Gonzaga is winning West Coast Conference games this season by an average margin of 29.6 points and the second-ranked Bulldogs enter Thursday’s contest against Pacific favored by even more than that.
Given that information, not to mention the fact the Tigers are winless on the road this season (0-10) and entering a venue where the Bulldogs haven’t lost in 65 games, it might be easy for a team of GU’s stature to overlook one of Pacific’s.
It would have been unlike the Zags to take that route under normal circumstances, but Pacific recently gave them one more reason not to skip ahead to Saturday’s much-anticipated game against No. 22 Saint Mary’s. On Tuesday night at the Galen Center, the Tigers came tantalizingly close to an upset of No. 21 USC, leading by as many as 13 points in the second half before the Trojans pulled back to win 74-68.
Tuesday’s national scoreboard offered more cautionary tales for Gonzaga, which has won 12 consecutive games and 29 straight in WCC play. Top-ranked Auburn suffered its first SEC loss to unranked Arkansas on Tuesday, and not long after Pacific came up short of an improbable upset in Los Angeles, more chaos found its way to the WCC. Portland stunned San Francisco and Santa Clara staved off Saint Mary’s for its first win against a ranked team since 2004.
Gonzaga junior Anton Watson was keeping tabs on a few of those games and paid close attention to Auburn-Arkansas – a result that opens the door for the Bulldogs to return to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 come Monday, provided they don’t lose this week.
“It just kind of shows that when you’re that No. 1 seed, everybody’s trying to beat you,” Watson said during a media availability on Wednesday. “Arkansas, they rushed the court and we’ve been there before. Two years ago at BYU that happened.”
Ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll and by most analytic-based websites, the Zags are operating at levels that will make it difficult for any WCC opponent to keep them in a single-digit game, let alone begin to think about a court invasion.
Gonzaga’s previous record for 100-point games in a single WCC season (three) fell after only six conference games. The Bulldogs are averaging 99.4 points per conference game while shooting 55.8% from the field. The Bulldogs have won six WCC games by at least 30 points and haven’t played in a game with a single-digit outcome since their Dec. 4 loss to Alabama.
Despite their road record, the Tigers have shown signs of growth playing a small-ball style under former University of Idaho coach Leonard Perry, who took over for Damon Stoudamire last off-season.
In the USC game, Pacific trotted out a starting lineup featuring two 6-6 players in the frontcourt and three guards that stand 6-6, 6-2 and 6-0. The Tigers gained a double-digit lead early and tried to limit USC’s possessions by bleeding out the shot clock – a strategy that seemed to be effective until about midway through the second half when the Trojans made their surge.
Pacific doesn’t have much size in its starting unit, and its biggest bench players, 6-10 Sammy Freeman and 6-8 Jordan Bell, average less than 14 minutes per game. Gonzaga counters with 6-10, 235-pound Drew Timme and 7-foot Chet Holmgren, who’ve created the nation’s most dynamic frontcourt – perhaps not just this year, but also in recent college basketball memory. Those two have combined to average 36.5 points per game in WCC play on 63.3% shooting from the field.
“They’re definitely on the upswing. I think they’re maybe playing small now, is what I heard, and having some success with that,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Pacific. “Obviously, they’ve got an experienced point guard with (Pierre) Crockrell and the (Alphonso) Anderson kid has been scoring it well. So yeah, they’re definitely on the upswing. They’ll get our full attention.”
Anderson is a former North Idaho College player, Tacoma native and Garfield High (Seattle) product who’s on his fifth college roster after transferring from Utah State, where he won Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year honors while leading the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament. Considered a guard on Pacific’s roster, Anderson averages a team-high 11.5 points per game and leads the Tigers in rebounding at 6.7 boards per game.
“I saw him in high school and Garfield was one of the best 3A teams in Washington, so I kind of watched him play a little bit in state, so he’s a good player for sure,” Watson said.
Crockrell, also a Tacoma native, ranks third in the WCC at 4.4 assists per game, two spots behind GU’s Andrew Nembhard, who’s averaging 5.3 assists. Senior forward Jeremiah Bailey averages numbers that are similar to Anderson’s, scoring 10.7 ppg to go with 5.7 rpg.