Gonzaga heads south to face upset-minded San Diego St.
SAN DIEGO — With NCAA Tournament appearances every year since 1999, including a run to the national championship game a season ago, No. 12 Gonzaga has transcended some definitions of mid-major program — which makes the Bulldogs a powerful target for an opponent like Thursday’s draw, San Diego State.
The Aztecs (7-3) host the Zags at Viejas Arena, ending a 12-day layoff and in search of a marquee win. San Diego State went into its hiatus with a 63-62 loss on Dec. 9 at home to California, dropping the Aztecs to 0-3 against Pac-12 opponents and just 1-3 against teams from Power Five conferences.
“When you’re trying to get a resume built, it’s always harder if you’re a non-Power Five conference,” San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher said in his press conference following the loss. “But the thing that we can’t do, and I refuse to do, is obsess over games in the non-conference and let our kids get depressed because, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re losing ground on the NCAA Tournament.'”
Reality is, however, the Aztecs are losing ground on a potential NCAA Tournament bid. They sit at No. 68 in RPI and No. 60 in KenPom.com metrics, one season after their streak of six consecutive appearances ended. Only one team in NCAA Tournament history has received an at-large bid with an RPI that low: No. 72 Syracuse in 2016.
Gonzaga (10-2) may not be a member of one of the power conferences, as designated by football-generated revenue, but the West Coast Conference program functions as a power opponent.
Last season’s national runner-up has lost as many times in 2017-18 as 2016-17, with four of the top five scorers gone. Since losing to current No. 1 Villanova on Dec. 5, however, Gonzaga is a winner in three straight.
Forward Killian Tillie is emerging to fill one of the voids left in the turnover from a season ago. He is third in scoring at 12.8 points per game behind returning starters Johnathan Williams (15.5 points) and Josh Perkins (14.8 points), and put up a career-high 27 points in the Zags’ 101-71 win over IUPUI on Dec. 18.
The combination of the 6-foot-10 Tillie and 6-foot-9 Williams counters a lengthy San Diego State lineup, featuring 6-10 forward Malik Pope and 7-1 center Kameron Rooks.
Establishing presence in the frontcourt — which also includes bench spark plug Rui Hachimura — is crucial for Gonzaga.
“They are fun to watch,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said in his press conference following the IUPUI win. “But when they don’t bring energy and physicality and toughness, we are not as good.”
Interior play could prove especially pivotal on the glass. San Diego State was beaten on the boards by Cal, 33-24.
“Just (giving up) offensive rebounds,” Pope said was key to the Aztecs’ loss. “That’s what got us at the beginning and got them going.”
That is unlikely to relent Thursday. Though Gonzaga does not miss often — its 51.4 percent shooting from the floor is No. 11 in the nation — the Zags rank No. 24 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.com metrics.