Gonzaga-Washington St. Preview
After impressing in the Bahamas, Gonzaga plays its first true road game Wednesday night against Washington State.
It's also the first real test for a Cougars squad off to its best start in five years.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs (4-1) finished third at last week's Battle 4 Atlantis, losing 62-61 in a second-round matchup to then-No. 25 Texas A&M. They bounced back by knocking off then-No. 18 Connecticut 73-70 on Friday.
“I was proud of our guys,” coach Mark Few said. “On the third day of a tournament like this, I think it's all about showing what kind of competitor you are. You can pout after the first disappointing loss that you think we should have won, or you can show up and compete. I'm really proud of how we showed up and we competed.”
Preseason All-American Kyle Wiltjer is playing at a high level, averaging 18.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. Five other players are averaging 8.4 points or more, and the Bulldogs are shooting 51.0 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from 3-point range.
One concern has been free-throw shooting, however, with Gonzaga going 11 for 22 over the last two games and hitting 64.1 percent on the season. The Bulldogs have shot at least 69.0 percent from the charity stripe in 12 of the last 13 seasons.
Washington State is 4-0 for the first time since 2010-11 when it went on to finish sixth in the then-Pac-10. The Cougars have finished no better than eighth every year since.
They also haven't been challenged yet, shooting 50.4 percent against the likes of Texas Southern, Idaho State and Northern Arizona – Division I teams that are a combined 5-12 – as well as playing Division II Cal State-Los Angeles.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to gain some confidence with so many new players,” coach Ernie Kent said of the early schedule. “It was more about getting a rhythm, gaining some confidence. Gonzaga, I mean they've got 14, 15 years of continuity and winning. Their program is at such a level we're aspiring to get to.”
Led by Josh Hawkinson's 18.0 points per game, the Cougars will be looking for their second win in their last 17 tries against ranked opponents. They dropped last season's four meetings with Top 25 teams by an average of 18.0 points.
“I'm very excited to play them. I feel like we have a really good chance,” said junior guard Ike Iroegbu, who has scored 34 points on 57.9 percent shooting in two meetings with Gonzaga. “I know if we play to our ability, nothing but good things can come from that.”
Wiltjer scored 21 on 9-of-14 shooting with six rebounds and four assists in an 81-66 home win against Washington State on Dec. 10. Przemek Karnowski added 22 points and eight boards.
Hawkinson scored 18 with 11 rebounds for Washington State, which is shooting 69.6 percent from the free-throw line.