College basketball coaches walk a fine line this time of year, often preparing for multiple games every week against nonconference opponents that serve entirely different purposes for their long-term goals.
Gonzaga, for instance, will face over the next four weeks four teams ranked No. 287 or lower by KenPom. Immediately after each of those, the Zags will face an opponent ranked No. 63 or higher, including games against both teams that met in last year’s national championship.
So, how much prep time will the 11th-ranked Bulldogs devote to No. 314 Cal State Bakersfield with a neutral-site showdown against No. 34 USC on the horizon? The same question will arise when Gonzaga hosts No. 353 Arkansas Pine Bluff before playing at No. 63 Washington, and again when the Bulldogs get a visit from No. 362 Mississippi Valley State five days before they head back to Seattle to play No. 3 UConn.
At least the Zags (4-1) can double dip during film sessions this week, facing Cal State Bakersfield (3-3) at home on Tuesday (6 p.m., KHQ) before traveling to Las Vegas for Saturday’s game against a USC team that hosted the Roadrunners earlier this month.
Mark Few and his staff should be able to conserve time while gleaning a few things about both of their next two opponents watching USC’s 85-59 victory over Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 9 at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.
Picked to finish eighth in the preseason Big West Conference coaches’ poll, the Roadrunners bring an offense that ranks No. 328 nationally to Spokane. After a 59-40 loss to Tarleton State last Wednesday, they’re averaging only 62 points against Division I opponents and have been particularly ineffective shooting from the perimeter.
Cal State Bakersfield ranks 321st in both team 3-point percentage (21.2%) and 3-pointers per game (3.5) after a 1 of 17 (5.9%) showing from behind the 3-point arc in Wednesday’s loss.
The Bulldogs rank just 80th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 65 ppg, but check in at No. 12 according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions while factoring in quality of opponent. For context, Gonzaga concluded the 2022-23 season at No. 73 in the same category.
Gonzaga and Cal State Bakersfield have met four times since 2010. The Bulldogs’ smallest margin of victory came in 2010, when they won 78-59. The most recent meeting came in 2020 when five Zags scored in double digits – led by 15 points from Filip Petrusev – during a 77-49 victory.
“Anytime you get the opportunity to play what I consider a top 15 program in Gonzaga sets up and prepares us for conference play,” CSUB coach Rod Barnes said in September when the Roadrunners unveiled their nonleague schedule. “Whenever you get an opportunity to go up there (to Gonzaga), every facet of their program is elite, they have great talent, a legendary coach, and to get in that kind of atmosphere early in the year helps our guys find out where we are.”
The Zags may be playing at a higher level than their next opponent, but they’re still in a self-discovery phase as well. Above all else, Few and his staff would like to discover some depth in the backcourt after starting guards Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman combined to play 223 of a possible 240 minutes in three games at the Maui Invitational.
Circumstances could dictate that Nembhard and Hickman play 35-40 minutes against USC, Washington, UConn and San Diego State, but in an effort to strengthen the position behind those two, freshman guard Luka Krajnovic might get a longer leash during midweek games against Cal State Bakersfield, Arkansas Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley State – particularly if the Zags are able to build commanding early first-half leads.
Krajnovic, a native of Croatia, has appeared in just three of GU’s five games and logged only six minutes at the Maui Invitational.