I got into one of those childish arguments on Facebook the other day with one of those naysayers—one of the many who, in the comments of a post that celebrates a Gonzaga win, say snide things like: “Gonzaga’s good, but they’re only a Sweet 16 or an Elite 8 team at the most,” or who demean Gonzaga’s latest conference wins with: “Get in a better conference.” Or last but not least, who show their distain and disrespect with: “Can’t wait to see Gonzaga choke in the tournament again this year.” After telling him why Gonzaga is in the WCC, that the WCC isn’t really that bad of a conference, and that I think Gonzaga is not only going to be in the final four, but will win the whole thing, we were at odds for some time. When I mentioned that I’ve been a fan for about 20 years and I ask him who he’s picking to beat Gonzaga, not only will he not offer me an answer, he has the audacity to call me one of the people who jumped on the Gonzaga bandwagon when they started winning a lot of games. This, coming from a guy who “likes a lot of teams,” won’t even offer up an opinion about who is good enough to beat the Zags, and doesn’t owe allegiance to any team.
I’m not going to stoop to his level and demean the way this guy enjoys his basketball, but I think it’s a good thing to be loyal to a team. It teaches you something about the ups and downs that come with just about any long-term, worthwhile endeavor. If an open relationship with his favorite basketball teams is this guy’s gig though then so be it, just don’t knock me for being committed to something.
Naysayers are all over the place though—especially when it comes to Gonzaga. I admit, he may have a point about me becoming a fan at a time when Gonzaga was good. I became a fan around the turn of the century when my dad, who knew Gonzaga had been good for some time, said I should come over to his place and watch a game. We both lived in Moscow, Idaho, and though the Vandals at the University of Idaho (my Alma Mater) and the Cougars at Washington State weren’t bad teams nearby, my dad recognized that something special was going on in Spokane—and we both love basketball. We watched a lot of great games together. It became our ritual to get pizza and root beer and sit down together to cheer Gonzaga on. We were able to follow many elite athletes that have come through the program and we saw a lot of great team wins and a few loses. We paid close attention as Adam Morrison and the Zags rose to great heights and we felt the bitter heartbreak with the 2006 tournament loss to UCLA that put an end to his days at Gonzaga. My dad passed away a few years after that, but I keep our tradition and love for basketball alive by cheering for Gonzaga every year. A Spokane resident now, I watch the games with my own kids and loved ones.
Throughout the years that I’ve had the pleasure of being a fan, I’ve watched a lot of Gonzaga games, and I’ve closely followed a fair number of Gonzaga basketball seasons. They’ve pretty much always had a great team, and I’ve almost always been very excited about the possibility of them making a deep run into March Madness. This team though—this team in 2019, I believe, is special in a way that I haven’t seen yet. Perhaps I’ve got blinders on because I love Zags basketball. Every Gonzaga team over the years, I admit, has seemed special. The team this year, however, seems to transcend even the highest of standards and might be the best yet. And though I’ve seen too many basketball games through the years not to recognize that on any given night a lesser team can upset a better team, I want to say it right now: Gonzaga is going to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this year.
This 2019 team with, as one analyst put it, its “embarrassment of riches,” is steadily at work making great strides every game. Praising Brandon Clarke after a win, Mark Few said: “He brings his lunch pail every day.” This is true of the whole team. Every opportunity to work is taken very seriously, including every minute of games against teams that might be considered sub-par. If you watch their games lately you’ve seen it. The Zags are relentless in their pursuit of perfection. The work ethic, talent, experience and smarts of both the players and the coaching staff is going to put them on top in March. They have a great synergy developing in which the energy of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sam Scholl, head coach of San Diego Men’s Basketball, had this high praise after the most recent Gonzaga win against the Toreros:
“The thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with Gonzaga is that they play for each other, as good if not better than anybody they play against. You can see it in everything they do, the way they celebrate for each other’s baskets, the way they talk to each other on the floor, the way they come in and out of timeouts, the way they huddle. That for me is the most impressive thing. They’ve got an unbelievable amount of talent, but man do they play for each other.”
Mark Few has always instilled unselfish play into his players and the best Gonzaga teams are great because of their ability to work so well as a team. What I see more than anything this year is a bunch of guys enjoying the hell out of playing basketball, who know their potential is near limitless, and who know that hard work is the impetus to make all that potential blossom. Besides the work they do improving the nation’s highest scoring offense, Gonzaga has made it a mission to tighten up on defense, especially since the back-to-back losses suffered against Tennessee and North Carolina in which their defense was a bit lax. Every game since those losses, you see a concerted effort to get better on that end of the court. The wrench on the defensive pressure is being torqued tighter and tighter. Each game is a click or two clicks on the ratchet. The culmination of that effort so far, might have been the recent game against Saint Mary’s, but you saw it on full display against BYU and the second meeting with San Francisco as well.
Consider the last game against Saint Mary’s—perhaps Gonzaga’s best 40 minutes of basketball this season. I happened to be watching the movie Free Solo (watch it if you haven’t—it’s amazing) at The Magic Lantern in downtown Spokane during the game, and I was only able to catch the beginning. I did feel confident though, after seeing the initial 14-2 Zags run to start, how it would turn out. The first time I got a chance to check the score Gonzaga was up 53 to 20 at halftime. Gonzaga held the Gaels (a long-standing rival notorious for its toughness and with a very decent offense this year) to 20 points in the first half and just 46 by the end of regulation while scoring 94 points themselves, just over their season average. The Gaels shot 7.7% from beyond the arc and 26% on field goals overall. I’d say that’s pretty good D! Along with his 24 points on 9 of 12 shooting, Brandon Clarke added 3 blocks to his now 82 block total (he had 5 against San Francisco last time they met, along with 16 rebounds and 20 points). Clarke, perhaps, doesn’t get all the attention he deserves for Player of the Year (he’ll get a lot more attention soon) because Rui Hachimura mania is taking such a lion’s share. Rui had 18 points (he had 32 against San Diego last Saturday) on 8 of 11 shooting, with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks of his own. These two big men, Gonzaga’s peanut butter and jelly in 2019, almost always have at least 40 points combined per game. And one or the other is either close or gets a double-double. They are also very good at passing to one another and other teammates and neither is stingy with the ball if someone has an easier look at the hoop.
Some things that Gonzaga is not always consistent with were clicking that night against the Gaels. Gonzaga outrebounded Saint Mary’s 42 to 31. Rebounding as well as 3-point shooting haven’t been strong points for the Zags in a few games this season. They shot 44.4% from beyond the arc on this particular night though, with Zach Norvell and Cory Kispert combining for 5 makes on 10 attempts. Besides playing great defense, both wings finished in double figures. Josh Perkins, the team captain as senior point guard, who is very comfortable facilitating other people’s baskets with precision passes and perfect lobs (but is also a very apt at scoring when necessary), had 9 assists and 2 points. Gonzaga also got great numbers from their bench, which isn’t always the case. Jeremy Jones had 7 points on 3 of 3 shooting, one from deep. And Geno Crandall who, like Jones, is a defensive specialist as well as serious offensive threat, had 6 points of his own and 4 assists. Filip Petrusev had perhaps his best performance of the year, scoring 15 on 5 of 7 shooting. The Zags, who sometimes get a bit careless with the ball to the tune of double-digit turnovers, had just 6 turnovers for the game.
The two games since that game weren’t as impressive and highlight some of the key factors for improvement for Gonzaga. In the game against Loyola Marymount, though the Zags ground out a win against a really tough team on the road, wasn’t pretty. Clarke and Rui had to be great again as LMU not only kept things close, but took a small lead midway through the 2nd half. Clarke finished with 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting, with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks (he averages 3!). Rui was 7 of 13 with 22 points, 7 rebounds and a perfect 8 of 8 from the charity stripe. A saving grace, the whole team only missed one free throw, going 21 of 22 (96 %) from the foul-line. Zach Norvell was 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. The game as a whole, though, seemed pretty sloppy. Despite Clarke and Rui’s efforts, Gonzaga got outrebounded 36 to 35 in the game and turned the ball over 10 times as opposed to LMU which only had 5.
The San Diego game last Saturday was a bit better perhaps. It was a tale of two halves—the second half being significantly better than the first. In the LMU game, the Zags had a great final quarter, going on a 20-6 run to close the game, similar to what happened in San Francisco this year when the Zags closed out a very close away game with a burst of energy to finish. Luckily, the Zags have been running strong in tough games at the right time. At San Diego the last 20 minutes were much better than the first. Both teams went into the locker room with 30 points at half, but the Zags came out in a rampage, shooting 69% in that half, scoring 49 points and besting the Toreros in another hard-fought contest. This time, Rui had the double-double with 22 and 10 rebounds. Clarke had 14 on 6 of 7 shooting with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. Zach Norvell had 18 himself on 7 of 11 shooting, but he and the rest of the team shot a poor 21.4% from beyond the arc. Again, double-digit turnovers led to trouble and worry for Gonzaga which had 10 while San Diego only gave it up 9 times. The Gonzaga bench wasn’t firing on all cylinders either, scoring only 2 points in the contest. Josh Perkins, who found a lot of his passing lanes blocked up, made wise decisions and shot a lot more often in the game, scoring 15 points to help boost things. Another strong team performance from the free-throw line (12 of 14) helped seal the victory despite some troubles.
Apart from these last two games in which Gonzaga seemed to struggle a bit, and a closer contest away in San Francisco, the Zags have been stellar in conference play, blowing by the opposition by an average of more than 30 points. The defense is getting tighter every game they play and the offense, apart from rare slumps, is humming along nicely. In the years I’ve followed Gonzaga in conference play I’ve never seen them win so convincingly so often. What I remember most consistently about WCC play in the past is Gonzaga playing it pretty close to the competition until halftime, working out a few kinks, and then pulling ahead or eeking it out at the end—or every now and again falling to a rival. There’s been some worrisome moments in conference play this year, but they are few and far between. Noone had much of an answer for Gonzaga last year at the end of the season and into the WCC tournament, but what I see happening this year is, perhaps, a team that’s even better than that.
One huge question looming in the minds of Gonzaga fans is: What is going to happen with Killian Tillie? Some say that the Zags can’t win the tournament without Tillie. It is certainly a serious concern. Tillie’s absence from the Sweet 16 game against Florida State last year may have cost them the game—or at least his healthy presence would have made it a much closer contest. Seeing him limp off the floor against Saint Mary’s was tragic. There is some speculation that he will be ready to play by the postseason but easing him into the lineup as part of gradual recovery from the ankle injury that kept him out for so long prior to the beginning of conference play was an important part of getting him ready for the postseason. This recent stall in that plan is a serious bummer for all of Zag nation. Having him back, whatever his condition will be a boon in March. My assumption is the Zags will be concentrating on getting the very talented Filip Petrusev as many minutes as possible in the meantime. He has already shown great proficiency and poise in the post and from behind the three-point line. He was solid in the win against Duke. Look for him to get more minutes, especially when the Zags start to gain a comfortable lead in upcoming games. Getting him on the floor will be a good sign for Gonzaga.
Although I truly wish Killian Tillie were healthy, there is, perhaps, a positive I can see in him having to sit out. I wonder if Tillie might be back next year in order to get a better pre-NBA showing. As little as we want Tillie to be limited in his possibilities in any way, the idea of a Tillie-Petrusev frontcourt next season is really exciting. A starting 5 with those two bigs would be a starting 5 that can all shoot and make the 3 consistently. Not that Rui and Clarke suffer from beyond the arc. They don’t, but they don’t pull the trigger very often. Having Tillie back might be a pipe dream, but the future of Gonzaga basketball is something that’s fun to dream about and the prospects lately are looking pretty good.
As March approaches, I’m going to be watching for Gonzaga to rebound the ball more effectively, take better and make more 3-pointers, put together games that are a complete 40 minutes of great basketball, limit turn overs and work the excellent guys we have on the bench in more consistently. The truth is anyone can lose in March and almost everyone does. You can have an off night and your opponent can sizzle. Steph Curry could step in and light you up for 40 like he did with Davidson against Gonzaga in 2008. Of all the Gonzaga teams I’ve seen, I believe this is the one that can handle whatever befalls them. With veterans that are cool under pressure and talent to match any excellent team, I believe they can handle any situation. I’m excited to see some rematches from earlier in the season as the tournament field narrows with Michigan State, Tennessee and/or North Carolina—perhaps against Duke as well. Whatever it all comes to, I believe this team has everything it takes to come out on top as the national champions.
~ Clark Karoses