Maui, zowie: The real games begin for GU

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Last week

The Zags only played once, shaking off some first-half fog to dismiss Texas A&M 94-71 on Thursday night at The Kennel.

With the game televised on ESPN2, it was the nation’s first chance to see what all the fuss is about with the third-ranked Zags.

Hopefully, not too many people got tired and switched off at halftime. Gonzaga was up by 10, but had looked sloppy and shot worse.

The second half, though, was vintage Zags as five players wound up scoring in double figures and the lead grew to 34 points during a non-stop onslaught.

The coaches were no doubt pleased to see excellent contributions from two key newcomers, grad transfer Geno Crandall and 6-11 frosh Filip Petrusev.

Both will be needed in crucial spots this year, and each looked entirely capable of filling important roles — Petrusev as part of the rotation replacing the injured Killian Tillie, and Crandall as the only point guard available to give senior Josh Perkins a bit of rest.

Crandall had 13 points and 4 assists in 23 minutes against the Aggies, while the Serbian Petrusev — opposed by a big front line — added 10 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes.

This week

It’s time to step up in class, as the Zags are playing three games in as many days at the Maui Invitational. (Monday night’s game was played after the deadline for this column.)

The beaches may look inviting, but Coach Mark Few and his staff will be considering this an important business trip. They’ll get a look at how the Zags — minus Tillie — match up with some of the nation’s better teams.

They opened on Monday night against Illinois, and today it will be either Iowa State or Arizona, depending on the Monday results.

The country’s No. 1 team, freshman-loaded Duke, sits on the other side of this tournament bracket.

Clearly it would be fun to see the Zags get that far, but it was never considered a cinch.

Gonzaga wowed the crowd with 10 blocks against Texas A&M, but the truth is that the Aggies’ big men caused the Zags problems until they ran out of gas.

Few surely wants a look at how his guys can hit the boards and protect the paint against much tougher competition. That will be a question mark all year, but it’s especially true without the 6-10 Tillie.

The story

Never mind what they say.

Coaches at big-time programs know well in advance when a special year might be coming.

Gonzaga’s Mark Few is no exception.

So it wouldn’t be a shock if Few and his staff drew a big red line under this season.

Zags fans are rightfully excited about the current recruiting class, the high school seniors who have committed to play at Gonzaga next season.

But that group will have to be in another universe to top the gang that first stepped on campus during the fall of 2016.

Rui Hachimura.

Killian Tillie.

Zach Norvell Jr.

Oh, and let’s not forget Zach Collins, the powerhouse 7-footer from Las Vegas who was a key contributor to the team that made it to the national title game.

Collins’ development was bittersweet, since the NBA can never ignore a gifted big man — no matter how unpolished — and Zach became Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player as the No. 10 pick in the draft.

Hachimura and Tillie played sparingly as freshmen, while Norvell redshirted while letting a knee injury heal completely.

Jakob Larsen, yet another big man, was also part of that class, but now has stepped away from basketball – but stayed in school – for reasons Gonzaga says are “personal.”

However you look at it, that was a whale of a recruiting class, and the coaches have been waiting for the entire group to come together this season.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking.

What about the team that went 37-2 and came within a couple minutes of winning a national title two years ago?

That magical group was, for the most part, the result of a different kind of recruiting.

Three key starters were transfers from other Division I programs – Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Jordan Mathews (Cal).

The only holdovers who saw significant minutes that year were Polish center Przemek Karnowski (with Collins backing him up), current point guard Josh Perkins, and guard Silas Melson.

As good as that team became, it really wasn’t the result of a sensational freshman recruiting class.

Fast-forward to this year: Coaches will tell you that if you’re lucky enough to have an extraordinary recruiting year (imagine the current group with Collins still in the middle), the key is finding the right players in the years before and after to make everything work.

Few and his staff seem to have done that — even with Collins gone.

Corey Kispert, the muscular 6-6 swingman, came in a year ago and he’s a perfect piece to help this team reach elite status. Kispert is a good shooter and surprisingly tough around the hoop, so the big guys (who aren’t the bulkiest bunch) have some take-no-grief assistance on the boards.

Petrusev originally was going to be a project, a talented European kid who has a lot of Tillie’s style but is still just 18.

With the Frenchman out for a couple of months, though, Petrusev will have to spend some time in the deep end — against genuine bruisers from Tennessee, North Carolina, Washington (and maybe even Duke).

Finally, the last hole to plug was help for Perkins, who has quietly been so good that he’ll leave Gonzaga as the career assists leader.

This is occurring at a university where John Stockton, the NBA’s career assists and steals leader by some distance, remains the local legend — but Perkins will tell you he’d rather play in another Final Four than break any records.

Josh does need some breaks, however, which made the arrival of Geno Crandall as a graduate transfer from North Dakota a very handy addition.

Few no doubt will fiddle with playing Perkins and Crandall together, as well, given the success he had with Perkins alongside Nigel-Goss.

When Tillie comes back, the Zags will be able to go very big, reasonably small (Norvell joining the two natural guards), or some form of mix-and-match.

Actually, Kispert is the key, since he can play any sort of style — and the Zags are aggressive enough that surely they’ll encounter some foul trouble against better teams.

Crandall had to complete 19 units during the summer, so he was a late addition to preseason and will need time to learn all the various Gonzaga sets.

And by the way, you may see some new things in that area, too.

Few hinted early that he might use a 1-2-2 press on occasion, in part because he has quickness everywhere and a perfect point man in Hachimura.

Gonzaga also may need to speed up play against some teams that want to walk it up and use lots of clock, so a press can help with that.

The Zags rolled it out for spells against Texas A&M and had a little joy, but you could tell that communication and positioning are still works in progress.

This isn’t easy stuff to learn.

Few was discussing his super-athletic post man Brandon Clarke — the transfer from San Jose State — and noted that Clarke seemed to be playing hesitantly at times.

“We throw so much stuff at these guys,” Few said, “that sometimes they’re thinking instead of just playing. But (Clarke) is starting to cut loose and play now, which is great to see.”

In fact, so far the Zags in general have been great to see.

It would be better if Tillie were available for these tough non-conference games, but ...

Hey, he should be healthy in March.

• • •

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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