Watch that back door

Jan 13, 2021 7:15 PM

No. 1 Gonzaga has been mostly unchallenged while racing to a 12-0 start that included a record four wins over Top 25 teams in its first four games.

But do the Bulldogs become bored with big leads?

The Zags led BYU 23-2 nine minutes into their game on Thursday. A 13-0 run later in the first half stretched the lead to 52-26. Gonzaga led by 32 in the second half but scored just 11 points over the final 11 minutes, and BYU (+17) made the 86-69 final a point spread push.

That follows a pattern for the Bulldogs, who are leading opponents by an average of 11 points through the first 10 minutes of their games. The only exception came against West Virginia, when Gonzaga had really been tested.

The Bulldogs are 6-5-1 ATS this season, but to an extent, they’ve played up or down to their opponents. Against stronger competition (say, the top 100 at KenPom), the Zags are 5-1-1 ATS, including recent wins over the Cougars and San Francisco. But against teams like Northwestern State and Portland, they’ve covered just once in five games.

Some of that has to do with Mark Few putting reserves in when Gonzaga has a big lead late. But unlike Zags teams of 15 years ago, these scrubs are mostly three- and four-star recruits.

And even against tougher opponents, the Bulldogs have taken their foot off the gas at times. They led Kansas by 18 late before winning by 12 and had leads of 30 against Auburn and 33 over Virginia in 23- and 18-point wins.

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While Gonzaga has been dominant in the early parts of games, it has outscored just four of 12 opponents over the final 10 minutes. This trend, if it continues, could be useful for bettors — particularly those placing in-game wagers.

According to KenPom predictions, the Bulldogs should be double-digit favorites in all of their remaining regular season games. The likely shortest spread will come Saturday when Gonzaga figures to be about a 12-point choice at Saint Mary’s.

Here are this week’s picks. The numbers for the spreads are based on game predictions at KenPom.com.

Thursday

Pepperdine at Gonzaga -25: The Waves were bad in their final two non-conference games — double-digit losses to UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Bakersfield — but they’ve had three weeks off since then.

Earlier in the season, Pepperdine took UCLA to triple overtime, lost a close one to San Diego State and beat California.

Pepperdine doesn’t rebound well and they’re not good from beyond the arc. But otherwise, they’re a decent offensive team and one of the best nationally from the free-throw line.

The Waves don’t match up particularly well with the Zags and might trail by 30 with 10 minutes to go, but if the line is big enough, Pepperdine could find its way through that back door. PEPPERDINE

San Diego State -1 at Utah State: The Aggies have won eight straight — including their first six Mountain West Conference games — after a 1-3 start. They’ve also covered six in a row.

The play of 7-foot center Neemias Queta has been a big factor in Utah State’s improvement. The junior from Portugal has been one of the best shot-blockers in the country and is shooting 67% from the field in conference play.

And Aggies coach Craig Smith has another 7-footer, sophomore Trevin Dorius, to throw at a San Diego State team that has just one player taller than 6-7 in its regular rotation.

The Aztecs have lost just twice this season — to BYU and in a meltdown when they blew a 38-12 lead against Colorado State — and they play typically good defense. Utah State, however, is six spots higher in KenPom’s defensive rankings and is an excellent rebounding team on both ends of the floor. UTAH STATE

Friday

Bryant -3 at St. Francis (Pa.): The Red Flash has lost six straight games since starting the season with an upset of Pittsburgh.

St. Francis doesn’t shoot the ball well, which will be a problem against the Bulldogs, who have improved markedly on defense.

The Red Flash is ninth in the country in guarding the 3 but 342nd in defending on the inside. Look for the Bulldogs — a good 3-point-shooting team — to get the ball into the lane. Bryant has won six in a row since a stumble at the other St. Francis (N.Y.). BRYANT

Sunday

Western Kentucky at Marshall -4: These two teams play at Western Kentucky on Friday, as well.

In their first two back-to-back Conference USA series, the Hilltoppers have followed wins over Charlotte and Louisiana Tech with losses in the rematches.

The problem here will be slowing down the Thundering Herd, No. 27 nationally in adjusted tempo. Western Kentucky does not force opponents into long offensive possessions.

Both teams are efficient on the offensive end, but the Herd is the better defensive team, especially on 2-point attempts. MARSHALL

Last week: 1-1-1

Season: 16-4-3