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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga hoping to build on momentum against improving San Diego

Plenty of college basketball teams retool their rosters these days by tapping into the bustling transfer portal.

San Diego is doing it “old school” in coach Steve Lavin’s second season. The Toreros are blending holdover players who have made noticeable improvement with an influx of eight freshmen and one Division II transfer.

The results have been promising. The Toreros, projected to finish last in the West Coast Conference, haven’t played like a last-place team. They’re 10-6, one win away from matching USD’s 11 wins in Lavin’s first year.

“They’re probably the surprise team in the league, changed out (personnel) and added a bunch of freshmen mostly,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Steve has done another good job rebuilding.”

The Toreros are next up for 24th-ranked Zags (10-4), who showed improvement of their own Thursday in an 86-60 blowout of Pepperdine in their WCC opener. GU had one of its better defensive efforts, dominated in the paint and connected on 42% behind the 3-point arc, second only to a 54.5% showing against USC.

The Zags have won 16 straight in the series and will be heavy favorites as they return to the Kennel after routing the Waves at the Arena.

“There’s some excellent coaches in this league that do a great job game-planning,” Few said. “We know, especially this year how we’re built, it’s going to be a dogfight every night for us. Nothing is going to come easy.”

The Toreros, like most WCC teams, lean on their backcourt. Junior point guard Wayne McKinney III has nearly doubled his scoring average (14.4 from 7.4) and assists (3.0 from 1.7) compared to his sophomore season.

Backcourt running mate Deuce Turner, in his second year at USD, scored 34 points in an 81-70 home loss to Saint Mary’s on Thursday. Turner bumped his team-leading average to 15.2 points.

McKinney and Turner both hit 36% on 3-pointers. McKinney was at 21.3% last season while Turner hit 20.7% in his freshman year at Bucknell.

PJ Hayes, a 6-foot-6 forward who played at D-II Black Hills State the past three years, chips in 10.1 points. He’s made a team-high 32 3-pointers on 41% accuracy.

The Zags should have an advantage inside with their quartet of bigs. Graham Ike has posted three consecutive games with at least 20 points. Anton Watson averages 14.3 points and leads the team in 3-point accuracy (44%). Braden Huff and Ben Gregg contribute nearly 18 points and nine boards per game off the bench.

The four bigs combined for 54 points – GU had a 44-18 edge in paint points – and 24 rebounds against the Waves.

San Diego used a 1-2-2 press and tried several half-court zone defenses, but Saint Mary’s shot 52.9% from the field, including 40% on 3s. Still, the Toreros battled to the buzzer and they’re 5-1 in games decided by five points or less.

“That’s what I love about this team,” Turner said. “We didn’t have that (resilience) last year at all. They’re hungry. So when they’re out there, they’re like, ‘We’re down this much, but we’re not worried about how much we’re down.’ We’re worried about, ‘How do we come back?’ ”