Gonzaga rewind: Brackets, backloaded WCC schedule, Nolan Hickman and freshmen trio

Feb. 23—'Tis the point of the college basketball season when every win, even the margin of victory, and every loss is magnified for teams trying to fortify at-large credentials.

Gonzaga is rarely in that position, but that's where the Bulldogs find themselves with three key West Coast Conference regular-season games left. The Bulldogs were the last team in the field before tipping off against Portland on Thursday, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi.

"Zags must win — and win big — to keep from getting passed by first team out (Wake Forest)," Lunardi posted on X.

Gonzaga won pretty big, 86-65, although a late Portland 3-pointer might result in an appearance on Scott Van Pelt's popular Bad Beats segment with the Zags listed as 21.5-point favorites by some oddsmakers.

Lunardi apparently felt the Zags were impressive enough, moving them up one rung to the next-to-last team in and keeping Wake Forest as the first team out. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports bumped GU into the First Four as a No. 11 seed facing Colorado in Dayton, Ohio.

Of course, the opinion of the selection committee is the only one that matters, so we'll turn our attention to Gonzaga's backloaded WCC schedule, the rise of Nolan Hickman and freshmen Braden Huff, Dusty Stromer and Luka Krajnovic.

Strength of closing schedule

The Zags played their customary difficult nonconference schedule, but only came away with one Quad 1 victory — vs. NET top 30 at home, top 50 neutral court, top 75 road — at Kentucky.

U's closing stretch, however, provides a chance to add a few bullet points to its resume. The Zags face Quad 1 foes (vs. NET No. 60 San Francisco at Chase Center on Thursday, which will qualify as a road game; and at No. 15 Saint Mary's on March 2), and Saturday's home date with No. 104 Santa Clara.

"That's why you play the game, to play against the top guys in the league and show what we're made of," junior forward Graham Ike said.

Fourth-place Santa Clara scored the final five points to upset the Zags 77-76 in January.

"Man, I'm hyped," Hickman said of Saturday's home finale. "It's going to be the last one in The Kennel for a little bit."

Easy as 1, 2, 3

Hickman is on a roll behind the 3-point arc. He made 4 of 8 against the Pilots, elevating his 3-point accuracy to 44.3% through 13 WCC games. Backcourt running mate Ryan Nembhard was 0 of 2 on 3-pointers, but he's at 46.5% in conference.

"Everything is clicking," Hickman said. "I'm just glad that it's starting to work out now down the stretch of the season."

Hickman has hit four 3s in five of the past seven games.

"We all know what he's capable of," junior forward Ben Gregg said. "He's just playing more freely now, not so caught up in trying to please other people. He's performing at a high level and I think he's going to continue into March."

Hickman has been on the receiving end of kick-out passes with Ike drawing frequent double-teams.

"We were just talking about that as a staff," head coach Mark Few said. "It looks good every time it leaves his hands. He's making the right basketball decisions. He started the game with those great passes to Graham. He's been rock, rock solid. And he's defended well, too."

Bench brigade

Since Gregg was inserted into the starting lineup 11 games ago, the first three options off the bench usually have been freshmen Braden Huff, Dusty Stromer and Luka Krajnovic (after returning from an injury on Jan. 30).

The trio contributed 13 points, nine rebounds, four blocks, two assists and just one turnover in 38 minutes Thursday.

"I can't imagine the pressure they have," said Gregg, who came off the bench for his first 87 games as a Zag. "When I was a freshman, I didn't have that amount of pressure on my shoulders. ... They're doing a great job of handling it. It's going to be ups and downs with the confidence, but when they're playing their best and with confidence, watch out for them because they're really special players."

Stromer, who started the first 15 games, had seven points and four rebounds. Huff had two field goals and blocked three shots. Krajnovic had two boards and one block.

"Luka came in and gave us some good minutes," Few said. "I thought Dusty really battled. It wasn't perfect, but he battled, and that's what we want out of him. B-Huff does what B-Huff does. He's been playing really well."