LAS VEGAS – For all the inherent disadvantages Central Michigan will have in a matchup with the country’s top-ranked team, the Chippewas actually enter Monday night’s game in Las Vegas with a few luxuries most of Gonzaga’s nonconference opponents haven’t related to.
First and foremost, of the eight vastly undermatched mid-major programs on GU’s nonconference schedule, Central Michigan is the only one that won’t have to play the Bulldogs in Spokane, where Mark Few’s team continues to pad the nation’s longest home winning streak – one that reached 55 consecutive games with a 42-point drubbing of Bellarmine Friday.
The Chippewas should consider themselves fortunate in this regard, too. When Monday’s game between Central Michigan (1-2) and Gonzaga (4-0) tips off at 8 p.m. (ESPNU) at T-Mobile Arena as part of the Good Sam Empire Classic, the Chippewas will have already spent a full week scouting the Bulldogs – their last game coming seven days earlier against Eastern Illinois.
After playing Bellarmine on Friday, Few’s coaching staff is working on a tighter turnaround, and the structure of this week’s schedule in Vegas means the Bulldogs will likely have to divvy preparation time between two opponents, since Tuesday’s showdown against No. 2 UCLA tips off approximately 20 hours after the Central Michigan game ends.
And if the Chippewas have any chance of staging an upset in a game where ESPN’s matchup predictor gives them a 4.6% chance of winning, and KenPom considers a win even less likely at 0.2%, it won’t hurt that Central Michigan enters on a momentum high after stunning Eastern Illinois at the buzzer to secure the first win of the Tony Barbee era in Mount Pleasant.
In that game, the Chippewas rallied back from a 20-point deficit and were still on the brink of dropping to 0-3 on the season when Eastern Illinois’ CJ Lane knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 61-60 with three seconds remaining. But Jack Webb launched a 90-foot pass down the court and Jermaine Jackson Jr. emerged with the loose ball before racing to the basket to beat the horn with a layup.
Inevitably, the margin of error will be much slimmer for Central Michigan on Monday. Gonzaga has led by at least 22 points in each of its first four games and after Friday’s game against Bellarmine, the Bulldogs are now winning by an average margin of 28.7 points. They lead the country in adjusted offense (120.8), according to KenPom, and rank No. 13 in adjusted defense (88.7).
“We are thankful for the opportunity to participate in one of the premier MTE’s (multiteam event) in the country,” Barbee said in a press release when the matchup was announced. “Getting a chance to compete against the preseason No. 1 team in the country and last year’s national runner-up is something that all coaches and players dream about.”
Central Michigan may not pose a legitimate threat to Gonzaga’s win/loss record, but the Chippewas do pose a unique threat the Bulldogs haven’t seen through their first four games.
Barbee alluded to it in a preseason interview, explaining “I don’t know how good we’ll be, but when we walk through the airport, they won’t be asking us if we’re a soccer team. We’ve got some great size, some great length, some real presence on the inside. We’ve got great length and athleticism on the wing; we’ve got some guys who can shoot it, and we’ve got some quick, fast guards who can do some different things.”
If nothing else, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme (20.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) will have a chance to play against some real size before Tuesday’s matchup with UCLA and 6-foot-10, 255-pound senior center Myles Johnson.
The Chippewas are projected to start two players who sit just shy of 7-feet, with 6-11 Harrison Henderson (7.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and 6-10 Aunde Polk (6.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg). Miroslav Stafl (9.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg), a 6-11 transfer from Hartford, started in the team’s first two games but didn’t play against Eastern Illinois, and the Chippewas also have the option of bringing 6-11 center Nicolas Pavrette, along with 6-10 forward Caleb Hodgson, off the bench.
Jackson Jr. provided the late-game heroics against Eastern Illinois, but the fifth-year senior guard is also CMU’s top scorer, averaging 14.3 points off the bench. The former Detroit Mercy and Long Island guard is 48 points shy of reaching 1,000 in his career.
Barbee is in Year One at CMU after spending the last eight years as an assistant under John Calipari at Kentucky. Prior to that, his stops included four-year stints as the head coach at Auburn, where he amassed a record of 49-75, and at UTEP, where he was 82-52. Barbee also assisted Calipari at Memphis from 2000-06.
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