The Gonzaga Bulldogs enter conference play this year with middling results. Sure, the team is 10-2, but the team's best victory is either over Arkansas at the Maui Invitational or on the road against West Virginia.
Now, WCC play is on us and the Bulldogs will be playing each game with a target on their back the size of Spokane. They are a bit battered and bruised coming into the game as well. Sam Dower landed hard on his back against Kansas State and hasn't been seen since, although his Twitter account suggests he spent a lovely holiday break in Minneapolis. People keep up stepping on Kevin Pangos' big toe, and that in turn has made it harder for the basketball to go into the hoop.
The rest of the lineup is looking fine, however. Of course, the question is how much of a lineup Mark Few is comfortable using. The past few games the team has been reduced to close to a six-man rotation. If Sam Dower is unavailable, that won't be an option. Who steps in to fill his shoes will be the big question.
Meet the opponent
Santa Clara Broncos (7-6), Kenpom #175, RPI #227
The Broncos are like the Bulldogs, lacking in size down low but bursting at the seams with guards. As such, they run out a three-guard lineup that transitions to a four-guard lineup about as often as possible. The attack is fueled by junior guard Brandon Clark and freshman guard Jared Brownridge. Clark averages 16.6 points per game and Brownridge adds 13.9 points, and both are liable to go off in any game.
Brownridge started his freshman campaign off with a flurry, scoring in double-digits in his first five games and registering his career-high 25 points in his first collegiate game. Clark has scored in double-digits every game except for three this year and has scored 30 and 32 points already this season.
Down low, the Broncos don't have many options outside of senior Jerry Brown. He tries to clean up as much as possible, but at 6'7 is a bit undersized for what the Broncos ask of him. Still, he averages a double-double per 40 minutes and can't be ignored.
What to watch out for
There are a few major questions for the Bulldogs right now that will dictate how this game is played. Actually, no questions will dictate how this game is played. This is going to be a high-scoring, guard oriented affair, at least on Gonzaga's side, and the question will be how much Santa Clara can keep up. For the Bulldogs, the team has been tight lipped on Dower's lower back and DoloDower hasn't very much about the issue.
@KiddKeron it's gettin better. Hopefully I'll be back by Saturday— Samuel Dower Jr. (@DoloDower) December 26, 2013
If Dower is unavailable (and let's be honest here, if Dower is less anything less than 100% against Santa Clara and San Francisco -- two of the worst teams in the WCC -- he shouldn't even lace up his shoes), it might force Few to open up the rotation a bit more. Whether that means more minutes for Coleman, or perhaps the debut of Angel Nunez is something we shall see.
After that, it will be interesting to see the Bulldogs' body language in how they respond both to the loss against Kansas State and to a long layover. Like a lot of teams, the Bulldogs haven't played much in two weeks, and it is tough to keep that angry, revenge-fueled momentum going when you are opening Christmas presents with your grandmother. For the game, they won't exactly have the most raucous crowd behind their backs -- it is still winter break at the school. We are in WCC play now, and regardless of which team is truly the best each year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are always the team to beat. Everyone plays against us like they are playing their last game of the season. So far, a few people have said we can't roll with the punches. I think we can. I'll need a win over Santa Clara to prove it.