The Zags certainly looked like #1 to begin both games, rushing out to a 14-2 lead Monday and a 24-2 lead Tuesday night. But Gonzaga hardly looked superior during long stretches in both games when the Demons came roaring back—largely owing to sloppy play, lazy defense and some slap-yourself-in-the-head turnovers from the Bulldogs that shouldn’t be characteristic of a #1 team in any game. Though the Zags managed to score 95 points both nights, they not only left a lot of points off the scoreboard by missing at the free throw line (65% on Tuesday) and from deep (just 4-18 on Tuesday) but left many passes, hooks, floaters and the like short on the offensive end. On the defensive end, while the 95-57 score on Monday might seem acceptable, the 95-78 score the following night will no doubt find some ridicule from the Zag coaching staff. Particularly troublesome about that 18-point win is the fact that the Zags were up 43-17 at the end of the first half—a half that Mark Few called perhaps the best half of defense the Bulldogs played all year. Followed by a 2nd half in which Gonzaga allowed a Demons team to score an utterly embarrassing 61 points (including 30 on a hellishly-hot 10 for 13 rampage from long beyond the arc).
Embarrassment aside, the games against Northwestern State were an excellent way for the Bulldogs to get some wins in the books, to get a look at different line-up combinations, to work on the morale, intensity, and conditioning of the players, to get more of the bench players some significant minutes, and hopefully to work on and recognize some of the deficiencies in play that have hounded the Bulldogs in their worst stretches this season. Even if the Zags didn’t impress as well as they could have, I think the games worked well to do all those things.
These two nights of games should have an especially good effect on the play of Anton Watson, whose role as a probable starter in most games for Gonzaga, and the 2nd true forward behind Drew Timme, can’t be understated. Watson recovered from shoulder surgery through most of last season after playing limited minutes in just a few opening games—and is, in a sense, still acclimating to playing basketball games at Gonzaga’s level. Watson is an invaluable talent and elite athlete who has played his role well so far this season, but hasn’t truly asserted himself in a way the coaching staff, the team and the fans know he can. A defensive specialist averaging only 4 points per game in the Zags first 4 games, Watson had yet to step significantly beyond that defensive role this season to find an aggressive offensive role on the team as well. Against Northwestern State, Watson had a chance to confidently assert himself in a game situation with less pressure than a game against Iowa or Kansas might bring, and he took full advantage. Against the Demons he was able to be both the defensive devil he is and find his offensive strength and stature as well.
Besides some great blocks and steals that saw him either tossing the ball downcourt for a fast break assist or taking the ball himself after a steal to hammer home a dunk, Watson took some classic entry passes in the post and made his post moves count with buckets and/or fouls. On occasion over the two games, Mark Few was able to give Watson the role down low without another true forward or center in the game—giving him the responsibility to produce in the paint. In the first game, Watson scored 15 points, saw a 3-pt attempt fall through the net, went a perfect 6 for 6 from the free-throw line, added 4 assists, 3 offensive rebounds and 7 rebounds total—and on the defensive end where we already know he’s very effective, added 4 steals and 3 blocks. Coming off the bench on Tuesday night, Watson went 4 for 5 from the field, had 10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 1 block. The Zags need Watson to be the elite force he is on the defensive as well as the offensive end of the court so opposing defenses can’t discount him as a minor threat and sag toward other players. And these two games will have been excellent, I think, for building his confidence on both ends going forward. I’m excited to see how he takes the lessons learned into the upcoming game against Virginia where he could play an important role.
We also got a chance to see the other members of the “tricky trio.” Of course, we’ve all seen and appreciated Jalen Suggs’ amazing play, but we haven’t heard a great deal from the other two members of Gonzaga’s excellent freshman class, Julian Strawther and Dominic Harris. Harris was particularly impressive on Monday night with 10 points on 3 of 5 shooting, sinking both of his attempts from deep and both of his free-throw attempts as well—adding 2 assists to his stat line in 19 good minutes. Strawther was as impressive in his 12 minutes, going 4-6 from the field and finding 8 points, adding 1 steal and 1 offensive rebound. In the next game, both went 2 for 3 from the field, Strawther finding 6 points and Harris 5 while continuing his streak from deep by hitting another 3-point attempt. Besides some turnovers it was a good showing from the other 2 freshman who will see some play this season and likely be part of the nucleus of next year’s Gonzaga lineup.
As for the premier member of the “tricky trio,” Jalen Suggs—he amazed again. Like many of the announcers have said while covering Zags games, in a game that looks fast-paced as Bulldog games inevitably are, Suggs looks relaxed, at ease, gliding—much like Neo at the end of The Matrix after he finds enlightenment, it’s almost as though Suggs is seeing everything around him act in slow-motion while he is able to react at a regular pace. Following his game against Iowa where Suggs went 7 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 27 points, in the first game against Northwestern State he wasn’t quite that impressive, but came away with 12 points on 4 for 6 shooting and continued his hot streak from deep with a 50% performance, going 2 for 4 from beyond the arc. He also added 7 rebounds and 7 assists in his 23 minutes. Tuesday night Suggs was extremely efficient from everywhere except deep (he went 1 for 4 from beyond the arc), shooting 8 for 12 from the field, adding 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block to his 19 points.
Scoring hasn’t been much of a problem for Suggs lately. And though everybody and their dog has celebrated his excellent game against Iowa, he did have 7 turnovers in that game. As I’ve said before, turnovers are the only stat betraying his youth. Sometimes he and the Zags as a team just plain look like they’re trying to do too much—trying to get too fancy. Against a team like Northwestern State, having a bit of patience and not making the silly, risky pass between or over 3 defenders is the smart choice. Suggs and the Zags weren’t making the smart choice as often as they should have on Monday and Tuesday night. Suggs had 6 turnovers in two games against the Demons—on occasion looking a bit sloppy.
On other occasions, of course, he looked absolutely brilliant—lighting it up from deep, slashing to the hoop for the lay-in, spinning around a defender to get to the basket, drawing defense only to dish it to an open player underneath—blocking, stealing, defending, dunking, doing everything. He truly is a big deal, and he’ll no doubt right that turnover ship soon, I’m sure. Suggs had the opportunity on Tuesday night to redeem himself after missing an alley-oop dunk that Joel Ayayi had set up nicely for him against Iowa on Saturday where Suggs sent the ball caroming off the back of the rim despite the great pass. Suggs made Ayayi’s lob to him count this time. On Tuesday, Ayayi, ahead of everyone and streaking toward the basket after a steal, recognized that the extraordinary leaper was following close behind him, and instead of laying the ball in, Ayayi unselfishly threw it off the backboard to feed Suggs who grabbed it high out of the air and threw down a two-handed hammer dunk that the refs took strange offense to (maybe Suggs hung on the rim a bit too long?) and gave Suggs a technical foul. He’s had two such technical fouls off lobbed dunks this season—the first on his first collegiate basket against Kansas in Gonzaga’s opener on Thanksgiving when it appeared that he taunted a Kansas player after slamming it home off of Ayayi’s (Yes, there is a pattern here—Ayayi can throw a great lob) sweet dime.
Now to Gonzaga’s bread and butter: Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, who are both maintaining averages of 20 points a game at the moment. The two traded high scoring nights against the Demons, Kispert with the honor on Monday and Timme on Tuesday. Kispert went 10 for 13 from the field on Monday, with a 3 for 5 effort from deep, a perfect 4 for 4 at the free-throw line, adding 7 rebounds to his 27 points. Timme added a nice 12 points and 8 rebounds in the first contest. On Tuesday, the two both scored very well, Timme enjoying a 10 for 15 night shooting with 9 rebounds, 1 block and 25 points. Meanwhile, Kispert had 19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. Can any other team boast 2 players averaging over 20 a game, especially against the kind of competition Gonzaga has faced so far? Few if any I suspect. #2 Baylor’s two top scorers both average 15.3 a game at the moment.
Like I quoted from a fan poster last week, “Gonzaga’s got dudes!” Woe to anyone who has to try to defend this bunch with Timme, Kispert, Suggs, Watson, Ayayi, Nembhard, Cook, Ballo and company at the helm. That’s gonna be Virginia on Saturday, December 26th at 1pm—with a defensive unit that some might consider up to the task. I can’t wait for that one. Most would probably predict a lower scoring game than usual for the Zags against a defense-focused team like the Cavaliers. I don’t think so. I’ve already said it and I’m gonna say it again: Gonzaga puts some distance between themselves and Virginia and proves too quick, too mean, too athletic, and too hungry for the Cavaliers. I think these two games give the Bulldogs some structure to work with in practice and light a fire under their feet to go out and prove something the day after Christmas. In the last post I said 92-75, Gonzaga over Virginia and I’m gonna stick with that prediction. Have a Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! Have a Happy New Year!! And GO ZAGS!!!