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Santa Clara Game Preview: Surging Broncos

The best start in 50+ years for Herb Sendek’s squad

SCU Athletics

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are a win away from tying the longest regular season winning streak in West Coast Conference history. Their 31 consecutive league wins in the regular season is tied with Bill Russell’s USF teams from the 1950’s. Pepperdine owns the record at 32 games. To get there, the Zags must beat the ever improving Santa Clara Broncos. Last year, Gonzaga smacked Santa Clara 91-48 and 98-39. We will not be seeing a repeat of that this season.

Meet the Opponent

Santa Clara Broncos: 15-3 (2-1), KenPom 130, NET 75

Herb Sendek’s squad is off to their best start since 1968. They’ve had a very easy schedule with a ton of home games, but they have taken care of business. They went 13-2 in the non-conference and they are coming off a huge road win at Saint Mary’s, where they came back from eight down in the final minutes to beat the Gaels. 6’9 junior Josip Vrankic owned the Gaels in the paint, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, none bigger than his offensive rebound putback to win the game in the final seconds. That’s the biggest improvement for the Broncos this season: interior play.

Vrankic leads the team in minutes and is one of four scorers in double figures. He’s joined by Wake Forest transfer DJ Mitchell, a 6’8 forward who can score inside, but also step out and shoot from the perimeter. Unfortunately, their second leading scorer and starting center Willie Caruso, who leads the WCC in true shooting percentage, suffered a lower leg injury at the end of December and will miss some more time. Luckily, the Broncos have depth they didn’t use to have. Freshman Jaden Bediako has jumped into that starting role and is uber-athletic. Fellow freshman wing Jalen Williams also starts and is a tenacious defender.

Oh yeah, and there’s Trey Wertz and Tahj Eaddy at the guard spots. Wertz is averaging a team-high 12.2 points and shoots 45 percent from deep. Eaddy has struggled a bit this season, but led the team in scoring a year ago and is just a game away from regaining his old form. Keshawn Justice is also back, shooting 40 percent from deep.

The Broncos are 18th in the nation is FG%, ninth in assists, and 22nd in 2pt% defense. The size they have at every position causes teams problems, including Saint Mary’s. The scary thing? They have zero seniors on the roster. Their defensive philosophy is to take away the paint and force teams to beat them from deep and at the line, which may make some Gonzaga fans tremble a bit.

After two 50-point drubbings a year ago, the Broncos are more formidable and the Bulldogs will be in for a much better challenge.

Game Time: 8 pm pacific

Channel: ESPN2

Broadcasters: Eric Rothman and Corey Williams