SPOKANE – The late, great Dan Fitzgerald, godfather of Gonzaga basketball, never met a patsy he was afraid to schedule. Whitman, Warner Pacific, Carroll, Montana Tech, Lewis-Clark State – Fitz played ’em all before the Zags became the ZAGS.
Current Gonzaga coach Mark Few maintains a few of the scheduling traditions established by his old boss (re: Sacramento State and St. Thomas Aquinas this season), but the Bulldogs like to take a bite out of the best, too. Saturday, college basketball fans will be treated to a rare December event when a pair of Top 10 teams – No 9 Gonzaga at No. 3 Arizona – duke it out on national television (ESPN, 2:15 p.m.).
“When you come to a place like Arizona, this is what you think of when you sign up to come play here,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Few said, “It’s going to be a great challenge, but a fun challenge and a great, big-time college basketball game.”
Both teams are loaded with size, athleticism, experience, depth and balance. Both teams are 7-0 with one Top 25 victory to their credit (Arizona over No. 15 San Diego State, Gonzaga over No. 22 Southern Methodist). The tipping point may be the sellout crowd of 14,655 at the McKale Center, where the Wildcats have won 25 consecutive games.
“They have as good of talent as there is out there, probably outside of (top-ranked) Kentucky,” Few said.
“It’s going to be a good test for us,” said Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga’s senior guard out of Kentridge High School in Kent. “It’s going to be good for us.”
That remains to be seen. After all, it was just nine months ago that Arizona steamrollered Gonzaga 84-61 in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight.
“I have crazy amounts of respect for Sean and what he’s done and what he’s built,” Few said. “Just a great program with great players.”
The same can be said of the Bulldogs, who have seamlessly blended newcomers into the lineup such as Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Byron Wesley. Wiltjer, a Kentucky transfer, leads five Bulldogs in double figures with 16 points per game. Sabonis, a freshman who played pro ball for free in Spain the past two years, ranks second on the Zags in scoring at 12.6 and is tied with Przemek Karnowski for the lead in rebounding at 6.4. Wesley, a USC transfer, averages 11.3 ppg.
Wiltjer and Sabonis, a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards, must deal with 6-7 forwards Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Johnson, a freshman whom ESPN ranks the No. 9 prospect for the 2015 NBA draft, leads Arizona with 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. Hollis-Jefferson, a sophomore pegged 22nd among draft prospects by ESPN, ranks second on the Wildcats with 14.1 ppg and 6.3 rpg.
ESPN’s top 100 draft prospects also include Sabonis (39th), Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski (80th) and Arizona forward Brandon Ashley (92nd). The battle down low should be fierce between 7-footers Karnowski and Tarczewski. On the perimeter, senior point guards Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga (41 assists, five turnovers) and T.J. McConnell of Arizona (45 assists, 12 turnovers) are crafty floor leaders.
Three years ago, Gonzaga bolted to a 14-0 lead and downed Arizona 71-60 in a December romp at Seattle’s KeyArena. The Wildcats are 34-0 since then in nonconference games, but history won’t matter Saturday.
Many observers say this is the best Gonzaga team ever. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman picks the Bulldogs to win the national championship.
“It has all the makings of a great, great Gonzaga team,” Miller said.