One of the most consistent occurrences of the past there years has been a thrilling Gonzaga vs. Santa Clara match up at some point in the season. Three years ago, it was Santa Clara that became the first road opponent to every win at the MAC. That Broncos team appeared to have the WCC wrapped up, but choked away the regular season championship by getting swept on the final weekend of conference play. Two years ago, it looked like the Broncos were about to pull off a huge upset in front of their home court, until Steven Gray was fouled with less than a second remaining on the clock. Gray hit both free throws, and Austin Daye dominated the overtime period to give the Zags the win.
Last season may have been the craziest of all the meetings, as it was the Ruff Riders who may have cost their team a chance to win. In a hotly contested game, some students decided it would be best to throw things on the court, which of course led to technical free throws for the Zags and led to an emotional Gonzaga victory. Naturally, those students are not highly revered at Santa Clara, although they are legends in Spokane and on this site. So while it would seem that Gonzaga will enter this game and stroll to a victory, it's important to remember the history that this series has, especially when the Zags are on the road.While I don't think Santa Clara had much of a chance to be a top-half team in this conference before the injury to Kevin Foster, it's not a surprise to see team struggling without its leading scorer. Foster was one of the rare guys on this Broncos roster who could break a guy down off the dribble and get to the rim. He is very comparable to guys like Vernon Teel and Keion Bell, who have given the Zags trouble over the past two games. With Foster out, Marc Trasolini has become the main scoring option for Santa Clara. The highly skilled PF is not the most physical guy, but has a great arsenal of offensive moves. Trasolini is averaging 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds so far this season. It will be an excellent match up between Trasolini and Elias Harris on both ends of the court.
The one positive of the absence of Foster is the fact that many freshman from their highly touted class are being given the opportunity to play big minutes. Robert Smith has been a pleasant surprise in the back court, averaging 12.0 points and a team-high 3.1 assists. Ray Cowels is an undersized big man who is physically prepared to compete at this level. Cowels is someone that Gonzaga fans might be familiar with, as he played for Net Gain Sports with Sam Dower on the AAU circuit. Cowels has seen his minutes increase over the course of the season and is averaging 8.2 points and 2.6 boards.
In order for Gonzaga to be able to make the deep tourney run that many of us think is possible, Rob Sacre must regain the form and confidence that we saw at the beginning of the season. I think it's pretty clear the trio of Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray, and Elias Harris is one of the most dangerous and talented of any in the nation. However, if Sacre can start to get his scoring touch and aggressiveness going in the paint, it elevates this team to an even higher level, and I think a Final 4 contender. I look for this to be a point of emphasis this weekend, especially with huge games against Portland, Memphis, and St. Mary's looming in the next two weeks. Behind a double-double from Rob Sacre, I expect the Zags to secure the 78-66 victory.