Salt Lake City — It was a normal morning for Brandon Clarke. He didn’t do anything special. He had the same breakfast he always has on road trips — cheesy eggs, bacon, pancakes and some fruit — and did the same daily routine.
He watched some film, practiced with his team. Suited up and took the floor to face Baylor in the Round of 32. But once he was on the court, it was as if he had spent all day preparing to power up into some kind of basketball superbeast.
“I just felt like I was really focused tonight,” Clarke said. “Obviously this was a big game and I know in during big games you have to bring that fire and that focus, and I thought I brought that tonight.”
Saying he thought he brought the fire and focus, and the manner in which he said it — calmly and quietly — did no justice to Clarke's Saturday night performance.
In 36 minutes, Clarke tied his career-high with a game-high 36 points on 15 of 18 shooting in addition to pulling down eight rebounds, blocking five shots and swiping two steals.
“Somebody said we fed the beast but the beast is still hungry,” Josh Perkins said.
Five minutes into the first half, the ball was tipped away from a Baylor player. Geno Crandall collected the ball and chest-passed it up the court to Clarke, who had begun to transition back on offense. Clarke took two dribbles, then rose for a windmill dunk — something that you would expect to see in the NBA dunk contest.
“[Dunking] is really easy for him, unlike the rest of us,” head coach Few said.
“I feel like the dunks come easy to me,” Clarke said. “You know, I have had times when I practice the more tougher dunks, but I’m not out there practicing them.”
“He’s a two-time dunk champion,” Corey Kispert added, referring to the dunk contests at Kraziness in the Kennel.
“Over you?” Few asked.
“Yes, over me.”
A few possessions after his highlight reel jam, Clarke took a bounce pass on the break from Perkins for two-handed flush. His final dunk of the first half came after Clarke put on the perfect display of how to handle Baylor's 1-3-1 zone defense, and gave GU a 35-16 lead.
Clarke’s offensive performance — his 36 points and five blocks — was the first of its kind since Shaquille O’Neil played in the 1992 NCAA Tournament and scored 35 points and blocked five shots.
“That’s really cool because, obviously, Shaq is one of the all-time greats so to even have my name near his is something that is really cool to me,” Clarke said.
Clarke’s 110 blocks on the season is now best in the nation. And, he has tallied more blocked shots than he has missed (106). But, according to Baylor coach Scott Drew, none of those were what he was most impressed with. Instead, it’s something that didn’t even show up on the stat sheet.
“He drew nine fouls,” Scott said. “There’s a reason he’s on the draft board.”
Clarke joined the Zags last season after transferring from San Jose State, a program that was going through a lot of turbulence. Last season, Clarke went through Gonzaga’s famous redshirt program with a hyperfocus on improving his jump shot, which he will be the first one to tell you, was not good. At all.
However, he has now scored more 3-pointers in his one active season with GU than he did in his two years as a Spartan and has cemented himself as one of, if not the, best player on Gonzaga’s roster.
“It’s been something that’s really fun for me. This is easily the most fun I’ve had playing ball ever,” Clarke said. “So, I’m really blessed to have the chance to come here and to play for the Zags. Obviously, it was tough last year not playing. But it was something that was huge for me. It is something I wouldn’t change.”
Kendra Andrews is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow her on Twitter: @kendra__andrews.