“Wherever you’re from, once you’re here, you’re family.”
—Brandon Clarke (about Gonzaga)
Luckily, my birthday falls in the same month as the greatest sports tournament in the history of sports tournaments, NCAA March Madness. Fortune has also smiled on me in that my girlfriend, Wendy, is the most wonderful, caring, beautiful woman any man could hope for—and we’re infinitely blessed to have four smart, healthy, and often obedient children. Besides being my guiding star, Wendy is very supportive of my fervent loyalty to Gonzaga Men’s Basketball and my obsessive-compulsive desire to watch and keep up on everything that is a part of that fanhood. So, after my favorite birthday meal (Kung Pao from Gordy’s on the South Hill), as I’m opening my many wonderful gifts with my dessert in front of me, I come to the last envelope. Expecting a simple card, I open it swiftly only to find two tickets to the Vivint Center in Salt Lake City on the coming Saturday night for March Madness. You can’t imagine my surprise and happiness! Wendy had, a month earlier, booked the tickets and a hotel under the assumption (a stretch to say the least) that Gonzaga was going to be playing there on that night. Needless to say, a number of things could have gone wrong with that plan, including the Zags getting something other than a 1 seed and being sent somewhere other than Salt Lake. The universe smiled on us though, and my clairvoyant soulmate and I headed to Salt Lake to catch Gonzaga versus Baylor and Auburn versus Kansas
Another thing that could have gone wrong with Wendy's plan is that Gonzaga could have lost to the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights on Thursday night. Coming off a loss in the WCC tournament final to the Saint Mary’s Gaels, many may have doubted the Zags ability to perform well in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. Some might have even thought the 16-seed Knights could pull the rug out from under Gonzaga’s feet and upset the #1 seed in the bracket. But the Bulldogs put that possibility to rest very quickly on Thursday night, jumping out to a 53 to 17 lead by halftime. Of course, it was great for Gonzaga to win like that in the first game, renewing all our confidence after the loss to the Gaels (I had hoped and even picked Saint Mary’s to get past Villanova in the first round) and being able to give our starters a good rest before the next challenge on Saturday. In 24 minutes, Rui Hachimura led the team with 21 points on 8 of 15 shooting, added 8 rebounds and had a very nice block. The Knights had no answer for his strength and finesse on Thursday night. In 23 minutes, Brandon Clarke had 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks and a steal. Killian Tillie played 18 minutes and shot a scorching 7 of 8 from the field, including a perfect 2 for 2 from deep and a really sweet dunk flying in from the right side to throw it down between two defenders. He finished with 17 points and 4 assists. Pretty sweet night for our bigs! Others in double digits included Zach Norvell with 13 points on 3 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc. He had 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Geno Crandall got 26 minutes in and, like Tillie, was hot off the bench going 4 of 5 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range. He finished with 10 points and 4 rebounds.
Team numbers were really good in the game, as the Zags shot 53% overall on a 34 makes for 64 attempts effort. The Bulldogs were 9 of 21 from beyond the arc; a very decent 43%. The only lows I’d bring up here are the 62.5% effort at the free-throw line that’s going to need to bump itself up in the Sweet 16. We’d love to see the turnovers number drop below double digits too, but I think the Zags total of 11 turnovers got a bit higher as more of the bench got into the game later on when the lead was secure. Most importantly, the Zags played great defense and forced 17 turnovers leading to numerous points in transition. You would expect Gonzaga to rebound well against a 16 seed in the tournament, and that was definitely the case as the Bulldogs bested the Knights on the glass by a margin of 47 to 30 overall and 15 to 10 on the offensive glass. Everyone was boarding really well in this game, bigs and guards alike. We’ll see, as we move on to the Baylor (an excellent rebounding team) game, how well those numbers carried over to a more formidable rebounding opponent. Another excellent statistic for the night was the ratio of assists—Gonzaga having a whopping 22 assists to the Knights 8.
On Saturday night, the energy was electric in the Vivint center. Gonzaga, always with a great travelling fan base, had good representation in the arena. The Baylor Bears had their loyals as well, including a few obnoxious fans behind us, constantly bad-mouthing the Gonzaga players, the Gonzaga team and the referees loudly—until the security personnel there told them they could either put a lid on it or be forced to leave. Of course, they continued their slander but in a much more subdued fashion. I’ll never understand why anybody has to try to badmouth the opposite team in any basketball game. Cheering for your own team with passion, I believe, is badmouthing enough. And there was plenty of cheering to be done on Saturday night.
Kidding aside, I doubt Baylor missed any asterisks. Its just that Gonzaga has so many asterisks! You key on something and they’re going to burn you somewhere else. Baylor, it seemed, did a good job on defense as 4 of Gonzaga’s main guys shot a less than stellar 9 of 29—including our leading scorer who went for just 6 points and 5 rebounds due to some early foul trouble (and, I speculate here, likely wasn’t feeling well). All their effort to stymie Rui went for naught as Brandon Clarke scored a Gonzaga team NCAA tournament record-setting 36 points. Baylor’s attempts to limit “snacks”/to chill “the microwave,” Zach Norvell, though somewhat effective, just opened it up for Corey Kispert to take advantage of open looks and pull in a team second-best 16 points of his own for the game.
Brandon Clarke was absolutely the man on Saturday, no doubt about it—but if you’ve been paying attention to Gonzaga this season, that’s kinda old hat. Though not the leading scorer as often as Hachimura, he has scored in double figures every game (every game!) of the season. He’s a rock on both ends—a very, very solid, springy rock. It’s wonderful for him to have a game like the one he did on Saturday and get the kind of national attention he’s deserved for so long. Clarke’s phenomenal stat line for the game includes 15 of 18 shooting (no wonder he leads the nation in shooting percentage!) for 36 points (the most by a Gonzaga player in an NCAA tournament game—besting Adam Morrison’s record by a point). He had 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 5, count ‘em, 5 blocks (that’s 8 in the first 2 games of the tournament!). Steve Cameron, in his column “The Zags Tracker,” mentions two interesting points about Clarke in his review of the game. He has more blocks than missed shots (110 to 105) this season. That there just leaves you a little speechless. He’s also only the 3rd player in NCAA tournament history to garner 35+ points and 5 blocks in a game. The other two were Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.
It was great to see that kind of performance live. If Clarke didn’t quite have 10 dunks in the game, he was really close, and a lot of them were spectacular enough to bring you out of your seat with your arms up and make you yell “Ohh! Ohh!” (really loudly so the obnoxious Baylor fans behind you badmouthing your team know he just threw it the f- down). The one that really lit up the arena was off a dunk that Tillie tried to put down himself on a lob from Crandall if I recall correctly—but when it came off the rim with some pretty good zip, Clarke caught it and threw it down with authority. Clarke has some of the best hands in college basketball and anything in his reach rarely gets away. He and Tillie had another awesome highlight together when Tillie tossed it, hook-like from the free throw line, over his shoulder to Clarke streaking from the left along the baseline who took it from under the rim over the top and smashed it home. That clicking between the bigs--between Clarke and Tillie and Rui and Tillie in the past couple of games (which we’ve seen so much of with Rui and Clarke in Tillie’s absence) is a great sign.
Largely due to Clarke, Kispert, Tillie and Norvell’s efforts, the Bulldogs bested the Bears on the boards, with 39 rebounds to Baylor’s 27, including 13 to 12 on the offensive glass. This is a great sign prior to the next game against Florida State. The Zags were over 50 % on a 31 of 57 effort from the field, with a slightly less stellar effort than last game from deep going 7 of 20 for 35 %. The Bears held it fairly close for a good amount of the game, down by only 5 points with 16 minutes left in the second half, but the Zags just kept tightening the choke hold. Mark Vital, and Makai Mason each had 17 points, and Jared Butler and King McClure had 11 and 15 respectively despite strong efforts on the part of the Zags all game long on defense. The assist ratio was almost 2 to 1 in favor of Gonzaga with 19 to Baylor’s 10. To the Bulldog coaching staff’s chagrin, the free-throw percentage dipped below 70 again. I have no doubt its going to come up in the game against Florida State on Thursday.
Though any game you win in the tournament is a great game, as Mark Few mentioned in his post-game interview, Florida State is “vastly under-seeded.” If you’re a Gonzaga fan you remember the Seminoles from the Sweet 16 last year, and the difficult end to an excellent season that wasn’t expected to go nearly as far as it went when people projected things at the beginning of the season. The Bulldogs weren’t expected to win the WCC in 2018—not the conference nor the tournament. They won both and handily set aside all opposition in the WCC tournament that gave us such trouble this year. The end to a very nice string of wins late in the season came in the Sweet 16, at the hands of Florida State and Leonard Hamilton’s fathomlessly deep bench. Like the game against the Zags last year, Hamilton went often to his bench against Murray State in the game that earned them the right to play Gonzaga in this Sweet 16. He kept fresh bodies in to defend the likes of Ja Morant and snuff out further tournament hopes for that superstar despite his stellar shooting to begin the game. It is, no doubt, the same strategy he will employ against Gonzaga on Thursday night. I think the best defense against a depth like Florida State’s is a depth of your own and the Zags are in a much better spot this year than last.
Last year we didn’t really have it. Tillie was, unexpectedly, out for that Sweet 16 game in 2018. With him, as I’ve mentioned already, last year’s game would no doubt have been closer. Geno Crandall, a seasoned veteran of the game who lends a great deal of depth to the Zags' backcourt, wasn’t a part of the team either. Nor was Brandon Clarke—and Clarke is a serious game changer, as we’ve already seen. Jonathan Williams was, of course, an excellent player in the 2018 game, but neither he nor Hachimura had convincing answers to solve how the team could compete against Florida State’s endless supply of fresh length and strength. Rui scored 16 in the game to lead the Zags, Norvell had 14, and though the Zags narrowly outrebounded the Seminoles by a 42 to 40 margin, all the shooting percentages were extremely low for Gonzaga, going only 25% from deep and just under 34% from the field. It wasn’t good enough to win then and it won’t be good enough to win on Thursday. We have the answers to solve those problems this year and I suspect Mark Few will have some tricks up his sleeve to further frustrate the Seminoles.
I have no doubt that this team, unlike last years team, has all the pieces necessary to make it over the hurdle of Florida State in the Sweet 16. Making it over that hurdle, I believe, will put Gonzaga in very good territory to continue on toward a national championship. One really positive sign is that Hachimura, leading scorer for the Zags in that 2018 game, has a lot more game-time under his belt and is infinitely better prepared to meet the challenge. He’s learned to bang with the best of the big boys. He’s stronger, faster and his intensity level is on the rise every game he plays. Brandon Clarke had all those qualities to begin with and no doubt about it, will be seriously primed and pumped for this one.
Oh yea, and Tillie’s back. It still rings like angel trumpets in my ears. Clarke and Hachimura have slightly different games, I think. I would call Hachimura a finesse player, with excellent moves around players, using the basket often to his advantage as a way of losing defenders on the other side. And his smooth jumper is a thing of absolute beauty. He can play D and bang down low with the big guys, but perhaps smooth, poetic play is his natural state. As we saw against Baylor, Clarke is going to give it all he's got everywhere on the court, swat you if you come up with even a pinch of weakness, get to the basket directly, and hit you in the teeth if you’re in his way. Both players, I believe, have learned the style of the other—perhaps best by necessity from practicing against it all year. Clarke has developed some very smooth moves, and Rui has had to become stronger and more forceful in his all-around game. I remember watching the team scrimmage just before the opening of the season for the fans at the McCarthy Athletic Center. It's a free, yearly event that draws a lot of people in and allows the team to introduce itself to the fanbase. One thing I noticed right off the bat, because I suspected Rui would dominate the scrimmage, was that Brandon Clarke was really giving him some serious trouble during the scrimmage. That, of course, boded well for the rest of the season because anybody who can give Rui trouble has got to have some serious skills. Tillie, I would say, is a wonderful balance between the two extremes that Rui and Clarke represent. He can finesse as well as bang with the best of them, and both seem natural to him. And though Rui and Clarke pull the trigger from deep occasionally when left wide open (and make it at a pretty darn high percentage), Tillie makes 3’s with guys in his grill all the time. They are an absolutely lethal triumvirate with such an incredible range of skills, and the Seminoles are not going to dissuade all three from having great games easily. Oh, and Petrusev, our other tall guy off the bench, showed he can both shoot from deep, pull off sweet post moves and dunk against the likes of Duke and North Carolina earlier this season as well. It seems to me, we’ve definitely got depth to contend with Florida State down low.
In the backcourt, Perkins, Norvell and Kispert return from the 2018 team with the added help of our beloved Geno Crandall and his precision skills, imaginative execution and tenacious D. Jeremy Jones, another veteran player with serious skills on both ends, plays with that wonderful quality of fuzzying the line between guard and forward. He will be right in the grill of anybody he’s up against on defense, big or not, picking pockets, rebounding and he will not hesitate to take advantage of any scoring opportunities he’s offered. All this is to say Gonzaga’s really, really good, and as prepared as they can possibly be, with the personnel to make amazing things happen. There’s good reason the committee had them down as a #1 seed. Florida State is going to be facing something they haven’t seen as of yet in this team--very different and, I believe, more lethal than any other Gonzaga team in the history of great Gonzaga teams. Needless to say, I’ve got Gonzaga in ink as my pick to move on to the Elite 8, the Final 4, the Final and as the Champions.
P.S.S: I’ve got Auburn losing to North Carolina in their next game, but from what I saw they’re going to give the Tarheels a run for their money. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe NC is going to fall--I have been wrong before. Best of luck to all of you whoever you’re cheering for. I hope it’s Gonzaga, but I’m going to leave that up to you!
~ Clark Karoses