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Gonzaga rewind: Ben Gregg takes on starting role, Graham Ike bounces back

Jan. 19—SAN DIEGO — In his 88th game as a Zag, Ben Gregg made his first career start Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 junior forward essentially did all the things he's brought to the team coming off the bench, but this time it happened after hearing his name announced with the first unit.

It was just the second time this season the Zags have shaken up the starting lineup. It's yet to be determined if this will be a lasting move, but the immediate results were impressive as Gonzaga rolled past Pepperdine 86-61 at Firestone Fieldhouse.

More on Gregg entering the starting lineup and Graham Ike's bounce-back performance in our latest Gonzaga rewind.

New-look starting unit

GU has tinkered with the starting lineup twice and both times it involved Dusty Stromer. The first was in early December when coach Mark Few gave Jun Seok Yeo a spot start against overmatched Arkansas-Pine Bluff to ensure he would receive some meaningful minutes. At the time, Stromer was coming off his two best offensive games.

The latest change comes following a rough patch for Stromer — hardly unusual for a true freshman — that saw a drop in his scoring, rebounding and 3-point percentage.

"I felt like Dusty was putting too much pressure on himself, just try something different," Few said. "It makes us a little bigger. I thought we did a good job of finally attacking the glass on (Pepperdine) because they're a really good, athletic rebounding team. We got a couple extra ones off second-chance points.

"It allows us to mix up our rotation a little bit."

Gregg's shot wasn't as dialed in as usual versus the Waves, but he pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds to go with five points and four assists — second only to Ryan Nembhard's eight — and zero turnovers. He did a solid defensive job on 6-11 Jevon Porter, especially in the second half.

Stromer chipped in two second-half 3-pointers, one off a feed from Gregg, and three boards in 21-plus minutes.

"They handled it like pros, mature guys that understood like it's just a switch, but it's not the end of the world," Ike said. "When you're in, just continue to play hard and just continue to cheer our guys on because those are our dudes."

"We've kind of been going to the (three) big lineup a lot and Ben has been working super hard," forward Anton Watson said. "That's coach's decision but Ben, he's worked for that position. He comes in and gets rebounds, plays defense and hits big shots. That's all we can ask of him."

Watson, who started and came off the bench during his first two seasons, pointed out that Stromer handled the situation well.

"He hit a couple of 3s — that's what you have to do," Watson said. "He has to keep his confidence up. He knows his time is going to come. We still need him and he's going to play a lot of minutes."

That's been demonstrated in the past when Few adjusted the starting five. Corey Kispert started at wing in his freshman season before suffering an ankle injury. Zach Norvell Jr., a current GU assistant coach, entered the starting lineup in the eighth game and never left. Kispert still averaged nearly 20 minutes per game.

In 2020, Joel Ayayi replaced Admon Gilder as a starter in the 10th game. Both played major minutes the rest of the way. In 2021, Watson basically started the first half of the season before Andrew Nembhard started the second half. Watson played double-digit minutes in every game coming off the bench and averaged 18.9 for the season.

It's been an interesting journey for Gregg, who is in his fourth season suiting up for the Zags. He graduated early from Clackamas (Oregon) High to join the program in December 2020. He played in 18 games as Gonzaga went 31-0 before falling to Baylor in the championship game.

Gregg's playing time has steadily increased to a career-high 18.4 minutes this season. That figure will likely go up, given that he logged 30-plus minutes in his first start.

Ike rebounds with big game

Ike had additional motivation entering Thursday's game after struggling in a 77-76 loss to Santa Clara the week before.

The Wyoming transfer scored 10 straight GU points as the Zags took an early lead. He dominated throughout, regardless of Pepperdine's choice of defender, and matched his season high of 11 field goals while scoring 24 points, his highest total against a Division I foe.

"We went to him early and he really delivered," Few said. "They started doubling him. He made great plays out of the double."

Ike is averaging 18.3 points over the past six games, despite scoring just five points and fouling out against Santa Clara.

"It's always important, it's what we look forward to, the bounce back," said Ike, who leads the team in scoring (15.1) with Watson right behind (15.0). "You're ultimately judged by your response. That's what we're judged off (Thursday) and we've got another one on Saturday."