For a team that cruised through 2014-15 with the regular season's second best point differential, Gonzaga sure is experiencing a rash of close games.
If Montana's visit to Spokane on Tuesday night lengthens the list, real cause for concern figures to settle in for the 20th-ranked Bulldogs.
That's certainly not the case after Saturday's 68-63 home loss to then-No. 19 Arizona, but it was Gonzaga's fourth straight game decided by single digits. Only six of Gonzaga's regular-season games last year were decided by fewer than 10 points, and the Bulldogs (5-2) have already matched their regular-season loss total.
Article continues below ...
It's been a difficult span that started with a loss to then-No. 25 Texas A&M before a win over then-No. 18 UConn. Gonzaga won at Washington State before losing to the Wildcats.
“Win or lose, there's a lot to learn from these games,” Kyle Wiltjer said. “It's a great team that came in here. Long term-wise, like I said before, just learning what works and what doesn't, what's our kind of go-to plays, and also just improving our defense.”
The Bulldogs were the great team in the first half, building a 10-point lead with Wiltjer scoring 20 of his 33 points. It was the second straight game the senior has reached 20 in the first half, and since going 4 for 12 in a win over Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 21, he's shooting 51.2 percent and 42.2 from 3-point range.
Part of the problem recently is Gonzaga hasn't provided him with any perimeter help. In the last four games, Wiltjer has made 14 of the team's 29 3s, including all three against Arizona. The rest of the team is 3 for 20 in the last two games.
Instead, offensive help is coming inside from fellow forward Domantas Sabonis, who is averaging 14.1 points and 10.4 rebounds after posting 18 and 16 against Arizona.
Mark Few's team might lean on those two even more Tuesday if Przemek Karnowski is out. The center has missed the last two games due to back spasms.
Gonzaga has won the last nine meetings by an average of 15.1 points, though the schools haven't played since 2007. That game, however, is part of Montana's eight-game losing streak against the Top 25 – defeats that have been by an average of 18.3 points.
This will be Montana's third straight West Coast Conference opponent following a 69-63 loss at Pepperdine on Nov. 29 and Friday's 82-50 blowout of San Francisco. The Grizzlies had their best offensive game of the season, hitting 54.2 percent and 8 of 21 from outside.
“Offensive execution was the biggest thing, getting good shots and taking care of the ball,” coach Travis DeCuire told the school's official website. “Twelve assists and zero turnovers in the second half is a big reason we're able to score over 50 in the half. If we take care of the ball and execute offensively, we will get good shots and eventually make shots.”
That won't be as easy against the Bulldogs, particularly from long range. Gonzaga's countered any 3-point shooting deficiencies by defending the perimeter exceptionally well, limiting opponents to 22.9 percent (36.5 percent overall), and the Grizzlies (3-3) are making just 25.0 percent of their attempts.
They haven't had to rely on the outside shot much with Martin Breuning taking high-percentage shots. The senior forward had 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting against San Francisco and is averaging 26.7 on 81.6 percent shooting in his last three.
Similar to Wiltjer and Gonzaga, though, the rest of the team is lagging at 39.3 percent in that time.