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All about the non-Big Six: Tested Zags

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All about the non-Big Six: Tested Zags
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Mark Few has built Gonzaga into a perennial tourney team with tough non-conference scheduling

Duke, Kansas State and Marquette will tell you this week's CBE Classic in Kansas City represents the most difficult part of their non-conference season.

But for Gonzaga?

It's no big deal.

The Zags, after all, have long had a reputation for playing one of the country's most challenging schedules. But they may have outdone themselves this year.

If Gonzaga beats third-ranked Kansas State in Monday's CBE Classic semifinal at the Sprint Center, it will likely take on No. 1 Duke 24 hours later. The Zags could play their best in each of those games and lose.

Challenging as the tournament will be, Gonzaga also faces a brutal stretch of non-league games in December, when it takes on Illinois, Washington State, Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State. Only the final two of those games are in Spokane, which is where the Zags will play host to Memphis on Feb. 5.

Just thinking about it could be enough to wear out Gonzaga, which has already dropped a home game to No. 25 San Diego State.

Whatever the case, it's impossible not to respect coach Mark Few. Gonzaga has won 10 straight West Coast Conference titles and, year after year, they're one of the few non-power conference schools good enough to pose a threat to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

All of it is because Few continues to schedule the toughest non-conference slate in the country.

RANKINGS

1. Memphis (3-0) – Is there a deeper backcourt in the country?

2. San Diego State (3-0) – The Aztecs had to rally to beat Wisconsin-Green Bay on Saturday.

3. Gonzaga (2-1) – No reason to panic.

4. UNLV (3-0) – Saturday's win over Wisconsin was a huge step for the Rebels.

5. Temple (2-0) – The Owls' showdown with Cal on Thanksgiving Day will be their first game in 11 days.

6. Butler (2-1) – Even without Gordon Hayward, Louisville's domination of the Bulldogs was startling.

7. BYU (3-0) – Is Jimmer Fredette good enough to earn first-team All-American honors? You bet.

8. Xavier (3-0) – No Jordan Crawford, no problem for the Musketeers.

9. St. Mary's (3-0) – Sharpshooter Matthew Dellavedova has made just 6-of-19 3-point attempts.

10. Wichita State (1-0) – The Shockers have one of the country's top home-court advantages. But can they win on the road?

WHO'S HOT?

Tu Holloway, Xavier – The junior guard got his team off to a 3-0 start by averaging 25.7 points in the Musketeers' first three games. And it's not as if Holloway is firing up a bunch of wild shots. He's shooting 55 percent and has yet to attempt more than 13 field goals in a game. Holloway is also averaging 4.7 assists.

Virginia Commonwealth – The Rams are 3-0 and headed to the Preseason NIT semifinals after beating Wake Forest 90-69 last week. The win wasn't all that big of an upset. Wake Forest is in rebuilding mode, and VCU is rolling under second-year coach Shaka Smart.

Josh Pastner – The 33-year-old Memphis coach earned respect nationally for kicking troubled freshman Jelan Kendrick off the team. Kendrick is a McDonald's All-American and a potential pro. But no one player is bigger than the program.

Clint Steindl, St. Mary's – The Gaels' latest standout from the Australian Institute of Sport (remember Patty Mills?) is averaging 17 points after three games. A 6-foot-7 junior forward, Steindl knocked down 7-of-10 attempts from beyond the arc in last week's mild upset of St. John's. He's 16-of-30 from 3-point range this season.

WHO'S NOT?

St. Joseph's – Wow. What's happened to Phil Martelli's Hawks? Just seven years removed from an Elite Eight appearance, St. Joseph's is 1-2 with a 28-point loss to Western Kentucky and a nine-point setback against Penn State. The Hawks lost seven players – including two starters – during the offseason, but it's not as if they were good last year. Martelli's squad was 5-11 in the Atlantic 10 in 2009-10.

Matt Doherty – One has to wonder how much longer the former Notre Dame and North Carolina coach will last with SMU, which dropped its opener to Arkansas-Little Rock before suffering a 20-point blowout against rival TCU. There are too many prospects in Dallas and the surrounding areas for the Mustangs to be this bad each year.

Southern Illinois – The Salukis used to be one of the top mid-major teams in the country, but lately they can't seem to get on track. Southern Illinois lost six of its final eight games last season and finished just 15-15. Their 0-2 record this fall includes an ugly, one-point overtime setback against Northeastern that featured some brutal clock management in the closing moments. And to think, it was only four years ago that the Salukis nearly beat Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Southwestern Athletic Conference – Talk about taking your lumps. Entering Saturday, the league's 10 teams had a collective record of 3-27. All but three schools were winless, and the ones that had posted victories (Alabama A&M, Prairie View A&M and Southern) did so against non-Division I universities.

NOTEWORTHY

Rider posted impressive road wins at USC and TCU last week … Saturday's victory over Northeastern was the first for new Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro, who is 1-2 since replacing Fran McCaffery … BYU's Jimmer Fredette combined for 50 points over his first two games … Wyoming standouts Desmar Jackson and Afam Muojeke were suspended last week for violating team rules, and their absence was one of the reasons the Cowboys lost to lowly North Florida in the Cancun Challenge on Thursday … Bradley is 4-0 after defeating USC 64-63 in Saturday's Hall of Fame Tournament in Springfield, Mass. The Braves' previous two victories – against Loyola Marymount (59-57) and Northern Illinois (66-63) – were also close … Hawaii is also 4-0 … Former Indiana forward Eli Holman is averaging 17.7 points and 10 rebounds for Detroit.

THREE TO WATCH

Creighton at Iowa State, Sunday – Greg McDermott was Iowa State's coach before leaving Ames last spring to take the job at Creighton. Wouldn't it be ironic if his squad lost to the decimated program he left behind? Both teams are 3-0.

Xavier at Seton Hall, Sunday – The Musketeers will be looking to improve to 4-0 against a Seton Hall squad that will be without leading scorer Jeremy Hazell (wrist) in the Virgin Islands.

Detroit at Mississippi State, Monday – With Eli Holman and Ray McCallum Jr., the Titans are talented enough to upset a Mississippi State squad that's missing its two best players in Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost.