Road ahead looks tougher for Gonzaga

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AP Photo/Young Kwak Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke shoots a free throw during the first half of the Bulldogs’ 104-67 win over visiting Texas Southern, Saturday.

LAST WEEK

Third-ranked Gonzaga predictably opened the season 2-0 by pounding Idaho State 120-79 and Texas Southern 104-67 at The Kennel.

The victories were expected and turned out to be routine, but there was a sub-plot to the second game — since Texas Southern came to Spokane on the back of an impressive road victory at Baylor.

Each game featured two stars: Rui Hachimura (33 points) and Zach Norvell Jr. tore it up against outmanned Idaho State — and then when both got into early foul trouble in the Texas Southern game, point guard Josh Perkins (19 points, 11 assists) and super-athletic pivot Brandon Clarke (19 points, 13 rebounds) took over to lead another rout.

THIS WEEK

The Zags play just once, at home against Texas A&M on Thursday night.

There will be a late 8:30 p.m. start to accommodate ESPN2, which is televising the game nationally.

A few weeks ago, Texas A&M would have figured to be a decent test for the Zags, even in Spokane.

But A&M struggled to win at home over Savannah State to open the season, then blew a 10-point halftime lead and lost 74-73 to UC Irvine, also in College Station.

Still, Texas A&M will bring some outstanding athletes to town, and they’re certainly better than we’ve seen so far.

After facing Texas A&M, Gonzaga takes some time off for the long trip to Hawaii – where the Zags will complete in the Maui Invitational beginning next Monday.

THE STORY

Everyone who follows Gonzaga basketball knows that this team is loaded — to the point that Coach Mark Few keeps coming closer and closer to admitting it’s the most talented squad he’s ever had.

Norvell put it this way: “Any time starters go down, or key pieces go down, somebody else can step up and make plays.

“We’re probably not the deepest team, but we have a lot of talent in this locker room.”

Norvell actually made three statements in that one short locker-room burst, and they’re worth noting because the Zags actually are going to play three seasons — the non-conference schedule without 6-10 Wooden Award finalist Killian Tillie; the West Coast Conference, which should be something of a formality as Tillie works his way back into shape following that fractured ankle; and the NCAA tournament, for which the Zags hope to be at full strength and are considered a legit national title threat.

NORVELL was absolutely correct that there is a ton of talent available.

Clarke has been described by Perkins as a “monster” — a 6-8 leaping machine who can protect the rim and looks pretty nifty on offense.

Hachimura is good enough to be in the NBA right now. Norvell is probably a year away from that level, and sizzled down the stretch last year.

Perkins is Perkins, almost the perfect senior point guard.

So ...

What about the absence of Tillie?

Simply put, the junior from France changes the Zags from a very good team to something absolutely special.

When you have a 6-10 player who can routinely step out and shoot 48 percent from 3-point range, he can’t be ignored.

Tillie’s presence means Gonzaga can spread the floor on offense, perhaps better than anyone else in the college game, and at the other end you have Tillie’s height to help Clarke and Hachimura with the opposition’s big men.

It’s no accident that Tillie was out injured when the Zags were bumped from last year’s NCAA tournament by Florida State.

FEW PUT together an exceptionally difficult non-conference schedule, partly to test and harden his group — but also to remind the NCAA seeding committee that although the Zags play in a pretty weak conference, at least they’ve taken on all comers.

Unfortunately, these brutes on the schedule will show up while Tillie is still in street clothes.

If the Zags can advance to the final in Maui, they almost certainly would face Duke, which boasts one of the most astounding collection of freshmen ever assembled — and has already hammered Kentucky.

With or without Duke, though, it’s going to be rough. The Zags might meet a ranked Iowa State club in Maui, as well.

Gonzaga plays Washington at home and Creighton on the road — both upset possibilities — and a couple of true sluggers, highly ranked Tennessee on a neutral court in Phoenix and ...

North Carolina at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.

Now that’s tough.

BUT WHAT about Norvell’s other two remarks, which seem contradictory?

Zach mentioned that the Zags aren’t the deepest team in the world, which on paper looks true — but he insists there’s enough talent that the next man can always step up.

That lack of depth is even more critical with Tillie out, because with 6-11 Jacob Larsen having quit the team, the Zags perhaps can be bullied around the basket.

Hachimura and Clarke must stay out of foul trouble against the tough teams, and rugged 6-6 soph Corey Kispert has to get his share of rebounds while draining some 3-balls to pull big men out on him.

The wild card might be Filip Petrusev, a 6-11 freshman from Serbia. Petrusev still needs to bulk up to battle college heavyweights, but like Tillie and a lot of European players, Petrusev can wander away from the hoop and hit 3-pointers.

AND OF course, Petrusev’s height will be almost mandatory at times on defense.

Finally, there is 6-7 Jeremy Jones, a fifth-year senior who keeps getting better and is absolutely loved by his teammates for creating action (or perhaps chaos) the instant he steps on the floor.

Jones is also a long, lean, quick defender whom Few has summoned to stop opponents’ rallies over the past two seasons.

It’ll require some interesting mix-and-match situations until Tillie comes back, but Few has had time to plan for it.

Don’t be shocked if he has some surprises in store for the Zags’ tougher foes.

For instance ...

Well, let’s save that for next week.

• • •

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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