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Gonzaga Basketball

Short-handed Gonzaga faces challenging opener versus Ivy League favorite Yale

Gonzaga knew it would have its hands full tipping off the season against perennial Ivy League power Yale on Friday.

“It’s not an ideal opener for us, but we’ll just deal with the cards that have been dealt,” coach Mark Few said after Gonzaga’s rout of Lewis-Clark State in an exhibition game last Friday. “It’s going to be a good challenge for us. They’ll be smart, they’ll be tough, they’re super well-coached. Looking forward to it.”

The challenges facing GU – versus Yale, potentially four ranked teams in the next three weeks and for the remainder of the season – became even tougher with projected starting wing Steele Venters suffering a season-ending knee injury.

The 6-foot-7 Venters played in 84 games at Eastern Washington before transferring to Gonzaga, second only to Anton Watson’s 116 career games in terms of collegiate experience on GU’s roster.

The 11th-ranked Zags haven’t had much time to process Venters’ injury before they line against an opponent with four quality big guards/small forwards. Freshman wing Dusty Stromer is the probable replacement for Venters, although GU could experiment with bigger frontcourt options.

Yale, 1-0 after blowing out Vassar on Monday, has won or shared three of the past four Ivy League regular-season titles and five of the past eight.

Head coach James Jones is the program’s all-time leader in wins (373) and winning percentage (62.4). He has guided the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2019 and 2022. Yale was set to participate in the 2020 tournament before it was canceled. Yale finished 21-9 last season and lost to Vanderbilt in an NIT opener.

Jones, entering his 25th season, was hired April 27, 1999. Roughly three months later, Gonzaga promoted Few from assistant to head coach. Few has compiled a 688-135 record (83.6%) and his teams have played in or qualified for March Madness every season.

“That’s a scary game,” Few said of the Yale matchup. “I mean, you guys all know what happened to Arizona last year playing Princeton (in the NCAA Tournament) and that was at the end of the year when you had 30 game films on them.

“Yale is picked to win the Ivy. If a team from that league can win an NCAA Tournament game against a two seed or whatever it was … they have our full attention and then they have their whole team back.”

Or close to it, anyway. Four of the top six scorers return, led by All-Ivy League forward Matt Knowling, a 6-6, 200-pounder who averaged 13.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists. He’s joined by 6-6, 205-pound sharpshooter John Poulakidas, who led the team in minutes (29.2) and 3-pointers (67) while ranking second in scoring (12.0).

Bez Mbeng (10.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 43 steals) and August Mahoney (10.9 points, 57 3-pointers, 46.7% 3-point accuracy, 93.1% on free throws) anchor the backcourt. Both stand 6-4 with Mahoney at 195 pounds and Mbeng 10 pounds lighter.

Knowling, Poulakidas, Mbeng and Mahoney have combined to play 255 games at Yale, including 148 starts. Mbeng was the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and will probably defend Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard.

Yale lost forward EJ Jarvis, the team’s top rebounder and third-leading scorer, and forward Isaiah Kelly, but it still has interior size with 7-foot Danny Wolf, 6-10 Samson Aletan, 6-7, 250-pound Nick Townsend and 6-7, 245-pound Jack Molloy.

Gonzaga redshirt freshman forward Braden Huff’s path has crossed with fellow Chicago-area natives Poulakidas and Wolf.

“I worked out with them both this summer,” Huff said. “John, we faced off in high school a little bit. He’s a really good shooter and really good player, so definitely excited to see those guys and match up against them. It was tough, (Poulakidas) definitely gave our team issues. He’ll definitely be up there on scouting report, a big focus for us, just hopefully we’re able to contain him.”

Venters and EWU faced Yale last season in the first round of the Outrigger Rainbow Classic in Honolulu. Yale won 74-60 behind Knowling’s 26 points and Poulakidas added four 3s and 13 points. Yale went on to win the tournament and Knowling earned MVP honors.

“The kid I remember was Poulakidas,” Venters said following GU’s exhibition game. “They’re super smart, obviously, and they can shoot it really well. They have some big guys that can rebound, so I think it’ll be a good test for us.”

Gonzaga has won 81 of its past 82 at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Yale visits Loyola Marymount, which ended GU’s 75-game home winning streak last season, on Sunday.

Zags honoring Native American Heritage monthGonzaga will wear turquoise uniforms in the season opener in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. It will mark the fifth time the Zags have worn the customized Nike N7 uniforms.

The turquoise color symbolizes friendship and fellowship in Native American cultures.

Tickets for GU’s Arena game on sale Friday

Tickets for Gonzaga’s game against Pepperdine on Jan. 4 at the Arena will go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. at {a style=”font-size: 16px;” href=”http://www.ticketswest.com/”}www.TicketsWest.com{/a}. The game, dubbed the CCF Classic, will benefit the Community Cancer Fund. Ticket prices range from $49 to $500. Fans are encouraged to be quick on their computers after tickets to last year’s GU-Kentucky game at the Arena sold out in minutes.