I don’t want to offend any Iowa fans here, but I need to make a case for the fact that, besides Luka Garza, Corey Kispert deserves to be in the conversation for Player of the Year. He is the current leader in minutes per game (30), points per game (22.4), field goal percentage (63.6%), free throw percentage (86.4%) and 3-point percentage for those with a significant number of attempts (he has attempted 50 and made 26 of them, which comes to an outstanding 52%) for the undefeated, #1 team in the nation. He leads the whole team with a very capable, strong hand and with more time on the court than anyone else on the team, is responsible for less than 1 turnover per game. His numbers against Virginia on Saturday were some of his best as both he and Drew Timme had a career-high scoring afternoon against the Cavaliers.
Kispert was unbelievable on Saturday. In 30 minutes he went 11 for 15 from the field—almost all of those from behind the 3-point line where he shot an incredible 9 for 13! With those 9 threes, he matched the record number of 3’s in a game by any Gonzaga player, a mark set previously by both Kevin Pangos and Dan Dickau. He also added 3 assists to his 32 points. Kispert and the Zags as a whole were beyond outstanding on the defensive end, flipping the expectation for the game that had most prognosticators expecting excellence from Virginia both defending the basket and taking care of the basketball. Instead, the Zags looked great on the defensive end and forced numerous Cavaliers turnovers while Virginia was made to look a bit sloppy on both ends.
Way back in the day, it bothered my high school basketball coach to no end that stats for a game never included a column for “charges taken.” “Taking a charge,” he used to say, “is the best thing you can do in basketball.” Requiring not only the toughness to take the brunt of an offensive player’s bulk and momentum, but also to “sell it” with believable theatricality so the referee definitely recognizes some wrong was just committed but doesn’t deem the move a flop. And what a pivotal thing taking a charge can be in a game, not only negating the offensive possession of your opponent but putting the ball back in your own hands. Stat takers and reporters really should have a column for charges taken to add another possible number besides simply blocks and steals to help summarize a player’s defensive effort. And ESPN should put a charge or two in the Top-10 on occasion to bring the importance of defense into the heads of players and fans. Kispert and Timme brought that fact to mind by each taking at least 1 charge in the game against Virginia.
While we’re thinking about Player of the Year, let’s throw Drew Timme’s name in the hat as well. In his 28 minutes against the Cavaliers, Timme went 9 for 15 from the floor, 11 for 13 at the free throw line, had 3 offensive boards, 8 rebounds total, added 3 assists, a steal, a block and at least 1 charge taken while making only one turnover. Against an excellent Virginia frontcourt, Timme had 29 points, getting 3-point opportunities with a basket and a foul and busting out his newly unleashed and highly celebrated mustache celebration with his favorite baskets. He continues to keep besting his career high in scoring this season. He set the former mark with a double-double of 28 points and 10 rebounds against Auburn in the second game of the season, a day after he scored 25 against Kansas. For the season, in 29 minutes a game, he has outstanding averages of 21.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, besides shooting 60.4% from the field and 72.3% from the foul line.
Garza’s numbers of 28.6 points, 10 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 2.1 blocks, 62.7 % shooting field goals, 70 % shooting free throws, and 52.9% shooting 3’s are amazing—no doubt about that. And if he wins Player of the Year, I’m sure he’ll deserve it. I think, however, winning games should weigh heavily in the conversation for an outstanding player—and both Kispert and Timme should get a bump up in the conversation for showing such greatness on an unselfish team that shares the ball so well and still has two players averaging over 20 points a game, having won all of the games they’ve played so far on top of that. With league play beginning, and Gonzaga playing in the WCC rather than the Big-10, Garza will likely get more attention than these two. But when tournament time rolls around, if the Bulldogs go as deep and as undefeated as I think they might, I hope statistics alone don’t make the final determination for Player of the Year because I think some deserving candidates are wearing Gonzaga jerseys.
Timme and Kispert’s 61 points combined definitely dominated scoring for the Zags. Some great performances came from Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard for Gonzaga, despite neither breaking double digits scoring. In the last installment I mentioned that Suggs’ turnovers were the only statistic betraying his youth of late. He has the unfortunate distinction of having more turnovers on average per game (2.7) than any other player—a statistic that might be expected of a point guard, but one that I think is bothering him. His 7 turnovers were the only plays that sullied his 27 points (7 for 10 from deep), 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals powerhouse performance against Iowa. Suggs fixed that turnover problem up nicely against Virginia, by turning the ball over only once in his 29 minutes against a team known for tight defense. Hitting the boards hard and setting his teammates up with excellent dimes, Suggs came away with 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 8 points, adding 4 steals on the defensive end.
Nembhard, the only Gonzaga player with more than 1 turnover against Virginia, had just 2 in his 30 minutes of play. The Zags team had a season-low of 7 turnovers as a unit (they had 18 against Iowa) while forcing Virginia to cough it up 15 times, capitalizing furiously on many of those in transition. Nembhard came away with 7 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds in the game on a 3 for 3 shooting effort from the field.
Anton Watson, who I’d mentioned last week as having gotten a confidence boost on the offensive end against Northwestern state where he had high scoring nights for the season of 15 and 10 points on Monday and Tuesday nights respectively, had a very effective, though lower total against the Cavaliers. Each of his 6 points against Virginia were important, as he had both of the baskets to open the halves—a reverse lay-up for the first score of the game and a very nice pick-and-roll basket executed perfectly by Watson and Kispert, starting the engine back up for the Zags at the beginning of the second half as well. His other basket was an And-1 opportunity off a well-executed out-of-bounds play, receiving the assist from Timme (the kid passes really well for a forward—so does Watson) after his hard cut to the basket from a picking position for Kispert at the top of the key. Though he missed the free throw, Watson was able to corral his own rebound, scoop the ball out to Kispert beyond the arc and get an assist for the subsequently drained 3. He had 2 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in an excellent game and I would look for all those numbers to improve against the next two Zag opponents on Monday and Tuesday.
Joel Ayayi and Aaron Cook added efficiently for the Zags as well, with 8 and 6 points respectively on some great looking perimeter shots and drives to the hoop. One thing you’ve got to give all these players not named Timme and Kispert credit for (especially Suggs while playing the majority of minutes at the point) is recognizing the hot hands of their bread and butter players—and while remaining a threat offensively, realizing that getting it to one of those two was working really, really, really well. While keeping the defense honest and unable to sag in on Timme or out to “guard the fence” on Kispert, everyone kept feeding the red-hot Kispert from well beyond the arc and Timme down low. Smart, unselfishness is what wins these guys so many games throughout the years and the offensive execution was phenomenal. Both Suggs and Nembhard have proven adept at recognizing exactly when they need to create and when they need to defer to the likes of Timme, Kispert, Ayayi, Watson, etc.—a quality many point guards have difficulty with. Suggs’ and Nembhard’s combined 14 assists and 15 points could be considered equally as important as the 61 points Timme and Kispert gathered—or, rather, they simply go well together.
What to say to criticize this game? You could say something ridiculous like Gonzaga didn’t get enough dunks. Maybe you could get knit-picky about a few missed assignments, not closing out, reserves not up to speed, etc. In the 20 years or more I’ve been watching Gonzaga basketball, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more perfect performance than the one on Saturday. I’m not sure if Mark Few would agree—perhaps he wouldn’t, but I suspect he would. It was a very, very good showing, that’s for sure.
Who’s got next? Northern Arizona does on Monday. Prognosticators don’t have much confidence in the Lumberjacks getting the win against the Bulldogs who seem to be 40-point favorites. After that, it’s the Dixie State Trailblazers. Despite a 4-1 record so far this season, the ESPN power index has Gonzaga as the 99% favorite to win that one as well. Not knowing much I’m gonna throw out some big numbers at random. I say the Bulldogs work to tighten up the defense even more and dominate: 111-55 on Monday. 108-61 on Tuesday. WCC league play starts on the 2nd against a San Francisco Dons team that also beat Virginia, 61-60 earlier this season, and that Gonzaga has had trouble with, getting very narrow wins in a few of last season’s meetings. Will have to meditate on that score and see what my crystal ball has to say later in the week. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year! GO ZAGS!!!