Here we go, another nail-biter. A battle of heavyweights in the WCC this season ended in one more tough finish in the Bay Area. The Gonzaga faithful had a difficult time showing life early in a packed Leavey Center full of students back from Christmas break but the Zags still came out of the road-trip with two solid victories.
I’m really getting stressed out about how close these West Coast Conference games have started out. “Grab your nitroglycerin pills” as the great Jon Rothstein would say cause this league is no joke. It’s going to be a battle for the majority of the games in January and February (plus a little bit of early March).
Nolan Hickman is evolving right in front of our eyes. And Gonzaga's will continues to resonate. Two wins by a combined seven points in three days to sweep the Bay Area.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 8, 2023
Nolan Hickman had the hottest hand of the night and couldn’t seem to miss from deep (a career-high of 20 points on 8-9 FG, 4-5 3PT). He was locked in, kept dead-eye mugging his own bench after each make from way out there. I don’t know where the Zags would be without him tonight. Remember how certain fans were judging Hickman in November and December?
As for “The ‘Stache”, Drew Timme is officially offensively back after a one-game hiatus. The NPOY candidate finished with 20 points on 7-15 FG, 6-10 FT to go along with his 6 rebounds and 4 assists. You could tell his swagger was back, he felt much more comfortable on the low block. Feeding off the opposing crowd’s energy, doing his little fluttering along with his many other mini-celebrations.
Onto Santa Clara, the Broncos have a star in their own right. Brandin Podziemski (17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) literally does what he wants, when he wants. I am not overexaggerating when saying he has been one of the best players in college basketball this season. The WCC POY is not a lock for Drew Timme this season. It’s a two-man race and neck-and-neck at this early point of league play.
Herb Sendek has his strongest, deepest team since taking over the head coaching job in Santa Clara. The Broncos played 40 minutes of strong basketball. Didn’t let up once. Looks to be a very dangerous opponent in Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament, wouldn’t want the Zags to run into this group for a third time.
So, why was this game so close? Gonzaga’s defense. It looks like it’s going to be a real liability in March. Opponents are really exposing that missing part in their armor. Doesn’t even look like a KenPom Top 100 ranking. Major adjustments are needed to be made on that end by Mark Few in the upcoming days of practice.
One player who once again did stand out on that side of the floor was little Ben Gregg. He did a lot of dirty work tonight and was helpful with Anton Watson’s early foul trouble. A team-high 8 boards at the half, fighting for loose balls, diving on the floor. His energetic mentality off the bench is really going to be important down the road.
I can’t leave out Julian Strawther (18 points on 6-10 FG and 2-3 3PT, 6 assists, 4 rebounds). When the future NBA first-round pick scores 15+ points, it seems that only great results occur for the Zags. He’s really been a reliable source of offense throughout the first half of the season except a couple of times in the non-conference (I’m mostly hinting at Purdue). Gonzaga will need every tiny bit out of him if the Zags want to run the hot table that is the West Coast Conference.
It’s all said and done from the San Francisco/Santa Clara trek and #9 Gonzaga is 14-3 overall, 3-0 in league play. Only relax for a little bit because it doesn’t get any easier as the Zags head to the always insanely loud Marriott Center, the home of the BYU Cougars. You can catch the action on Thursday on ESPN at 6:30 PM PT.
Arden Cravalho is a Gonzaga University graduate from the Bay Area... Follow him on Twitter @a_cravalho