On Saturday, in Moraga, California, Saint Mary’s imposed a plodding tempo on a Bulldogs team that hates to go slow. The frustrated Zags, instead of sharing the ball in the way that has been so productive for them this season, tried to create baskets individually where there was little room to create. It led to an all-time team-low of 6 assists in the whole game. The Gaels’ strategy worked at putting a damper on Gonzaga’s offense through the first 11 minutes of the game and Saint Mary’s jumped out to a surprising 22-12 lead behind some good shooting from beyond the arc. Aaron Cook came off the bench for the Zags at a low-point and offered some veteran help to right the ship and the Bulldogs were able to go into the locker room with a 32-25 lead at the half. Though the Zags were able to go up by as much as 18 with 4 minutes left in the game, the Gaels would put an end to Gonzaga’s 13-game streak of 85+ points scored, and the Bulldogs left Moraga with a 73-59 win.
Having played perhaps the most disappointing two halves of basketball that they’ve played this season, yet still able to win by 25 and 14 points, Mark Few summed it up best on Saturday night: “Got through it and we’re moving on.” Against Pepperdine, Gonzaga took a narrow 43-39 lead into the locker room after the Waves’ Darryl Polk Jr. hit a running 3-pointer to close the half, and every indication was that the Waves could turn tsunami on the Bulldogs and crash in for a torrential upset. It was not to be as the Zags got to business early and often in the 2nd half, shooting well and playing some excellent defense to hold Pepperdine to just 31 points in the final 20 minutes while scoring 52 themselves.
Starting forward Anton Watson, had 28 great minutes in the game against Pepperdine, and for the 2nd time this season led the team in rebounds. Hyper-efficient when he does put the ball up on offense (he shot 3 for 3 from the field on Thursday), he troubled the Waves on the defensive end while going hard to the glass on both ends. One of the few bright spots early for Gonzaga, Watson jumped into Pepperdine’s passing lane with 3:23 left in the first half, stole the ball and went in for an easy, break-away dunk. A force whose contributions don’t always garner numbers, his 6 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals are exactly what Gonzaga needed against a very physical, persistent Pepperdine squad. Unfortunately, that same Watson wasn’t there against the Waves. On Saturday, besides a turnover, 2 fouls, and 2 steals, Watson had neither points nor rebounds in his 22 minutes of play.
Watson is the only starter on the Zags not averaging double-digits scoring. And while an occasional 10 or 15 points from the sophomore have been appreciated at times this season—simple efficiency on the offensive end along with consistent aggressiveness on defense and on the glass will keep him in his starting position. Like I said last week, when you’ve got 4 starters who can put up 20+ points on any given night, the 5th man doesn’t necessarily need to be anything besides a serious threat to score. On Thursday it wasn’t just one or two of Watson’s fellow starters putting up serious points. Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi combined for 80 points, getting totals of 20, 23, 18 and 19 respectively. Impressive balance, no doubt, but impossible without the 15 offensive rebounds and 47 rebounds total for Gonzaga in the game compared to 6 offensive and 28 total rebounds for Pepperdine. Gonzaga’s poor performance on the glass added to a frustrating Saturday night against Saint Mary’s, where the Gaels had 32 rebounds to Gonzaga’s 29, and 9 offensive rebounds to the Zags’ 3.
Against Saint Mary’s, the same balanced scoring among the starters emerged despite the dragging pace and a less impressive night on the boards. Timme and Suggs both scored 14 a-piece against the Gaels, while Kispert and Ayayi found 17 and 16 respectively. Suggs, Kispert and Timme snacked at the free throw line—Kispert and Suggs both getting a perfect 4 for 4 at the charity stripe while Timme just missed one, going 4 for 5. It is a bit of a wonder why Timme wasn’t fed more consistently on Saturday. He was a near-perfect 5 for 6 from the field and led the team in both blocks (3) and rebounds (8). The out-of-sorts Zags should have leaned on their tried and true big man in the paint.
Timme went to the glass hard against both the Waves and the Gaels. Against Pepperdine, he gathered more offensive boards than defensive ones (4 offensive and 3 defensive) and came away with an impressive stat line of 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, a block and a charge taken. He struggled a bit at the free-throw line (4-8) in that game and had a poor start shooting from the field, going just 3 for 11 to begin the game. However, after about the 13-minute mark in the second, he more than redeemed himself with 2 beautiful and-1 baskets down low, both of which had him celebrating from the floor and converting from the charity stripe. Around the same time, he went to the floor again on the defensive end, taking a charge and spurring on the Gonzaga run. That run included at least 2 more Timme baskets, and would lead to the Bulldogs largest point separation (92-66) with 2:13 left after Jalen Suggs made a dunk on an Andrew Nembhard dime right after Suggs sunk his lone, long-range 3-pointer of the night.
Speaking of 3-pointers, Kispert—luke-warm from deep in the first half (3 for 7) against Pepperdine—had a hot hand in the second (3 for 4) and boosted his shooting percentage over 50% for the game with a busy 6 for 11 effort from beyond the arc on the night. He added 8 rebounds, an assist and a steal to his game-high 23 points Thursday—including 3 for 3 from the foul line. With another game-high night scoring Saturday with his 17 points, Kispert was 3 for 6 from deep, adding an assist, a steal and 5 rebounds to his stat line. With a 48.9% average from beyond the arc, it’s mine and many Zags fans hope that Kispert might finish over 50% from 3-point range this season—not that numbers matter that much, but it would be quite an accomplishment and could boost the value of his NBA-prospect stock.
Speaking of NBA-prospect stock, Jalen Suggs. . . what can you say? The kid is outstanding. He was able to showcase some of that excellence on Thursday, shooting 8 for 13 from the field, with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals to go along with his 18 points. Much of his contribution against Pepperdine came on the defensive end where he stepped up to the assignment against the WCC’s leading scorer last season, Colbey Ross. While defense is always a team effort and Suggs shared the assignment with many others, he helped limit Ross to 2 for 10 shooting from the field and 0 for 3 from deep for just 9 points (Ross averages about 19 a game) that came mainly from the free throw line. The Gonzaga defense created 16 Pepperdine turnovers, 6 of which came from Ross. Unfortunately, Gonzaga exceeded those 16 turnovers by a couple, getting 18 turnovers themselves, 4 of which came from Suggs. Turnovers and effectiveness shooting from long range have become the biggest worries for Jalen Suggs as an NBA prospect. Saturday’s game in Moraga saw Suggs out of sorts and, like many of the Zags, he’ll likely take some lessons away and try to forget about it ASAP. With more turnovers (5) than rebounds (3) or assists (2), Suggs’ 14 points came off a 5 for 12 shooting night (0 for 3 from deep). Suggs’ shooting woes and his propensity to make turnovers are areas for improvement for the young phenom as he moves deeper into a very exciting year.
Joel Ayayi has been called one of the best “glue guys” in college basketball by many announcers lately. While he certainly is gluey, considering his outstanding play lately, we might as well just call him one of the best guys in college basketball. With the first triple-double ever in Gonzaga basketball history in the previous week’s game against Portland (12 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists) Ayayi made it 4 of 5 games in which he’d had at least a double-double. Though not as heavy in the rebounding or assists category against Pepperdine, he was hyper-efficient again, shooting 5 for 7 from the field, 2 for 3 from beyond the arc, adding 3 offensive rebounds to his 6 rebounds total, 2 assists, 4 steals, 19 points and 0 turnovers. As the Waves threatened and even took a lead 26-25, Thursday, it was largely Ayayi’s team-leading 14 points and 4 steals in the first half that kept Gonzaga’s head above water when they went into the locker room to iron things out.
Ayayi’s consistency and efficiency helped the Zags climb out of the early hole they had going in Moraga on Saturday as well. Shooting 8 for 13 from the field against Saint Mary’s (1 for 2 from deep) and adding 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal to his 16 points, Ayayi again proved to be efficient and effective in the rare times that the rest of the team can’t seem to get things together. I would call him a “gravity guy,” grounding what might float away in different directions without his steadfast excellence.
The primary concern for Gonzaga going down the road, as it has been for some time, is in bench production for the frontcourt. Veteran transfers Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook have been excellent and proven subs off the bench in the backcourt for the Zags. While Nembhard hasn’t been as productive as he’d been through the first 12 games of the season in these last two contests, Cook showed up big in just 15 minutes off the bench Saturday. He plays excellent defense while making only the best offensive decisions. Against the Gaels he shot 3 for 4 from the field, sank his 1 attempt from deep, and had 3 rebounds, an assist and a steal. Along with the veterans, freshman Julian Strawther and Dominic Harris are coming into their own as options off the bench in the backcourt as well.
But the question persists: if Timme and/or Watson finds themselves in foul trouble against a bunch of very talented and very big bigs, where does Gonzaga go? So far, Oumar Ballo is Mark Few’s answer for the frontcourt. Getting 11 minutes on occasion in some of his best games, Ballo is definitely a work in progress. On Thursday, the big man had just 3 minutes on the court. On Saturday he missed a dunk he should have thrown down late in the game, but was able to get a block and a rebound in his 4 minutes. Ballo’s ability to contribute in a meaningful way is likely to become very important by season’s end.
One interesting possibility for a frontcourt sub comes from Ben Gregg, a 6’ 10” true freshman out of Oregon who just joined the team after deciding to finish high school early and get to college—an odd occurrence that probably has more to do with the fact that Gregg had no high-school basketball season due to Covid and took his best and quickest path to the basketball court (and a free season of college eligibility). He seems nimble and fleet of foot in the few occasions we’ve seen him on the court after the Bulldogs have a sizable lead. Could he be a piece in Gonzaga’s national championship puzzle?
Next up on the slate Saturday (unless Mark Few pulls off some crazy scheduling that gets them a top-25 game in the interim) is a game against the Pacific Tigers. 2 and 0 in WCC play so far, Pacific could prove to be a challenge for Gonzaga. In the past, the Tigers have imposed the same plodding tempo on Gonzaga that Saint Mary’s used Saturday to slow down and frustrate the Bulldogs. I suspect, though, that Mark Few will have the right counter measures in place to overcome any difficulties Pacific might bring. And I think after a frustrating week like this last one, the Zags are going to put together 2 halves of good basketball and come out fired up and swinging on both ends of the court. I say 97-58, Gonzaga wins big and Ballo gets some great minutes. GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses