Gonzaga has been among college basketball’s top 25 teams in field goal percentage in each of the last five seasons, a mark of consistency that’s helped transform what was a mid-major program into a national power.
Shooting well against Washington State, though, is a different story - one with which the Bulldogs are uncomfortably familiar.
A year after an ugly offensive performance in a loss to the Cougars, fourth-ranked Gonzaga will look for revenge when it visits its in-state rivals Wednesday night in Pullman.
The two schools are separated by just 75 miles, but as the Bulldogs (6-0) have risen to prominence over the past decade, the gap between the programs seemed to be getting wider. Gonzaga won the rivals’ seven meetings between 1998 and 2005 by an average of 14.6 points.
Unranked Washington State upset the 18th-ranked Bulldogs by 10 points in Pullman in 2006, but the Cougars’ performance last season - as the nation’s No. 8 team - was far more impressive.
Prior to that game last Dec. 5 in Spokane, Gonzaga guard Micah Downs referred to Washington State as the second-best team in the state, a comment that seemed to fire up the Cougars. They held the then-No. 17 Bulldogs to 25.9 percent shooting in a 51-47 victory, their first in Spokane since 1977 and Gonzaga’s first-ever home loss while ranked.
The 47 points were the fewest the Bulldogs had scored since a 67-45 loss to Saint Mary’s on Jan. 14, 1989.
“Pretty good showing for the second-best team in the state, I think,” Cougars guard Taylor Rochestie said.
Gonzaga still finished the year 11th in the nation in field goal percentage (48.5), and it’s shot the ball well while racing out to its first 6-0 start since winning its first eight games in 1994-95. Its past four victories have all been on neutral courts.
The Bulldogs shot 49.7 percent in winning the Old Spice Classic in Florida, which they capped with an 83-74 victory over then-No. 12 Tennessee, then held Indiana to just 30.4 percent shooting on Saturday in a 70-54 win in Indianapolis.
“We needed to experience how to win an ugly grinder, and we did that,” coach Mark Few said.
Gonzaga should expect another one against the Cougars (6-2), who lead the nation in scoring defense (45.3) and field goal percentage defense (31.7).
Both times Washington State has faced a ranked opponent, however, it’s lost. Then-No. 4 Pittsburgh shot 35.4 percent but knocked off the Cougars 57-43 on Nov. 29, and then-No. 24 Baylor pulled out a 58-52 win in Pullman on Saturday while shooting 37.8 percent.
“We have to play at our best or we are going to be in trouble,” Washington State coach Tony Bennett said. “Our guys are going to be disappointed when they see all the breakdowns we had.”
The Cougars’ biggest challenge will be stopping Gonzaga senior forward Josh Heytvelt, who’s averaging team highs of 15.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. Heytvelt has scored 18.0 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field in his last three contests.
Star sophomore Austin Daye, meanwhile, has averaged just 6.5 points in his last two and is coming off a 3-for-13 performance against Indiana. Daye would love to have a solid game against Washington State after going just 1-of-11 in last year’s loss.
Rochestie is third on the Cougars with 10.0 points per game, but he’s only shooting 34.7 percent this season. Washington State is led by the inside-out combination of freshman guard Klay Thompson (11.6) and senior center Aron Baynes (11.4).
The Cougars have lost 34 straight games to top five opponents.