This isn’t Gonzaga’s first rodeo at No. 1. The Bulldogs have been in the top spot five times, once in 2013 and four times since 2017.
It’s Killian Tillie’s third season on a top-ranked team and the second for Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi, although they’re in expanded roles this season. Half of the eight-man rotation has experienced the thrill of being ranked No. 1 as well as the challenges it brings from amped-up opponents.
If they’ve somehow forgotten, head coach Mark Few offered a few reminders after Monday’s 93-72 win over Detroit Mercy in the final nonconference tune-up before opening West Coast Conference at Portland on Thursday.
“We were a little choppy, so we’ll have to be better than we were (Monday),” Few said. “Not only is it league play, but you’re carrying the No. 1 ranking with you wherever you go, so you’re going to get great effort and great energy from opposing crowds and players, all kinds of crazy efforts out of players you’re going against.
“We’ll just have to be a lot better and really kind of embrace this challenge of playing like a No. 1 team.”
Gonzaga (14-1) always draws big crowds around the WCC, including impressive turnouts from Zag backers. There are fewer secrets in conference because opposing coaching staffs have compiled scouting reports on Gonzaga for years, 18 seasons in the case of Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s.
“We have a lot of guys who just don’t know any better. They’ve never been in this position before and they’re going to go out and play the way they play every night,” Kispert said. “Coach is talking to us about treating it like an honor, every day you walk into the gym you have to act like you’re on the No. 1 team in the country, sleep like you’re the No. 1 team, practice like you’re the No. 1 team. It’s a pretty cool privilege.”
One that typically brings out the best in opponents.
“Once we get going in league and see that everybody is going to bring it against us because we have that target on our back, once we see that we have to play 100 percent against everybody, I think we’re not there yet, but we’ll be there,” Petrusev said.
Few is in wait-and-see mode.
“They’ve done a masterful job at everything thrown at them this year and they deserve a lot of credit,” he said. “We don’t need to speculate. We’ll just get to find out in the next couple weeks.”
Senior point guard Ryan Woolridge has been wearing a sizable bandage on the back of his neck for weeks as a result of his first – and last – cupping treatment.
Cupping involves suction cups placed on the body to help with pain, inflammation and aching muscles. When the cup was pulled off Woolridge, a small bump developed on his neck. He said two hairs became infected so the bump was removed.
“It looks like a bullet hole,” he said. “I couldn’t move my neck. I had to play through it. I’ll never do it again.”
Watson makes impact
Freshman forward Anton Watson has had a tough month on the injury front, first with a foot issue at the Battle 4 Atlantis and then with his left shoulder popping out of place several times against Arizona.
The injuries put Watson on the sideline for three games and limited his minutes in the next four games, but the Gonzaga Prep product contributed in numerous areas in Monday’s win.
Watson played 20 minutes, his longest stint since he suffered his first shoulder subluxation against Texas A&M on Nov. 15. He finished with 11 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. He drilled a jumper from 22 feet with his defender sagging in the lane.
“He’s not where he was (before) the injury, but he’s coming. He’s taking steps,” Few said. “He’s wearing a big brace. It’s just something he’s going to have to deal with the rest of the season.”
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