Clarke could be an MVP ... just ask KenPom

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LAST WEEK

Sometimes it all becomes a little routine.

Here’s Gonzaga, seriously aiming for a national championship, wading through a conference like the WCC.

There just aren’t any Dukes, Virginias and Carolinas to punch you every weekend.

So the challenge for the Zags, and something Coach Mark Few must drill into his players almost every day, is to maintain their highest possible level of performance.

They simply can’t just go through the motions.

That subject came up last week because of the way the schedule was arranged.

Loyola Marymount, which boasted some decent non-conference wins, visited The Kennel in midweek — a game that offered the Zags a chance to see how far they’ve come, especially with he return of Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall.

BUT THEN Gonzaga was forced to trek over to Portland on Saturday, a game which was never going to get the juices flowing.

And predictably, after putting away Loyola 73-55 in a game that wasn’t nearly as competitive as the score might indicate, the Zags drifted through Portland on cruise control.

Sure, they had seven players in double figures, and murdered the Pilots on the offensive glass, but Few wouldn’t have been thrilled with the commitment level — just as he wasn’t with the last eight minutes against Loyola Marymount.

The Zags beat Portland 89-66 in a routine affair that pushed their record to 18-2 and 5-0 in the WCC.

It was ridiculously easy, in part because Portland’s talent is pretty thin, but on top of that the Pilots played a zone — which meant that Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Killian Tillie could have their way on the offensive boards.

I’d suspect, though, that Few will be raising his voice a bit during practice this week.

The Zags basically allowed free baskets after they’d run up a 29-point lead on Loyola Marymount, and didn’t exactly play with fury against Portland.

SO WHERE do the returning Tillie and Crandall fit into this picture?

The 6-foot-10 Tillie has had some impressive shot-blocking moments, and he’s mobile enough to get out on a smaller player in Gonzaga’s switching defense — but Tillie has been in foul trouble in every game since he’s been back.

Maybe that’s about finding his rhythm and feel for the game after being out so long, but there’s no question it would make Few more comfortable if Killian could get that “feel” back into his game fairly soon.

Meanwhile, the almost-forgotten Crandall has slowly become a key piece for the Zags, particularly on defense.

He was one of the players who rotated to stifle Loyola Marymount guard James Batemon, who came to Spokane averaging 18 points per game and got just 12 — including a few in garbage time.

Then against Portland, when guard Marcus Shaver Jr. began to heat up, Crandall was the guy summoned to smother him.

Few has made it clear that Crandall will have a big role with this team, and now we’re seeing it.

Crandall is a defensive demon, and let’s not forget that big 3-ball he tossed in at San Francisco when the Zags led just 84-81.

When the two players were injured, fans were dying to get Tillie back on the floor.

At the moment, it’s looking as though Crandall may be just as important.

THIS WEEK

The WCC schedule is set up a little oddly this season.

For instance, the Zags will have finished their home-and-home duels with San Francisco by Feb. 7.

The result of all this is that the conference race — such as it is — could well be over in a couple of weeks.

Why does that matter to Gonzaga, which has a pretty decent chance to run the table?

Well, the Zags are always looking ahead toward March, and the WCC has helped the cause this year by notching several victories against teams from power conferences.

All this matters because Gonzaga, as usual, is gunning for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

At the moment, that looks like a good bet, in part because Mountain West powerhouse Nevada got absolutely hammered at New Mexico — a loss that the committee can easily look at and say: “Could that have happened to Gonzaga?”

THEY WOULD probably answer no, but it never hurts to lock up your case.

The puzzle for Few and his staff is whether it’s better to have three or four decent teams all battling to pursue the Zags — or whether San Francisco becomes such a strong No. 2 that the Dons make the NCAA tournament on their own.

The Dons, by the way, almost tumbled in a trap game after all the emotion of playing Gonzaga — but they hung on to win 53-52 at Pacific.

After that, it was business as usual as San Francisco thoroughly hammered BYU back on the Hilltop.

We mentioned that the WCC might be over in two weeks.

Here’s why ...

Gonzaga faces a dicey little road swing of its own this week, heading to Santa Clara on Thursday and then to BYU on Saturday.

The Broncos are improving and BYU ...

Well, never mind what happens to them on the road. There will be 22,000 or thereabouts in the Marriott Center when the Zags come to town. That’s going to be a high-energy game, and BYU has had a bit of success against Gonzaga over the past few years.

WHILE ALL that’s going on, San Francisco has a breather at home against Portland, then a tricky road trip to San Diego.

But remember we said two weeks.

During the first few days of February, the Zags get San Diego at home and then the rematch with San Francisco.

The Dons will arrive at The Kennel off a bloodthirsty road test at longtime rival St. Mary’s — where the Gaels finally seem to have come to life.

How all these games play out over the next two weeks will decide not only whether the Zags are going to win in a stroll, but if we might see chaos in those 2-3-4 spots.

As proof of how weird the schedule looks, San Francisco and St. Mary’s will be facing each other for the second time in three weeks.

Having gone over all of these future proceedings, however. the key for Gonzaga is simply to keep winning.

The Santa Clara-BYU road trip would be a nice one to survive intact.

THE STORY

There’s no question now about Gonzaga having reached elite status in college basketball.

Hey, North Carolina is coming to The Kennel.

What other proof do you need?

Well, how about grabbing a big trophy for national player of the year?

Granted, it might be difficult with Duke monster Zion Williamson stomping through the ACC.

The big boy is going to be a popular pick, but ...

Voter these days also go by some pretty esoteric advanced metrics, numbers that suggest — leaving SportsCenter dunks out of the equation — how valuable players are to their teams.

IF YOU follow college hoops seriously, you know Ken Pomeroy (kenpom.com), who either invented some of these metrics and ratings, or knows how to use them better than anyone else.

It’s no joke.

You can hear an NCAA committee member saying, “I like this team, but they’re 3-5 against teams in the KenPom top 50.”

Right, we’ve established that in voting for this year’s POY (Player of the Year), Williamson is an imposing figure.

Well, he’s an imposing figure in any situation, but you get what I mean.

And yet, Gonzaga boasts a star whose numbers are insanely close to Zion’s.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the Zags would have a POY candidate.

NO, HERE’S the surprise…

It’s Brandon Clarke.

Yep.

The following is part of an exchange between two terrific college hoops reporters, Brian Hamilton and Dana O’Neil of the Athletic ...

“It would be an extremely difficult call for me between Williamson and Clarke,” Hamilton said. “To be clear, everyone on your list merits consideration. I really thought going into this process that I’d land on someone other than Zion.

“And it basically turns out that my broad criteria for whittling down the player of the year list — best players on the best teams — fits Zion and Clarke.”

But what about all those advanced metrics?

“The great and very confusing part about college basketball is that we have all these stats to measure how important and valuable guys are to their team,” Hamilton said.

And, as of (last Thursday), Clarke is eighth in the nation in Win Shares (3.3), with none of the other candidates ahead of him.

“Zion is first in Win Shares per 40 minutes (.382). Zion is first in box score plus-minus. Clarke is second.”

DON’T ASK me how Win Shares are computed. Whenever these fancy new stats are developed, it takes me several seasons to grasp what they mean.

But I do trust Ken Pomeroy, and those numbers Hamilton was quoting originate — in some way — from the groundbreaking KenPom.

Hamilton and O’Neil settled on Grant Williams from Tennessee as their third choice in personal Player of the Year voting.

And in case you’re wondering, Hachimura was listed in their group of top-tier players, along with another player we know too well — Admiral Schofield of Tennessee.

There were four or five more, but they kept coming back to Zion Williamson (who has the Duke advantage) and Brandon Clarke, who couldn’t even shoot a basketball two years ago.

Really.

But that’s a story for another day.

• • •

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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