WCC showdown: San Francisco takes aim at No. 5 Gonzaga

Challengers to Gonzaga have come and gone in the West Coast Conference for most of the past 20 years.

Schools like BYU, Saint Mary's, Santa Clara and San Diego have all fired and fallen back, unable to beat the Bulldogs.

There's a new contender on the scene.

San Francisco will take its shot Saturday night.

The Dons, enjoying their best season since the late Quintin Dailey was scoring 25.2 points per game in 1981-82, will host No. 5 Gonzaga in a WCC showdown at sold-out Memorial Gym.

This could be for a Top 25 ranking for USF (14-2, 2-0), whose two losses (No. 21 Buffalo, UCSB) came by a combined six points. The Dons have had a week off since edging Pepperdine 72-69 last Saturday in Malibu, and they appear to have a real chance to be the first WCC team not named BYU or St. Mary's to beat the Bulldogs since San Diego pulled it off in February 2014.

"We've got really good senior leadership," USF coach Kyle Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle after a 76-72 win Jan. 3 over St. Mary's. "They want to give themselves the best chance to win. I think that's part of why they behave that way. They have a high expectation, high self-esteem."

The Dons are led by upperclassmen, which is what it usually takes for WCC teams to hang with and beat Gonzaga. They have made clutch plays at the end of both conference wins, including Frankie Ferrari's 3-pointer with 14 seconds left at Pepperdine that gave them a one-point lead.

And they also have a go-to player in sophomore guard Charles Minlend, who is averaging 15.4 points and 5.4 rebounds. Minlend stuffed the stat sheet in the victory over Pepperdine, finishing with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

Another performance of that quality would be highly useful against the Bulldogs (15-2, 2-0). They coasted to a 67-36 win Thursday night at home against overmatched Pacific, overcoming the Tigers' slowdown tactics and holding them to 26.7 percent shooting from the field.

"We didn't foul them much," Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke said. "That took them out of their offense ... when that happens, it's really tough to beat us because we have such a potent offense."

USF will face the same problem every other team faces when confronted with the Zags. Does it try to concentrate on Rui Hachimura and risk getting burned by Zach Norvell or Clarke, or does it play it straight defensively and have Hachimura potentially put up 30?

The Dons have been sound defensively, limiting opponents to 38.9 percent shooting and allowing only 61.2 points per game. But in Gonzaga, it faces an opponent ringing up 92.0 points per game and hitting 52.7 percent of its field goal attempts. The Bulldogs also have made more free throws (316) than their opponents have attempted (288).

Gonzaga coach Mark Few is looking forward to seeing how his team responds to what should be a raucous atmosphere.

"It's for first place in the league," he said. "It's going to be a good challenge for us."

--Field Level Media

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