SAN FRANCISCO – Drew Timme may not be glued to the message boards, comment sections or Twitter threads where this particular debate normally lives, but in three years at Gonzaga, the junior forward has heard just about every slight pertaining to the West Coast Conference.
Unprompted, Timme decided to offer his two cents Saturday night, moments after the Bulldogs outlasted a gutsy Santa Clara team 81-69 to clinch the WCC regular-season title.
“This conference is the toughest it’s ever been this year,” Timme said. “What do we have, four teams in the tournament if not close to it? There’s a lot of jokes about our conference and everything and how it’s not good enough. Everyone’s got something to say about it for some reason, but our conference is tough. We get a bunch of old guys, smart teams that have been around and guys that transfer in.
“It’s hard, it’s not easy and we’ve had to grind and work hard just like every other team in America.”
If Timme’s argument needs any more ammunition, look no further than the road trip No. 1 Gonzaga (23-2, 12-0) is taking this week. Including the Bulldogs, the WCC has three teams that rank inside Ken Pomeroy’s Top 25 – a claim that three high-major conferences (Pac-12, ACC and Big East) are unable to make at this juncture.
Gonzaga will face the other two over a three-day span, visiting San Francisco (22-7, 9-5) on Thursday at 6 p.m. before traveling across the Bay Area to Moraga, California, for Saturday’s regular-season finale against No. 23 Saint Mary’s (22-6, 10-3).
The Dons sit at No. 24 in the KenPom ratings while the Gaels are at No. 22, which means Gonzaga is the only team in the country this week playing two road games against teams that rank inside KenPom’s Top 25.
“(USF) played us very tough. These are really, really good teams, guys. Saint Mary’s was in the Top 25,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “These are good teams, they’re physical teams, they’re big, they can match us inside and they’re old. This is about as difficult a trip as you could ever imagine. At least in one of the cases, they’re fighting like crazy for their NCAA Tournament lives. So this is going to be a huge, huge challenge.”
That’s before you consider the stakes attached to both games.
San Francisco is still considered a bubble team when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, so the Dons are viewing Thursday’s opportunity as a “2-for-1.” They’d book a spot in the NCAA field with a win over the country’s top-ranked team while becoming the first WCC team outside of Saint Mary’s and BYU to beat the Zags since Feb. 22, 2014.
“It would definitely be a 2-for-1. If we can find a way on Thursday night, there’s no question about it,” USF coach Todd Golden said. “We might even be wearing a home jersey (in the NCAA Tournament) if we can get that thing done just because our resume is just really, really strong.
“Not only would it be a great present for USF fans, but I think it would be a great present for our program.”
The Zags may have secured a regular-season crown, but there’s still plenty on the line for Few’s program, which is in position to receive a top overall seed at the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year and sits two wins from completing another unbeaten season in WCC play.
“It’s going to be a slugfest, for sure. We had fun games with both of those teams that went down pretty close to the wire and they’re great teams,” Timme said. “They’re coached by great coaches and they’re not going to hold anything back and neither are we. So expecting an absolute slugfest and we’re excited for it. I guess some people could say we could take our foot off the gas, but we love the challenge and we’re excited and all gas, no brakes over here.”
The Dons should enter Thursday’s game with reasonable confidence after holding the Zags to a three-point halftime lead in Spokane last month before ultimately losing 78-62. USF, led by the experienced and talented backcourt pairing of Jamaree Bouyea (17.3 ppg) and Khalil Shabazz (15.0), controlled the pace of play the last time these two met and limited Gonzaga where the Bulldogs have been most potent this season by holding them to plus-5 in fastbreak points.
“I thought our guys did a really good job of meeting the moment up there,” Golden said. “Obviously, a really tough place to play; very few people go in there and have any sort of success, and for us to have it be a three-point ballgame at halftime, where I thought we controlled and dictated the tempo of the game, was a good start.”
In the last meeting, Gonzaga mitigated the damage of center Yauhen Massalski (13.6 ppg, 11.5 rpg), one of just two players in the WCC averaging a double-double in conference play along with the Bulldogs’ Chet Holmgren (16.0 ppg, 10.9 rpg). Timme, who’s shown an aptitude for drawing fouls in the paint, lured Massalski into early foul trouble and the senior transfer played just 30 minutes before fouling out at the 5:52 mark.
“Now, for us, the biggest thing is obviously now we have to do it for 40 minutes,” Golden said, “and it’s obviously easier said than done, but I believe our guys have confidence in our blueprint, and I think we’ll have a little more juice and energy and support here at home.”