Sunday, April 21, 2024

ZAGS TRACKER: Rolling, but work to be done with depth, 3's

| December 31, 2020 1:20 AM

It ought to be about the kids.

Gonzaga’s freshmen got plenty of playing time in the last two non-conference games, and we could fill up today’s space going over their performances, but…

Honestly, the future is now for the Zags.

We’ve seen those wins over four ranked teams over Gonzaga’s first seven games, and you could call the victories over Kansas, Iowa and Virginia blowouts – or dominant enough efforts that there were no pressure free throws at the finish.

Only West Virginia made things interesting, and that was the game in which Jalen Suggs went down in serious pain during the first half — making almost everyone think he’d perhaps done his Achilles tendon – thus helping the Mountaineers to lead at halftime.

But once fears of a long-term injury were eliminated and Suggs returned, the Zags ran West Virginia out of breath and breezed home in that game, too.


Well, there are all sorts of fun talking points concerning frosh contributors Dominick Harris, Julian Strawther and Oumar Ballo, and any of the three may make a really important play somewhere along the line — but none of that trio (except Ballo, more on that later) is likely to decide whether or not Gonzaga reaches its season goal.

Since most Zags fans already are shouting about it, we can’t exactly ignore this…

The target is to win the university’s first national championship.

It’s unfair, honestly, to ignore the game-by-game thrills and excitement this team produces, or to suggest that anything short of what players call “the natty” would render the season a disappointment.

Yet, that’s where we are.

This Gonzaga team appears so good, so balanced, so relentlessly efficient offensively that, by now, pretty much everyone is on board.

These Zags can (and Vegas oddsmakers suggest “should”) win the whole thing in March.

I’m repeating myself, I know, but since the entire Zag Nation is thinking almost entirely about “One Shining Moment,” that really has to be our No. 1 subject.

SO, ON the topic of beating the best teams in the country when it matters most, I can only see two possible weak spots.

First, interior defense.

Gonzaga already has faced America’s best big man, Iowa’s Luka Garza.

The Zags couldn’t really stop Garza (30 points), but they did manage to hurry him, and still hustle out to Iowa’s excellent outside shooters – making things tough enough that the Hawkeyes were 4 of 22 behind the arc.

It’s worth noting, though, that both Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, who combine to average about 40 points per game, fouled out in the effort to stop Garza and still slow down Iowa’s other scorers.

Losing Kispert and Timme is not a formula you’d want to see repeated in, say, an Elite Eight game.

Anton Watson is capable of helping inside, if he continues to trust his surgically repaired shoulder and throws his weight around a little bit more as the season progresses.

That brings us to Ballo (7-foot, 265 pounds), who looked like a man driving a very slow car on a busy Los Angeles freeway at the beginning of the year.

Oumar, though, is speeding up his own game, and has started to look like he might really help with minutes and production as the season goes on.

THE ZAGS have played just nine games, and yet Ballo (still just a kid at 18 years old) looks as though he’s had a full year of improvement.

Ballo appears to be a star in the making, but as we noted just minutes ago, Zags fans are concerned with what he can contribute to THIS year’s title push.

It might turn out to be something significant.

The Zags’ second area of concern is their 3-point shooting.

Yes, I know that sounds a little crazy when you consider that Kispert is shooting 51.7 percent on 58 tries from downtown, and that Suggs hit seven 3-balls in the first half to flatten Iowa before that “showdown” even got going.

Unfortunately, until this week’s games against Northern Arizona and Dixie State, no one else in the regular rotation could hit the ocean from a boat in terms of 3-point shooting.

In fact, nobody has improved much – except Joel Ayayi.

The Zags’ rebounding wizard was a clutch 3-point shooter last year, but he not only hadn’t hit many long balls prior to the NAU game (3 for 18), he wasn’t even looking for his shot.

“HE’S BEEN turning down a lot of shots in these other games, been looking to slow play our ball-screen actions,” Coach Mark Few said. “We told him he needs to hunt shots. He was thinking drives in prior games, and he’s having great success driving, but he’s more than capable as a 3-point shooter.”

Ayayi clearly came out hunting against NAU and Dixie State, hitting seven of nine 3-point tries and using that efficiency to set up his drives and board work – winding up with 38 total points in the two games.

If we consider Ayayi to be out of his self-described “rough patch” (common soccer phrase in Europe), what about the rest of the roster?

Can anyone else help in keeping defenses honest when the Zags are whipping the ball around to find an open shooter?

Good question.

AMONG regular rotation players, Anton Watson is a 1 for 11 marksman — if that’s an appropriate word — while Andrew Nembhard is 6 for 25 and Aaron Cook 3 for 17.


That’s scary but also odd, because as Few pointed out, these guys have been getting open looks, and shooting within the correct offensive framework.

The two veteran transfers both hit more than a third of their 3-pointers at their previous stops -- Nembhard at Florida and Cook at Southern Illinois.

We’re talking about a lot of shots, too, not guys coming off the bench to hit one cameo bomb at the buzzer.

Speaking of the bench, though, can Gonzaga look to its own reserves for some 3-ball shooting?


Freshman scorers Harris (3 for 11 from deep) and Strawther (zip for eight) don’t exactly fill you with confidence at the moment – although Harris was a very good outside shooter in high school, and most of his 3-pointers haven’t really been contested.

“Shots not fallin’…back in gym,” Harris tweeted after the Dixie State game.

He wasn’t kidding, either.

Harris has stayed late in the empty Kennel to work on his shot after three straight games.

Seems like there are quite a few guys who could send that same tweet, and maybe join Dom for postgame work.

The Zags will need more 3-pointers eventually.


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 will be published on Tuesdays, beginning next week with WCC play.


YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard grabs a rebound during the second half of a Dec. 22 game against Northwestern State in Spokane