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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

No. 1 Gonzaga takes show on the road to face Portland

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 8, 2021

Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs takes on BYU defenders Mat Haarms (3) and Spencer Johnson (20) at the rim during Thursday’s West Coast Conference win.  (By Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs takes on BYU defenders Mat Haarms (3) and Spencer Johnson (20) at the rim during Thursday’s West Coast Conference win. (By Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Hello, it’s early January and Gonzaga is preparing for its first road game of the season.

Yes that’s odd, but it seems to fit the unusual tenor of a season being staged in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The top-ranked Bulldogs traveled more than 12,000 miles to handle Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia on neutral courts.

The Zags crushed six overmatched foes at the McCarthey Athletic Center by an average 28.3 points, including an 86-69 thumping of BYU on Thursday that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Gonzaga’s next task is a short flight to Portland to take on the Pilots at the Chiles Center at 5 p.m. Saturday. Of course, road games aren’t the same this season inside largely empty venues piping in artificial noise to make up for the absence of fans.

The Zags’ original schedule – before the NCAA pushed the season openers back from Nov. 10 to Nov. 25 – would have ramped up quickly with a Nov. 13 road game against Texas, currently ranked fourth. That game is expected to be on next season’s schedule.

The Pilots (6-4, 0-1 West Coast Conference) retooled their roster with nine newcomers after last year’s nine-win season, including a starting unit with three junior college transfers and two Division I transfers.

The best of the bunch is Ahmed Ali, who started as a junior at Washington State in 2019. The 5-foot-11 guard sat out last season at Hawaii due to injuries before transferring to Portland. He averages 18.4 points.

Gonzaga (11-0, 2-0) is on a roll with its high-powered offense and improving defense. The Zags, save for San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea’s 16-point first half, have bottled up two of the WCC’s better backcourts.

The Zags will try a similar approach against Ali and Portland. Six of the Pilots’ top seven scorers are guards or wings.

USF’s Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz combined to shoot 10 of 24 and score 25 points, well below their normal average of 32.4. BYU’s Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette made 4 of 16 shots and scored 12 points, roughly 16 points below their average. They had nine assists and eight turnovers.

“The guys had total respect for (Barcello), so they knew how dangerous he was and his feel for the game,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “Much like what we talked about with San Francisco’s guards, the freedom with which he plays – he came in shooting 63% from 3, which is crazy. That’s higher than Corey (Kispert). … We knew we needed to do a good job there, but we also knew we needed to do job on their bigs.”

The Pilots have struggled under fifth-year coach Terry Porter with a 7-62 record in WCC games.

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