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John Blanchette: Gonzaga fans won’t soon forget Brandon Clarke’s record-breaking season

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 8, 2019

The domination enters a third decade and the blowouts, amazingly enough, get ever bigger. The worshippers at McCarthey Athletic Center are left to seek other, more exotic, Gonzaga basketball thrills.

And now they have one.

Not that they’ve worn out sucking in their breath when Rui Hachimura sees an open window to the window for one of his fabulous jams, or when Zach Norvell Jr. jabs and then steps back to launch one of his anytime-at-all 3s. Or when Josh Perkins goes with a no-look delivery – a scarier ride, sure, and with a more subtle reward.

But anymore, the greatest anticipation in the arena is reserved for when an opponent dares to attack the rim – and Brandon Clarke readies to meet him.

That’s right. A shot blocker. At Gonzaga.

If it’s not as incongruous as, say, the corps de ballet at bowling night, it’s at least yet another zig in the Zag evolution.

On Thursday night, Clarke turned away San Francisco’s Matt McCarthy’s stab at a layup not quite 7 minutes into the Bulldogs’ 92-62 romp and became the school’s single-season blocks leader with 71 – with the season but two-thirds or so complete, depending on how many dessert courses the Zags order up in March.

By evening’s end, GU’s junior forward had already upped the count to 74, which made his postgame declaration almost redundant.

“My goal is to make it so it can’t get beat ever,” Clarke said.

So there’s this Clarke, whose quick-twitch vertical dynamic – and capability to reload – has brought the pogo stick back into the consciousness of writers and broadcasters. The Zags’ own soul man of swat.

And yet there’s also this other Clarke: the nation’s leader in field-goal percentage (68.5 percent), and No. 2 behind University of ESPN wunderkind Zion Williamson in the metric that parses the nation’s most efficient offensive players. A different – and popular – metric sets him as No. 1, and no worse than sixth in its Player of the Year algebra. For the math resisters out there, USF coach Kyle Smith on Thursday night proclaimed simply, “He’s a monster.”

But there’s also this:

Oscar Robertson Award: didn’t make the final list. Naismith Trophy: not on the watch list. Lute Olson Award: not on the midseason list. All of these honor college basketball’s Player of the Year, in the view of various voters. Don’t bother looking for Clarke’s name on the lists for the Karl Malone (power forward) or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (center) awards, either.

And the sport’s Heisman, the Wooden Award, which just released its Top 20 late-season faves? Two players apiece from Duke, Virginia, Tennessee and Nevada.

No Brandon Clarke.

“HOW How HOWWW is @brandonclarke23 NOT ON THIS LIST????” tweeted Perkins about the Malone award.

“More fuel to the fire my boy,” answered Clarke.

There are only theories. That the preseason mentions and momentum went to GU’s two returning big men, Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, and Clarke’s idle 2018 season after transferring from San Jose State kept him off the radar. That Hachimura continues to have a remarkable season of his own and siphons off attention. That the voters don’t watch TV or read the papers. That Gon-ZAW-ga up in Spocaine can’t possibly have … no, let’s not go down the Parochial Pity Highway.

“I’m not really a big accolades guy,” Clarke insisted. “I just want to win every night.”

The Zags wouldn’t have come nearly as close as they have to doing just that without his emergence, especially given how injury has trashed Tillie’s season. It’s just not as clear how the Gonzaga coaching staff prioritizes Clarke’s blessings. Head coach Mark Few noted that the 6-foot-8 junior’s “feel for the game is so much better – he’s so much more comfortable initiating offense for us.” Assistant Brian Michaelson, who helped retool a shot that Clarke called “completely broken” at San Jose State, marveled that the pupil had already initiated that work himself before arrival, and attacked the sit-out season with a vigor that rivaled the notable grads of Redshirt U: Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams.

And it’s not outrageous to make a case for Clarke as Gonzaga’s most complete big man, given both his offensive and defense impact.

“And that sounds crazy because of who’s come through here,” Michaelson admitted. “You look at those efficiency numbers and I think Kelly is third all-time – and Brian’s ahead of that pace. Domas (Sabonis) we think of as probably the most efficient scorer we’ve ever had here, and he’s so far ahead of Domas’ points-per-possession numbers.”

But it’s Clarke’s swattage that sets him apart.

Now, Gonzaga’s previous season standard was, in all honesty, a soft record – nearly 100 college players have topped 120 in a season. In face, Clarke will, in all probability, crack GU’s career top 10 by season’s end – his average of a shade over three per game projecting to more than 100, figuring just an average NCAA run. It should be noted that had Zach Collins matched Clarke’s minutes in his lone season, he’d likely be in the same neighborhood.

But Clarke is a different beast – 4 inches shorter than Collins yet operating at higher altitude, with an almost gleeful ferocity. His block of Tennessee’s Yves Pons remains a highlight both on YouTube and the Richter Scale.

“It’s mainly timing,” Clarke shrugged, “but being able to jump helps.”

Hey, it’s a requirement – if you’re going to bring down the house.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Brandon Clarke (15) blocks the shot of Tennessee Volunteers forward Grant Williams (2) during the second half of a college basketball game on Sunday, December 9, 2018, at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Ariz. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Brandon Clarke (15) blocks the shot of Tennessee Volunteers forward Grant Williams (2) during the second half of a college basketball game on Sunday, December 9, 2018, at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Ariz. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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