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San Diego at Gonzaga: Game Preview

The appetizer before Saturday’s main course

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Pepperdine Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite part of a flight is the takeoff. You turn that last corner on the taxiway then the excitement happens. Engines roar, you’re thrown back in your seat then rapidly accelerate to 150 knots before rising above the earth. Saturday’s game against St Mary’s is the takeoff, Thursday against San Diego is the last turn on the taxiway.

After a total dismantling of LMU and beating a talented and surprisingly tough Pepperdine in Malibu, it’d be easy to lightly regard the lowly Toreros. St. Mary’s learned that lesson in San Diego last Thursday before their Saturday game against BYU. The Gaels blew a 17-point halftime lead at the “Slim Gym” and didn’t score in the final seven minutes of a 24-4 Torero run. The Gaels squeaked out a 3-point victory against a San Diego team missing three starters.

Thursday at the Kennel shouldn’t provide as much drama. San Diego is 8-8 at home but only 3-9 on the road. I hate to mention this in light of the LMU loss, but Gonzaga has won the last 22 home games in the series dating back 23 years.

Meet the opponent

San Diego Toreros, 11-17 (4-10 WCC), KenPom #206

Expectations were high in San Diego when the University hired Steve Lavin as the new men’s basketball coach. Lavin was a coaching wunderkind who took over the reins of the UCLA Bruins at the age of 32. He had success, going to at least the Sweet 16 five of his first six seasons. In the seventh though, UCLA had their first losing record since the 40’s and he was fired. What followed was a seven year stint at ESPN, coaching for five years at St John’s with mixed results, then another seven years as a basketball commentator before the San Diego hire.

Like most WCC teams, the Toreros have taken full advantage of the transfer portal. Who wouldn’t want to spend their last year or two of college at San Diego (or LA, San Francisco or even Portland). In fact, six of the seven Toreros with the most minutes were transfers.

San Diego is led by 6’6” 240 lbs. Marcellus Earlington (17.3 ppg). Earlington could have been a two-time National Champion. A star tight end and defensive end in high school, he had scholarship offers from several schools including the University of Georgia. The fifth-year senior spent his first three seasons at St. John’s. He moves great for a big man and has a pretty sweet touch, 37%, from deep.

Fifth-year senior and Denver transfer 6’4” guard Jase Townsend (15.3 ppg) is second on the team is scoring. Listed at 6’6” and 200 lbs with stints at Duquesne and Oregon, sixth year senior guard Eric Williams (9.5 rpg) leads the team and WCC in rebounding. Lastly, after spending time at Loyola Marymount and Weber St., 6’3” guard Seikou Sisoho Jawara ( 3.0 apg) leads in assists.

Lavin has used 14 different starts this season and there’s no telling who will play Thursday. St. Mary’s struggled with a San Diego team missing leading scorer Earlington, leading rebounder Williams and assists leader Sisoho Jawara. If Earlington or Williams don’t play, expect big minutes from fifth-year senior, Lehigh transfer and Seattle native 6’ 11” center Nic Lynch.

KenPom predicts a 95-75 Gonzaga win and ESPN gives the Zags a 98.4% chance for victory

What to watch out for

Great offense vs. Terrible defense

The 205 points Gonzaga scored this past weekend moved them to the top of both KenPom and Barttorvik in offensive efficiency. Conversely, not only is San Diego the lowest ranked WCC team in KenPom, they also have one of the worst defenses in the nation. KenPom ranks them as 335th in defensive efficiency while Barttorvik show them slightly better at 331st.

San Diego’s porous defense coupled with their uncertain injury situation should give Gonzaga a chance to jump out to a big lead in the first half and hopefully coast in the second. Rested starters from an easy Thursday game will be an advantage against St. Mary’s.

Guards staying consistent

Besides their great work for the Community Cancer Fund, the five guards above; Bolton, Smith, Hickman, Sallis and Strawther demolished LMU this past Thursdays. With Drew Timme without a field goal, the above guards were 21 for 28 from the field. An ostentatious outburst of offensive output. But, for the first 15 minutes of the second half against Pepperdine, the same quintet was 0 for 12. During the last five minutes of the Pepperdine game, both Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther came up big to clinch the victory, lack of guard scoring for 15 minutes kept the game competitive.

If there has been a consistent problem with the Gonzaga offense this season, it’s been inconsistent guard play. There have been several signs of that turning around though, Julian Strawter’s played like an All-American in the last three games. Dongs Killer Rasir Bolton scored 21 and 23 against USF and dropped double figures in the last three games. Hunter Sallis had 13 against USF while Smith and Hickman both have carried the offensive load in individual games.

With three outstanding three point shooters on the team (Smith .493%, Strawther .433% and Bolton .408) this year’s team is in the unique position of being able to beat opponents from the inside and the outside. With March only a week away, this team will go as far in the NCAA tournament as these guards take them. If at least two of the five have a good game.

As mentioned above, San Diego’s poor defense and injuries should provide ample opportunity for open jumpers. A chance for all of them to build confidence and sharpen the sword for Saturday.

Continued defensive improvement

I know it’s hard to believe a team that’s given up 80+ points to three of their last four opponents is getting better and I can’t use definitive analytics to back it up, but it just feel’s like that’s the case. LMU was smothered by GU’s defense. I’ve seen far less completely blown defensive assignments, the double-teams have been swarming, Watson’s hands and Sallis drawing charges are incredible and finally expired opponent’s shot clocks seem to happen at least twice a game.

Defense will always be this team’s Achilles heal, but as long as rotations stay sharp and transition three-pointers are minimized, this team can score enough points to be competitive against any team in the nation.