With coach nearing milestone, Gonzaga opens three-game road WCC swing at Santa Clara

Jan. 10—In baseball, it's considered a cardinal sin to discuss a no-hitter as it's happening in real time.

The same rules might apply in college basketball when your coach is on the verge of a milestone win.

Mark Few may not be superstitious, but it's widely known that Gonzaga's coach isn't someone who dwells on individual achievements. That means it's highly unlikely Few's pursuit of 700 career coaching wins would've been a conversation point during team meetings this week as the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs prepare for a three-game road West Coast Conference swing, beginning on Thursday against Santa Clara at the Leavey Center.

Gonzaga's Nolan Hickman and Ben Gregg were startled to hear about the looming milestone after Saturday's 101-74 victory over San Diego at McCarthey Athletic Center. That marked No. 699 for Few, who can become the second-fastest coach to 700 wins — Kentucky's Adolph Rupp got there in 837 games — with a victory Thursday.

"Mmm, really?" Hickman said. "That's huge, man. That's huge. We've definitely got to come out with a win this next game. He don't talk about that, so I'm going to make it a point to bring it to the guys and make sure, we've really got to come out with a win now."

It's been 12 years since the Zags (11-4, 2-0) have lost a game at Santa Clara's gym, but keeping that streak intact seems to be an exercise that gets more challenging each year.

The Broncos (11-6, 2-0) haven't qualified for the NCAA Tournament under eighth-year coach Herb Sendek, but they've won at least 20 games each of the past three seasons — Santa Clara played 20 total games during the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season — and have produced two of the top players in program history in consecutive years.

Santa Clara became one of five schools with a top-20 pick in each of the past two NBA drafts when guard Brandin Podziemski was selected No. 19 by the Golden State Warriors, one year after Jalen Williams was taken No. 12 by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The other four programs to do that reside in Durham, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Lawrence, Kansas; and Waco, Texas.

The Broncos reloaded their roster with five transfers, including Arizona guard Adama Bal, a former four-star recruit, who's generated some buzz as an NBA draft prospect with his size, scoring versatility and athleticism. That could escalate if the 6-foot-7 junior from France, who ranks fourth in the WCC at 15.9 points per game, continues to produce against the top teams on Santa Clara's schedule.

"They've done a great job just over the years finding the right guys whether it's in the transfer portal or evals as a staff," Few said. "I think they're going to be right there in the upper half of the league, so they've had some nice wins and then they've had a few losses that you kind of scratch your head on. Obviously, we head out on the road now, so this will be a tough one. It's always been a tough place to play."

Santa Clara's won three of five games against high-major opponents, but the Broncos dropped all three of their games against Mountain West schools and also own a 66-58 loss to Yale, which Gonzaga beat comfortably in its season opener.

After failing to hit 30% from the 3-point line in five consecutive games, the Zags are coming off a two-game WCC homestand in which they made 18 of 42 (42%) from distance while scoring 187 combined points.

"We have to take care of the ball. We have to be good in transition defense and we have to limit them to one shot," Sendek told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Santa Clara returns senior guard Carlos Marshall Jr., who averages 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds. Marshall , who only played in three games last season due to shoulder and back injuries, made nine 3-pointers and scored 29 points in a loss to San Jose State.

Sophomore Christoph Tilly (7-0) and American University transfer Johnny O'Neill (6-10) give the Broncos one of the biggest frontcourts in the WCC. Gonzaga potentially has the deepest, with Graham Ike (15.2 ppg) and Anton Watson (13.8) occupying starting roles and both Braden Huff (10.5) and Gregg (8.1) playing valuable roles off Few's bench.

"They have been beating some teams, I've heard," Hickman said of Santa Clara. "I've heard they are real good and real solid, so I just feel like we need to bring that defense that we played here, the defense we play usually at the Kennel on the road with us down in Santa Clara and I think everything will work itself out, honestly."

Last year at the Leavey Center, Hickman got hot from behind the 3-point arc and scored a career-high 20 points, including a critical go-ahead 3 with just over 1 minute remaining to help the Zags pull out an 81-76 win.