Last week’s games against the San Diego Torreros and the LMU Lions weren’t without some difficulties—including continued and worrisome shoulder trouble for freshman Anton Watson as well as a frigid spell from deep early on against Loyola that saw Admon Gilder as the only Zag able to connect twice from beyond the arc in the whole first half of play. Little else was going wrong though, and Gonzaga walked off the court at half in both contests with a comfortable lead: 38-22 against LMU and a whopping 53-16 against San Diego. Finshing with scores of 87-62 and 94-50 respectively, the Zags left little doubt that their #1 ranking is well-deserved.
Debate about that #1 ranking in college basketball, however, has been abundant in the last few days since Baylor (who beat #3 Kansas in Kansas 67-55 on Saturday and disposed of #22 Texas Tech 57-52 earlier last week) emerged as the definitive #2, leapfrogging the now woe-stricken Duke (who just lost away at Clemson). Don’t get me wrong. I know these numbers don’t matter, but I think there is good and bad about Gonzaga having the top ranking. On the one hand the #1 could inspire complacency, egotism, lack of effort and the underestimating of opponents in players because they’ve been recognized as superior. More likely, though, the Zags could use the goal of keeping that #1 ranking as inspiration for further excellence, improvement, attention to detail and hard work. The vote in the two significant polls was very close earlier this week. The Coaches Poll had Gonzaga ahead of Baylor, 775 points to 764 points—Gonzaga with 16 first place votes and Baylor with 10. The AP poll had Baylor getting one more first place vote than Gonzaga 31-30, but Gonzaga edging them in the total point margin 1574 to 1567.
Baylor has a good argument for being #1, and perhaps they deserve it. The only piece of evidence I might use to refute that is that Gonzaga beat the only team to beat Baylor this season, Washington. Of course, the Zags lost to Michigan by a much larger margin than Baylor has lost. It’s a dilemma, and I’m glad it’s up to others to decide who gets what number. The only real solution if each of the top teams continues to win convincingly, will be to see them play to settle the matter—but that won’t happen, if it ever does, until March. I was lucky enough to see that Gonzaga/ Baylor game happen last year in March at the Vivint Center in Salt Lake City, and Baylor’s returning players and fans are sure to remember Gonzaga—especially the name Clarke, as in Brandon Clarke, who played two feet above everyone the whole night and finished with 36 points and 5 blocks. I digress—back to the games last week in California. . .
Gonzaga absolutely owned the glass in both contests. The Bulldogs had a dominant 47 total rebounds to San Diego’s 27, and 41 to LMU’s 23. And all the usual suspects wreaked their usual scoring havoc on the opposing defenses. Filip Petrusev scored 16 against LMU (half of those at the free throw line on 8 of 11 attempts) and added 7 rebounds as well. He had 17 points against San Diego on 7 of 10 shooting from the field, along with 5 boards. With consistent performances like and exceeding these in almost every outing this season, Gonzaga’s vastly improved big-man from Serbia has earned a well-deserved slot on the JR Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list.
Corey Kispert picked only his best opportunities on the road trip and hit roughly half of his shot attempts in both games, gathering 10 points against San Diego on 3 of 6 shooting from the field and 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. Against LMU he found a bit more fire, going 6 of 10 from the field, 2 of 4 from deep and finishing with 15 points.
The team points leader in both of the Bulldogs first two WCC games (adding 22 against Portland and 20 against Pepperdine), Killian Tillie, had a much more subdued scoring outing this last week. The French, sharpshooting forward had 8 points against LMU and 6 in the game against San Diego where he led the team with 10 rebounds. His best games always seem to come when the pressure is on and/or competition is fierce and I think we’ll see him return to prime form in the two very challenging upcoming games this week.
On Saturday afternoon at LMU, Gonzaga had a freshman not only lead the team in rebounds, but also earn the first double-double in his young, promising career. It’s time to talk about Timme! The freshman native of Texas, Drew Timme, has been and is going to continue be a force and a key component for the team this season—especially considering Anton Watson’s shoulder troubles. As the likely heir-apparent to a starting slot on the low block next season (since both Tillie and Petrusev will almost certainly find places to play professionally), he has found his way into some significant minutes through tenacious play on both ends of the court as well as a super-slick set of post moves—including an excellent and accurate jump-hook. The passion he plays with has earned him a fair number of quick and, perhaps, ill-advised fouls in many contests so far. That passion and fight have also resulted in some very efficient, high-percentage scoring down low as Timme is excellent at crashing the glass—especially at finding offensive rebounds and put-backs whenever Zag shooters miss.
In his 20 minutes against LMU, Timme went 4 of 5 from the field, gathering 10 points, 11 rebounds (3 of them offensive), and 2 blocks. Against San Diego he showed off some passing skill as well, with 4 assists in 19 minutes of play along with 8 points and 7 rebounds (4 of them offensive). Timme, Petrusev and Tillie all pass extremely well for forwards, often assisting from down low or at the high post—getting the ball to the other forward across the block, to a guard streaking to the basket, or to a shooter setting up for a good look from in or outside the arc—a fact that will continue to bode well for the team for the remainder of the season should any foe try to double down. While Timme doesn’t have the same green light to shoot from deep that Tillie does, or quite the polished finesse Petrusev has learned with a couple of years in the program, Timme is an absolute gem to have off the bench to substitute for either or the starters down low. He seems to be getting a lot of attention and specific instruction from Coach Few each time he comes off the floor. He is, without a doubt, bound to improve at an exponential rate under the tutelage of Gonzaga’s coaching staff and the WCC’s school of hard knocks.
Another interesting player success story this season comes from Tillie’s fellow Frenchman on the team, Joel Ayayi. Last year Ayayi’s minutes and contribution to the team were minimal, and I believe everybody except perhaps Ayayi himself, some members of the team and the coaching staff, and those who paid attention to his outstanding play for the French team in the 2019 U-19 international tournament, have been surprised by his stellar rise this season into a multi-talented guard who fills up statistics sheets in every category.
Admon Gilder, the graduate transfer from Texas A&M had the starting spot over Ayayi for many of the early games this season. After being hobbled and suffering some down-time due to knee trouble, Gilder bowed out to Ayayi as starter. Though he’s shown some minor inconsistency, Ayayi has flourished in the starting role. He showed why he earned the starting roll on Thursday night against San Diego by leading all scorers with 20 points on 7 of 12 shooting, going 3 of 5 from beyond the arc and a perfect 3 of 3 at the charity stripe—adding 6 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. It’s not just that so many announcers get endless amusement out of loudly exclaiming his last name—the kid can straight-up play basketball. But to that point about inconsistency: against LMU Ayayi, accruing too many early fouls, struggled to earn 5 points and went 0 for 5 from deep. Days like that are already few and far between and will very likely become fewer and farther.
Fortunately Admon Gilder showed consistency in both contests off the bench and performed particularly well in the LMU game where Ayayi struggled, going 4 of 8 from the field and 2 of 4 from deep for 12 points. In fewer minutes he had the same 12 points against San Diego, getting a good helping of those at the foul line where he went 5 of 6. Though Gilder might be the better defender and the smarter veteran player, Ayayi continues to both impress and improve on both ends of the court and has the potential to add the kind of go-to, confident element that a guy like Zach Norvell Jr. brought to the team in years past.
Along with his role as shooting guard, Ayayi is also the best substitute for the other grad transfer from North Texas University, point guard Ryan Woolridge. As one of the best defenders on the team, however, Woolridge rarely sees any time on the bench—and he is proving to be a more and more dangerous weapon on the offensive end as well. Though he has had a few days on top of the scoring board for the team (especially in games against teams from Texas) he used these last two games to do a little bit of everything well by distributing the ball with precision, rebounding, scoring and locking down on defense. Against LMU he had 13 points on 5 for 8 shooting, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. On 4 for 9 shooting against San Diego, he earned 8 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals. He gets well-deserved praise nearly every outing, and Woolridge has made the transition for the Zags from Josh Perkins at point last season (the all-time assists record holder for the team) to the graduate transfer from North Texas at point this season, a very painless one.
In summary, things went well last week for Gonzaga, have been going well for some time, and I expect nothing but the same excellence in all weeks to come as this team becomes more cohesive with each contest. After its road trip to California last week, Gonzaga will be enjoying a stretch of games at home that should test this team to the core as they proceed deeper into the minefield the WCC seems present these days.
Gonzaga is the only team in the conference that has managed to go undefeated, even at this early juncture. Every other team has suffered at least one loss, and Gonzaga’s long-time rival and nemesis, the Saint Mary’s Gaels—who took the WCC Tournament Championship from the heavily favored Zags in Las Vegas last year—have already suffered 2 defeats in conference play and will have to climb back into good standing.
The next two opponents coming to Spokane may be the best two they’ll face before March. The Zags are at home against Santa Clara on Thursday (at 8 pm Pacific on ESPN2), a team with a very impressive 15-3 record on the season who just beat Saint Mary’s by a point last Saturday. After that they get BYU on Saturday. Sitting at 13-5 on the season, their non-conference losses have come at the hands of some of the better teams in the country, including Kansas and San Diego State. They were narrowly defeated by Saint Mary’s in conference play and will no doubt present a significant challenge considering that the very talented, veteran players they return to the court are both accustom to Gonzaga’s style of play and are looking for revenge after some significant pummelings in the last couple of years delved out by the paws of the Bulldogs.
The WCC seems to be as competitive this season as I’ve every seen. Every team has a shot at winning any given night, and there are 4 or 5 teams that are going to threaten to add to Gonzaga’s loss column. These next two teams the Zags play are both significant threats, along with Pacific who comes to town the following Saturday the 25th. You can’t build greater strength without resistance and I think the WCC play is going to be some heavy lifting this year.
My predictions this week: Gonzaga is going to add some order to the chaos in the conference by establishing dominance and continuing its winning ways. The McCarthy Athletic Center and the hometown crowd are going to give Gonzaga the extra boost that propels them into even more significant victories. Santa Clara will suffer a respectable loss in Spokane, falling by a score of 88-77 on Thursday night. BYU will lose just a bit more convincingly, 95-80 if Childs is playing in decent form and 95-71 if he’s still suffering a good deal from the recent injury to his hand. Best wishes, Happy New Year, and GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses