With a new head coach the Washington State Cougars come into Gonzaga's Kennel with a new attitude and a new game - a winning attitude under a coach who has guided teams to major conference championships and a Final Four. Dick Bennett, former head man at Wisconsin, has a legit All-American point guard leading his first team from Pullman. 6'6" Marcus Moore is averaging a nifty 14 points per game (ppg) and over 4 assists. Deceiving? Yes. The senior is putting up good numbers despite learning a totally new style of offense and defense. The adjustment has been difficult at times as WSU has had some unsightly games thus far, most notably versus Southern Utah and Fresno State, both losses in which the Cougars could not buy a basket and set record scoring lows. Zag fans won't soon forget how Moore put 42 points on the Bulldogs last year, so he is certainly capable of going off at any time! But Bennett's style is not about looking pretty. It's a deliberately slow but effective offense when clicking properly, and the defense is the cornerstone - a tough, hardnosed, in-your-face defense. Overall, opposing teams find it difficult to score much beyond 50 points. Obviously, Gonzaga will try to change that to 70 points or more. And with Thomas Kelati and Randy Green shooting treys and almost getting 10ppg, the Zags must score and play D themselves. Wazzu is not a strong inside team with Shami Gill and Ezenwa Ukeagu being most effective with about 5-6 ppg. Newcomer Jeff Varem and ex-St. Mary's player Chris Schlatter add a nice inside-outside game. It shapes up to be a game of opposing styles of Dick Bennett and Mark Few; it will all come down to what team executes best and is able to impose its will on the other.
Marc Axton (red) and Alvin Snow (red) give the Eagles well-rounded games.
Will this be the year that the Eastern Eagles finally sneak past the Zags? Two years ago it was a 16 point halftime lead that disappeared in The Kennel as Dan Dickau led Gonzaga back to an OT win. Last year Blake Stepp led a 2nd-half charge from way back to once again foil another great effort by the Eagles. But so far EWU has not had the success that coach Ray Giacoletti had anticipated, losing to teams they had beaten last year. Senior guard Alvin Snow continues to be the leader, scoring 15 ppg, with UW transfer Josh Barnard bombing treys at a 56% clip to average 12 ppg. 6'7" forward Marc Axton has picked up his scoring and gets over 10 ppg while PG Brendon Merritt gets 8 ppg and freshmen bigs Matt Nelson and Paul Butorac man the interior. It's a young frontcourt for Eastern, and Gonzaga should be able to exploit that. Guarding Josh Barnard will be key, he cannot be left alone to spot up and shoot. This will be an exciting New Year's Eve game in the soldout Spokane Arena.
The squad from Missoula is having a tough season thus far and will enter The Kennel on January 4 to help Gonzaga wrap up its nonconference schedule. Coach Pat Kennedy brings some nice talent to Spokane, however. What Zag fan can forget guard Kevin Criswell's performance last year? He had a career game and put Gonzaga in a hole early. Criswell is averaging 11 ppg this year, second to team mate Kamarr Davis at over 12 ppg. After these two it is a very balanced attack with guard Roy Booker, forward Brent Cummings, forward Steve Horne and center Jon Seyfert all averaging 9 ppg to 5.5 ppg. This is a game that Gonzaga should win on talent but the Griz will remember the lead they gave up last year and will come out playing hard.
Gonzaga is favored to win all three of these games. If they do, the Zags will enter WCC play with a record of 10-2.