Before Gonzaga kicked things into high gear, the Bulldogs had to endure a lethargic stretch in the first half of Friday’s season opener against Yale.
After Graham Ike converted a layup to start things off, Yale scored 16 of the game’s next 20 points, forcing two Gonzaga turnovers and five missed shots to take a 16-6 advantage by the first media timeout.
Gonzaga course-corrected and managed to pull even just three minutes later before going on to win comfortably, 86-71, at McCarthey Athletic Center.
Starting slow didn’t bite the Bulldogs on Friday and probably wouldn’t on Tuesday when they host NAIA foe Eastern Oregon – a team they routed 120-42 last December while setting a program record for margin of victory.
But it’s also not something they want to make a habit of, particularly as they approach a tough slate of games at the Maui Invitational, where they could face three top-10 teams in three days at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.
Setting the tone is important, even in a game like Tuesday’s, which will count officially toward Gonzaga’s win-loss record but not Eastern Oregon’s. The Bulldogs (1-0) and Mountaineers (0-3) are tipping off at 6 p.m. in Spokane. Along with KHQ/Root+, viewers can watch the live broadcast through the ESPN+ streaming platform.
“I would just say we’ve got to come out the gate more attentive, understanding the assignments,” Gonzaga guard Nolan Hickman said after the win over Yale . “I would just say punch them in the mouth before we get punched.”
Tuesday gives the Zags one more chance to iron out their rotations, experiment with smaller lineups and bigger ones, and potentially decide which players are capable of shouldering minutes next week at the Maui Invitational, where Gonzaga will open with second-ranked Purdue and reigning national player of the year Zach Edey.
Hickman and starting point guard Ryan Nembhard stayed on the floor for almost the entirety of Friday’s opener. Nembhard, who came out for three seconds at the end of the first half, brushed off Mark Few on multiple occasions when Gonzaga’s coach asked if he needed a breather. Hickman played all but two minutes in the 15-point victory.
“I kept asking if he needed a blow,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Nembhard. “He said he didn’t.”
The Creighton transfer may not get a choice when the Bulldogs get to Hawaii.
Even with five days before the Maui Invitational opener, and a five-day break tacked onto the end of the tournament, it’s unlikely Nembhard and Hickman will play 40 minutes in each of Gonzaga’s three games next week.
The Bulldogs will probably need to rely on freshman guard Luka Krajnovic in at least some capacity, unless they elect to stagger the Nembhard/Hickman minutes, which could allow them to use freshman wing Dusty Stromer as a shooting guard and go bigger with Anton Watson, Braden Huff/Ben Gregg and Graham Ike in the frontcourt.
Nonetheless, Tuesday’s game should give Few and his coaching staff a longer look at Krajnovic, who played fewer than 90 seconds against Yale, as well as sophomore forward Jun Seok Yeo, who registered just three minutes on Friday.
When the Mountaineers visited Gonzaga last season, the Bulldogs used it as a post-Christmas tuneup to prepare for West Coast Conference play.
Ten players logged at least 14 minutes as GU was conservative with its starters, not letting any of them play more than 20.
Eastern Oregon’s roster once again features a handful of players with ties to the Inland Northwest.
Senior guard Jonny Hillman and freshman guard Caleb Schroeder both played high school basketball at Genesis Prep in Post Falls and freshman guard Greyson Sands comes to EOU after a standout career at Saint Maries High School, where he was the Idaho 3A Player of the Year as a senior. Junior guard Vanti Erving didn’t grow up in the region, but the Chicago native made a pit stop at North Idaho College last season before transferring to EOU.
Former Washington State standout Que Johnson is now in his third season as a top assistant for Mountaineers coach Chris Kemp.