According to several savvy professional bettors last fall, this was supposed to be the season that Gonzaga would be ripe to be dethroned atop the West Coast Conference.
They lost too much talent, the contingent believed. Four inked NBA deals, and key players Geno Crandall and Jeremy Jones were also among the departed. Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young, went a certain line of thinking, were poised to take control of the WCC.
That has not happened. Out of the weekend, the Zags had a 2.5-game lead over BYU in the WCC and four over the Gaels with two weeks remaining in the regular season. Gonzaga had stretched its conference winning streak, the longest in the nation, to 39 games.
All credit goes to coach Mark Few, who is about to make it 21-for-21 in steering Gonzaga to the NCAA Tournament. Overall, this will be the 22nd consecutive NCAAs for the program, which, in coach Dan Monson’s swan song, lost to eventual national champ Connecticut in the West Regional final in Phoenix in 1999.
Sixteen seasons later, Few directed Gonzaga back to a regional finale, beginning a run of three over the past five years. A breakthrough arrived in 2017 when it defeated Xavier for its first Final Four berth. That ended in a national title defeat to North Carolina, again in Phoenix.
Foes can call the program nestled in Rockwellian Spokane, Wash., a mid-major at their own peril. All that’s missing from its trophy case is an NCAA championship. With so many bona fide contenders this season, it would not be wise to bet against Filip Petrusev, Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme leading a furious Zags charge to Atlanta.
They have five players averaging double figures in scoring, and Ayayi is a sophomore guard who is all over the court, contributing 10.7 points, grabbing 6.2 boards and dishing out 3.4 assists a game.
Few has such a talented roster he has been able to adjust it, like a master conductor, with or without the services of hobbled senior forward Killian Tillie.
Saturday features a marquee affair against BYU at the Marriott Center in Provo. Expect fireworks. Out of the weekend, the Zags averaged a national-best 88.6 points; the Cougars have been scoring nearly 80 a game, 82.5 at home.
Only three programs in the country make more than half of their shot attempts, and these are two; Gonzaga at 51.6 percent, BYU 50.2 percent. Since Jan. 1, Gonzaga has run the nation’s most efficient offense, currently at 1.183 points per play, and BYU is rated third.
For Cougars senior T.J. Haws, who has drilled half of his 46 3-point attempts over his past 10 games, the Zags have been a nuisance. The lanky guard is only 1-7 against Gonzaga in his career. At home, however, he’s 0-3, including the one as a freshman in which he tallied 29 points.
Only once in seven seasons has a crowd of 20,000-plus burst the big barn at its seams. It’s no surprise that it was for Gonzaga, on Dec. 27, 2014. Look for such interest again Saturday, in the final home game of Haws’ career, and look for him to feed off that excitement.
Veteran Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White, who provides further projections below, installs this total at 163.5. Expect both sides to thrive in the heated environment. OVER
Ohio State at Iowa -1.5, Total 147.5: Only San Diego State has held Luke Garza (23.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg) to single figures this season. The numbers for the 6-foot-11, 245-pound junior are even better over his past five home games. The Hawkeyes thrive at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where they are 9-2-2 against the spread, covering the number by more than three points a game. IOWA and UNDER
UNLV at San Diego State -17.5: The final Saturday night home game for a Viejas crowd that has grown more rabid, returning to the Kawhi-era “The Show” form, as this 26-0 season has unfolded. In Las Vegas, the Aztecs were fortunate to escape with a four-point victory. This one will be different. The Aztecs are 6-0, in the past six, against UNLV in San Diego, with an average score of 79-59. SAN DIEGO STATE
Kansas at Baylor, Total 125.5: For the season, the Jayhawks’ average road yield is 57, bested only by Liberty’s 56.4. At Baylor, opponents average only 56.2 at home. On Jan. 11 in Lawrence, Kan., with a total of 133, Baylor prevailed, 67-55. UNDER
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