ZAGS TRACKER with STEVE CAMERON: Zags focus on turnovers — forcing them, but more importantly, keeping them down
You might find this hard to believe, but …
The Zags are playing a game tonight.
In the days of this latest COVID surge, nothing will be certain until an official tosses the ball up to begin
Gonzaga’s first West Coast Conference game after three postponements — a duel in The Kennel against an even more rested opponent.
Pepperdine is 6-9 (with four victories in its previous five games), but the Waves haven’t played in 16 days.
If you want to make a slightly sarcastic comparison, the Zags have been much, much busier.
OK, scratch the word “much.”
Mark Few’s gang last teed it up for real on Dec. 28, a fun 93-63 romp over North Alabama.
Few was pleased after that victory, mostly because the Zags did not turn the ball over at all in the second half — as opposed to nine times before intermission.
TURNOVERS have been on the coaching staff’s agenda almost non-stop, to the point where you almost think Few feels his team can beat anyone if they take care of the ball (oh, and make free throws, but that’s a topic for another day).
Besides actually getting the game started and finished this evening without another COVID interruption, it’s fair to wonder if we may see something like a YMCA pick-up game.
Pepperdine was turning over the ball an average of 15.2 times per game, against very average opposition.
And the Zags, despite all that emphasis on ball security, have had this 11-day lull between games and haven’t been able to practice as a full unit, at least for part of this week.
Few’s message seemed to be getting across when the Zags were last spotted in action.
Prior to the North Alabama game, they committed just five turnovers while blowing out Northern Arizona, and that followed a 10-turnover performance against a rugged Texas Tech bunch that was averaging 17 forced turnovers prior to their 69-55 loss to Gonzaga in Phoenix.
They have brought some ugly early-season numbers down to something respectable at 12.1 giveaways after 13 games.
WITHOUT being unkind to the Waves, it’s possible that the Zags could catch Pepperdine (off that 16-day enforced holiday) playing a little ragged tonight, and create passes from the visitors that wind up in the band, on the concourses and everywhere else in Spokane County.
Gonzaga’s coaches, on the other hand, will want to see their guys keeping it clean and crisp — layoff or not — to create a solid start to their WCC schedule.
You hate to look ahead, and yet …
BYU will be coming to town next Thursday, and it would behoove the Zags to have some positive momentum — not only with a conference-opening win but playing sharp basketball.
The Zags’ turnover problems, when they occur, have mostly involved big men Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren.
Timme has 33 TOs and Holmgren 27, but it hasn’t been all on them.
Gonzaga has often been guilty of trying too hard to force the ball into the post, and wound up throwing it away.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard, a soul of security last season, has racked up 28 turnovers already, and while a few have come on botched transition plays, there have been a bundle of entry passes that didn’t reach their target in the post.
IT’S FAIR to say Few understands that where and how freshman Holmgren fits into the offense has created some of the problems, but it’s also clear that he believes things should be getting cleaned up by now.
“We’ve tried to make too many perfect passes, or thread a needle sometimes,” he said.
Guard Rasir Bolton, in his first season at Gonzaga, put the challenge another way: “We’ve got to see the right pass, and then execute it.”
Ironically, the player who seems to be producing exactly what Few seeks is another newcomer to the program, freshman guard Nolan Hickman.
Averaging a healthy 20.2 minutes per game, Hickman so far has 22 assists, just 7 turnovers (and 7 steals).
It’s a cinch that Hickman’s minutes will rise as the season grinds along, especially as he’s also shooting 50 percent from the field, 80 percent from the foul line and 36 percent behind the arc — with those long-range numbers continuing to get higher.
Bottom line for tonight …
It will be a genuine surprise if the Zags don’t speed up Pepperdine and force a bundle of mistakes.
Gonzaga, though, must ignore the opportunity for a crazy, racehorse game and play efficiently.
That’s going to be necessary going forward.
Like five days later, for instance.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published weekly during the season.
Steve suggests you take his opinions in the spirit of a Jimmy Buffett song: “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.”