Gonzaga’s success this season has largely been defined by the Bulldogs’ ability to stay sharp despite long – and at times, unexpected – breaks in the schedule.
The Bulldogs’ play didn’t drop off with a nine-day pause between games against Merrimack and Texas Tech and the Zags didn’t skip a beat when COVID-19 disruptions forced them to take 10 days off between games against North Alabama and Pepperdine.
Saturday’s afternoon tipoff at Santa Clara (11-5, 1-0) will challenge th e country’s second-ranked team in an entirely different way. How will Gonzaga (13-2, 2-0) handle a tight turnaround as it prepares for its first true road game of the season approximately 40 hours removed from a resounding, record-setting win over BYU at the Kennel?
“We’ve got a really – I’ve never seen this before – ridiculous turnaround here,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the team’s 110-84 win on Thursday. “We’re going to get out of here at 11 tonight. We’ve got a game at 1 o’clock on Saturday, again against a team that’s probably having the best season they’ve had in 10 or 15 years or so.
“That’s going to be a challenge, coming off an emotional high and traveling and I think we’re playing in probably less than 36 hours. So we’ll get these guys rested up and ready to go.”
The travel component adds another wrinkle to Saturday’s challenge, but Gonzaga didn’t seem to have any trouble with a short turnaround earlier this season, thumping Central Michigan 107-54 on Nov. 22 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas before running past No. 2 UCLA 83-63 in the same building less than 24 hours later.
If Gonzaga’s offense can operate at even 80% of what it did on Thursday against BYU, when the Bulldogs made 69% of their shots from the field, scored 61 points in the first half and received at least 20 points from three players, the outlying circumstances may not matter much anyway.
After Pepperdine’s Lorenzo Romar and BYU’s Mark Pope both failed to hold Gonzaga’s high-octane offense under 100 points, Santa Clara’s Herb Sendek – fresh off winning the 500th game of his career earlier in the week against Pacific – will attempt to become the first WCC coach to hold the Bulldogs to single digits this season.
Gonzaga’s latest victim might tell him it’s easier said than done.
“There are so many issues that they cause for teams. We tried to make an adjustment in the second half, and they shoot 1 of 6 from the 3-point line and make every single shot inside the 3,” Pope told the Deseret News after Thursday’s game. “They’re a really talented team, and really well-coached. We had no answers for (Drew) Timme in the ball screen action.”
If Thursday’s scoreline reflected anything, it was that the Bulldogs didn’t take BYU lightly. Even as a heavy favorite two days later, they’d be advised to take the same approach against Santa Clara, which has won 10 nonconference games and stomped two high-major opponents, beating Stanford 88-72 and TCU 85-66.
At 11-5, the Broncos have a winning percentage of .688. If that holds, it would be the program’s best since 1995-96. Santa Clara is one of five WCC teams inside the top 100 of KenPom’s ratings system, sitting at No. 75. Santa Clara has never finished a season better than No. 76 in the KenPom era (since 1997) and just four teams have finished top 100.
“They’re an old team, they’ve got a lot of old guys,” Timme said. “They’ve played us good in the past, they play a unique defense so they have really strong help in the first line.”
The game will feature an array of players who will be vying for all-conference spots in a few months’ time. It also has six of the WCC’s top 15 scorers, if you include Santa Clara forward Josip Vrankic, who still doesn’t qualify on the conference’s scoring list having only played in eight games after missing a chunk of time with mono.
Broncos guard Jalen Williams is the WCC’s top scorer at 19 ppg while GU’s Timme is two spots below him at 17.7 ppg. Santa Clara’s Keshawn Justice and Vrankic are both averaging 15.0 ppg, while Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther and Chet Holmgren average 13.5 and 13.3 points, respectively.
Santa Clara has posted a 4-1 record since Vrankic returned to the floor from his six-game absence. The 6-foot-9 forward, who earned All-WCC first-team honors last season, is averaging six rebounds and four assists to go with his double-digit scoring average.
“Vrankic is back, so he’s obviously an all-league guy, really good player, experienced,” Timme said. “Williams, he’s really good, too. He’s really coming into his own I’ve just seen on Twitter and stuff. So, I think they’re top 50 in the country right now. They’ve had some good wins. I know they beat Stanford.
“It’s always a challenge to play them and anyone in our conference, so if we don’t come in locked in and ready to play, especially on this quick turnaround, we could be beaten, but coach is going to do a good job of getting us ready.”
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