SAN DIEGO – Gonzaga and San Diego are probably the two West Coast Conference teams that lost the most personnel from last season.
The Bulldogs have reloaded after losing three underclassmen, including two first-round NBA draft picks, and three seniors playing professional basketball. Top-ranked Gonzaga (16-1, 2-0 WCC) is chasing its eighth consecutive conference title and another high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
San Diego’s transition hasn’t been nearly as smooth. The Toreros (7-10, 0-2) graduated four senior starters that played key roles on last year’s 21-win team. Isaiah Pineiro and Isaiah Wright are with Stockton in the NBA G League, but Wright suffered a season-ending injury in December.
The two meet for the first time this season at 7 p.m. Thursday at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
The Toreros have struggled to put up points – scoring just 58 and 63 in road losses to Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara last week – and they committed 29 turnovers versus Long Beach State, one shy of the school record.
They’ve been fine on defense, limiting opponents to 68.1 points, 43% shooting and just 29.7% on 3-pointers. Gonzaga yields at 68.6 points, 42.2% from the field and 34.8% behind the 3-point line.
Still, as last week showed, objects in the rear-view mirror might be closer than they appear after Gonzaga was pushed by Portland, projected to finish last, and Pepperdine. Both opponents offered inspired efforts, but several Zags acknowledged they need better focus and intensity for longer portions of games.
“It’s not something you really practice, it’s something that you have during the game,” senior forward Killian Tillie said. “That’s what we did at Portland. It was tough the first half, but then we were fired up in the locker room and fired up in the second half.
“It was kind of the same (against Pepperdine). Everybody has to do hustle plays, get the crowd going and that’s how you get intensity.”
The Toreros have been competitive against the best teams on their schedule. Their three worst losses are by 19 to then-No. 25 Washington, 18 to then-No. 25 Colorado and 17 to undefeated San Diego State. USD dropped a three-point decision to Stanford, which is No. 16 in the NET rankings.
The Zags, on paper, have a frontcourt advantage with Tillie coming off a pair of 20-point games, leading scorer Filip Petrusev (16.6 points), freshman Drew Timme (9.2) and wing Corey Kispert, second in scoring at 14.3.
San Diego’s Alex Floresca and Yauhen Massalski combine for 15 points and wing Braun Hartfield averages 13.1. Junior forward James Jean-Marie averaged 12.5 in two WCC losses.
With the calendar recently flipping to 2020, it’s an appropriate time to note that Gonzaga’s WCC road winning streak is 33 games and nearly four years old. It’s the longest streak in a Division I conference in over 30 seasons. Gonzaga hasn’t lost a WCC road contest since a 70-67 setback against Saint Mary’s on Jan. 21, 2016.
The Zags’ 12 consecutive road wins are the longest active streak in the country.
“We’re 2-0 (in conference),” coach Mark Few said. “At end of the day you’re supposed to have more points than the opponents, and that’s what we did. We’ll keep trying to get better.”
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