While Gonzaga appears to have the potential for a deep postseason run, winning the West Coast Conference regular season championship remains its top priority.
The third-ranked Bulldogs can clinch a share of the league title and set the school record for regular-season victories while trying to continue their success over visiting San Diego on Saturday.
After Saint Mary’s ended Gonzaga’s 11-year run as outright or co-regular season WCC champions in 2012, the Bulldogs (26-2, 13-0) made it a point to regain their spot atop the league this season. Gonzaga has looked dominant more often than not while off to the school’s best conference start since going 14-0 in 2008-09.
“We didn’t get it last year and we were hungry this year to get that back in our grasp,” senior guard Mike Hart said. “If we can do that - that is our first goal at the beginning of the year every year.”
The Bulldogs have shot 51.4 percent and allowed 57.7 points while winning all six league home games by an average of 21.1. Elias Harris had 17 points with nine rebounds while national player of the year candidate Kelly Olynyk scored 14 as Gonzaga shot 56.9 percent - matching a season-high against Division I opponents - in an 85-42 home rout of Santa Clara on Wednesday.
“They outscored us, outrebounded us and outplayed us,” said Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, whose team shot 30.2 percent and was outrebounded 45-22. “They solidified their position as one of the best teams in the country.”
Gonzaga matched the 2001-02 team for the most regular-season wins in school history with their ninth consecutive victory overall, but the focus remained on moving closer to a league title.
“It’s huge,” sophomore guard Kevin Pangos said. “We want that one bad.”
Though the Bulldogs have won nine in a row versus San Diego, 22 of 23 in the series and 13 straight at home by an average of 16.7 points, they likely won’t take anything for granted after the Toreros (13-15, 6-7) played them tougher than any conference opponent has this season.
Gonzaga trailed by four with 7 1/2 minutes left before going on a 12-6 run and held on for a 65-63 win at San Diego on Feb. 2. Harris had 18 points, Olynyk scored 15 and Gary Bell Jr. added 13 as the Bulldogs prevailed despite shooting 43.9 percent and being outrebounded 38-32.
“San Diego played us real tough down there,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They pushed us around and they were more physical than we were. We didn’t run great offense, nor did we play very good defense. But they deserve a lot of credit for that.
“I’m sure Saturday will be a tough one.”
The Toreros, however, have dropped three in a row and seven of nine after starting 4-0 in the league. Sophomore guard Johnny Dee scored 11 of his team-high 13 points in the second half in Thursday’s 70-67 loss at Portland.
Dee has averaged 17.0 points in the last six games despite shooting 39.8 percent. He began that stretch by scoring 21 and pulling down seven rebounds versus Gonzaga.
Harris has scored at least 15 points in three of the last four against the Toreros and has averaged 10.2 rebounds in the last five meetings.