SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)—No. 17 Gonzaga will play Washington State on Wednesday in an early showdown for two surging programs that have already won from Alaska to Hawaii.
The Zags (5-1) are coming off winning the Maui Invitational, while Washington State (6-0) just won the Great Alaska Shootout behind a breakout performance from Klay Thompson, the nation’s leading scorer.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has long been a proponent of playing a tough non-conference schedule. He watched his untested team mature in Maui with victories over Colorado, Wisconsin and No. 22 Cincinnati in the title game— vaulting them into the Top 25 this week.
“If you want to be looked upon favorably at the end of the year, you have to play a tough schedule,” Few said. “If all you do is play home games or patsies, you can’t be asking for favors at the end of the year.”
Matt Bouldin leads Gonzaga with 16 points per game, while Steven Gray is second with 15. Freshman Elias Harris is averaging 7.7 rebounds a game. The Bulldogs began the season with only five players with college basketball experience, raising questions about their ability to win big games.
“That tournament helped us and gave us confidence,” Bouldin said. “Our confidence is really high, and only going to get higher.”
Gonzaga’s success is always expected. But Washington State is also raising some eyebrows under new coach Ken Bone. The Cougars, with only a handful of veteran players, defeated Alaska-Anchorage, Nicholls State and San Diego to win the Great Alaska Shootout last week.
“Things get a lot tougher, immediately,” Bone said Tuesday.
He should know. Last year, Bone took his Portland State team into Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center and won 77-70, one of only three home losses the Bulldogs have absorbed since the arena opened in 2004.
That win was a factor in convincing Washington State to hire Bone to replace Tony Bennett this season.
“This is exactly what we need,” Bone said. “We’ve played some decent teams, but it’s time to step forward and play some good competition. Unfortunately, we are playing great competition.”
While Bone is especially worried about Gonzaga big men Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Harris, his Cougars bring plenty to the table.
Thompson, a sophomore, leads the nation with 28.3 points per game. That included a tournament-record 43 points in the Alaska title game. He was named Pac-10 player of the week for the second consecutive time, and will almost certainly be the focus of the Gonzaga defense.
“We understand Klay is our best scorer and shooter, and so does everybody else,” Bone said. “Whatever they do, we have tried to prepare for.”
Washington State is also getting 12 points and 5.7 rebounds from forward DeAngelo Casto, and 13 points from freshman guard Reggie Moore.
The two schools are located just 70 miles apart in eastern Washington. Washington State leads the all-time series 97-46 but has won just two of the past 10. Last year Gonzaga handed WSU it’s worst loss of the season, 74-52 at Friel Court.