THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: Zags could pay for missed freebies

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YOUNG KWAK/Associated Press Gonzaga senior point guard Ryan Woolridge figures to handle the ball often down the stretch — but has made just 1 of 5 free throws in two Zags’ games, including last Friday’s exhibition vs. Lewis-Clark State.

I’m staring at an email that caught my attention.

And held it.

It came from a gentleman who asked that he be identified only as an anonymous Zags fan.

It also starts with a classic disclaimer: “I know it’s only been two games, but…”

Technically speaking, of course, Gonzaga has played just one official game — Tuesday night’s 95-64 dismissal of Alabama State at The Kennel.

But in terms of getting a look at the squad and generally assessing basic basketball skills, the Zags’ 116-61 victory over Lewis-Clark State College also has to count.

Right?

Lewis-Clark State might be an NAIA team, and you could argue that the Warriors maybe aren’t quite as good as Alabama State — but they did beat Division-I Idaho in Moscow.

Whether Lewis-Clark State’s visit to Spokane was technically an exhibition game or not, it really does matter if you’re doing a quick talent evaluation and so forth.

So…

Let’s give our email correspondent the benefit of the doubt that it’s been two games, and hear him out.

THE FIRST issue this reader addresses is free-throw shooting.

It’s a good place to start, too.

Like most Zags junkies, he naturally — and probably correctly — assumes this will be another excellent season.

The question, which we now ask each November, is this one: Will Gonzaga be one of the nation’s truly elite teams by the time of the NCAA tournament?

When you put the season in that context, things like depth at any particular position, health of key players (notably tall, savvy, sharpshooting Frenchmen) and, yes, free-throw shooting are issues that merit closer consideration.

Our reader points out that Gonzaga hit just 30 of 50 free throws over those first two games — a rate of exactly 60 percent.

Or, as the experts put it when discussing serious hoops analytics…

Terrifying.

My favorite quote about performance from the foul line was uttered by former Oklahoma and TCU coach Billy Tubbs, who said: “Two things don’t last long: dogs that chase cars and basketball teams that can’t shoot free throws.”

And make no mistake, in the rarified air of competition come March, 60 percent from the line will get you a ticket home.

So are those numbers from just two games truly something to worry about?

Hmmm…

When I’m sizing up a team’s free-throw shooting, I want to look hard in two places — guys who will be handling the ball down the stretch in close games, and players who figure to be fouled a lot.

In Gonzaga’s case, that would take us first to guards Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder and Joel Ayayi — then to the big guys like Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev and Drew Timme, who should spend lots of time at the line.

DO SOME digging, and you discover that one initial worry from the games against LCSC and Alabama State is very, very legitimate — but the other is not.

The first negative number that jumps out shows that Petrusev, who will be shooting plenty of free throws (he was fouled 13 times in 41 minutes over the two games), made just 9 of 15 from the stripe.

That’s an outlier.

The big Serb shot 85 percent last year on 75 tries, which is a trustworthy sample.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, we find Woolridge — the No. 1 point guard and ordinarily a guy you’d want to have the ball at crunch time.

Woolridge only made one of his five free-throw tries in the first two games, and unfortunately, his stroke is only marginally better than that over his career.

In 90 games at North Texas, Woolridge was a 54 percent free-throw shooter — and that’s just plain scary.

Mark Few and his staff must have some plan to avoid putting many last-second games in Woolridge’s hands, but surely they’ll start by trying to improve his form at the line.

AYAYI IS an unknown quantity, especially in pressure situations, since he didn’t face any as a freshman while playing behind Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr. and Geno Crandall.

Ayayi shot only seven free throws all season and missed five of them, and he looks just fair with his release. He’s only shot two so far this time around, and made one of them.

Can he succeed from the stripe in clutch situations? There’s no evidence in either direction, but…

Feel free to be a bit nervous.

The good news is that Gilder hit 77 percent in 99 games at Texas A&M, and Tillie is a career 76-percent shooter — a number that was slightly deflated during his in-and-out season a year ago, when his free-throw number was 64 percent.

Tillie will be money.

Corey Kispert, meanwhile, is downright deadly at 88 percent.

We’ll have to see about the freshmen, although Anton Watson has appeared less than smooth at the line while making just 5 of 10 so far.

Drew Timme, another guy who almost certainly will get fouled a lot, was 3 of 4 against Alabama State and did not have a foul shot in the LCSC game.

Overall, to quote our email pal, it’s just a two-game sample so far.

However…

Woolridge has plenty of career numbers.

It’ll be worth watching.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns for The Press appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Steve also contributes the “Zags Tracker” package on Gonzaga basketball each Tuesday.

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