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ZAGS TRACKER: WCC games feel a bit like 'Groundhog Day'

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| February 2, 2021 1:00 AM

Happy Groundhog Day!

And yep, we should forgive Gonzaga opponents if they all are beginning to feel like Bill Murray in that hilarious movie.

By the way…

Punxsutawney Phil, the official groundhog of record, is predicting more blowouts for the Zags.

Just in case you were wondering.

Right, moving along…

You’re going to be part of this week’s Zags Tracker – and I mean that literally.

There is now a bulging file of questions you’ve sent along, asking all sorts of things about these undefeated and top-ranked Zags.

I thought we could try to address a few of these inquiries over the two weeks, at least getting to popular subjects that seem to be on a lot of fans’ minds.

So, off and running…

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QUESTION: Why are the Zags starting so slowly in these WCC games? They seem to be lackadaisical for stretches at the beginning of games. How come?

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ANSWER: The issue might not be so much with the Zags, but with their opponents.

Remember that teams within the conference know Gonzaga well, so that familiarity may help – just temporarily – in making the early part of games look more balanced.

There’s also the matter of that No. 1 ranking, meaning the Zags are going to get everyone’s best shot.

That isn’t just talk, either.

Opposing coaches are looking relentlessly for ways they can put some heat on this big-time team – installing offensive sets that think might yield open shots, tweaking their own defenses to create some pressure in places where they feel Gonzaga may have problems, etc.

Beyond that, you know these WCC teams are going to bring it like crazy.

The result?

In three of the last four games, the Zags have fallen behind right away.

Saint Mary’s made a lead (which got to 22-12) stand up well past the 10-minute mark in the first half.

Road games at San Diego and Pepperdine saw Gonzaga face early deficits, with the largest hitting 16-7 against the Waves.

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IN THOSE two games, however, order was restored during the first media timeout and -- just as it eventually happened at Saint Mary’s -- the Zags went on furious runs to take total control by halftime.

There are Gonzaga players who disagree with my take on this, incidentally.

Maybe they’re just trying to psyche themselves into being more aggressive and alert from the opening tip, but we’ve heard some Zags scolding themselves.

They’ve sounded like they mean it, too.

In the media Zoom call after the San Diego game – which turned into a 90-62 rout – Drew Timme was adamant that he and his teammates were not taking care of business at the start of games, and the habit would have to change.

Frankly, it didn’t sound like Timme was saying these things because it’s what coaches like to hear.

Drew was angry at himself.

Bottom line, maybe both explanations contain a little bit of truth.

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QUESTION: It sounds like Oumar Ballo’s thumb injury will keep him sidelined for a few weeks? Since the injury happened when he was beginning to get a little more playing time, is it possible this could hurt at some critical point – for instance, if Timme were to get in foul trouble against San Francisco, or maybe BYU, in those road games coming up?

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ANSWER: It’s kind of a longshot, the Zags losing a conference game from here to the finish line.

On the other hand, upsets happen – and Mark Few will NOT let his guys slip into cruise control mode.

Few makes his players take every game seriously, and despite that friendly, son-of-a-preacher public appearance the public sees, his teams all say that Mr. Nice Guy can really get after them if he’s not pleased with their effort or execution.

I’ve started the answer with a quick peek at Few’s mindset because the Zags DO have a few things to be concerned about – and Ballo’s absence is one of them.

Obviously, the starting point here is making sure that Timme avoids foul problems, and Few has mentioned several times that his soph star is a really bright player who understands his role.

For instance, Timme not only hasn’t fouled out of a game since Iowa (the Luka Garza experience), he hasn’t even come close.

Ballo’s presence, eating up some first-half minutes in the 5-position without a huge drop-off, has made Timme’s job significantly easier.

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SO, WHAT is Plan B with Oumar having to sit for a while?

Few used Anton Watson in the middle with Corey Kispert at the 4-spot for a pretty long stretch against San Diego, and pronounced himself pleased with how the group defended.

Watson is now about 6-9 with an extremely long wingspan, so as he gets stronger, all that rough stuff around the basket will come more naturally to him.

Kispert is a powerful young man at 6-7, as well, so it’s not like the Zags are going to get physically overwhelmed without Timme or Ballo on the floor.

It’s interesting that Jeff Goodman and Rob Dauster, a couple of nationally known college hoops pundits, recently did a video for the Stadium web site -- explaining why Gonzaga was clearly the best team in America.

One of things they emphasized was that the Zags not only had talent, but depth.

They made the point that Gonzaga had excellent backups at every position.

Now, it’s valid to ask if that’s still the case with Pavel Zakharov clearly no longer in the picture – leaving Timme as the only true center available while Ballo is out injured.

Let’s just say everyone will breathe a tad easier with Oumar back on the court.

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VEGAS?

Many of you have asked whether Gonzaga might opt out of the WCC postseason event, trying to be as cautious as possible over Covid exposure ahead of the NCAA tournament.

We’ll address that question next week, since…

You’re correct to be wondering.

Hey, Mark Few is wondering right along with you.

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Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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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 each Tuesday.