No. 8 Gonzaga hosts Denver
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It's that time of the year when there's a strange sound in the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs returned home to a full house for Tuesday's win over Texas-Arlington, but with students away for winter break, the decibel level was decidedly different.
The No. 8 Zags, who host Denver on Friday in Spokane, Wash., won't have the Kennel Club to root them on until a Jan. 17 matchup with Loyola Marymount.
"With our students not here, the crowd is a lot less energetic," guard Corey Kispert told the (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. "There's a lot less energy in the building.
"So, we have to create our own energy as a team. I do that by talking louder. I have a loud voice. I have for a long time."
The Zags (10-2) needed that energy after losing back-to-back games -- against Tennessee and North Carolina -- for the first time in four years.
"Just across the board, we need to toughen up," Kispert said. "A lot of plays in the last couple games where we were really soft. Watching the film, it's kind of embarrassing, especially in Chapel Hill."
Perhaps the travel miles took a toll.
After a Nov. 15 win over Texas A&M in Spokane, the Bulldogs traveled to Hawaii, Nebraska, Phoenix and North Carolina.
"Somebody said we've traveled like 14,000 miles in 20-something days," head coach Mark Few told The Spokesman-Review. "It's not just the physical toll, it's the emotional toll of trying to get fired up. It takes a toll on everybody. We've got one more before Christmas and then we get a couple days off."
Also taking a toll on Gonzaga's November and December was the absence of Killian Tillie, the Zags' leading returning scorer.
The 6-foot-10 forward had surgery on his right ankle in October and was expected to miss eight weeks. This week, Tillie had his walking boot removed.
Backup point guard Geno Crandall, who's been out since breaking his hand in practice last month, also got some good news.
"They've seen some new bone growth on the X-ray. Everything is healing on time and it's kind of on the original timetable of 4-6 weeks," Crandall said. "I've been able to do some noncontact defensive stuff and some light contact."
The graduate transfer said he hopes to play against Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 31.
Denver (5-8) brings with it some familiar faces for Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins.
Perkins, who grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver, spent many hours in the gym with Pioneers coach Rodney Billups and older brother Chauncey, a five-time NBA all-star.
"It's really cool," Perkins said. "The Billups name obviously means a lot to me so to have Rodney in here and playing against him, it's big time. Those guys have helped me my entire career."
Perkins and Denver's leading scorer Ronnie Harrell Jr. (14.3 points per game), a graduate transfer from Creighton played together on the Chauncey Billups Elite AAU teams.
On Monday against Montana State, Harrell scored 19 points in the first half as Denver rolled to leads of 19-2 and 34-9 in a 76-64 victory.
Harrell is one of seven new Pioneers players, including five freshmen, this season, and Billups has depended on him and Colorado transfer Tory Stewart-Miller to help the younger players.
"They are amazing in our locker room. They're amazing out on the floor. They're amazing at growing our culture," Billups said of the seniors.
"Tori and Ronnie bring that leadership and that ownership to our program."
Updated December 20, 2018