No stranger to #1, Gonzaga has begrudgingly accepted the honor out of necessity this December and disregarded its importance completely—preferring to get back to work and to heal the bumps and bruises they’ve sustained in their weary travels so far. If Mark Few is any indication of how everyone on the team feels, there definitely isn’t much import placed on the top slot. In an interview prior to the game against EWU, Few said: “I don’t think they should be doing polls this year until March. . . it’s just an effort in futility at this point.”
Is Gonzaga, or any team for that matter, the #1 team in the nation? That’s hard to say, but enough people considered expert in the field think so and they’ve got the number now. Ohio State has, perhaps, as many great wins as Gonzaga—and undefeated San Diego State looks good as well—along with a long list of potential greats. Gonzaga has come up with significant wins at the right time and has benefitted a great deal from the difficulty of their schedule before the New Year. Maybe the more important question is: Can Gonzaga hold on to #1 and get rid of the jinx on that number?
Yes, is my answer. And yes, they will hold on to #1 in the polls provided the pollsters accept Gonzaga continuing to win every game as sufficient to keep them there. They’ll be there until March and into March Madness. That’s my prediction. Many feel winning out isn’t in the cards for Gonzaga—that it’s too much to expect—but I strongly feel they’re wrong. As a Bulldogs fan, I may be the wrong person to ask, but I think Gonzaga is going to win out—a formidable task, no doubt, but I think this is a team that can face every contest with even-headed intensity and come out on top.
The WCC conference, very good last year, is perhaps even better this year. Saint Mary’s (12-2), BYU (10-4) and Santa Clara (12-2) are all going to be difficult to beat, especially with that #1 designation like a target on the back of the Bulldogs. But Gonzaga matches up well against anybody in the country right now and I think every member of this conference (like their next opponent on December 30, Detroit Mercy) is going to be begging for mercy when they face the Zags.
In the last game against EWU, many expected a decent game and perhaps a challenge from the Eagles who were averaging over 90 points a game. I predicted the game would be somewhat close in the first half before Gonzaga pulled away for a significant victory of 93-70. It wasn’t that, for sure. With a final score of 112-77, the game essentially seemed over 10 minutes into the 1st half. After a somewhat even exchange of baskets for the first 6 minutes of the game, Gonzaga went on a 15-0 run between 13:55 and 11:14 on the clock to go up 29-9. Every aspect of the game, besides some decent 3-poing shooting from EWU, was controlled by the Zags, especially rebounding. A freak tip in by Anton Watson as the final seconds in the 1st half ticked away made the score 64-33.
It was another game that saw a pair of Gonzaga players with 20 or more points for the game. Filip Petrusev, who added 20 points against North Carolina earlier in the week, added another 24 against the Eagles and was just a rebound short of a double-double. Admon Gilder, who had been hobbled of late with knee trouble, seemed quite well against EWU. His shooting numbers look especially strong with 8-11 overall from the field shooting, 3 of 6 shooting 3 pointers, and 22 points total. It was the second straight game that the 2 highest scoring Zag players combined for 46 points. Against North Carolina, it was Petrusev and the highly regarded (and justly so) shooting guard/forward Corey Kispert who went bonkers with his 26 points on 5 of 6 shooting from beyond the arc. Against EWU he settled down a bit, but was a perfect 2 for 2 from deep, 3 for 4 from the field and steady at the free throw line—finishing with 13 points.
Free throws (a sore subject this season) were a statistic I implored myself to pay attention to after the last two games. There has been a steady rise for the team in free throw shooting percentage over the last three games. Against Arizona we saw Gonzaga shoot a very disappointing 56.7% on 17 of 30 from the charity stripe—and the panic alarm was sounded. Free throw shooting has often been an embarrassing issue for Gonzaga this season but rarely as poor as that 56.7 %. Against North Carolina we saw a bit of a boost, as the Bulldogs sank 15 of their 22 attempts for 68.2%. In the last post I asked for a goal—that Gonzaga raise their team free throw shooting percentage to 70% over the course of a number of months by getting a consistent 75% mark in each game. The Bulldogs responded by doing exactly that with a 30 makes in 40 attempts effort against EWU. Petrusev, who will continue to shoulder more and more of the free throw shooting load was a very decent 10 of 14. Corey Kispert, who is the team leader in free throw percentage at an even 80% went 5 for 6. Ryan Woolridge, who has the worst free throw shooting percentage among players with significant minutes at 53.8%, is, we all hope, on the rise with a 2 for 2 effort in the game against EWU.
Free throw shooting might be the most significant concern for this team going into the new year. Rebounding is a minor concern as well. The Zags out-rebounded EWU 49 to 34, but not their two previous opponents. Despite winning the previous two games, they were narrowly outrebounded by both Arizona and North Carolina. They’ll need to focus some effort on more effectively getting to the glass against tough opponents. They’ll also have to tighten up on defense. Gonzaga plays very good but, perhaps, not great defense. There are breakdowns on defense, like we saw at the very inopportune time of the last two minutes of the game against Arizona, where both the defense looked bad and the team made many mistakes. Gonzaga has all the potential, I think, to hold opponents to under 60 points though they’ve only done so in a few contests this year. All these areas I think will be areas of improvement in games to come as Gonzaga buckles down for the coming conference schedule.
Another thing to look for is the continued improvement of Joel Ayayi who has been an invaluable contributor to Gonzaga’s game on both ends of the court. He has had brilliant games this season, especially in tight contests. In the last two games he was slightly short of brilliant, going a combined 2 of 11 from 3-point range and 10 of 23 overall shooting from the field. Despite those less than ideal numbers he added 13 points and 8 rebounds against EWU and 11 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals against North Carolina. His rebounding numbers (he averages nearly 7 a game) are second only to Filip Petrusev on the team.
Looking into the future, I see Joel Ayayi and the rest of the team coming out of the Christmas rest with a vengeance. They needed a week of rest after a brutal schedule, suffering significant injuries that slowed many players on the court and kept others off the court. Anton Watson should see more minutes in games to come and could add even more length and strength to an already formidable line-up. If Killian Tillie has used the down time to heal and strengthen his legs which, no doubt, he has—I pity the team who has to face his dangerous, Hydra-headed game down low and from deep and everywhere in-between. The guards, including point and shooting, are just plain eating opponents up lately. Ryan Woolridge is a precision surgical instrument, dissecting defenses and thwarting offensive weapons. Gaining his health, Admon Gilder will continue to be dangerous everywhere as well. And Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi—lets just say it all looks good from here. I just don’t like anybody’s chances against this team—nobody. If the Zags lose before the tournament starts, I’ll admit I’m just a starry-eyed Zags fan. Until then I’m that and the guy who says they’re not losing. Right now, it seems like a good fan to be. Best Wishes and Happy New Year. I hope you catch the game on Monday against Detroit Mercy and the Conference opener against Portland on the second.
~ Clark Karoses