The Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-2, 2-0 WCC) travel south to face the San Francisco Dons (14-2, 2-0) Saturday night in an early January game that could dictate the state of the West Coast Conference race from now until tournament time. First place is up for grabs, obviously, but this one has a lot more going on under the surface.
With a veteran-laden team, San Francisco put together an aggressive non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, it fell apart. Turns out, scheduling three Pac-12 teams doesn’t mean all that much this season — especially when the best one, Arizona State, was unwilling to reschedule after wildfire smoke in the Bay Area caused the cancellation of the game.
Since wins over Stanford and California aren’t moving the needle much this year — and a four point loss to Buffalo in Northern Ireland will likely be forgotten about — Gonzaga’s all the Dons have left on the schedule from a nationally relevant perspective.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had San Francisco in his bracket for much of the season to date, but his Jan. 11 update sees the Dons as one of the “next four out.”
For Gonzaga, as good as a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, the game has myriad implications in other ways.
San Francisco is a new challenger. For years it’s been the duo of Saint Mary’s and BYU, and nobody else, who could make legitimate runs at the top of the standings. Those two, along with Gonzaga, have been so head and shoulders above the rest of the league that no other team has finished in the top-two of the WCC standings since BYU joined in 2011.
Only once, in 2014, has a team other than one of those finished in the top three of the standings. That team, perhaps unsurprisingly, was San Francisco.
Gonzaga’s dominance over the rest of the WCC has been especially staggering. It has been 1,784 days since a team other than Saint Mary’s or BYU defeated Gonzaga in conference play. In a season when the usually middling teams, like San Francisco, are as strong as ever, could that streak come to an end? Well, Gonzaga’s as strong as ever too.
Scouting San Francisco
Head coach Kyle Smith has made quick work rebuilding this San Francisco program. Smith is now in his third season, and every player in the rotation other than sophomore Jamaree Bouyea (6.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg) has been in the program for at least as long as Smith.
“Those of us in the league knew San Francisco was bound for a good year,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “They’ve got everybody back and Kyle’s done a really nice job there.”
The name those of you outside of the league probably already know is Frankie Ferrari. A senior point guard averaging 13.3 points and 5.7 assists per game with a knack for finding the spotlight, some serious social media savvy and name for the ages, Ferrari has become the face of the team.
But, where the Dons really stand out is in the paint with a trio of talented big men.
Starting center Jimbo Lull (8.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG) is a true, seven-foot space-eater. Matt McCarthy (10.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG) is a modern-day, mobile five man who splits minutes with Lull, giving the Dons two distinct looks in the post. Nate Renfro (6.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) is a heady, veteran stretch four.
They might not be as talented a trio as the three bigs the Zags can trot out, but the Dons are bigger and deeper at the four and five than Gonzaga. Lull stands a full four inches taller than both Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, the two Gonzaga starters likely to draw defensive assignments against him. Which is something almost unheard of for a mid-major team.
By now, you should know about the Zags. They’ve been on TV plenty of times. Rui Hachimura has been one of the trendy picks for player of the year since the start of the season, while Brandon Clarke has blocked his way onto the national radar.
But the Zags aren’t the same team that shocked the nation in Maui or fought Tennessee in what could be the game of the season so far.
Killian Tillie, last season’s WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player, made his season debut in the conference opener against Santa Clara. Plus, senior reserve guard Geno Crandall (5.1 PPG, 2.1 APG) missed the entire month of December with a broken hand before joining Tillie in the lineup against the Broncos
Since those two returned to the lineup, the Zags’ approach hasn’t changed on offense. The most efficient team in the nation on that side of the ball simply picked up a couple more weapons. The real change has been on defense. The Zags’ coaching staff had been emphasizing defensive efficiency for a few weeks prior to the return of Tillie and Crandall. Now that the Zags are at full strength, there’s enough effort to make that emphasis happen on the court.
It’s a small sample size, and San Francisco has run up against considerably better offensive units than the Zags have so far, but since the start of conference play Gonzaga is holding teams to 0.593 points per possession. San Francisco, a team known for stingy defense this season, has been allowing 0.993.
No. 5 Gonzaga Bulldogs at San Francisco Dons
Saturday, January 12, 2019 at 7 p.m. Pacific