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DETROIT — When Gonzaga lost 77-76 in overtime at Santa Clara on Jan. 11, it sent the Bulldogs spiraling out of the AP Top 25 poll in the month of January for the first time since 2016.

Losing to Broncos for the first time in 13 years dropped the Zags to 11-5 — their worst record at the point on the calendar since 2011 — and left them on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble in Bracketology projections around the country.

While Gonzaga had defeated brand-name programs like Syracuse, USC and UCLA during nonconference play, the subsequent struggles of those teams throughout the season left the resume sorely lacking pop. 

“Whew, we had some pretty rough patches there early, if you watched some of our practices and even some of our early games,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Thursday.

It’s those rough patches which make Gonzaga’s ninth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance so fulfilling for Few and his squad, which takes on No. 1 seed Purdue in the Midwest Regional semifinals on Friday at Little Caesars Arena.

The game will be the ultimate measuring stick for Gonzaga, which lost 73-63 against the Boilermakers on Nov. 20 in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. While the Bulldogs have obviously improved since those early-season struggles, the question is whether they have improved enough to solicit a different outcome against the top-seeded Boilermakers.

“The biggest thing is probably just how many games we’ve played since then,” redshirt junior center Graham Ike said. “Our connectivity and our synergy is on a whole ‘nother level than it was when we were playing our fourth game against Purdue. We’re clicking right now on the right page.”

Following four years of illustrious success with three-time All-American forward Drew Timme as a focal point of the roster, the Zags were still establishing their identity during the first meeting with Purdue. It was a process that took months. While the Boilermakers returned All-American star Zach Edey and rank No. 11 nationally in minutes continuity at KenPom, Gonzaga had to find itself again with a roster ranking No. 218 in minutes continuity.

As Ike suggested, chemistry couldn’t be manufactured overnight, and it was sorely lacking during a 4-4 stretch between Dec. 9 and Jan. 11.

“It was just, ‘Hey, listen, if we don’t get going and playing better on both ends of the floor and figure this thing out, then it’s probably not going to happen,'” Few said. “‘We’ve got to figure this thing out.’ We did, and we did it probably in the hardest of ways, right?”

With their backs against the wall in the effort to construct a resume worthy of NCAA Tournament at-large consideration, the Zags won 89-85 at Kentucky on Feb. 10 to ignite a late-season surge that hasn’t relented. 

Perhaps the most impressive sign of the Zags’ improvement came in last weekend’s 89-68 second-round win over No. 4 seed Kansas. Gonzaga outscored the Jayhawks 46-24 in a head-turning, second-half performance that has put the rest of the bracket on notice entering the second weekend of the Big Dance.

Key to the renaissance have been Gonzaga’s veterans. Ike is averaging 19.5 points per game and shooting 62.5% from the floor over the 11 games dating back to the Kentucky contest, when he went for 23 points on 11-of-19 shooting. After sitting out the 2022-23 season at Wyoming while injured, his contributions have been Timme-esque in recent weeks. 

Just seven players log regular minutes in Gonzaga’s rotation, and two of them are freshmen Dusty Stromer and Braden Huff. As the duo’s contributions have tapered off in recent weeks — not uncommon for young players experiencing the rigors of a full college basketball season for the first time — everyone else around them has either held steady or upped their production.

Junior guard Nolan Hickman is averaging 15.8 points and shooting 50% from 3-point range over the past 11 games. Junior point guard Ryan Nembhard is averaging an absurd 9.4 assists over the same span.

“We knew we had to finish strong,” Few said after his team’s win over Kansas. “We did that. We’ve just always impressed upon them, you know, we get in this thing, we know how to win in this thing. This is not a new thing for our program, for the staff and for the players that are in here. I think they really bought into that and believed that. Especially the new ones.”

Gonzaga has already overcome giants just to get here. The Bulldogs’ journey to March Madness featured more adversity than what Few’s teams have typically encountered during a stretch of seven consecutive seasons finishing inside the top 10 of the AP poll. 

One of the roadblocks came just before the season began when key transfer Steele Venters was lost for the season due to injury, leaving a relatively lean roster even lighter on depth.

But the Bulldogs have found a way to reach the second weekend again, even with one of the shortest benches of Few’s 25-year tenure. Fittingly, the first team to hand them a loss this season now awaits.

In the first game with Purdue, Few said his team committed too many turnovers (13) and attempted too many 3-pointers (6 of 32). But Purdue, which turned out to be the nation’s top 3-point shooting team at 40.9% entering the Sweet 16, also wasn’t at its best. The Boilermakers made just 4 of 17 attempts from beyond the arc against the Zags in November. The 23.5% mark is their worst in a game this season.

“We’re sharing it better, and I think we’re much more purposeful on the offensive end,” Few said. “But they’re better too, so I think that will be the biggest challenge there.”



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