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Brandon Clarke's Breakthrough Season Holds the Key to Gonzaga's Title Hopes

Super-productive forward Brandon Clarke never imagined he'd be an essential part of the best college basketball team out west.

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When Brandon Clarke was a 175-pound senior at Desert Vista High in Phoenix, he could not have imagined this. How could he? He was two years removed from being 6'2" and dunking for the first time. He had three mid-major offers. Even he admits now that he wasn't a high-level prospect.

So to be the key cog on the No. 1 team in the country? To win WCC Defensive Player of the Year? To be tied for second in the country in blocks? To sit fifth in the nation in field goal percentage? To rank eighth—one spot below Zion Williamson—on KenPom’s player of the year rankings at the end of Gonzaga’s regular season? To show up on the midseason Naismith Award watch list? To get first-round NBA draft buzz?

This is all new for Clarke, the San Jose State transfer who has been Gonzaga’s most pleasant surprise in his first year of action in Spokane, averaging 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds, garnering first-team all-WCC honors, and helping to bolster perhaps the nation’s best frontcourt next to fellow first-round hopeful Rui Hachimura.

“I could not imagine this,” he says. “It’s been great. I feel like I’m living the dream. Playing for the No. 1 team in the country is not something I thought I would be doing four years ago.”

Clarke was a valuable player at San Jose State. As a freshman, he was named the Mountain West’s Sixth Man of the Year. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, and his 2.6 blocks per game was 15th-best in Division I. He put good numbers against high-major teams, like a 12 and 11 outing against Washington State and 14 points against a top-25 St. Mary’s team. The Spartans went 14–16, and that summer David Wojcik abruptly resigned. (Wojcik was later sued in federal court by a former player for allegedly making homophobic remarks and exhibiting racially discriminatory treatment.) Clarke began to feel like greener pastures were elsewhere.

“Everybody was kind of telling me that I was like a really good player on a team that wasn't very good,” Clarke says.

So when he decided to transfer and Gonzaga came calling, it was an easy fit.

The addition of Clarke was only one reason why the Bulldogs were singled out as national title contenders last fall. (It is worth noting that the Gonzaga newcomer who received the most preseason hype was Geno Crandall, the graduate transfer guard from North Dakota who has played a complementary role after battling some injuries.) But Clarke has been an essential part of the West Coast’s best team, especially after injuries limited leading returning scorer Killian Tillie to 11 games during the regular season.

Clarke has always prided himself on his shot-blocking—he set San Jose State’s single-season record for blocks before transferring—and this year it has become one of the biggest boosters to his case as one of the nation’s most valuable players. He set Gonzaga’s single-season mark with his 71st block on Feb. 7, during the Zags’ 24th game of the season, with a month left before tournament time. He’s already in the top 10 in school history for all-time blocks with just the 102 (and counting) he has posted this season. “I was pretty good at it at San Jose State,” Clarke says, "but my reaction time has gotten better.”

In Clarke and Hachimura—“The best player I’ve played with,” Clarke says—Gonzaga as an unmatched frontcourt, with two players who can bang inside, step out to shoot and defend well. Clarke had 17 points, five rebounds and six blocks while Hachimura came up with the game-saving defensive play in the Maui Invitational championship game win over Duke.

Gonzaga’s most recent championship game performance was a little less inspiring: Clarke’s 16 points and eight rebounds could not salvage one of his team’s worst offensive nights of the season, as St. Mary’s pulled a stunning 60–47 upset to claim the WCC tournament title. The Zags went from near-locks for a No. 1 seed to hovering near the cutoff point for the top line as the other contenders prepared to tip off their respective conference tournaments. The bigger prize awaits at the beginning of April.

“Championship or bust,” Clarke said earlier this month, before the conference tournament. “We all know that we have the talent that it takes to make it there. If we don’t make it there and win it, then we failed.”

And as for that next, next thing, the NBA? “It’s hard to say,” says Clarke on whether he’ll pass on his final year of eligibility and head for the pros.

For now, though, Clarke can reflect on his journey from scrawny teen to potential March Madness X-factor for a national title contender. It’s been worth the wait. “It’s been everything and more,” he says. “I’m really blessed to be able to play here.”