Gonzaga’s WCC opener away at Portland quickly had me thinking the jinx on anyone who has been honored with the #1 spot in the polls (5 previous teams ranked #1 this season have lost quickly after gaining the throne in the polls including Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and Kansas) was more like a legitimate curse. The Portland Pilots, despite being considerable underdogs in the contest, came out strong in the first half on Thursday night and left Gonzaga more than a little bit flabbergasted—concerning both how to guard a team that seemed to be throwing everything they put up into the basket (Portland was 6 of 8 from beyond the arc in the first half and finished the game at a scorching 61.5% from long range) as well as how to solve the seeming lid over their own basket (Corey Kispert was the only player on the team to hit 2 3-pointers in the first half though Gonzaga took 10 attempts). After a frustrating first half of play, the #1 Bulldogs went to the locker room shaking their heads and down by 7 points, 42-35.
I’m not sure what Mark Few and the rest of the coaching staff said at halftime, but it sure inspired some spirited defense that turned into some much better offense in the second half. Killian Tillie, in particular, caught fire. With 3 misses from beyond the arc and only 4 points in the 1st, he dialed in the long-ball and did a bit of everything well in the second—including making steals, one of which he threw down on an alley-oop dunk served up nicely by Ryan Woolridge. Tillie would emerge as leading scorer for the night with 22 points, followed closely by Corey Kispert with 18.
Tillie’s dunk helped light the fire under the whole Zags team, and they utilized a 16-0 run early in the second half to not only erase the 7-point deficit from halftime, but to go up as much as 18. While an 85-72 victory against anybody on the road is nothing to shake a stick at, Mark Few’s comment after the previous game against Deroit Mercy on Dec. 30th applies well to both conference opening games that followed: “We were a little choppy tonight, “ he said after the 93-72 win. “We’ve got to be better than we were tonight.” Few also foreshadowed what would come in these initial conference contests, recognizing that the #1 spot Gonzaga had gained would motivate opponents to make extra-special efforts and present a serious challenge. “We’ve got to embrace this challenge,” the Gonzaga coach remarked. “You get all kinds of crazy efforts out of the people you are playing against.”
Two such efforts stood out recently. The first by the truly phenomenal Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy who is averaging over 25 points a game. He dropped 31 on the Zags in the loss on the 30th. Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross, another outstanding talent, had a double-double against Gonzaga with 24 points and 10 assists. The Gonzaga player who drew the hefty defensive assignment against both, Ryan Woolridge, stepped up well to the challenge even if the point total each player finished with isn’t indicative of excellent defense. Both were held to sub 50 % shooting in their respective contests, Davis on an 11 for 23 effort and Ross with 9 for 21. And the 10 assists Ross dished out were ultimately negated by 10 turnovers that can largely be attributed to defensive pressure from Woolridge and the Zags.
Prior to Saturday night against Pepperdine, Woolridge hadn’t just been good on the defensive end—against both Detroit Mercy and Portland he showed off his smart, high-percentage offensive production as well. In the two games combined, Woolridge shot a bonkers 78% from beyond the arc and 81% from the field on 13 for 16 shooting overall and 7 for 9 from deep—adding steals, rebounds and assists that bolstered team play all around and led the Zags to victories in both contests. Too-often, perhaps, point-minded fans mistake a large point total for an excellent game when they should be giving praise to those playing tough, smart, high-percentage basketball instead.
As wonderful as those two games were for Woolridge, the game against Pepperdine was a different story. Woolridge didn’t score at all—not a point, on 0 for 3 shooting and 0 for 2 from deep, finishing with 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 rebound. Much of the result may have had to do with the way Pepperdine was playing defense. The Waves “guarded the fence” very well, pressuring shooters at and beyond the 3-point line, and forced Gonzaga to work hard for almost every point inside. It may be that the better scoring opportunities weren’t there for him and he chose to facilitate everyone else’s scoring instead of his own—or maybe he was laser-focused on his defensive assignment against Ross. Whatever the cause, or the excuse, it’s a bit confounding after such heavy production in the two games prior.
But Woolridge’s statistics overall this season are quite mysterious. Consider the fact that his 3-point field goal percentage is a few tenths higher than his field goal percentage at 53.8% and 53.2%. That seems a little odd, but maybe not unwelcome by any means—he’s hitting more 3’s than he misses and nobody is going to complain about that. The very problematic statistic is his free throw percentage which is right in the same range. A point guard, especially a point guard who drives to the hoop as much as Woolridge does, has a lot of potential to go to the free throw line often. A low free-throw percentage for that position is rarely even heard of. Woolridge’s free throw percentage is (brace for it) 54.5%. That’s one he’s got to bump up. Contrast that with Pepperdine’s Colby Ross whose 3-point percentage looks low comparatively at 33.3% (he shoots a lot more than Woolridge), but shoots free throws at 91.3%. Now that’s just phenomenal for any player, but you get my gist.
Don’t get me wrong, Ryan Woolridge is a gift to this team and he has absolutely stepped up in so many areas to continue to get this team its wins. Like the team as a whole, though, he needs to bump up that area of his game or Gonzaga is going to run into some serious problems quickly. In many of the games so far, free throw shooting has been beyond problematic. Consider the last 6 games against Arizona, North Carolina, EWU, Detroit Mercy, Portland and Pepperdine. As a team, Gonzaga shot 56.7%, 68.2%. 75%. 70.8%, 47.8%, and 66.7%. My guess is that among most coaching staff in Division 1 Men’s Basketball, 70 or 75% free throw shooting in a game would be considered around average, anything below 70% would be considered not so good to poor and get players some extra wind sprints in practice—and anything below 60% would make many a coach lose some hair. Sitting at around 65% for the season overall, it’s quite amazing the Zags have managed to win all the games they have. Many games down the road are going to tip toward or away from the Zags depending on their ability to make free throws and that has got to get better.
Whatever difficulties Gonzaga is having, the team is facing up to challenges it’s been presented with and come away with all but a single win this year. Against Pepperdine’s Herculean effort on the defensive end, and despite it’s own sometimes sloppy play (the two combined resulting in 17 turnovers) Gonzaga mustered some composure late and came out on top. An absolute steady source of greatness, Filip Petrusev got himself another double-double with 16 hard-earned points and 10 rebounds. Corey Kispert’s 10 points and 7 rebounds on top of that, helped Gonzaga outrebound the Waves 39 to 30 on Saturday night. Tillie added 4 rebounds and the 3 of bigger starters—Tillie, Petrusev and Kispert—added 4 assists and a block each.
Tillie’s block may have been the most important, coming against Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross, who pulled up (with seconds left on the clock and the score 73-70 in the Zags favor) to shoot a 3-pointer that could have tied the game had it not been swatted. Killian Tillie ended up with exactly 20 on the night and for two games straight was at or above that point total. Admon Gilder and Joel Ayayi added excellence at key moments as well, hitting from deep at crucial moments and putting in 11 and 12 points respectively. In limited minutes, Drew Timme has shown moments of brilliance in both games as well, and offered an excellent player to spell either Petrusev or Tillie when necessary.
What we can see from these first two conference games is that the WCC is not going to be a cakewalk by any means. It is assumed that the better teams in the conference, including Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s and BYU, are still a few games away. But looking at other WCC results, including a 107-99 win by Pacific against Saint Mary’s on Saturday, this conference looks like an absolute minefield—full of challenges that are going to require extreme focus from everyone on the team. Gonzaga is going to have to bring their best every night and even the #1 team—or, rather, especially the #1 team—is going to have to tough it out many a night.
It is truly a dangerous, hydra-headed attack that Gonzaga presents to defenders when any of the starters can potentially come up with 20 points—all the starters have in one or more games this year and the 6th man off the bench, Admon Gilder, has as well. The defense needs a couple turns on the ratchet to tighten up, but I think it’s all going to improve with time. No doubt about it, Killian Tillie’s health is going to be vital to the most difficult contests this year. Mark Few realizes that and has provided his future NBA prospect a number of games on the bench to preserve his health and allow him to further heal. Though his leg obviously isn’t 100%, he’s looking good lately—and whatever happens he’s got a host of talent and heart on the team to carry all this wonderful momentum forward. I’m still predicting the Zags will win out in conference play and through March and April. It would be a momentous feat for the Zags to do so, but I’m a true believer that this team can tough it out. As far as the next few contests go against San Diego and Loyola Marymount, I predict good wins for Gonzaga by 20 or more. They’ve been tested early and I think they’re tired of the game staying close. I think they’re going to pull away early and hit often—and I think they’re going to shoot over 70% from the free-throw line. I would say 98-76 on Thursday night against San Diego and 87-56 against Loyola.
And as a true fan now and in the future, I can’t help but be happy about Gonzaga getting a verbal commitment from Jalen Suggs. It’s hard not to be skeptical about whether a “verbal commitment” actually means anything in this day and age, but I hope Jalen Suggs is sincere and that the tricky trio will be lighting up the court next year for the Zags. It’ll be a great year again no matter what, but that trio coupled with Timme, Ballo and anyone else who doesn’t get snatched up by some professional organization in the states or abroad would be one seriously fun group to watch.
Have a Happy New Year and Go Zags!
~ Clark Karoses