Thursday, April 25, 2024

ZAGS TRACKER: Zags terrific, but could be better

| December 24, 2020 1:25 AM

Let’s call it a curious week for the No. 1 team in college basketball.

The Zags thumped No. 3 Iowa last Saturday, roaring out of a two-week layoff to display just about everything that has wowed fans to kick off the season.

Jalen Suggs banged in seven 3-pointers in the first half, the transition game was on fire, Joel Ayayi grabbed a whopping 18 rebounds — this was a performance that made you think a national championship could be there to grasp.

Gonzaga followed up the Iowa performance, a third victory over a team ranked No. 7 or higher in their first four outings, with a couple of home games against Northwestern State of Louisiana.

The visitors have played almost entirely on the road so far, came to the Kennel with a 1-7 record and never had a chance to win either of these unusual back-to-back games.

And yet…

The Demons managed to expose some potential weaknesses, things the Zags must address if they hope to reach the super-elite level that they’re hoping to find by NCAA tournament time.

SO WHAT happened to make us wonder if the Zags have an Achilles’ heel?


Is there such a thing as multiple Achilles’ heels?

The guy only had one, didn’t he?

The point is that Gonzaga has two or three issues that need to be addressed, and willing-but-limited Northwestern State showed them to the world during 95-57 and 95-78 defeats on Monday and Tuesday nights.

We should start with the Demons scoring 61 points in the second half during their encore.

Gonzaga held Northwestern State to a 7-of-26 shooting nightmare in the first half, and led 43-17 — but then the Demons were 24 of 40 in the second, including a scorching 10 of 13 behind the arc.

Coach Mark Few, who gets hoarse preaching that any Division I team can get rolling when shots fall, repeated that warning during his postgame Zoom interview.

The Zags never seemed that they’d actually LOSE the Tuesday night game, because even though Northwestern State cut a 26-point deficit to 11 with more than six minutes left, Gonzaga could always keep scoring.

Basically, even with the Demons firing in almost everything, the Zags simply matched them by feeding Drew Timme in the post.

Timme finished with 25 points, and reinforced the idea that he’s almost unstoppable with the ball in the low post.


That’s one of the Zags’ problem positions.

Timme is not a shot-blocker, so defense near the bucket can be a problem.

Larry Owens, who is listed at 6-7 and 300 pounds (he’s had a lot of cheeseburgers since he saw THAT weight), added five buckets to the Demons’ rally by just bullying Timme out of the way.

Giving up those kind of baskets to Luka Garza (30 points for Iowa) is no disgrace, but Owens’ performance — before he began gasping for breath and had to be hauled off — suggests that a powerful man in the middle will make life harder for the Zags.

That problem is compounded by the fact that Timme gets little help.

Anton Watson is a natural shot-blocker, but he’s 6-8 and either not very strong or still protecting that surgically repaired shoulder.

Oumar Ballo is getting into better and better shape, but the kid from Mali had a long way to go in terms of conditioning and being strong on the boards.

Few has chosen not to try 6-11 Russian soph Pavel Zakharov, which is a little bit surprising.

Add all this up and you see that Gonzaga may struggle to defend big men, along with the fact that Timme simply cannot get into foul trouble — as he did against Iowa.

BESIDES THE lack of a proven defender among the bigs, what else could trouble the Zags?

Back up to the Iowa game, and you could write off the Hawkeyes’ late run — along with the Zags’ apparently tiring legs — to that long layoff between games.

But when Northwestern State began just raining 3-balls in the second half on Tuesday night, the Zags couldn’t get out to cover the shooters — which they had done brilliantly early in the game.

The so-called “Death Lineup” which Few uses to close out games (Corey Kispert, Andrew Nembhard, Suggs, Ayayi and Timme), couldn’t stop the Demons from getting open shots.

When the Demons’ Jairus Roberson began throwing in 3-pointers from everywhere but downtown Spokane, Few called on the longer, slightly quicker Aaron Cook to slow him down.

It worked, somewhat.

Still, there was an obvious issue with defending a spread offense.

Were the Zags weary, or could they simply not take things seriously enough until Northwestern State looked capable of creating an actual close game?

Even if it’s the latter explanation, Gonzaga put the Demons away on offense — feeding Timme on almost every trip — rather than getting stops.

They never really got late stops against Iowa, either.

That game came down to the Hawkeyes having to foul and the Zags converting enough free throws to finish the game.

YOU MAY notice that Watson was not part of the conversation in any of these situations — and he’s never likely to be on the floor at the end of a close game since he’s an indifferent free-throw shooter.

Because of the shoulder surgery, Watson hasn’t had as much serious time to work on his shooting — so far this season, he’s tried eight 3-pointers so far and made just one.

In fact, that single long ball and maybe one jumper from the foul line are the only baskets he’s made that weren’t right at the hoop.

If Anton is going to add something to the regular rotation, which Few has hoped he would, a couple of things have to change.

Obviously, he has to shoot well enough from outside — or at least mid-range — that somebody will bother to guard him.

Watson also has to contribute defensively.

He’s instinctive blocking shots and tipping passes with a useful long wingspan, but the jury is out on whether he’s quick enough to defend on the perimeter, or strong enough (remember the surgery) to handle someone bigger.

Some good news…

The defensive solution, assuming he gets playing time and understands the proper rotations, could be freshman Dominick Harris.

I’M GOING to say, right now, that Harris will be an impact player for Gonzaga, maybe a real star.

He can shoot it from distance, slash quickly to the hoop, and defend the ball with good movement and enthusiasm.

Few needs to get him on the court, and perhaps is kicking himself for not using Harris and frosh wing Julian Strawther a little bit more in the two games against Northwestern State.

There are still questions about this team, no matter the No. 1 ranking.

For instance, how can Ayayi — often the Zags’ most valuable contributor — wind up with 11 points along with those 18 boards against Iowa, then come right back two nights later and go scoreless with ONE rebound against Northwestern State?

Right now, Ayayi looks afraid to shoot, as though his confidence is low (he’s 2 for 14 behind the arc through six games) and he seems to be deferring to other scorers.

Recall, however, that Ayayi hit several dagger 3-pointers in crucial situations last year.

At the WCC tournament, he did just about everything well, and was voted the Most Outstanding Player.

Don’t misunderstand.


The Zags are terrific and then some, but…

They could be better, I suspect — or maybe it’s more accurate to say they could be less vulnerable.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is normally published each Tuesday.


YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard goes for a layup during the second half of Tuesday's game against Northwestern State in Spokane.