Gonzaga has won or shared 16 of the 17 West Coast Conference regular season championships and returns two key starters from a team that made it all the way to the NCAA title game last April. But the 19th-ranked Bulldogs, who open conference play on Thursday night against visiting Pacific, were picked to finish second behind Saint Mary’s in the annual poll of WCC head coaches before the season.
Don’t think that slight went unnoticed by Gonzaga players, who landed just one of 10 first place votes in the poll. The Gaels may have four returning starters from a squad that went 29-5 and lost 69-60 to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs swept all three meetings with Saint Mary’s a year ago including a 74-56 beat-down in the WCC Tournament final. So Gonzaga enters WCC play with a chip on its shoulder even though it is the only team ranked from the conference. “For sure (it’s) motivation,” senior guard Silas Melson told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “We’re just coming off a game we 100 percent think we could have won (71-65 NCAA championship game loss to North Carolina) and then people thinking we could come in second to Saint Mary’s ... we’re ready to go instantly.”
TV: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
ABOUT PACIFIC (5-8, 0-0 WCC): The Tigers, picked eighth in the WCC preseason poll, limp into conference play with a four-game losing streak and off a 105-65 loss at No.4 Arizona State on Friday but gave Mountain West heavyweight UNLV a scare at home in the game before that, losing 81-76. Junior forward Jack Williams and junior guard Miles Reynolds, a transfer from Saint Louis, both had 13 points in the loss to the Sun Devils with Williams also grabbing nine rebounds as Pacific outrebounded Arizona State, 41-40. Junior guard Roberto Gallinat leads the team in scoring (13.7) with Reynolds (11.8) and junior forward Anthony Townes (10.2) also averaging in double figures.
ABOUT GONZAGA (10-3, 0-0): The Zags come in off a 72-70 loss at San Diego State last Thursday, a game they turned it over 16 times while shooting just 42.4 percent from the floor. Five players are averaging in double figures led by versatile 6-9 senior forward Johnathan Williams (15.2) and 6-foot-3 junior guard Josh Perkins (14.0), both preseason all-WCC picks by the coaches and also returning starters from the NCAA runner-up squad. Guard Zach Norvell Jr. (13.2), one of the top freshmen on the west coast, 6-10 sophomore forward Killian Tillie (12.3) and Melson (10.5) also are averaging in double digits.
1. Gonzaga has won 21 straight West Coast Conference openers dating back to a 72-61 loss at Santa Clara in 1996.
2. The Zags, who rank eighth in the nation in scoring (90.2 ppg), are 7-0 at home this season with the average margin of victory 24 points.
3. Perkins, who has 28 assists over his last four games, is also 40-of-84 from 3-point range (47.6 percent), which is tied for 25th best nationally.
PREDICTION: Gonzaga 96, Pacific 69