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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Scrappy, competitive Zags’ forging identity with win over USC

LAS VEGAS – The record is similar to past Gonzaga teams at this point of the season. The Zags’ No. 11 ranking is solid, just not quite as high as recent squads.

They’re not hard on the eye by any means, but the Zags are probably more gritty than pretty through seven games. That in itself makes them an intriguing crew to watch.

They’re 6-1, own wins over USC and UCLA – teams picked to finish second and third, respectively, in the Pac-12 preseason poll – and their lone loss was to Purdue, which roughed up the Zags by a bigger margin last season.

The top-ranked Boilermakers should fall in the Associated Press poll after losing to Northwestern and figure to be replaced by Arizona, the Pac-12 favorites coached by former Zag assistant Tommy Lloyd.

“I think we battled (Purdue) to the end,” said forward Ben Gregg, following his 14-point, eight-rebound performance in GU’s 89-76 victory Saturday over USC at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. “We held our heads up high after that loss. They’re a great team, a lot of great players.

“We bounced back so quick. We know what we’re capable of, we’re still kind of gelling together, but we’re super talented in all aspects on the court. We have guys that love to win, love to compete. That’s kind of the culture of Gonzaga. We just have a bunch of winners on the team and that’s our mentality.”

The season isn’t a month old yet, but Gonzaga is forging an identity, one that was evident again in an easier-than-anticipated victory over the Trojans.

More on that identity, snagging another quality win and the bug that’s still lingering with some players in our latest Gonzaga rewind.

Hyper competitive

Gonzaga ranks 40th nationally in field-goal percentage defense (39.0%) and 11th in 3-point defense (25.3%). The Zags beat USC 39-33 on the glass and have outrebounded six of seven opponents. They were even at 38 against Purdue.

They guard, board and hit the floor with regularity, pursuing loose balls. They’d probably roll up their sleeves – if their uniforms had sleeves.

“Spectacular,” responded coach Mark Few, asked about Gonzaga’s defensive effort against the Trojans. “I thought we competed really well. This team is kind of getting … that’s the identity. I think every night they’re stepping up and competing and hustling and playing physical, communicating.

“But most of all, just competing.”

USC’s talented guard tandem of Boogie Ellis (28) and freshman Isaiah Collier (14) combined for 42 points – they average nearly 40 per game – on 18-of-35 shooting. They are difficult to defend, but GU could live with those stats because USC’s next highest scorer had just nine points while the Zags put six into double figures.

Ellis did some of his damage when the Zags were comfortably ahead later in the second half. Collier, 6-feet-5 and 210 pounds, drove to the rim like a fullback barreling toward the line of scrimmage, but he was usually greeted by at least one or two defenders.

Both guards came in shooting above 40% beyond the 3-point line and the team was at 38.5% accuracy. USC made just 6 of 22 (27.3%) against GU.

“They had our full attention,” Few said. “But we also knew we really needed to do our best and try to commit two (defenders) on those guard drives to just try to slow some of it down.

“At times during that game it didn’t look like it or feel like it, but I think we strung together a couple stops on those hard drives.”

Freshman wing Dusty Stromer wasn’t the primary defender on Ellis or Collier, but he ended up on Collier on several occasions. On one first-half play, Stromer left his man to reject the highly touted USC guard’s shot near the rim.

“It was a good matchup, I enjoyed it for sure,” said Stromer, a key contributor offensively with four 3-pointers and 15 points. “I love to compete. I’ve always loved to play defense.”

Stromer, a native of Southern California, also has enjoyed the Zags’ pair of wins over the Pac-12’s two L.A. schools.

“Yeah man, it feels great,” he said. “It feels great.”

Bug lingering

The bug that hit the team on its return flight from Honolulu following the Maui Invitational hasn’t quite gone away.

Junior guard Nolan Hickman was under the weather on Friday, but he played 35 minutes and posted 10 points, two 3s, four assists, three rebounds and two steals.

Hickman’s plus/minus rating (plus 16) was second on the team behind Anton Watson (19).

Few said a couple of the players have avoided the illness and he hopes that remains the case going forward.

Resume-building wins

Gonzaga missed out on its biggest opportunity at a marquee win when it fell to Purdue in the first round of the Maui Invitational. That setback and results elsewhere in the bracket meant GU wouldn’t face another ranked team in the tournament.

Instead, the Zags defeated UCLA on the final day, a solid win over a team that is No. 43 in KenPom’s current ratings. The victory over USC, which dropped from 32 to 35 after Saturday’s loss, should bolster Gonzaga’s post-season resume.

“I sure think so,” said Few, asked if the USC win will hold up come March. “They have athletes inside, three incredible starting guards. (Kobe) Johnson didn’t shoot it great, but he’s a very good player, very good shooter and a heck of a defender. (Former Washington State Cougar DJ) Rodman is a great do-everything guy for them, but those two starting guards (Ellis and Collier) are something.”

Gonzaga has several quality nonconference matchups ahead, including No. 58 Washington next Saturday, No. 4 UConn on Dec. 15 in Seattle, No. 27 San Diego State on Dec. 29 and No. 20 Kentucky on Feb. 10.

GU also defeated Ivy League favorite Yale, No. 87 in KenPom, in the season opener. The Zags are No. 8.