For the first time since their loss to No. 12 Kansas in the 2001 NCAA Tournament, Cal State Northridge will face a ranked non conference opponent. The Matadors are in Spokane, Wash. today for their toughest test of the season against No. 17 Gonzaga at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“It’ll be a great experience for our guys,” Northridge coach Bobby Braswell said. “The reason we scheduled this game was we wanted to get our guys ready for conference and everything else.”
The Bulldogs (7-2) are coming off a 51-47 loss to No. 8 Washington State but present a challenge unlike any of the teams Northridge has faced while winning seven of its first eight games.
Rodrigue Mels, the Matadors sixth leading scorer at 8.5 points per game is “day to day” according to Braswell. Mels didn’t suit up Wednesday against Utah Valley State after reaggravating a groin injury. However, the Matadors will have the services of freshman forward Michael Lizarraga, who was cleared to play after his appeal to the NCAA was granted.
Lizarraga, who is deaf and played at the California School for the Deaf, has had to adjust to the Matadors signals, Braswell said. He dressed and participated in warm-ups Wednesday but did not play. Braswell said there will be times this season when the Matadors will need his 240 pound body inside.
“He’s very strong, very tough kid, gives us a physical presence on the inside that sometimes we miss a little bit,” Braswell said.
Despite Northridge’s gaudy record early in the season, the Matadors face an uphill battle playing in one of the toughest arenas in the country. Still Tremaine Townsend, who’s averaging close to a double double at 11 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, thinks they have a chance.
“We expect the crowd to be loud and maybe underestimate us and look past us,” Townsend said. “But we’re going into practice (Thursday) working hard and getting ready because we’re not gonna let no team look past us and we’re gonna come and give it all we got.”
Gonzaga’s early season schedule, as always, has been one of the most demanding in the country. Already the Bulldogs have played against Texas Tech, at St. Joseph’s, at Connecticut, and versus Washington State. Coming off a loss should only serve as motivation. Gonzaga scheduled the Matadors along with Northern Colorado in what appears to be a chance to relax before it plays Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Georgia in a brutal four game stretch.
The last time Northridge made a blip on the national radar was in 2001 when it beat No. 12 UCLA early in the season. Now the Matadors have another chance.
“We’re going to have to play perfect basketball to beat them,” Braswell said. “There’s no doubt about it.”