Because No. 2 Gonzaga (23-1, 11-0) plays in the West Coast Conference, you might assume that the Bulldogs don’t get challenged on a nightly basis.
Well, you’d be wrong.
“I think it works both ways, ironically,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “You end up facing that particular team’s best effort of the year, bar none. Their fans come out in record fashion, and (there’s) great energy in the building. Great atmosphere. We’re facing teams that play with much more passion. I always tease my staff that we lead the country in banked-in threes against us on the road. But conversely, when you walk into atmospheres in arenas like that, you know as a player, it’s hard to come out flat. So it kind of keeps our guys (sharp), gives them a little edge also. We try to flip it around and kind of use it to our advantage if we can.”
Gonzaga’s only loss this season came at Arizona, by three points, in overtime, in early December. That’s it. The Zags have since won 16 straight, including an 82-64 win over Memphis on Jan. 31. Few likes to schedule a tough out-of-conference opponent toward the end of the regular season, especially since the WCC plays its conference tournament one week earlier than the Big Ten, ACC and others. If Few doesn’t do this, his team will be off for a week and then get tested – by arguably the most talented team it has seen in months – in the first weekend of the tournament.
“It’s the only way we know, so it’s hard to compare to other situations,” Few said. “And you did a great job describing it. Some years, the WCC is really good. It gets more teams in (the NCAA Tournament) than the (Pac-12). It challenges you in different ways. Year in and year out, I think our conference leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage. On this particular trip, we’re facing 4 and 5 men that can really shoot threes. Outside of (Wisconsin’s Frank) Kaminsky, very rarely do you see that. So we’re facing tams that can really blister you from three and are dangerous from there, and maybe they aren’t quite as dangerous from inside the arc or have great shot-blockers or things like that.
“(But) the teams are good,” Few continued. “They are dangerous and they can get you, especially on their home floor. It’s just in a different way. It’s not with above-the-rim play. As you said, we do try to set our schedule up.”
Unfortunately for Gonzaga, Memphis (14-8, 6-3) has struggled to put it together this year.
“We do try to play a Memphis; we do try to put things in that can help challenge us and help prepare us,” Few said. “In that regard, Memphis is still really athletic. They still have some very, very good, talented players. I just think they’re a little young in the backcourt. That’s what hurt them.
“I will say this, Doug: We are exceptionally deep this year with some good players at each position. We are really going at it (during practice) on Mondays. 5-on-5, our top 10 guys – as opposed to playing our red team. That’s been great for us. Those have been competitive, spirited. When you’ve got (Domantas) Sabonis going against (Kyle) Wiltjer, or Sabonis going against (Przemek) Karnowski and you got Eric McClellan D-ing up Kevin Pangos and (Gary) Bell getting after (Byron) Wesley – those are good battles.”
Gonzaga plays at San Francisco (9-15, 3-9) this Saturday at 11:30 p.m. ET.