Gonzaga, alone at the top two weeks into the West Coast Conference season, can create major separation with a successful three-game homestand.
The top-ranked Bulldogs (18-1, 4-0) face the three teams – Thursday vs. Santa Clara (15-3, 2-1), Saturday vs. BYU (13-5, 2-1) and Jan. 25 vs. Pacific (14-5, 2-1) – right below them in the standings.
The Zags have a chance to make a little history along the way. They’ve matched Bill Russell-led San Francisco’s 31-game WCC regular-season winning streak in 1955-57. Pepperdine, with 32 straight wins from 1991-93, holds the WCC record.
First up is surprising Santa Clara, which has matched the program’s best 18-game start since 1977-78 and sits one win away from equaling last season’s total. The Broncos have feasted on home cooking (14-0 at the Leavey Center), but they did some road work last Saturday, knocking off Saint Mary’s 67-66 in Moraga, California.
“It was a really good feeling to get that win,” said junior forward DJ Mitchell, who sat out last season after transferring from Wake Forest. “Saint Mary’s is obviously a crosstown rival. We just played as one.”
The Broncos are one of the more experienced teams in the WCC, despite not having a senior on the roster. They returned four starters, the top five scorers, 87% of the points, 88% of the assists and 74% of the rebounds from last year’s 16-15 squad.
Guard Trey Wertz’s averages (12.2 points, 3.8 assists) are almost exactly the same as his freshman year, but he’s been more efficient (50.6% on field goals, 45.9% on 3-pointers). Freshman Jalen Williams has moved into the starting lineup with Tahj Eaddy’s scoring average slipping from 15.0 last season to 7.6.
Mitchell and junior forward Josip Vrankic combine for 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. The frontcourt has been shorthanded with 6-foot-10 junior Guglielmo Caruso (11.6 points, 5.5 rebounds) missing the last three games with a leg injury.
Wing Keshawn Justice has stepped into a starting role and posted three 20-point outings in the last six games.
The Broncos can’t match Gonzaga’s nation-leading six players averaging in double figures, but they do rely on balance. Seven players average between 7.6 and 12.2 points. They’re one of the better shooting teams in the WCC at 48% from the field, 37% on 3-pointers and 76.4% at the free-throw line.
“Our team has grown a lot, in very good ways,” said Vrankic, who hit a go-ahead, putback layup with 9.4 seconds left against the Gaels. “I feel like we’re a lot more connected. We play really hard and that’s the biggest thing. The key to winning games is playing good defense and being tough.”
The Broncos struggled on the road, falling by 18 to Stanford, 31 to Nevada and 19 to San Francisco prior to defeating Saint Mary’s.
The ambience inside the McCarthey Athletic Center should perk up with students back after the holiday break.
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