SAN FRANCISCO – After a couple of pushovers in West Coast Conference preliminaries, an early main event has arrived for Gonzaga.
San Francisco (14-2, 2-0) has emerged as Gonzaga’s primary challenger in the WCC. The Dons have an opportunity to show they’re more than just a contender while the fifth-ranked Zags (15-2, 2-0) can take a big step toward another conference championship in Saturday’s showdown.
Head coach Kyle Smith is the first to admit his team doesn’t look particularly impressive walking through airports, but the Dons don’t beat themselves. The third-year coach isn’t surprised by the program’s best start since opening 14-2 in 1982.
“It’s hard to limit what 18- and 22-year-old minds with good hearts can do,” said Smith, whose team was receiving votes in the AP poll last month. “They can achieve a lot.”
Smith continued with a story that should resonate with Gonzaga followers. He recalled chatting two-plus decades ago with former Zags coach Dan Fitzgerald, who was bragging about a young point guard named Matt Santangelo before Santangelo’s name would be stamped all over GU’s record book.
“Fitz said when you sign a guy, rarely are they as good as you hope,” said Smith, an assistant at San Diego at the time. “But he said, ‘This guy is even better than I thought.’ We kind of have a Matt Santangelo team.”
The Dons are efficient on offense, take care of the ball and have a solid inside-outside balance. Guard Charles Minlend averages 15.4 points, point guard Frankie Ferrari 13.3 and 3-point specialist Jordan Ratinho is at 9.9. Forward Matt McCarthy adds 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.
The Dons are statistically one of the top defenses in the country, ranking inside the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (61.2, 15th), field-goal percentage (38.9, 23rd) and 3-point percentage (28.0, 13th). They lead the WCC with a plus-7 rebounding margin.
“Kyle has them playing hard, smart and they have a plan,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team leads the nation in field-goal percentage (52.7). “You’re not getting a whole lot of easy shots against them.”
So what’s the key? Depends on who you ask.
“We can’t have turnovers,” Zags forward Rui Hachimura said. “In these kinds of games, that’s the key.”
“I think rebounding,” Ferrari said. “They really rebound the ball well with Rui, Brandon Clarke, the freshman (Filip Petrusev) off the bench and bringing (Killian) Tillie back (from injury). And then transition. They really get out and run.”
Forward Nate Renfro suggested the Dons need to establish dominance inside. Seven-foot Jimbo Lull, the 6-9 McCarthy and Renfro contribute a combined 25.6 points and 19 rebounds. Hachimura and Clarke combine for 37.4 points and 14 rebounds.
“They may double in the post or whatever the case may be, but we need to get the ball inside,” Renfro said. “That’s what won us games early in the season.”
Smith doesn’t disagree, but there’s more to it than just the offensive end.
“I’m sure they’re worried about Jimbo in the low post, but I’m terrified trying to find which guy he’s going to match up with,” he said. “Clarke is so quick, Hachimura is so quick.
“Hachimura will bring it in transition. We usually pick up (the) ball with our guards, and it’s like a freight train coming at you that just doesn’t stop.”
Gonzaga has won the last 14 in the series, including six in a row at War Memorial Gym after losing three straight from 2010-12. San Francisco has the benefit of a full week to prepare while the Zags, coming off a 67-36 home win over Pacific on Thursday, are in the first of two consecutive split weeks (one home game, one away).
“That’s fine,” Few said of the short prep. “We’ll be ready to roll.”
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