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Game Preview: Zags vs Santa Clara

What to expect from a sneaky good Broncos in an early Saturday game

Santa Clara v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

After a dominant showing against BYU on Thursday night, the Bulldogs have a quick turnaround game against Herb Sendek’s Santa Clara Broncos down in the Mission City.

Saturday’s 1 pm game will be the Zags’ first road game of the season. Because of California’s guidelines and the decision of the university, the game will have a sparse crowd of 25% capacity, allowing team staff and family, select ticket members and 600 students.

The Zags check in as a 16.5 point favorite on DraftKings, while KenPom predicts a 90-77 win for Gonzaga.

But the early start and unusual environment could throw any team off, so here’s what to watch out for in a potential look-ahead game.

Meet the opponent

Santa Clara Broncos, 11-5 (1-0), Kenpom #75

It’s safe to say if there was any team that has been battle-tested by the adversity of playing basketball through health woes, it’s the Broncos. Sendek’s team has weathered a significant COVID pause, undisclosed player absences and their best player, Josip Vrankic, missed half of their games with a bout of mononucleosis. Despite all of this the Broncos withstood a decent nonconference schedule.

Vrankic returned to shape in the team’s win against Pacific on Wednesday, scoring 13 points and grabbing 9 boards while playing over 30 minutes for the first time since he did so against Nevada in November. Vrankic is likely the second-best non-Zag in the conference and unquestionably the only challenger for the first-team conference frontcourt honors.

What makes the Broncos a sneaky good team is that they were able to tread water throughout his absence, something that would normally be impossible for mid-major with a major star. They’ve done so in large thanks to Jalen Williams, Keshawn Justice and Parker Braun.

Williams has had the most underrated season in the conference, averaging 19 points and 3.6 assists in 34 minutes per game. The junior’s game exploded in his sophomore season when he was asked to expand his duties as a makeshift ballhandler and he’s only added to his game since. He’s their leading shot taker yet incredibly efficient with 63.2% true shooting (93rd best in the country). He’s a plus defender as well, averaging 1.3 steals per game.

His wing companion, senior Keshawn Justice, has also been a credible second and third option throughout the year. Justice’s 15 points and 7.9 rebounds per game make him an intriguing matchup against Julian Strawther or any of the other guards asked to play the third guard/wing position. Vrankic’s absence through the heart of the nonconference forced guys to step up, resulting now in a team with four guys that could capably contribute double-digit points.

Someone who’s stepped up the most is Missouri transfer and junior Parker Braun. The 6-10 stretch-four is averaging 9 points and 6 assists after playing just 9 minutes per game for the Tigers last season. Braun is a quality shooter at multiple levels and is a capable defender in the paint, which was crucial in Vrankic’s absence.

The last major player is transfer guard PJ Pipes, who had major expectations set on the floor general when he arrived to the valley. Pipes has shown flashes in his time with the team, averaging 10.5 points and 3.7 assists, but has struggled a bit to turn the corner in his new digs. He also missed two games for undisclosed reasons to close out 2021. Pipes’ potential at point guard is what could make the Broncos a dangerous team in the WCC. If he can curb the peaks and valleys of his play the Broncos will play spoilers and finish in the top four of the conference.

What to watch for

Will Gonzaga be able to get out and run?

The last two games couldn’t have played in Gonzaga’s hands any better. Both Pepperdine and BYU, partially because of philosophy and partially because of personnel, were willing to play at the Zags’ accelerated pace. This resulted in two games where the Zags scored over 90 points by the 30 minute mark of the game.

The Broncos are likely to not want to replicate this but they are in fact the third-highest tempo playing team behind Gonzaga and Pepperdine. What should deter them from committing to what they know and love may be the fact that their defense is not all that great.

They struggle to contain passes, ranking in the lower half of the country in assists per field goal allowed. They’re not exceptionally great at defending the three-point line or pressuring ballhandlers, something that spelled trouble for BYU Thursday night.

Can the Zags keep up these shooting numbers?

After a solid month of self-assuring that the sky was falling due to two losses against top 25 teams, it appears safe to put the “Gonzaga can’t shoot from outside” argument to rest. The Zags are shooting 36% on the season from outside, ranking 64th in the country. They made 21 of their 46 attempts in their homestand.

This game could through the trend a bit, considering that the game is the first one on the road, at an unusual time of day for college athletes and a depleted crowd. The Zags don’t need to be 45%-from-the-perimeter-good to win, but it certainly adds style points and gives some of the cardiac fans some assurances.

A good test for Holmgren

We’ve seen plenty from Chet Holmgren’s early-season to acknowledge the freshman is adept at adjusting and expanding his game with each rep and opportunity. His impact on the game while dazzling on a stat sheet is even more captivating when watching. He’s battled with decent bigs from UCLA, Duke and Alabama, but Vrankic will be a big opportunity to develop guarding a traditional, great college big.

Vrankic likely isn’t the best big Holmgren will have faced this season, but his footwork and play off of the glass could challenge the unicorn in ways he hasn’t really seen so far. Giving Holmgren this test could be significant preparation for March and the best reps for his defense outside of practices.