When Mark Few assembled Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule – a treacherous, unique slate of games played on aircraft carriers, in hostile road environments, against perennial blue bloods and recent national champions alike – it seemed probable the veteran coach would have opportunities to learn about his team’s composure both after statement wins and tough losses.
From that standpoint, Few isn’t wasting any time gathering information about the 2022-23 Bulldogs.
Gonzaga didn’t respond well to the first of the scenarios listed above, losing 93-74 to No. 11 Texas last Wednesday in Austin, Texas, five days after the Bulldogs edged Michigan State in a primetime game on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego.
Now they get a crack at scenario No. 2. The spotlight that’s been on No. 2 Gonzaga (2-1) in each of its past two games won’t be dimming anytime soon as the Bulldogs prepare to face No. 4 Kentucky (3-1) on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at the Arena.
John Calipari’s refusal to play the first of six games over the next six years at Gonzaga’s home venue, the McCarthey Athletic Center, has amounted to a small technicality for some fans and a major point of contention for others, but the game is nonetheless one of the largest the Zags have played within Spokane city limits.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, it’ll be a hard game. We’re in Spokane, 14,000,” Calipari said. “I’m getting calls all over the place. ‘I live in Montana, can you get me tickets, I’ll drive over.’ I can’t even imagine and I love that it’s on an NFL Sunday. Perfect, let’s go. What do you want to watch, Steelers or you going to watch us?”
The Arena may not be as intimate as the Kennel, or feel as suffocating to the opponent while the Zags are staging a big offensive run, but GU fans should still take up the vast majority of the 12,638 seats available. Kentucky’s challenge became decidedly more difficult on Wednesday when Few’s team walked out of the Moody Center in Austin with its largest loss since 2014.
The Bulldogs are hoping to avoid consecutive losses for the first time since 2018 when they lost to Tennessee 76-73 at a neutral site Phoenix before subsequently falling to host North Carolina 103-90 in Chapel Hill. Gonzaga’s had only two other two-game losing streaks since 2011.
Calipari’s won twice before at the Arena but never as Kentucky’s coach. The 63-year-old led Memphis to an 81-73 win over Gonzaga in 2007 and the Tyreke Evans-led Tigers beat the Bulldogs 68-50 at the same venue two years later.
“They’re going to be a lion right now because they just lost at Texas,” Calipari said. “So this will be a hard game for us to win. This is the great thing about November to try and learn about your team and I still am learning about my team.”
Kentucky breezed past South Carolina State for a 106-63 victory on Thursday, but the Wildcats – not unlike their upcoming opponent – are still searching for validation after losing 86-77 to Michigan State in double overtime two days earlier.
“I watched a little bit of them last night against Texas,” Kentucky forward Lance Ware said. “They just came off tough loss, so they’re feeling kind of how we’re feeling. It’s going to be a great game, it’s going to be a great game.”
A great game, with a mega matchup in the frontcourt. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, will go head-to-head with Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme – a matchup Calipari has likened to the Tim Duncan (Wake Forest) vs. Marcus Camby (UMass) battle he witnessed firsthand back in 1995 while coaching the Minutemen.
In a Sports Illustrated issue published on Dec. 17, 1995, Calipari recalled telling Duncan before the matchup, “Why don’t you and Marcus just play 1-on-1 and we’ll watch, and then afterward we’ll all go grab a pizza?”
Perhaps a Davenport flatbread is more appropriate for Sunday’s Tshiebwe-Timme matchup.
“This is just a great game, for not only our players and fans,” Few said, “but it’s also great for college basketball. There’s no holding back, there’s literally no holding back.”
The Wildcats wedged a tuneup against South Carolina State – KenPom’s 347th-ranked team – between contests against Michigan State and Gonzaga, meaning Sunday’s game will be their third in a span of six days.
The Bulldogs have taken a laser focus to the three-day stretch between games, and Few may have preferred a bigger gap to rectify the issues that bugged Gonzaga at Texas. The Bulldogs struggled to close out on the Longhorns’ 3-point shooters, allowing Texas to make 39% from beyond the arc, and gave their opponent 20 extra offensive possessions with turnovers.
Few wasn’t prepared to comment about Kentucky when asked to analyze the Wildcats after Wednesday’s game, telling reporters, “I’ve just been totally focused on Texas here and on the way home we’ll watch Texas, then we’ll watch Kentucky then we’ll get going.”
Gonzaga didn’t make players available to the media after Wednesday’s game and didn’t hold interviews in the days since, so it remains unclear if point guard Nolan Hickman – a former Kentucky signee who chose the Bulldogs after two Wildcats assistants left – will be healthy enough to suit up after suffering an ankle injury against Texas.
Calipari, the coach most frequently associated with college basketball’s one-and-done movement, has a fairly old roster by his standards. It’s headed by Tshiebwe, a fourth-year senior who transferred from West Virginia, but features four other seniors who began their college careers with other programs: guard Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia), guard CJ Fredrick (Iowa), guard Antonio Reeves (Illinois State) and forward Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island).
“I’m super excited, obviously to go out there and play at Spokane Arena,” Fredrick said. “I’ve never played there and I’m sure it’s going to be a hostile environment, and as a competitor that’s what you like.
“You want to play in those type of games, so I’m looking forward to it.”