ZAGS TRACKER with STEVE CAMERON: Holiday treats came at just the right time

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  • YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga’s defense was on display as Denver guard Jase Townsend passes around Gonzaga forward Filip Petrusev during the second half Friday in Spokane.

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    YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24), forward Rui Hachimura (21) and forward Brandon Clarke celebrate on the bench during the second half of Friday’s romp over Denver.

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    YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Injured Gonzaga star Killian Tillie, left, here walking off the floor with teammate Greg Foster Jr. after last Tuesday’s game vs. Texas-Arlington, is on track to return “sometime in January,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few says.

  • YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga’s defense was on display as Denver guard Jase Townsend passes around Gonzaga forward Filip Petrusev during the second half Friday in Spokane.

  • 1

    YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24), forward Rui Hachimura (21) and forward Brandon Clarke celebrate on the bench during the second half of Friday’s romp over Denver.

  • 2

    YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Injured Gonzaga star Killian Tillie, left, here walking off the floor with teammate Greg Foster Jr. after last Tuesday’s game vs. Texas-Arlington, is on track to return “sometime in January,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few says.

LAST WEEK

Home sweet home.

After a brutal run of games that finished with a pair of losses to Tennessee (on a late 3-pointer) and North Carolina (no chance), the Zags made no apology for getting back to The Kennel and drilling a couple of cupcakes.

They did give up 95 points, but that was the total mustered by Texas-Arlington and Denver University.

The Zags beat that total by exactly the same 95 points, dusting UT-Arlington 89-55 and then really lowering the hammer on Denver to the tune of 101-40.

It felt like they shook off some rust in the first game, and then gave Denver the full look at what a national title contender brings to the party.

Gonzaga hit its first 15 shots in the Denver game, which sounds absurd, and kept the pressure on throughout, allowing the normally quiet holiday crowd to have some fun with a mega-blowout.

Besides the enjoyment of a couple routs, there were two or three talking points after a nice week heading into Christmas.

Remember, the Zags were upset 72-70 by San Diego State in last year’s pre-Christmas game.

“This felt a lot better going into the holidays,” soph wing Corey Kispert said. “And honestly, we needed a couple of games like this.”

IF KISPERT was also hinting that the Zags needed to feel their mojo again after getting beat up at Carolina, well...

That sense of finally taking a deep breath was evident throughout the squad — and coaching staff.

Two other points: Did Josh Perkins finally dunk in the UT-Arlington game?

He took off alone on a steal, and just about got his hands over the rim to push the ball in.

Perkins called it a “baby dunk,” and after much needling, his teammates agreed.

The funny thing is that Perkins CAN get up to actually throw one down, and now vows that he’s going to get a no-doubter.

Special fun note: Gonzaga Hall of Famer John Stockton never dunked while scoring 19,711 regular-season points in his entire NBA career, although Utah Jazz teammate Karl Malone swears he saw Stock do it easily in practice.

Anyhow...

The final item for the week was that the Zags obviously got the message that their defensive intensity had been, well, awful in the previous three games.

And even though these weren’t testing opponents, it was clear the Zags wanted a defensive reboot.

They were switching aggressively and hollering calls — basically what Coach Mark Few thought had disappeared against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

So...

Two relaxing blowouts, just when they needed them.

THIS WEEK

The Zags, who moved up one spot to No. 7 in this week’s Associated Press poll, only play once this week, on Friday against North Alabama.

What can you say?

Much like the two games that preceded it, this one should be a glorified scrimmage.

North Alabama is off to a nice 3-1 start in the Atlantic Sun Conference — I dare you to name all the teams — but the bad news is that the Lions are 0-9 against everyone else.

So, 3-10 overall with a hell of a chance to be 3-11 after a scenic tour of the Inland Northwest.

You’d think these no-brainer games (coaches claim that no such things exist) would give Few a chance to let some key reserves get plenty of floor time.

And that maybe the Zags can give a run-out to the 1-2-2 press that Few fooled with a bit early in the year.

You also might remember that Few tried a zone against Carolina, because at that point almost every team was driving to the hoop against the Zags.

It didn’t work, obviously, since the Tar Heels shot the lights out from deep — not to mention that playing zone makes you susceptible to offensive rebounds, and the Heels scored 27 second-chance points.

The notion here, though, is that if you want to try out something you’ve worked on in practice, the North Alabamas of the world are begging you to give it a go.

Unfortunately, there is a glaring problem with putting in anything new.

To understand, just follow along.

THE STORY

By now, every Gonzaga fan knows that Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall — players who can help this club immensely in very different ways — have had long-term injuries, but are expected back “sometime in January.”

We don’t know exactly when that will be, but I think fans perhaps don’t really appreciate all the problems associated with losing two players like this.

Sure, there’s the win-loss record.

With Tillie and Crandall available, the Zags surely would have dispatched Tennessee — they’re just better than the Vols — and with a lot more energy (and size) they could have given Carolina a battle to the end.

But there are many other parts to it.

Just having Tillie and Crandall available to practice would be a huge help, because they could get in the flow of the Zags’ plans at both ends of the floor.

Few has already said repeatedly that Crandall (a late arrival), brought immediate urgency to practice the day he stepped on campus.

And obviously, giving Perkins the occasional breather would certainly help.

Tillie clearly is needed, but in a different context.

ONLY FEW knows how and where he intends to play the 6-10 stud who shot an astonishing 48 percent from 3-point range last year.

Few did say: “Killian is integral to what we want to do, so we may look like a slightly different team when he gets back.”

No kidding he’s integral.

The shooting, the rebounding, the defense, the ability to rotate bigs so Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke aren’t left with their tongues hanging out at the end of tough games.

Please recall that the Zags looked like an awfully good bet for a return to the Final Four last year. They lost an Elite Eight game to Florida State, a team with athletic bigs that choked the Zags when they couldn’t spread the floor.

And why not?

Tillie was out injured.

By the way, the timing involved with getting Tillie and Crandall back has become much more interesting with events going on within the WCC.

The Zags open the conference season (after one more presumed blowout over Cal State-Bakersfield next Monday) with a pair of yawner games against Santa Clara and Pacific at The Kennel.

But then they travel to San Francisco on Jan. 12 for what might be their toughest conference game all year.

The resurgent Dons (who have two more national championships than Gonzaga, just for the record) are 12-1, and their only loss was 85-81 to No. 21 Buffalo at the Belfast Classic in Northern Ireland.

THE DONS haven’t played the same brutal schedule as Gonzaga, but it hasn’t been a walkover, either.

San Francisco easily dismissed local rivals Cal and Stanford (the same Stanford team that had Kansas on the ropes with a minute left at Allen Fieldhouse), and defeated a pretty salty Harvard bunch, as well.

Bottom line, this might not be a typical WCC season.

The Dons obviously are damn good, and Loyola Marymount is 11-2 with victories over UNLV, Georgetown and Boise State.

In fact, only Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s (say what?) are under .500.

What we’re pointing out here is that, in most seasons, there would be no hurry in the least to get Tillie and Crandall back in action.

Practice, yes. Games, no.

This year?

It could make a serious difference...

And yet Few is looking at March, and he will not rush the issue and risk re-injury.

But make no mistake: Gonzaga needs these two guys back.

Soonest.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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