No. 9 Gonzaga hosts last-place Pepperdine
In its run to the national title game last season, Gonzaga found a strength not normally associated with Zags basketball: defense.
The Bulldogs, long known for their offensive prowess, were No. 1 in defensive efficiency, according to various advanced mathematical ratings systems.
This season's Zags are starting to look like last season's.
In a Thursday night rout of lowly Loyola Marymount, all five Gonzaga starters scored before the Lions got their first points.
On Saturday in Spokane, Wash., the No. 9 Bulldogs host last-place Pepperdine, a team they beat 89-59 last month in Malibu, Calif.
While the Waves shot 44.8 percent from the floor in the first meeting, the Bulldogs had nine steals and forced 17 turnovers.
The last five Gonzaga opponents have averaged only 58.2 points and 37.5 percent shooting from the floor.
By the time Loyola got its first basket on Thursday, 5:11 into the game, the Bulldogs were up 17-0.
The Lions committed five turnovers on their first eight possessions, and Killian Tillie and Johnathan Williams blocked their first two shots.
Ten minutes later, it was 31-7.
"We jumped them pretty good (early), and got it going with defense. Our defense was handsy and made plays," Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. "I thought we hit a little bit of a lull there, but again our defense in the second half was pretty solid."
Gonzaga (24-4, 14-1 WCC) got more good news on Thursday when Saint Mary's was upset by San Francisco.
The Bulldogs entered last Saturday's game at Saint Mary's (a 78-65 Zags win) trailing the Gaels by a game in the standings. Five days later, Gonzaga is alone in first place.
There was no Gonzaga letdown against ninth-place Loyola, and the Waves aren't likely to see one, either.
"It's really important," Bulldogs guard Silas Melson said. "Teams are falling off left and right across the country. We have to keep our foot on the pedal, first to get into the (NCAA) Tournament and second to get a good seed."
Pepperdine (4-23, 1-14) got a little added incentive this week when it was announced that head coach Marty Wilson would not return next season.
The Waves, who've won just once - by one point over Loyola Marymount on Jan. 25 - since Dec. 5, responded by pushing third-place BYU to overtime before falling 75-70.
"With the news about their coach, if the same thing happened to our coach, we would play with tons of emotion too," BYU's Elijah Bryant said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. "Credit to them, they played really well tonight and had a chance to win down the stretch."
Wilson, who will finish out the season, is 86-125 in seven years at his alma mater.
"I have been in college coaching for 28 years and realize that the ultimate goal is to win basketball games," Wilson said, according to KSL.com. "The fact that we did not consistently achieve that goal lies on my shoulders. However, I praise our staff for the integrity that they showed in such a challenging profession where the pressure to bend the rules are great in order to win basketball games."
Two of the Waves' last seven losses have come in overtime and only once during that stretch -- a 73-59 loss to Santa Clara on Jan. 27 -- were they beaten by double digits.
"I do know that they have played really hard and I've watched the last five or six games, and Marty had his team ready," BYU coach Dave Rose said told The Salt Lake Tribune. "They were just having a hard time winning, but they were executing and playing hard and competing right to the very end.
"I feel for him, because it is a challenge."