Gonzaga coach Mark Few would probably admit his team is looking forward to the return of star forward Josh Heytvelt. Nonetheless, Few has found a pretty solid temporary replacement.
Freshman forward Austin Daye looks to continue his success as the No. 14 Bulldogs meet Western Kentucky in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout on Thursday.
Heytvelt started 22 games and averaged 15.5 points last season, but was suspended for the final nine games and the postseason following his arrest for drug possession. The Bulldogs have reinstated Heytvelt, but he’s yet to play while recovering from surgery earlier this month to fix a stress fracture in his right ankle.
He is expected to miss at least four more weeks.
In his absence, the 6-foot-10 Daye has stepped in and led the Bulldogs (3-0) in scoring in each of the first three games of his college career. He’s averaging 18 points, shooting 57.7 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free-throw line, and has even made all three of his 3-point attempts.
“You march him out in a game and if the lights are on, he is dialed in,” Few said of Daye, who is also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots.
Daye, one of four Gonzaga players in double figures, had 16 points as the Bulldogs cruised to an 84-48 win over UC Riverside on Saturday. The Bulldogs shot 52.6 percent from the field, including 64 percent while outscoring the Highlanders 46-24 in the second half.
“We sustained great effort the whole game,” said guard Jeremy Pargo, who had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Gonzaga has won its first three games at home by an average margin of 32 points. However, its schedule gets tougher at the Great Alaska Shootout, where the Bulldogs could potentially meet Michigan, Texas Tech or No. 22 Butler.
“We’ll be playing Top 20 caliber teams up there,” Few said.
While Western Kentucky doesn’t have the name recognition of those schools, the Hilltoppers (3-0) have quietly put together three straight 20-win seasons in the Sun Belt Conference.
They’ve looked good early this season as well, averaging 90.3 points in winning each of their first three games by at least 21 points.
Courtney Lee, among the NCAA scoring leaders with 24.3 points per game, overcame shooting struggles to score 18 points in an 87-63 win over Murray State on Saturday. Lee was just 3-for-11 from the field, but went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line to lead the team in scoring for the third straight game.
Tyrone Brazelton added 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range.
“Another total team effort from our team tonight in terms of total contribution,” Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn said. “I think our defense is what keyed our runs and helped us stretch our lead.”
Western Kentucky is meeting Gonzaga for the first time, and also is playing in its first Great Alaska Shootout.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will be making their second trip to this tournament. They lost in the championship game to Dwyane Wade’s Marquette team in 2001.