Gonzaga poses big challenge for San Diego State
The preseason favorites in two western conferences bump heads on Monday (midnight ET) when San Diego State plays 14th-ranked Gonzaga on the Bulldogs' homecourt in Spokane, Wash.
Three things make that game look like a major challenge for San Diego State, the preseason favorite in the Mountain West Conference.
First of all, the Aztecs were not particularly impressive in their 69-59 season-opening win at home against the University of San Diego, which was picked to finish last in the West Coast Conference.
More significant is the fact that San Diego State may be missing some of the same players who were held out against San Diego. Four regulars sat out that game with injuries, the most important being returning starter Malik Pope, who reinjured his knee before the Aztecs' exhibition game.
“I don't know if we'll have any of the guys who were unable to play today,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher told the San Diego Union-Tribune after Friday's win. “You'd have to say questionable, maybe highly questionable.”
Last, but not least, is the fact that the game will be played at the McCarthey Athletic Center, a 6,000-seat horror house where the Bulldogs are 163-13 since it opened in 2004.
Gonzaga is again the preseason favorite to win the West Coast Conference title, but four starters, including Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, are gone from last season's NCAA tournament team.
The Bulldogs restocked with two transfers from Pac-12 schools — Jordan Mathews from Cal and Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington. Both were in the starting lineup in the Bulldogs' 92-69 victory over Utah Valley in their opener. Also in the starting lineup was 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski, who missed all but the first five games last season because of a back injury.
Perhaps all the new parts led to the Bulldogs struggling against Utah Valley despite the lopsided score.
“It's not going to be picture perfect the first time out, but I was happy with how we competed,” said Williams-Goss, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Silas Melson led Gonzaga in scoring in the opener with 17 points, followed by Mathews, who had 16 points and hit four 3-pointers. Williams-Goss and Karnowski had 14 apiece in the typical Gonzaga balanced scoring.
Utah Valley coach Mark Pope figures it's just a matter of time before the Bulldogs get things in order.
“That is a great team, and they're going to be way better than this in four months,” Pope said, according to the Spokesman-Review. “They did a great job with their length, challenging at the rim, and being disciplined to stay out of help and staying with shooters.”
The fact that Gonzaga had three players 7 feet or taller get playing time in the opener may be a bit intimidating for San Diego State.
The Aztecs certainly need to start off better against Gonzaga than they did against San Diego, when they trailed by nine points in the first half.
“We came out, and we were so excited and so pumped up to play,” said junior Trey Kell, according to the Union-Tribune. “We just had to come back to Earth and play our normal game.”
The Aztecs return five of the seven players who started at least 16 games on last season's San Diego State team that won the conference regular-season title by three games but failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
Kell, the team's leading scorer last season, had 23 points in the opener, and Jeremy Hemsley, the No. 2 scorer a season ago, was the team's top scorer with 25.