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SALT LAKE CITY — Tommy Lloyd, the Gonzaga men’s basketball assistant who has helped developed GU big men like Zach Collins, Domantas Sabonis and Kelly Olynyk, figured that transfer Brandon Clarke would help the Zags defensively this season.
When Clarke first arrived in Spokane after two years at San Jose State, he was blocking everything Rui Hachimura, the Zags’ lottery prospect, attempted.
But 36 points in the second round of the NCAA tournament? No one saw that coming — least of all Baylor.
Behind a monster performance from Clarke (15-of-18 from the field for a school NCAA tournament-record 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks), Gonzaga beat Baylor 83-71 in the second round. With the victory, GU advances to its fifth consecutive Sweet 16, the longest active streak of any team in the nation. Not bad for a small school in eastern Washington whose name — it’s the Zags, not the “Zogs” — still can’t be pronounced correctly by many people in college basketball.
“There’s a reason he’s on the draft board,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said to laughter afterward about Clarke’s performance. “I was a little surprised, I thought we could block him out a little bit better but man, he really has a quick jump.”
Gonzaga has had its share of stellar bigs, but none are like Clarke, a late blooming athletic freak whose second jump is as impressive, if not more, than his first. A natural rim protector, he has blossomed this year as an offensive threat, known best for follow dunks that ignite the GU crowd.
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A sampling of Clarke’s abilities: Early in the second half, Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie missed a lob dunk, and it bounced high off the rim. Clark jumped up, grabbed it and slammed it home himself. It was one of five dunks for Clarke, who admitted postgame that he sometimes practices his highlight plays but for the most part, it just comes naturally.
“Dunks are really easy for him, unlike the rest of us,” cracked head coach Mark Few.
Clarke went through the famed Gonzaga redshirt program by himself last season, which drew praise and respect from GU strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight, who acknowledged that it’s especially tough “when you don’t get to share the misery with anyone.”
There were times, Clarke said, that he wondered what he had got himself into. The doubts usually came when he was ordered by Knight to run stairs with sandbags hanging over his shoulders and neck.
“Now it’s something I’m super proud of,” Clarke said. “It’s really helped me.”
Clarke swears he was not any sort of world class athlete, or high jump champion, in high school. He dabbled in volleyball, but didn’t last longer than his freshman year of high school in Phoenix. He might want to give it another go. Laurent Tillie, the father of Killian Tillie and a volleyball Olympian, watched Clarke at one practice and wondered if the 6-foot-8 junior was playing the wrong sport.
Clarke’s ability to take players off the dribble and elevate over defenders in the post makes him unique, Lloyd said.
“He has a beautiful awkwardness about him,” said Lloyd, who compared Clarke to former NBA star Shawn Marion. “He drives, it’s kinda awkward for someone his size, but then he spins really easily, he’s got a great second jump, a great floater. He’s a special player.”
Knight, the strength and conditioning coach, went for a more recent comparison: he said Clarke’s fast-twitch explosiveness is Usain Bolt-like.
Two years ago, Gonzaga qualified for its first Final Four, where it fell to North Carolina in the national championship game. The run came as a surprise to Clarke, who had picked them to lose in the Elite Eight.
Now, as a member of the team, he’s thinking they’ve got a chance to go even further than 2017 — like maybe win the national championship.