 in last year’s season opener, but the Tigers have added several new pieces. The Tigers surprised Baylor 72-69 on Tuesday behind LSU grad transfer Jalyn Patterson’s 23 points and six assists.
Trayvon Reed, a 7-foot-2 senior, had 15 points and 12 rebounds and LSU grad transfer Jeremy Combs added 11 and eight. Senior forward Devocio Butler, who began his career at Colorado State, chipped in 13 points and six boards.
“They were a really scrappy team (last year) and played really hard,” Gonzaga wing Zach Norvell Jr. said. “We have to come out and set the tone early, play together and get some big defensive stops.”
Texas Southern maintained its composure despite trailing by 17 in the second half. TSU entered the game No. 292 and Baylor No. 66 in CBSsports.com’s 1-353 rankings.
“Especially knowing we’ve got a lot of basketball in front of us and a team the caliber of Gonzaga in front of us, we can’t get too high or too low,” Jones said. “We have to make sure when we come into that type of environment, we take it one play at a time. We know there’s going to be runs. They’re an excellent shooting team and very talented. We have to be true to ourselves and know who we are.”
The Zags put up 52 and 58 points in two extended halves of a closed scrimmage against Michigan State, 108 on Central Washington in an exhibition and 120 versus Idaho State in Tuesday’s opener.
“We have a lot of guys who can shoot it and score it in a variety of ways,” Few said. “That’s going to be our strength all year.”
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