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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga’s competition Mondays: ‘Iron sharpens iron’

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 21, 2021

Gonzaga guard Aaron Cook dunks against San Diego forward Ben Pyle (33) and guard Joey Calcaterra in the second half of Saturday’s win.  (By Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Aaron Cook dunks against San Diego forward Ben Pyle (33) and guard Joey Calcaterra in the second half of Saturday’s win. (By Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a question Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has heard for years.

How do the Bulldogs stay sharp, motivated and prepared for the postseason while rolling to another WCC regular-season title? Or, as an ESPN studio analyst put it with the Zags up 29 at half Saturday against overmatched San Diego, how are they not bored?

Easy answer: They don’t appear too bored building halftime leads of 27 vs. Saint Mary’s, 22 vs. San Francisco and a 22-point edge with 7:20 left over second-place BYU, which is No. 21 in the NET rankings.

Perhaps even easier: The Zags are 15-5 in the last five NCAA Tournaments with two Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and one title-game appearance.

They’re clearly doing something right and several players have credited competition Mondays for stoking the competitive fires. Coaches split the squad into two formidable teams that square off in a scrimmage setting.

“Those are great for us honestly, just to keep us sharp and keep us competitive,” junior guard Andrew Nembhard said. “Iron sharpens iron. I personally love Monday, it might be my most favorite day of the week. We get to just hoop and go at it and challenge each other.”

Gonzaga has had several competition Mondays during the conference season. Only one GU game – an 87-82 win over West Virginia on Dec. 2 – has been closer than 11 points.

“It’s nice to spice things up and we’re a really competitive group,” senior wing Corey Kispert said. “Coach splits teams down the middle, pretty even on both sides. During the year, I don’t really play much against Joel (Ayayi) or Drew (Timme), but when Monday rolls around we finally get to compete.

“That’s what makes the program so great. We play really fast but we never run lines in practice because we play so much. When practices start to line up on each other, it can kind of get old after a while. Things like competition Monday really inject energy back into the team and it’s a great idea by coach.”

The Zags have done something similar in several recent seasons with the 2017 squad probably staging the most competition Mondays. Some years it’s been impossible with injuries or limited depth, but that’s not an issue with the current squad.

The Zags have 18 players on their roster, including five walk-ons.

“We’re just becoming more mature and understand that just winning these games doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to get a guaranteed national championship,” Nembhard said. “We have to raise our level and keep improving every day so that’s what we’ve been trying to do. It’s kind of shown in our play lately.”

Few scheduled numerous non-conference challenges to encounter a variety of styles Gonzaga could run up against in the NCAA Tournament. Defensive improvement has been an emphasis in recent weeks and the Zags have climbed to No. 4 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings. They’re No. 2 offensively.

“All the news people, ESPN, you guys, talk about our offense,” Kispert said. “The fact that great defensive teams make Final Fours and they win national championships, we took it upon ourselves to really hone in on that. We knew the offense would take care of itself. It always does.”

Asked his message to the players about maintaining intensity with March Madness approaching, Few responded, “That’s a great question. I wondered that myself as we walked out on the floor (against Saint Mary’s).”

Few pointed out that he’s proud of how the players have handled playing inside largely empty, quiet arenas.

“We’re playing against ourselves,” Few said. “We’re playing against the game. We’re following our numbers as far as our efficiency and taking a lot of pride in that.”

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