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Top-ranked Zags missing 2 players as they face 4 tough games

November 29, 2018
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Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke, right, shoots while defended by North Dakota State guard Vinnie Shahid during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Top-ranked Gonzaga is heading into a tough stretch without two of its key players.

Star forward Killian Tillie and guard Geno Crandall are sidelined for at least the next month with injuries suffered in practice.

That leaves the Zags short-handed as they prepare to face No. 6 Tennessee, No. 11 North Carolina, Creighton and Washington in the next two weeks. Only the Washington game next Wednesday is at home.

“Those are four tough games,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Tillie, an NBA prospect who is a big scorer and rebounder, injured his ankle a month ago in practice and has yet to play. He’s forecast to return in about a month. The Bulldogs (7-0) have weathered the loss of Tillie because they are deep in the front court.

Crandall, a graduate transfer from North Dakota, was expected to provide needed depth at point guard. But he fractured his shooting hand in practice last Sunday, and expects to miss the next four to six weeks. Crandall was already playing catch-up at Gonzaga after arriving on campus late because he needed to fulfill graduation requirements at North Dakota.

“I’m disappointed for him,” Few said. “He fought so hard to get here.”

Crandall’s injury puts more pressure on starting point guard Josh Perkins, who is likely to play a lot of minutes in close games. Perkins played 38 minutes in the victory over Duke last week in Maui that propelled Gonzaga to the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25. Perkins, a fifth-year senior, is averaging 11 points and eight assists per game.

“He’s done a really good job of getting us in the right spot, making the right decisions and playing with great pace,” Few said.

Shooting guards Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert can provide some help to Perkins. Forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are also capable of grabbing rebounds and bringing the ball down the court if needed.

“Losing Geno, that hurts us,” Clarke said. “We have to have other guys step up.”

One way the Zags expect to cope without Tillie and Crandall is to hit more 3-pointers. They sank 15 in a 102-60 blowout of North Dakota State on Monday, after making 10 against Duke.

“It’s big-time for us when we’re able to make 3s,” Norvell said. “It stretches the defense.”

This is the third time in program history that the Zags have been ranked No. 1, and by far the earliest in a season for such a lofty perch.

Few, who has the highest winning percentage of any active coach at .819 (535-118), said it is too early to get excited.

“I’m not a big poll guy,” Few said. “We are still in November.”

But he added that he was honored by the ranking. “I appreciate that people think so highly of us,” Few said.

While December might seem early to focus on big games, Gonzaga does play in the lightly regarded West Coast Conference.

To build their national reputation, the Zags historically play a brutal nonconference schedule, then coast through a league that they win nearly every season. Now is when they build their resume for a high NCAA Tournament seed.

Not that the Zags are looking ahead to March.

“We’re up for a really big challenge on Saturday,” Few said of Creighton, which is receiving votes in the Top 25. “They are tough to prepare for. They will have our full attention.”

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