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No. 1 Gonzaga’s motivation entering West Coast Conference play: ‘Not taking any game lightly’

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

Gonzaga coach Mark Few talks to his players during a timeout against Dixie State on Tuesday night at the Kennel.  (By Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga coach Mark Few talks to his players during a timeout against Dixie State on Tuesday night at the Kennel. (By Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Four ranked wins and a spotless nonconference record are in No. 1 Gonzaga’s rearview mirror. There is endless chatter about the possibility of an unbeaten season and barely a peep about the Zags’ upcoming West Coast Conference schedule.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already interrupted the WCC’s opening week with postponements (Pepperdine-BYU, Pepperdine-Saint Mary’s, Pacific-Portland, Santa Clara-Loyola Marymount).

San Diego returned from a COVID pause and 12-day gap between games to face San Francisco on Thursday. The next two months could be a bumpy ride, but Gonzaga’s opener Saturday against visiting San Francisco is on at this point.

Leave it to Zags senior wing Corey Kispert to make some sense of it all. GU’s leader was asked about the team’s motivation after facing top-10 foes Kansas and Iowa, with GU entering the WCC in the familiar role as heavy favorites.

“We haven’t lost yet, and that’s a pretty big motivating factor,” he said. “We have to go out there every night and play super hard just to maintain the record and ranking we have. We have it for a reason, we’ve earned it to this point, but it’s far from over.

“Not taking any game lightly is a huge thing moving into the next couple months, because any team in this conference can beat us if we have an off night.”

The WCC had another strong nonconference run with a 58-25 record (70%) and only Pepperdine (4-5) and San Diego (1-3) sporting losing records. The WCC is ninth in KenPom’s conference rankings and sixth, one spot ahead of the Pac-12, according to veteran college basketball reporter Andy Katz.

BYU, picked second in the preseason poll, and Saint Mary’s, picked third, are 9-2. The Cougars went 5-0 against Utah schools and downed then No. 18 San Diego State. The Gaels were thumped by Memphis and San Diego State, but posted seven victories by double digits.

“From afar, it looks like we have some good wins in league,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Saint Mary’s had some nice wins early, and then obviously BYU has had some nice wins. These (teams) are familiar with us. Obviously, not having the Kennel, the fans and everything here, it evens the playing field quite a bit. We’ll have to be ready to go every night out.”

Santa Clara (6-2) has practiced and played three games in Santa Cruz, California, after tighter COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in Santa Clara County. Pacific and San Diego were limited to four nonconference games.

LMU (5-3) is off to a nice start under Stan Johnson, the only new head coach in the conference. The Lions haven’t played since Dec. 19 and they’ll go nearly three weeks before next Thursday’s contest against Portland.

Kispert said flexibility remains a requirement with COVID’s ongoing impact on schedules and quiet arenas.

“The conference season kind of hits a little bit different,” he said. “This nonconference has been pretty easy-breezy except for the games at home, but when we go to places like BYU or Saint Mary’s it’s going to be a lot different.

“We kind of look forward to that challenge, to that added pressure. It’s just part of the year this year and part of the thing we have to be flexible for. We’re going to do it just like we have all year long.”

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