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Gonzaga vs. Santa Clara: Bulldogs hit the road to face Broncos

After a few days off, the Zags head to California for their first road games of conference play.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Hello fellow Zag adorers.

Hopefully the holidays treated you nicely. More importantly, hopefully the holidays treated our Gonzaga Bulldogs even better, because they are jumping into the gauntlet of their first road game in conference play at Santa Clara on New Year's Eve.

The break seemed to come at a terrible time. After a middling (to say the least) stretch to open December, the Bulldogs looked they had finally found their step, especially with two easy wins over Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount.

But games on the road against the WCC, even these terrible WCC teams, are always harder than they seem. Gonzaga has had one true road game this season against Washington State. Luckily, to ease in, students at both schools aren't back from break yet--but that probably won't stop the stands from filling up.

Meet the opponent

Santa Clara Broncos, 4-10, KenPom #245

For all the hype that Kyle Wiltjer and Kyle Collinsworth and other big name WCC players get, it is amazing how Jared Brownridge seems to fly under the radar on the national level. There isn't a single player in the conference that is tasked with shouldering more of the team than Brownridge is, and much of the nation saw that against Arizona when he dropped 44 points in an overtime loss.

Take a look at Brownridge's stats. He is fifth in the nation in field goal attempts, seventh in the nation in three point attempts, ninth in the nation with total points scored. He averages 19.9 points per game, scoring nearly one-third of Santa Clara's total points.

But in his junior season, it hasn't been pretty getting those 19.9 points. Neither has much of Santa Clara's offense for that matter. Brownridge is shooting just 37.6 percent from the floor, and 37.7 percent from beyond the arc. These are much lower marks than he normally shoots, and that is why despite the uptick in total offense, his offensive efficiency is down nearly 20 points from his sophomore year to 107.3.

Brownridge's shooting struggles exemplify much of the Broncos' offense. Santa Clara shoots just 40.8 percent from the floor as a team, good for No. 309 in the nation. With as many misses as they throw up, this isn't a good offensive rebounding team either.

The Broncos have junior forward Nate Kratch down low, and he garners 9.2 rebounds per game. But he stands at just 6'6, and trying to power up against Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer will probably be a hard task.

What to watch out for

Can the Zags contain Jared Brownridge?

If I'm Mark Few, I honestly don't lose much sleep thinking about this fact. Brownridge is a powder keg of points waiting to explode at any minute. He just dropped 36 points on Pacific the other day, right after scoring 29 against Nevada. He is always capable of a huge game.

The rest of the team, however, that is where the problem for Santa Clara lies. This season, only three players have scored 15 points in a game for the Broncos. Brownridge 10 times, freshman point guard KJ Feagin three times and Kratch four times. This isn't a team that should be hard for Gonzaga to shut down. The Broncos are already a poor shooting team, and that is without facing a team like Gonzaga, who is limiting opponents to an eFG% of 42.8 this season.

Brownridge can score 50 points for all anyone cares. As long as the Zags play their defense the way they have all season on the rest of the team, it'll be tough for Santa Clara to pull this one off.

Clog the passing lanes.

There isn't much the Broncos do right on offense, but one of them is that they are good at getting assists on each field goal made. In fact, 65.3 percent of their made field goals come on a dime. Gonzaga, on the flip side, is fantastic and denying the extra pass, with opponents getting an assist on made field goals only 39.4 percent of the time.

For Gonzaga to help limit Brownridge's damage, and the rest of the team's, they need to keep doing what they do best: hard-nosed defense. Gonzaga's defense is less than spectacular because they don't force a lot of turnovers for fast break points. But less than spectacular is still fine, because at the end of the day, the defense has almost always gotten the job done.

Can Silas Melson build some momentum?

The touch-and-go guard for the Zags has had a first half of the season that can be described as maddening. But in the past two games against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, Melson turned in solid shooting efforts. He has always hustled on defense, but it has been that lack of offense that has been punishing for his minutes. He is pretty far down the bench at the moment, but if he can reclaim his shooting touch and confidence, he will climb right back into the rotation before we know it.