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Gonzaga vs. San Francisco game preview

The Dons look for their first conference win.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at San Francisco D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs will host a San Francisco Dons squad looking for its first WCC win on Thursday.

Gonzaga opened conference play with an easy and entertaining win over the Pepperdine Waves, scoring 111 points, their highest point total of the season at the fastest tempo this year.

Things haven’t gone as well for the Dons, who have dropped their first two conference games, on the road against Santa Clara and at home against San Diego.

Meet the opponent

San Francisco Dons, 11-6, KenPom #101

Welcome to the Chris Gerlufsen era of San Francisco. The former associate head coach took over after Todd Golden was poached by the Florida Gators. Overall, not much has changed from the game plan, and, if anything, the analytics are running even more strong with this squad.

Khalil Shabazz has returned for his senior year, and the prolific scorer leads the charge for the Dons with 15.5 points per game. Senior guard Tyrell Roberts, a transfer from Washington State, is second with 14.2 points, and junior forward Zane Meeks holds it down in the post at 12 points per game.

There are two things to note with this San Francisco squad, which makes them rather dangerous (just ask Arizona State and UNLV), but also rather erratic. First: The Dons shoot three-point attempts on more than 50 percent of their overall field goal attempts, the fourth-highest rate in the nation. That means, when they are falling, they can score points quickly. Unfortunately, as a team the Dons only shoot 33.8 percent from afar. The Dons take the analytical approach of valuing the three-pointer more than a two-pointer, but the Golden State Warriors they are not. Without the consistent shooters, the Dons are just as prone to toppling a good team as they are to falling to a worse team (oof UT Arlington at home).

What to watch out for

Three-pointers and dribble-drive penetration.

San Francisco has 1,004 field goal attempts on the year. According to Synergy Sports, 522 of those were long three-point attempts and 393 of those were at the rim. That leaves the Dons attempting just 89 field goals as your standard two-point jumper. It just isn’t part of their game plan whatsoever. The Gonzaga defense has to be aware that the Dons will be looking to shoot on virtually every single three-pointer possible, and if not, they are going to the hoop. There is basically no middle ground here.

How does Gonzaga’s offense get into its rhythm?

Overall, the Dons’ defense is ranked just No. 115 by KenPom, but they do a couple of things incredibly well. Where as San Franciso chucks up a lot of threes, they limit the ability of their opponents to do so. Just 30.1 percent of opponents field goal attempts come from long range, the 16th-lowest mark in the country.

Does this matter against Gonzaga? Not too much. Gonzaga doesn’t rely on the three-point shot at all this season. Just 32.4 percent of the Zags’ field goal attempts are threes, good for No. 301 in the country. Why would you when the offense generally rolls through the chaos created by Drew Timme.

The second stat San Francisco is good at will be the bigger issue, and something we have seen afflict Gonzaga multiple times throughout the season. The Dons allow assists on just 37.9 of each opponent’s made field goal—the sixth-lowest mark in the nation. It doesn’t matter much if Drew Timme is taking it from the top of the key, doing his washing machine thing and scoring on a drive. But he can’t be expected to accomplish this every single trip down the court.

How does Nolan Hickman bounce back?

After closing out December with some very strong play, Hickman is coming off his worst game this season in an up and down year. Against Pepperdine, he finished with four turnovers and was yanked after 14 minutes, and didn’t see the floor again in the second half. To his credit, two of the turnovers came from grease on his shoes, but overall, it was a down game and there is no other way to cut it.

Hickman is talented. He has shown that. He is also young. It isn’t a situation the Zags have found themselves in too often over the years. Excluding Jalen Suggs, rightfully since he was a top-5 NBA Draft pick, the last time the Zags had someone with as little experience as Hickman running the point was back in 2016—Josh Perkins’ freshman campaign.

Hickman’s up-and-down season, as a young point guard in college, isn’t new, nor is it rare, as much as some people seem to think he is the first young point guard on a top 25 team to struggle. You can’t have success in life without a few failures. This is an important game for Hickman’s growth in a long line of important games. Let’s hope he succeeds.