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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga expecting test in season opener, taking on ‘veteran team’ in North Florida

Nov. 6, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 6, 2022 at 6:59 p.m.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few and North Florida counterpart Matthew Driscoll go way back to 1998 and a Village Inn restaurant in Laramie, Wyoming. Kind of.

Driscoll was new to Division I as an assistant under Larry Shyatt when the Cowboys’ staff and Gonzaga’s staff, led by head coach Dan Monson and then-assistant Few, gathered for breakfast before the teams’ first-round NIT contest.

“That was my first interaction with Mark Few – he’ll never remember it!” the energetic Driscoll said. “I was new at this. I was like a sponge nestled in the corner, thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ “

The Zags, led by Quentin Hall’s 17 points and Bakari Hendrix’s 19 points and 9 rebounds, won 69-55 before falling to Hawaii in the next round.

The second encounter was in the 2006 NIT Season Tip-Off as Few’s Zags downed Baylor 78-69 at the Spokane Arena. Driscoll was a Bears assistant with Scott Drew for six years before taking the head coaching position at North Florida in 2009.

Fast forward to Monday and the second-ranked Zags will open the season against Driscoll’s Ospreys at 6 p.m. at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The teams’ scheduled meeting a few years ago was called off due to the pandemic.

Breakfast probably isn’t on the menu, but a fast start to the season would be appetizing for both teams.

The Zags, favored by 28 points, are trying to avoid rough patches that surfaced in exhibition games – outscored 49-26 in the second half by Tennessee and NAIA Warner Pacific rattling off 10-0 and 13-0 spurts in GU’s 31-point win.

“North Florida is a veteran team with a bunch of their scorers back, and I think they wanted to play this game,” Few said. “These guarantee games, it’s funny, the ones that really volunteer or asking you to play usually feel pretty good about themselves, so we’re bracing to play a really good team on opening night.

“That’s why we’ve got to get rid of some of these bad stretches that we’re having.”

North Florida, picked fifth in the Atlantic Sun preseason coaches’ poll, returns its top four scorers and top seven rebounders from a squad that finished 11-20, 7-9 in the ASUN.

“We’ve got an older group, which always bodes well for us,” said Driscoll, adding that last year’s team was the fifth youngest in the nation. “It’s an experienced team that’s been in some battles.”

As for scheduling Gonzaga, Driscoll noted that his teams have played roughly 60 guarantee games over the last nine seasons. The Ospreys have No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 3 Houston and No. 4 Kentucky on this year’s slate. They face Washington in Seattle on Friday.

North Florida took on Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Grand Canyon, Arizona State, UCLA and Kentucky in the first 17 days of last season. The Ospreys later faced Kansas State, Florida and Florida State.

“Mark is accurate,” Driscoll said, “because we’re always trying to get the largest amount of money we can possibly get and it’s usually playing teams that are really talented.”

The Zags certainly fit the bill, led by player of the year candidate Drew Timme, but they don’t have much time to mesh before lining up against Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky in the next two weeks.

“It’s not like we have these cupcake games and we get to ease into everything,” junior wing Julian Strawther said. “Every game is going to be a battle at the start of the year. I feel like the guys know that. We have so many like-minded dudes on this team, especially off that loss (to Tennessee), we’re ready to go. We already felt what it feels like to lose a game and none of us want to go through that again.”

North Florida brings back guard Jose Placer (14.7 points, 2.8 assists), 6-foot-7 wing Carter Hendricksen (12.2 points, 5.0 rebounds), guard Jarius Hicklen (12.0 points, 87 3-pointers) and 6-10 forward Jadyn Parker (8.3 points, 5.1 boards, 49 blocks).

“We’re super balanced, we like to share the sugar, play inside-out,” Driscoll said. “We want to shoot our first available good shot.”

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