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After rough road stretch, Gonzaga braces for season defining home stand

Believe it or not, we are just weeks away from the end of the 2011-12 regular season. For Gonzaga, that means time is running out. Six conference games remain on the schedule and, for all intents and purposes, we will have a pretty darn clear picture of the WCC after next weekend. On Thursday, the conference leading Gaels of Saint Mary's head into the McCarthey Athletic Center. Saint Mary's will be looking for a season sweep of the Bulldogs in addition to maintaining their perfect conference record. The Gaels have been a force all season long and carry a pretty commanding 2.5 game lead into February. Also paying the Zags a visit this week will be Loyola Marymount, which is currently tied for third in the West Coast Conference and is only a half game behind the Bulldogs.

For lack of a better phrase, the Zags did not have the most pleasant road stretch over the past few days. After getting dominated by BYU in their first visit to Provo, Gonzaga flew to Malibu to recover against the woeful Waves of Pepperdine. Although Mark Few's squad got off to a great start against Pepperdine, they fell back into old habits and allowed the Waves to make the contest far too close. They escaped with a 12 point win but the game was hanging in the balance far too late in the second half. Now, as we close the book on the road stretch that was, it is time to look ahead to some home cooking for the Zags as the Gaels come to Spokane.

As I mentioned in the intro, Gonzaga can't afford to lose another game between now and Vegas if they want to preserve their streak of regular season conference crowns. Even if the Bulldogs win out, they will need some help from either LMU or another WCC team as Saint Mary's has to lose twice down the stretch of the Zags to split the crown. At this point, Mark Few and his staff need to focus on what they can control and that is getting some revenge on Saint Mary's and BYU in the friendly confines of the McCarthey Athletic Center and preserve a double bye in the conference tournament.

What is a bit frightening now is that I am not sure what we can expect on Thursday. Against BYU, Gonzaga saw basically every one of their weaknesses get brutally exposed by the Cougars. Most notably, the Zags' front court was a complete paper tiger. Over the past few years, we have discussed the potential and talent possessed by the various pieces of the Bulldog front line. However, over the past two years, we have seen the limitations of those words: "potential" & "talent". Those limitations are easy to understand: they don't always translate into productivity. In particular, Robert Sacre has continued to struggle. Sure, he's putting up double digit point totals most games but his ability to finish around the basket has not improved this season and he continues to get victimized in situations where most 7-footers easily finish plays.

Don't get me wrong, Rob does a number of things well, but his lack of improvements offensively are a major source of frustration. He isn't the only front line player to struggle. While I continue to maintain that Elias Harris is significantly underutilized by Mark Few, I have noticed that a large part of his disappearance during games is self inflicted. He seems to put himself out of position offensively and, particularly against BYU, he gets lazy with the ball and that causes turnovers. Elias can be so dominant around the basket but it has become painfully obvious that he needs to be micro-managed by the staff at the start of games so he doesn't disappear.

As this blog post becomes more of a discussion of past games, there are just a number of worries that continue to bubble up. While the front line has been a source of constant frustration, it has to be brought up that Gonzaga's bigs are not exactly being aided by the recent play of the backcourt. While Kevin Pangos looked better against Pepperdine, he needs to elevate his game and be a more consistent force as does Gary Bell. Now that we are thru February, it is hard for me to sit here and say that I believe one of Gonzaga's small forwards are going to step up so that puts a ton of pressure on Pangos and Bell. Can they handle it? We will see.

We will have much more as the Saint Mary's showdown approaches. Hopefully the tents are being set up outside the MAC as we speak!