After a brief intermission Gonzaga returns to the main event.
The ninth-ranked Zags enter an arduous three-game stretch that rivals any they’ve encountered since gaining a toehold in the national landscape in 1999.
Gonzaga, following Wednesday’s 101-62 rout over Texas Southern, faces three straight ranked opponents – at No. 22 Washington on Sunday, at No. 12 Arizona on Dec. 14 and vs. No. 7 North Carolina on Dec. 18 – for the first time since the 2005 Maui Invitational. North Carolina probably will drop in Monday’s poll after Wednesday’s 25-point home loss to No. 6 Ohio State.
The Zags (9-1) have encountered three straight ranked foes three times during their streak of 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
“It’s going to be one of the best stretches we’ve ever had in the program,” senior forward Killian Tillie said. “We’re really excited for these games.”
The Zags ran into No. 24 Maryland, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 3 Connecticut in Maui in 2005. Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison put on a show with 86 points in three games, including 43 in a triple-overtime victory over the Spartans in the semifinals. UConn edged GU 65-63 in the title game.
Gonzaga tangled with No. 1 Cincinnati, No. 19 Temple and No. 11 UCLA early in the 1999-2000 season. The Zags went 1-2, losing to the Bearcats in Cleveland and falling to the Owls in Chicago before handling the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion.
In the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga posted wins over No. 7 Stanford and No. 23 Florida before losing to No. 3 Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga’s next three games come on the heels of Battle 4 Atlantis matchups against then No. 11 Oregon and unranked Michigan. The Wolverines went from unranked to No. 4 after an 82-64 win over Gonzaga in the championship game.
That’s five marquee matchups in six games spanning three-plus weeks.
Again, the Zags have been there, done that, but it’s been awhile. The 2010-2011 Zags played five ranked teams (San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, Notre Dame and Baylor) in roughly one month.
In the 2006-2007 season, arguably the toughest nonconference slate in program history, Gonzaga went 2-5 in a one-month span against Texas, Washington State, Washington, Georgia, Duke, Nevada and Virginia.
UW was No. 13, Duke No. 6 and Nevada No. 24 in the AP poll. Texas finished No. 11, WSU No. 13 and Virginia nearly cracked the top 25 in the final poll (prior to the NCAA Tournament).
Gonzaga also faced Butler, North Carolina, Memphis and Stanford that season. UNC and Memphis finished in the top five and Butler was No. 21. Stanford was No. 23 when GU won 90-86 in double overtime at Maples Pavilion.
Gonzaga should have a good idea of where it stands nationally after the next three games.
“We have UW on Sunday and we have kind of a whole week off (until Arizona on Dec. 14), so that’s the main point, to make sure we’re all ready to go,” said senior guard Admon Gilder, slowed recently by a sore knee and one of several Zags at less than 100 percent. “I think that’s a perfect stretch for us to get back rolling to how we were playing at the beginning of the year and go show guys what we’re made of.”
Kispert heats up
Corey Kispert emphatically ended a brief shooting slump by drilling 12 of 16 3-pointers against Southern Miss and Oregon at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“Felt great,” Kispert said. “That hoop felt so big.”
The junior forward scored 17 points against Texas Southern, hitting 7 of 11 field-goal attempts. Kispert is averaging 17 points in the last four games while shooting 60.5% from the floor and 60.8% on 3-pointers.
“Before games, especially, I have a scripted workout,” Kispert said. “I work on balance, getting my shot off as quick as I can, quiet release. Not only that, it kind of gets me in the right headspace to play.”
Gonzaga got in some repetitions against a zone defense in the second half against Texas Southern. The Zags will face a far tougher zone Sunday against Washington’s athleticism, size and length.
“It’s just about taking the right shots at the right time, not settling for long 3s,” sophomore guard Joel Ayayi said. “They have really good length so they push you to NBA range. Just be patient and take a good shot and maybe pass up a good shot to get a better shot.”
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