Clarke’s 36 points leads Gonzaga past Baylor

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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The debate over who Gonzaga’s best player is has raged throughout the season.

Some will say that it is Rui Hachimura, the team’s leading scorer and the biggest star on the roster. Others will tell you that it is point guard Josh Perkins, the maestro of the program’s ball-screen heavy offense.

The truth, however, has probably always been that Mark Few’s best player is the best defender in all of college basketball: Brandon Clarke.

What’s inarguable is that Clarke was the best player on the floor for the Zags in their 83-71 second round win over No. 9-seed Baylor. The 6-foot-9 forward went for 36 points on a ridiculous 15-for-18 shooting performance, adding seven boards, three assists, two steals and five blocks to his stat line for good measure. He became the first player to post 30 points and five blocks in a game since former No. 1 pick Joe Smith did it for Maryland nearly a quarter century ago.

Clarke’s story should be celebrated.

A no-name recruit coming out of high school, he had one offer: San Jose State, which is one of the worst programs in all of college basketball. That’s in part because he didn’t grow into his 6-foot-7 frame until he was a senior in high school. He is one of the twitchiest athletes that you’ll find in college basketball this side of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, but he told reporters that he couldn’t dunk until he was 16 years old and a junior in high school.

He spent two seasons there, putting up numbers and developing his body — he added 30 pounds and five inches to his vertical — before transferring to Gonzaga, where he improved his shooting stroke to the point that he is now a guy that is going to end up being a top 20 pick in the NBA draft this season.

While the 36 points on Saturday will be the talking point, Clarke’s value is on the defensive end of the floor, where he is a rim-protector and a switchable defender for a team that doesn’t have a ton of great individual defenders on it.

He’s the difference-maker for Gonzaga.

And he proved as much on Saturday night.