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Key matchup: Once a Gonzaga recruit, Adama Bal thriving at Santa Clara after two seasons at Arizona

Jan. 10—The top challenge for Gonzaga Thursday night at Santa Clara will be containing a high-impact transfer who's blossomed under Herb Sendek after struggling to get on the floor at a power conference school a year earlier.

Sound familiar?

They don't have much in common when it comes to position, physique or playing style, but Adama Bal and Brandin Podziemski could probably spend a few hours trading notes about their college trajectories.

Bal, a 6-foot-7 forward who transferred from Arizona, has emerged as one of the top players in the West Coast Conference one season after Podziemski took the conference by storm after an underwhelming freshman year at Illinois.

Podziemski averaged just 4.3 minutes per game in the Big Ten before transferring to Santa Clara, where he averaged 19.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists, sharing Co-WCC Player of the Year honors with Gonzaga's Drew Timme before being selected by the Golden State Warriors with the 19th overall pick of the 2023 NBA draft.

Now it's Bal who's thriving in an expanded role for the Broncos, averaging 15.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting at an impressive clip from the 3-point line (41%) and free-throw line (88%).

In an alternate universe, Bal might have been wearing a Gonzaga uniform, not a Santa Clara one, on Thursday night.

Former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd was recruiting the France native in 2020-21 before he accepted a head coaching position at Arizona. Bal reportedly connected with fellow countrymen and former Zags Joel Ayayi and Ronny Turiaf to inquire about Lloyd before committing to Arizona three weeks after he was hired in Tucson.

"(Lloyd) recruited me at Gonzaga and offered me the first day on the job at Arizona," Bal told ESPN. "He showed me how much he wanted me every step of the way."

Surrounded by all-conference players such as Azuolas Tubelis, Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Pelle Larsson during his two seasons in Tucson, Bal never cracked Arizona's rotation and entered the transfer portal this offseason.

As it was for Podziemski in 2022-23, Santa Clara has been a perfect landing spot for Bal, who's offered a glimpse of what he might have done in the Pac-12 had circumstances been different.

In four games against Pac-12 teams — wins over Oregon, Stanford and Washington State and a loss to California — Bal has averaged 23.2 points per game. That's the highest-scoring average for anyone who's played at least four games against the Pac-12 — including every player in the conference itself.

"He's a three-level scorer," Gonzaga forward Ben Gregg said. "He's a big, long, tall guard who's athletic and can shoot the ball as well. Can get it done at all three levels, so being able to shut him down and don't let his length get to the rim and score over guys, just playing physical. He's super talented, scoring a lot of points, so it's going to be the first time we see him.

"We'll see what we can do, what's working, what's not working and then get a game plan, make adjustments and try and shut him down."

In most cases, Gonzaga would stick fifth-year senior forward and defensive ace Anton Watson on a player with Bal's scoring ability and athleticism, but Santa Clara's starting lineup poses size issues with 7-foot Cristoph Tilly and 6-10 Johnny O'Neill occupying the frontcourt spots. Watson should see time on Bal when the Zags go to their three-big lineup, but freshman wing Dusty Stromer is most likely to get the assignment when Thursday's game tips off.