Zags Tracker: Let's hope COVID stays off the schedule
Cross your fingers, Zag fans.
No, not because this season’s young team is facing the most brutal non-conference schedule in school history.
No, what you need to be hoping is that Gonzaga – and its various opponents – get through the season without serious Covid-19 interruptions.
You only have to look at the chaos that’s beset Washington State and the rest of Pac-12 football to see that the most important item on this season’s to-do list is simply to keep testing negative and play out the schedule.
OK, that said, the schedule itself boggles the mind.
The Zags are lined up to play four teams that arguably fit into the nation’s top 10, including the opener against Kansas on Thanksgiving.
Besides just reeling off the names of powerhouse opponents – KU, Auburn, Tennessee, Baylor, Iowa – there’s the matter of less preparation than any Gonzaga team has endured.
“No scrimmages, no exhibitions,” said Coach Mark Few. “Those are chances to get the kinks out, settle nerves, things like that.
“But we’re jumping right into this thing, and against really good teams.”
THIS WILL be an exciting Gonzaga team, no question, a group shooting for the Final Four.
But you’ll need to stay calm.
Have a little patience.
The Zags will feature four freshmen and a new grad transfer in the regular rotation, and it surely will take some time for this team to shake out and find some continuity.
“We’re going in against some great teams,” Few said, “and we’ll be giving more minutes to freshmen than we ever have.”
Here’s an example of what the young Zags are going to face, especially in their first four games…
The most hyped recruit in recent Gonzaga history, freshman point guard Jalen Suggs, will open his college career being swarmed by KU’s Marcus Garrett – an amazing athlete who was last year’s national defensive player of the year.
There’s no doubt Suggs (and some of the other first-year Zags) eventually should morph into a solid group.
But don’t be surprised if Few uses senior transfer Aaron Cook, a steady hand with a lot of experience, to give Suggs some protection.
YES, YOU will see all the freshmen – in various doses.
These Zags still must rely on vets Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme.
“We have to be sure we’re leaders out there,” Kispert said, “because despite their talent, we can’t expect the freshmen to just come out and play this level of basketball right from the start.”
Make no mistake, though, the Zags hope the kids will have an impact.
Dominick Harris, an all-action slasher-defender, missed his first six 3-point tries during the scrimmage at Kraziness in the Kennel, so he changed up and scored on two acrobatic drives to the hoop.
Julian Strawther is a 6-7 wing player whom Few says “can really score the basketball,” although Strawther has been hampered by a minor injury and might not be available for the first couple of games.
Then there’s Suggs, who looks and plays like a man among boys.
If he can get over some early jitters, Suggs will display both finesse and the physicality he showed as an All-American football player.
Finally, there’s the wild card – big (7-foot, 265 pounds) Oumar Ballo.
Few says Ballo has really come on in practice, and that he’ll be needed to spell Timme and offer some rim protection.
THE GUY I’m really interested in watching is Anton Watson, the 6-8 do-it-all player from Spokane whose freshman season was cut short after six games.
Watson was never at full strength, and eventually had shoulder surgery.
He’s healthy now, and it will be fascinating to see how Few uses him.
Watson showed that he can become a dynamo as the point man on a press, and with so much depth and talent, you may see Gonzaga pressing more than ever this year.
They have the athletes for it, the ability to keep everyone fresh, and maybe the mindset of speeding up games to run opponents into the ground.
Watson also will have a role in protecting the basket with his great timing and long wingspan.
The Zags can’t afford to have Timme in foul trouble, so Watson and Ballo will have to do some work underneath the hoop.
Last year, that was Gonzaga’s weakness, as now-departed center Filip Petrusev failed to handle physical big men like BYU’s Yoeli Childs.
Hopefully, that problem has been solved.
AT SOME point, this unique collection of talent should become a truly dynamic Gonzaga outfit.
What we don’t know, at this point, is exactly how all the pieces ultimately will fit together.
It’s a shame Strawther may get a late start, because he offers a special set of skills – and Kispert will need some backup on the wing.
But there are plenty of tools, even including the quick and resourceful Lithuanian, Martynas Arlauskas.
It wouldn’t be a shock if he played some role going forward.
Few obviously has fiddled with lineups and combinations in practice, something we’re not allowed to see.
That makes it even more fascinating how these Zags will look under the bright lights against historically great Kansas.
Playing this murderer’s row of teams right at the start – teams that have super veterans already in place – runs the risk of shooting some holes in the Zags’ collective confidence.
Few, however, seems to relish this notion of trial by fire.
It won’t take long for a narrative to emerge, since the Zags play KU, Auburn, Tennessee and Baylor – all between Thursday and Dec. 5.
You’ve been waiting on the Zags, I know, and the thrill of seeing some outstanding returnees aided by a potentially great freshman class.
You’re about to get your wish, but remember to have a little patience.
“We’re not the No. 1 team in the country right now,” Few said about being voted into that spot in the AP preseason poll, “but we hope to be No. 1 when it matters.”
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 published every Tuesday.