Q&A: San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Kroner on USF's Mogbo, Gaels without Jefferson

Feb. 28—The West Coast Conference regular season winds down this week with Gonzaga facing San Francisco, which is just behind the Bulldogs in the standings, before a showdown with first-place Saint Mary's.

Gonzaga defeated the Dons 77-72 in Spokane. The rematch is Thursday at Chase Center. GU visits Saint Mary's on Saturday, one month after falling to the Gaels 64-62 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

We connected with the San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Kroner for a closer look at the Dons and Gaels.

Q: How big has transfer Jonathan Mogbo been to San Francisco's offense and defense?

Kroner: Well, the numbers tell you how much of an impact Mogbo has had on the Dons: As of Monday, he was third in the nation in field-goal percentage at 66.2, was leading the Dons in scoring at 14.9 per game, and was leading the WCC in rebounds (10.1) and steals (1.7) per game. Head coach Chris Gerlufsen has talked about how the versatility of Mogbo and fellow forward Ndewedo Newberry gives the Dons the ability to use front-court players to pressure guards on the perimeter. The lone blemish on Mogbo's season: He has not performed well in the Dons' three biggest games (and only three WCC losses). In those two games against Saint Mary's and the matchup with Gonzaga in Spokane, he has averaged 8.3 points and 7.7 boards.

Q: The Dons are having another strong season with 22 wins and they're battling Gonzaga for the second seed. Other than Arizona State, their only losses are to teams leading or in second in their respective conferences (Boise State, Grand Canyon, Utah State, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, all but one by five points or less). They're 0-5 in Quad 1 games — the same record GU had before breaking through at Kentucky. What's prevented USF from snagging a signature win?

Kroner: Good question. Mogbo's off nights against the Zags and Gaels are part of the explanation, but certainly not all of it. Another part of the explanation is the Dons have been excellent on the Hilltop; their loss to SMC is their only home loss in 15 games. They haven't been nearly as good away from San Francisco: 6-4 in true road games, 2-2 in neutral-site games. Four of their top six scorers are in their first season in the program, so the Dons probably needed an adjustment period during the nonconference schedule.

Q: Boil down Thursday's game to a couple of keys for the Dons against Gonzaga.

Kroner: The Zags (86.1) and Dons (79) are the WCC's top two teams in points per game and they're the top two teams in steals per game with the Dons at 8.6 and the Zags at 7. So, I think in what figures to be a fast-paced game, USF needs to avoid unforced turnovers to prevent Gonzaga from getting easy buckets. Also, USF could use a big night from Mogbo.

Q: How has Saint Mary's adjusted its starting five and rotation after losing Joshua Jefferson a few weeks ago to a season-ending knee injury? Who has stepped up?

Kroner: In the first game without Jefferson, Saint Mary's used Luke Barrett, who's really a small forward, in the starting lineup in place of Jefferson. In the two games at home last week, Randy Bennett went with Mason Forbes, a power forward who's a grad transfer from Harvard. The player who really has produced in Jefferson's absence is forward Alex Ducas. The fifth-year player from Australia has split time between the 3 and the 4, and has scored 18 points in each of the three games, going a combined 14 for 19 from beyond the arc.

Q: Gonzaga-Saint Mary's is always a clash of styles — GU is sixth nationally in scoring offense, SMC is second in scoring defense. What makes the Gaels' defense so tough to solve?

Kroner: Another good question. Part of the answer stems from Saint Mary's offense. Because the Gaels play at a relatively slow pace and commit relatively few turnovers, opponents have to play a lot of halfcourt offense — and many of those opponents aren't ready and/or able to do so. Also, having a shot blocker like center Mitchell Saxen enables the other four Saint Mary's players to be particularly aggressive. And because Saint Mary's is such a good rebounding team (it leads the nation in rebounding margin at +11.9 per game), opponents rarely get a lot of second-chance points.

Q: What's job No. 1 for Saint Mary's as it attempts to sweep regular-season series against Gonzaga?

Kroner: I would say job No. 1 is what (coach) Randy Bennett has said for years — if not decades — when the Gaels face Gonzaga: Take care of the basketball. If the Gaels commit a relatively high number of turnovers, that gets the Zags' fastbreak game in gear. If the Gaels don't commit many turnovers, that puts the onus on the Zags' halfcourt offense.