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Gonzaga Basketball

Coming off COVID-19 pause, No. 4 Gonzaga entertains Pepperdine in WCC opener

Even before a national surge of COVID-19 cases forced Lorenzo Romar’s team to go on pause for two weeks in late December and early January, Pepperdine’s basketball program had been dealing with what must have felt like a tidal wave of complications.

Trace the first of those back to the offseason, when Romar, the former Washington coach now in year No. 4 at Pepperdine, was tasked with replacing the program’s all-time leading scorer, Colbey Ross, and defensive ace Kessler Edwards, a current Brooklyn Net and the 44th overall pick of the 2021 NBA draft.

The Waves weren’t getting back what they lost, but there was optimism around what freshman point guard Mike Mitchell Jr., now a 30-minute-per-game player for Pepperdine, and San Diego transfer Braun Hartfield, a former All-West Coast Conference honorable mention choice, would be able to bring to the shores of Malibu, California.

Then another roadblock. Hartfield was removed from Pepperdine’s roster after just three games without any explanation and freshman forward Maxwell Lewis was forced to sit out six games before getting clearance from the NCAA to play on Nov. 24 against TCU. A wrist injury to Darryl Polk Jr. worsened matters for Pepperdine, which was already working with a short rotation.

Then, right as things started to click for the Waves, who won four of five games between Dec. 6 and 23 – and churned out some impressive offensive totals in the process – a COVID-19 outbreak postponed games against Pacific and San Diego.

Pepperdine was scheduled to open conference play against the Pacific and Gonzaga against USD, but instead the Waves (6-9) and fourth-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) will make their WCC debuts against each other at 6 p.m. Saturday at McCarthey Athletic Center.

“I thought in the month of December before the break we were starting to play some pretty good basketball. I thought we were getting better,” Romar said in a video posted to the program’s Twitter account. “The break happened and a couple of injuries happened, COVID happened and we’re kind of regaining our momentum, so to speak, here.”

Pepperdine’s layoff ends after 15 days, but it’s been 17 since the Waves have faced a Division I opponent, beating NAIA Westmont 96-69 two days after a 68-59 loss at Oregon. While a handful of programs went on pause immediately after Christmas, Gonzaga managed to squeeze in a 93-63 rout of North Alabama on Dec. 28, but COVID-19 kept the Bulldogs off the court for the next 11 days.

Both teams enter Saturday with sufficient rest, but ideally without the rust that can build up when players go on extended breaks.

“When you have two weeks off like we’ve had, it can give guys rest, you can get out of rhythm, you can do self-reflection and realize there’s some ways we can get better and you come back with the right mindset,” Romar said. “In our case, we haven’t had everyone practice yet to see exactly what the 15 days have done to us. So, stay tuned.”

The Zags are coming off their second consecutive 90-point outing and the fifth of the season for a team that ranks No. 2 nationally in adjusted offense, according to The Waves hit the 80-point mark in three of their past five games, but their offense has struggled against better opposition. Pepperdine has averaged only 63 ppg against teams ranked inside KenPom’s top 100.

Without the 35.1 ppg supplied last season by All-WCC first-teamers Ross and Edwards, Pepperdine’s offense has balanced out in 2021-22. The Waves don’t have anyone inside the WCC’s top 15 for scoring, but forward Jan Zidek (12.4) and freshman guard Houston Mallette (11.3) both rank inside the top 20. Mitchell has given Pepperdine a spark in his debut season, averaging a WCC-high 4.9 assists per game while shooting 38.7% from 3-point range.

Gonzaga and Pepperdine played twice last season, with the Bulldogs winning both matchups by a combined margin of 47 points. Gonzaga is still riding a national-best and program-best 59-game home win streak and the Bulldogs have 41 consecutive wins over Pepperdine.