Gonzaga’s best start since becoming a Division I program hasn’t come easy, even if Kelly Olynyk has made it seem that way.
Coming off consecutive 30-point efforts, Olynyk looks to help the eighth-ranked Bulldogs earn a 19th straight victory over Portland in a West Coast Conference matchup Thursday night in Oregon.
Gonzaga (16-1, 3-0) has had its share of close calls during its seven-game winning streak following an 85-74 home loss to then-No. 13 Illinois on Dec. 8.
The Bulldogs had two tough games against Big 12 foes to close December, beating Baylor 94-87 and defeating then-No. 22 Oklahoma State 69-68. They hung on for an 81-74 victory at Santa Clara on Jan. 5, then held off Saint Mary’s 83-78 last Thursday.
“It would be nice to get some 30- or 40-point blowouts. We’ve been in enough close games,” said coach Mark Few, whose team has a showdown at No. 13 Butler looming Saturday.
“They’ve done a heck of a job to get to 16-1. We’ve had emotional game after emotional game after emotional game.”
In the meantime, Olynyk has emerged as the team’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. The 7-foot junior had a career-best 33 points against Santa Clara and 31 versus Saint Mary’s to become the first Gonzaga player with back-to-back 30-point games since Adam Morrison in 2006.
“He is one guy that is not afraid to make a play,” Few said. “He is multi-talented in regards that he can drive it comfortably. He can pass it, and you guys know that he can shoot it.”
Olynyk averaged only 4.8 points over his first two seasons before redshirting in 2011-12 and wasn’t even a regular starter early this season. He’s now started five straight games, averaging 24.4 points, and his 66.2 field-goal percentage for the season ranks among the best in the nation.
“I’m happy with the way I’m playing now,” Olynyk said. “My teammates are getting me the ball in great position.”
Gonzaga ranks second in the WCC in field-goal percentage defense (40.4), which doesn’t bode well for a Portland team hoping to avoid a 17th consecutive home loss in the series.
The Pilots (8-10, 1-2) rank last in the conference at 41.9 percent from the field despite hitting 54.7 in Saturday’s 68-64 victory over Loyola Marymount.
Ryan Nicholas, who shot 8 for 24 in last season’s two losses to Gonzaga, is averaging team highs of 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds after finishing with 17 points and 13 boards Saturday.
Kevin Bailey had missed the previous two games after having surgery to repair a broken nose but returned to score 14 points.
Portland is holding opponents to 37.5 percent shooting over its last five games but likely will have a more difficult time Thursday. Gonzaga ranks among the best in the country in field-goal shooting at 51.7 percent and is averaging a WCC-leading 80.8 points.
Coach Eric Reveno knows his team will have its hands full Wednesday attempting to slow Olynyk, Elias Harris (14.9 points per game) and Kevin Pangos (12.4), though he’s kept his sense of humor about it.
“First sign I may have watched enough Gonzaga film this week? Kelly Olynyk’s hair is growing on me,” Reveno tweeted about the Bulldogs’ long-haired center.
Gary Bell scored 18 points and Harris added 17 and 10 rebounds to lead Gonzaga to a 74-62 victory at Portland in the most recent meeting Jan. 26.
The Pilots have dropped 18 straight in the series since Feb. 19, 2003. The Bulldogs haven’t lost in Portland since 1996.