Brandon Clarke has played in two prior league tournaments in Las Vegas in his collegiate career.
Neither of those previous experiences can even come close to what he is going through this year as one of the most important players on the No. 1 team in the nation.
“I came here to be part of a team that has a chance to win the NCAA Tournament,” he said after Gonzaga advanced to the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament with a 100-74 win over Pepperdine on Monday night at Orleans Arena. “To be ranked No. 1 right now, I feel like we have a really good chance at that and we’re set up very well for that. I would say (it’s what I expected), if not more. I couldn’t have seen it going this well.”
Clarke will lead the Bulldogs in Tuesday’s championship game against St. Mary’s, a 69-62 winner over San Diego in Monday’s other semifinal.
The games are certainly more meaningful this time of year at Gonzaga than they were at San Jose State, where Clarke played his first two seasons. The Spartans lost in the first round of the Mountain West tournament in each of those seasons before he decided to transfer to Gonzaga and sit out last year.
The 6-foot-8-inch, 215-pound junior forward had quite an impact in his first season for the Bulldogs. He was named all-WCC first team as well as being tabbed the league’s top newcomer and best defensive player.
Clarke had 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots in Monday’s semifinal victory.
He lists beating Duke in the Maui Invitational as his favorite moment of the season thus far, but Clarke and his teammates have higher aspirations.
“I feel we have a team feeling that if we don’t make the Final Four, we’ve kind of failed because we have all the pieces this year,” he said. “We’re ranked No. 1 right now. We feel we have a really good team and a really good chance to make it there.”
Clarke is a major reason. He has brought a defensive presence, particularly as a rim protector, that Gonzaga has often lacked.
Bulldogs coach Mark Few said Clarke was a factor in the team’s success last season without playing in a game.
“He’s had an amazing two years for us,” Few said. “He was an integral part of our development last year just helping us get ready for high-level games.
“Brandon is just an awesome human being who has a drive who came to a place because he wanted to win and get better and develop. He’s done that. He’s gotten a lot better, and consequently we’ve gotten a lot better. It’s definitely been a win-win.”
Clarke could have been wrapping up his senior year at San Jose State had he not elected to transfer when Dave Wojcik resigned as coach in July 2017. While Clarke is preparing for a potential national championship run, the Spartans are suffering through a 4-26 campaign as they prepare to play in the Mountain West tournament.
“I haven’t felt more pressure here,” Clarke said. “It’s just been a lot more fun.”
Clarke is enjoying life at the top of the college basketball world, though he doesn’t harbor any animosity toward those that passed him over when he was coming out of high school at Phoenix’s Desert Vista, where he helped them to a state championship game.
“I wasn’t as big and strong as I am now when I was in high school, so I can kind of see why some teams would pass on me,” he said. “But I’m just super blessed to be able to be here now and play for this team.”
It’s been worth the wait for both Clarke and Gonzaga.