ZAGS TRACKER: GU navigating opponents, COVID extremely well
| January 12, 2021 1:00 AM
Gonzaga is having a hoops season for the ages.
The massive downer, of course, is that empty Kennel – the result of this COVID-19 pandemic coating the whole world with misery.
The virus already has cost the Zags five games (including a matchup with No. 2 Baylor), and last week we saw the oddest bit of scheduling that anyone in the program can remember.
When both the Zags and BYU found themselves without midweek opponents because of COVID woes, the schools threw together a game with just 48 hours’ notice.
That seemed like a potential banana skin for the top-ranked and undefeated Zags, what with BYU coming in with a 9-2 record – and considered Gonzaga’s only serious threat in the WCC.
You’d think the Zags’ coaching staff would want some serious preparation time before facing the Cougars.
“You’ve got to love Gonzaga,” said BYU Coach Mark Pope. “They’re ready to play anytime.”
AS IT turned out, the hurry-up game against BYU was only part of a crazy week – the kind you’d get in a bizarre season like this one.
Here’s the quick version …
The Zags pummeled BYU 86-69 in a total rout (Gonzaga led by 32 at one point in the second half), then enjoyed their first conference road trip by waxing Portland 116-88.
Even Coach Mark Few admitted after that pounding of the Pilots that he’s having trouble comparing this team to any other in his 22 years.
“I don’t think we’ve had a team that passes and shares like this one,” Few said.
The coach even noted that it might be tough for opponents to scout the Zags, since so many of their points come off-script – as players simply read and react to whatever the defense presents to them.
Speaking of passes (and plenty more), Joel Ayayi made a bit of history at Portland, recording the first triple-double in program history.
Ayayi scored 12 points to go with 13 rebounds and 14 assists – and hit the triple-double mark with 17 minutes left in the game.
The Portland trip gave us a look at what happens when the country’s best offense meets one of the poorest defenses.
FEW HAD lots of reasons to be pleased, but perhaps the best was Anton Watson’s 23-point outburst.
The coach has been pushing Watson to do more around the basket – hoping to add some points to the Gonzaga Prep grad’s already outstanding defense.
Yeah, I know…
Another offensive weapon, just what the Zags really need.
On the subject of offense, though, there was something besides the Ayayi and Watson outburst worth noting in the Portland game.
Yes, it’s kind of a “Wow!” effort to score 116 points – but even more amazing was that the Zags rolled up that total while hitting just four 3-pointers on 17 attempts.
And yes, again, Few’s insistence on passing, moving and making the right decision must produce good shots, because the Zags – almost alone among college basketball’s elite offenses – don’t seem to hit 3-pointers unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Corey Kispert is a legit 3-point marksman (35 of 73, 47.9 percent), but the rest of the Zags are average, at best.
In their 12 straight wins (only the West Virginia game was reasonably tight), the Zags are racking up 96 points per game, but connecting on just 33.7 percent of their 3-balls.
We’ve mentioned before that Gonzaga seems capable of suddenly firing in shots from distance when faced with serious opposition (Jalen Suggs against Iowa, Kispert against Virginia), but on ordinary nights …
That 3-point shooting is all that remains before we declare this offense to be unstoppable.
MEANWHILE, let’s go back to the BYU game for a minute.
Suggs will only display his gifts in Spokane for a year, before heading off to become an NBA lottery pick -- but the all-purpose star from Minneapolis is showing off the whole array.
In the match-up against BYU, Suggs was tasked with blanketing Alex Barcello, a heck of a player who arrived in town averaging just a tick under 17 points per game.
Suggs held Barcello to nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.
You’d think chasing a shooter around all night would exhaust a guy, but Suggs never looks even remotely tired.
Suggs’ dad, who is also a longtime coach, believes that playing more than one sport does a lot of good for top-level athletes.
Larry Suggs has made it clear that specialization for young kids isn’t necessarily the best idea, and to that we might add that Jalen’s all-out style while competing in both basketball and football perhaps has given him the type of fitness that equates to an extra gear.
LET ME go back in time just briefly here, and say that nobody – absolutely nobody – playing this sport at the highest level ever had the stamina of Zags all-world guard John Stockton.
I was lucky enough to see Stock up close for a few years in Utah, and he NEVER seemed even a tiny bit gassed – despite playing with a relentless style that saw him set an NBA record for steals that certainly will never be broken.
No, I’m not comparing Suggs with Stockton (I wouldn’t compare anyone to Stockton), I’m just saying that Jalen has some of that extra oxygen in his tank.
Oh, about the BYU game …
Besides shutting down Barcello, Suggs had 16 points, five rebounds, five assists, four steals and a blocked shot.
He also unleashed another of his phenomenal floor-length passes, this one for a bucket to Ayayi.
“I love throwing passes,” Suggs said. “It makes not playing football a little easier.”
“He has so many gifts, and one of his greatest gifts is his vision,” Few said of Suggs. “You have to be very confident to be able to execute passes like that.”
Confidence is not a problem with Suggs.
IN CASE you’re wondering whether the Zags can play defense well enough to win a national championship, well …
So is everyone else.
We’ll take a closer look at this issue on another day, but for now, there are two positives you can grab going forward.
First of all, any opponent – from here to the Final Four – can only beat Gonzaga by scoring more points.
That’s going to be a chore, because the Zags have the ability to keep any game going at a fast pace.
They’ll run when they can, zip through an incredibly effective half-court offense, and then, in case someone tries to slow things down, the Zags are working on two or three different presses – with Watson playing the point – that can force play to keep moving.
Longtime national hoops journalist Andy Katz made a reference this week that I’ve been waiting to see – comparing these Zags to the UNLV teams of the early 1990s.
The Rebels just kept scoring, and dared you to keep up.
Jerry Tarkanian’s bunch won a national title, then got upset by Duke in the Final Four the following season – so, yep, you can win it all with offense.
ON THE other side of the ball, we still need to see if the Zags can get stops when a game depends on it – since no one’s made things close enough yet to force the issue.
Still, having Suggs around to take almost any guard out of the equation -- with Watson as a gifted specialty defender -- gives you some confidence in a defense-when-needed approach.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t think there’s a team out there, including Baylor or anyone else, that could beat the Zags in a best four-of-seven series.
But one game?
In the win-or-depart NCAA tournament?
We’ll have to wait and see, but those Vegas bookmakers who list Gonzaga as the favorite to win it all have a pretty good idea what’s happening.
Before the Big Dance, meanwhile, we can enjoy the journey – and let’s see what Saint Mary’s has in store this weekend.
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.