Though his team struggled to beat a winless program in its last game, coach Mark Few was happy Gonzaga fought through a tough test. Maybe that's because he knows a few more could lie ahead in the near future.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs' first matchup with a major conference opponent -- one which nearly upset them a year ago -- comes at home Thursday night against Washington State before they head to Hawaii for three games in three days.That stretch is part of the Maui Invitational, starting Monday against Dayton before potentially facing Top 25 opponents Baylor and Syracuse in the ensuing rounds.Gonzaga (3-0) began the tournament with a home game Sunday against an Oakland team which dressed only eight players and entered 0-3, including two losses to ranked foes by a combined 54 points. The Bulldogs had beaten Bryant and Colorado State by 56 and were up 21 at halftime of both games.They led by no more than 12 in the first half against the Golden Grizzlies, and the advantage was down to eight with less than eight minutes to play before pulling out an 82-67 victory."That was good for us," Few said. "That's a really tough, hard-nosed team. ... They pushed us and challenged us and our guys responded and kept their composure and ended up getting it done."That's just what the Bulldogs did last season at Washington State (2-0). Kevin Pangos drove the length of the court and hit a layup with two seconds left to give Gonzaga a 71-69 victory last Dec. 5."Last year compared to this year, there's really not a big difference as far as how we're going to match up with them," Cougars coach Kevin Bone said.However, his team won't have to deal with Elias Harris or Kelly Olynyk, who combined for 45 points in last season's thriller.Pangos shot 2 for 12 that night but is coming off his best performance of this season, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 21 points Sunday despite having to briefly leave the game."I just got kneed in the head and was in pain for a little bit," Pangos said. "It kind of woke me up, I guess."Fellow junior guard Gary Bell Jr. tops Gonzaga with 17.3 points per game, hitting 13 of 21 from 3-point range, and will square off again with good friend and fellow Tacoma area native DaVonte Lacy. Lacy is averaging 24.5 points and scored 22 last season against Gonzaga while Bell had 14."I'm assuming they'll be going head-to-head against each other quite a bit, just like last year," Bone said.Lacy had 21 points and hit three 3s in the second half to help Washington State defeat Lamar 84-64 on Saturday in its most recent game.This will be the Cougars' first game on the road, where they were 1-9 last season. They went 1-6 against ranked foes but did win the last one, 73-61 over UCLA on March 6.Washington State has won three of the past seven meetings in this annual, in-state rivalry."We have a lot of respect for (Gonzaga) and what they've done with their program, and again this year they've put together a great team," Bone said. "It's fun to go challenge yourself in sports against the best. At this point, they're the best team we've played."