Friday, December 08, 2023

ZAGS TRACKER: Few still fine-tuning top-rated GU

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| January 5, 2021 1:00 AM

Yes, it seems odd, but …

Coach Mark Few is still fiddling with puzzle pieces as he seeks to assemble the very best version of this year’s Zags.

There are hundreds of coaches, literally, who would love to have Few’s roster construction problems.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Zags are the finished article.

Being ranked No. 1 in the nation – with pundits gushing over the beauty of your basketball – won’t guarantee a thing, not over the next week or the next month.

So, Few remains at work, tweaking here and testing there, all the while hoping that Gonzaga can be as fine-tuned as possible come NCAA tournament time.

Few knows how things can go crazily off-kilter in the tournament, sometimes depending on your own team’s health (Killian Tillie in 2019, potential Covid issues this year), and also how certain tough matchups pop up in the bracket.

THE ZAGS are purring at the moment, and you might ask: “How can you improve by fiddling with THIS team?”

In the minds of Few and his staff, however, no doubt there are plenty of ways to get better.

For instance, you may have noticed that freshmen Oumar Ballo, Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther are getting more minutes – and not just in garbage time against overmatched opponents.

Harris appeared fairly early in the San Francisco game, presumably because he has the quickness necessary to offer some help against Dons’ lightning guards, Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz.

Ballo is on the floor more often because, at some point, the Zags will need help in the middle.

Few needs to see if Ballo can translate improvement in practice to playing different types of opponents.

Could Ballo be trusted to hold the fort?

IT ISN’T just the kids that will give Few pause for thought between now and March Madness.


How and when can they get the best from Anton Watson?

The Gonzaga Prep grad has some unique skills – long wingspan, uncanny feel for the ball on defense – but he’s also still gaining strength after off-season shoulder surgery.

Can Watson be a primary defender in the post, if it comes to that?

What about out on the floor, farther away from the basket?

Anton has made only one of his 13 attempts from 3-point range, and his stroke just doesn’t look good.

In a perfect world, the mobile 6-8 Watson would be the Zags’ defensive stopper, while not sacrificing too much on the attacking end of the floor.

Maybe Watson will become solely an interior player – perhaps for just this year — considering the Zags’ wealth of quality guards.

These things have to be decided before situations suddenly arise in an Elite Eight game.

SOMEONE coined the phrase “Death Lineup” in reference to the five players Few seemed to prefer on the floor to close out games.

That group included Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, Joel Ayayi, Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard.

The idea was that they could all handle the ball and shoot free throws, while Timme offered a presence against opposing big men.

It seems to make sense, except …

Through 10 games (admittedly, many weren’t close enough to draw conclusions), Ayayi has struggled at the free-throw line.

Ayayi is connecting at a strange 56.3 percent clip, while Watson – theoretically left out of the late-game crew because of uncertain foul shooting – is sitting at 73.9 percent.

That probably isn’t cause for change, because Ayayi is a good shooter who eventually will get his numbers up on freebies.

For lots of reasons, you want him out there.

Besides, I might pick Ayayi to shoot free throws – even over Kispert – with the national title on the line.

Sometimes, numbers don’t tell you everything.

BACK TO the freshmen for a moment…

Remember the Iowa game, when both Timme and Kispert fouled out trying to slow down low-post monster Luka Garza?

What if a similar situation comes in the NCAA tournament, with Garza or someone else?

Could Watson, who presumably is getting stronger every week, provide some crucial minutes on defense? Or will Ballo develop enough by then to become a legitimate choice?

Few surely knows that the Zags are unlikely to win the whole thing with just a seven-man rotation – four of whom are guards.

Now, you’re not going to throw 10 guys out there every game (unless you’re Florida State), but you’d better have a Plan B.

At the very least.

In the midst of March Madness, there comes a time – at least once – when you’ll need it to survive.

Few and his staff are using this regular season (and the practice time that goes with it) to give themselves some options.

And also to answer several questions.

They’ll need the answers by March.


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.

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