Washington’s top dogs: Gonzaga aiming to keep upperhand in rivalry was Huskies
The renewal of the Gonzaga-Washington men’s basketball rivalry hasn’t exactly renewed the rivalry.
Gonzaga has posted lopsided wins in the last three matchups, the latter two as part of a four-game set that expires after next year’s clash in Seattle. The other meeting came in the 2015 Battle 4 Atlantis when the Zags thumped the Huskies 80-64 in the Bahamas.
Prior to the 2015 meeting, Gonzaga won eight of nine games dating back to 1998, seven of those by double figures. So added up, the Zags have won 11 of the last 12 with only one of those victories by single digits.
The Huskies’ challenge doesn’t get any easier Wednesday against top-ranked Gonzaga (8-0) in the McCarthey Athletic Center. Washington has dropped its last seven to GU in Spokane, dating back to 1944.
However, the Huskies (6-2) do bring a number of positives into the matchup, including four experienced seniors with a combined 420 career games and talented sophomore wing Jaylen Nowell, the team’s leading scorer at 18 points per game.
Washington’s defense, which yielded 97 points to Gonzaga last season in Seattle, has given up 68 or less in every game except an 88-66 road loss to then No. 11 Auburn.
Coach Mike Hopkins has the program moving in the right direction. He was named Pac-12 coach of the year after guiding UW to a 21-13 mark and the NIT in his first season. The former long-time Syracuse assistant coach has implemented the Orange’s extended 2-3 zone and opponents are shooting just 39.8 percent and scoring 66.4 points.
“That’s a heck of an experienced squad,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has a 35-18 record against Pac-12 foes. “Mike has just done such a great job of giving them a purpose and identity.”
Hopkins has beefed up the non-conference schedule. In addition to Auburn and GU, Washington beat Texas A&M 71-67, lost to Minnesota 68-66 and has an upcoming date with No. 15 Virginia Tech.
The Huskies, who were No. 25 in the preseason AP poll, have been inconsistent. They blasted one-win Eastern Washington but were pushed the final buzzer by San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, a pair of 6-2 teams.
The Zags had few issues against Washington’s zone last year. Gonzaga shot 51 percent and had 26 second-chance points. The Zags also got loose in transition before UW could set up its defense.
Washington, which leads the series 29-17, boasts improved rim protection, swatting 7.0 shots per game to rank fourth nationally. The Huskies were 19th nationally last season.
Gonzaga is 10th in blocks at 6.0 per game. Junior forward Brandon Clarke is third nationally with 31 of GU’s 48 blocks.
Nowell has bumped his shooting accuracy to 57 percent after shooting 45 percent as a freshman. He’s made 48 percent on 3-pointers, up from 35 a year ago.
Matisse Thybulle is all over UW’s record book. The reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year is No. 1 in steals (227), fifth in blocks (124) and he’s 31 points from joining teammates Noah Dickerson and point guard David Crisp in UW’s 1,000-point club.
Dickerson, an All-Pac-12 selection last year, averages 17.3 points, Crisp 9.1 and Thybulle 6.8, his lowest since his freshman season.