Saturday is Gonzaga’s annual Senior Night, routinely packed with emotion and celebration inside the McCarthey Athletic Center.
NBA Zags Jalen Suggs, Killian Tillie and possibly others are expected to be in attendance, along with Class of 2023 five-star recruit Marquis “Mookie” Cook.
Gonzaga can clinch another West Coast Conference regular-season championship with a victory. Santa Clara could seriously elevate its NCAA Tournament hopes with an upset victory over the nation’s top-ranked team.
It’s almost certainly the last home game for Gonzaga freshman forward Chet Holmgren, who is projected as a top NBA draft pick.
Other than that, not much going on Saturday at 6 when the Zags and Broncos tangle in Gonzaga’s last home contest of the season. The game will be televised locally on KAYU Fox 28 and regionally on Root Sports.
All signs point to a special atmosphere inside the Kennel.
“That’s what we’ve heard,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the likely return of some former Zags now on NBA rosters. “Hopefully, they’ll come back and that’ll make it even more special. The parents will be here and it’s always emotional, so then you’ve got to get back into it for obviously a really, really tough game. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.”
The Zags list four seniors – Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton, Matthew Lang and walk-on Will Graves – though it’s not out of the question one or more could return by taking advantage of an additional COVID year of eligibility.
Holmgren, following the path of his former Minnehaha Academy and AAU teammate Suggs, will probably be one-and-done at GU. Holmgren is in the running for the No. 1 pick in July. Suggs, a rookie with the Orlando Magic, competed Friday in the Rising Stars Challenge, part of NBA All-Star weekend festivities in Cleveland.
Add in the uncertainty of nonsenior Zags possibly exploring professional options after the season and Senior Night has changed dramatically since Few was promoted to head coach 23 years ago.
“It is (different), between COVID and all this other stuff that’s been happening, but hopefully we’ll make this one just as special as some of the other ones,” Few said. “But you’re right, it’s getting hard. Super seniors and nonsuper seniors, it’s hard to keep track of who exactly is a senior and who’s going to elect to be a senior.”
That will sort itself out down the road. Gonzaga’s focus is on the Broncos, the first of a challenging three-game conclusion to the regular season. Santa Clara (18-9, 8-4 WCC) is third in the standings. Gonzaga (22-2, 11-0) visits fourth-place San Francisco (21-7, 8-5) and second-place Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3) next week.
The Zags are positioned to earn their 10th straight solo or shared conference title. Santa Clara’s four WCC losses are to San Francisco (twice), Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the latter a 115-83 rout last month.
Gonzaga junior forward Drew Timme scored 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting against the Broncos. The Zags made 58.7% from the field, third behind the first game against BYU (69.4%) and their lone game with Loyola Marymount (61.8%). They led 60-41 at half and by 38 with 5:11 remaining.
The Broncos have won seven of their past nine, including home wins over BYU and Saint Mary’s.
“They’re one of those teams that have fought their way into the upper tier of the league and they’re fighting like crazy to stay in that top three or four,” Few said. “But things came really, really easy for us down there and we’ve just got to be prepared that it’s probably not going to be like that the second time.”
Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring at 89.9 points per game. Santa Clara ranks second behind GU in the WCC in field-goal percentage (48.5) and 3-point percentage (37.5) and third in scoring at 76.7.
Broncos junior guard Jalen Williams leads the way at 17.8 points, followed by senior forwards Josip Vrankic (15.1) and Keshawn Justice (13.6). The three have combined to play in 314 career SCU games. Vrankic has scored at least 13 points in nine consecutive games. Guard PJ Pipes, a grad transfer from Green Bay, contributes 11.2 points and junior Parker Braun, a transfer from Missouri, chips in 8.0 points and 6.0 rebounds.
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