Our team basketball IQ, a somewhat arbitrary measure of the ability to make good decisions in games, looked like it was drooping at times. It’s difficult to say that about a game where the team scores 102 points and does pretty darn great on defense, but that’s what I noticed on seeing it again and I suspect there will be some moments when the team re-watches the game, where Mark Few will be pointing out flaws. So going into the weekend in California, with a game on Thursday night against Pacific, and the final conference game of the season against Saint Mary’s on Saturday in Moraga, I was definitely looking for poor decisions.
Luckily, I didn’t see too many. I remember a few errant passes, and a couple of the inevitable “what are you thinking?” moments, but I thought the road game in Stockton against Pacific showed us a team that deserves it’s spot as #1 in the nation because it makes really good decisions, plays with intensity on both ends of the court, and finds its rhythm and the ability to score without becoming flustered after a few misses or mistakes.
And Gonzaga’s two starting bigs, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, came out to play basketball in Stockton. Both have scored in double figures in every game they’ve played this season. Both of them! In every game!! That’s an amazing stat. It’s amazing neither has had an off-night scoring and stayed in single digits—or that neither so dominated a game that the other suffered. They are an outstanding, complimentary and humble duo, providing the foundation of a team that I don’t believe is going to lose again this season. The first meeting against Pacific this year was the closest both came to faltering in that double-digit scoring streak. Josh Perkins led all scorers on that night with 14, while both Rui and Clarke scored exactly 10 points. Our two bigs, and the team as a whole, were thrown off-balance by the Tiger’s slow, physical style of play in that first meeting of the two teams this season on January 28, that ended with Gonzaga besting Pacific 67 (the Zags lowest total this season) to 36. Rui wasn’t able to garner a rebound in that contest—and I believe he came out Thursday, February 28 on Pacific’s home court with the memory of that frustrating game in mind, intent on changing it up. After the game, Brandon Clarke said that he and the team had been working on absorbing contact and playing through the sorts of bumps Pacific, Saint Mary’s as well as all the good teams they’ll face in March will inevitably bring. They obviously did a good job working on that, according to the game stats. The two forwards more than doubled their combined point total from 20 in the first meeting to 48 in the second!
Hachimura went on a tear with 27 points on 11 of 16 shooting, one of those makes being a 3, and pulled down 6 rebounds. Clarke had his third straight double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds, as well as 4 blocks. Leading the country with nearly a 70% field goal percentage, his 8 of 10 shooting bumped that number up a smidge. Geno Crandall, such a spark in Zags play these last few games and steadily adding even more firepower to an already explosive offense, finished in double digits as well, with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Zach Norvell went 4 of 7 and finished with 12 points, hitting one of his two three-point attempts. Despite going 2 of 4 from beyond the arc, Josh Perkins ended up just under double digits with 8 points, 2 steals and just one assist to add to his record-breaking career total at Gonzaga.
Pacific gave a valiant effort on their senior night. In the second half, Gonzaga only outscored the Tigers by a single point, 47 to 46. The shining star on the team, Roberto Gallinat, shot 4 of 8 from beyond the arc and garnered 23 points. The Tigers as a team, like Gallinat, shot a very impressive 50% from deep. But Gonzaga did too many things well and wouldn’t let the Tigers claw their way back into the game. Gonzaga’s defense was really good, I thought, despite the good numbers the Tigers had from deep. Most of the looks Pacific had anywhere on the court were well contested, they just ended up hitting a good number of them. Gonzaga rebounded well with a 34 to 28 advantage on the boards, turned the ball over only 8 times (while forcing 12 turnovers), and shot 60% on field goals as a team. Another night of great free-throw shooting was the icing on the cake for Gonzaga. One cannot stress the importance, I think, heading into March, of strong free-throw shooting—and at 15 of 18 from the line, or 83.3%, Gonzaga looked great on Thursday night.
Gonzaga went into Saturday’s game in Moraga looking to keep the good things going and win their 20th straight game this season to cinch down the final win that would give them a clean sweep of every WCC conference game—hoping, of course, to win by double digits as they have in every one of those conference wins so far. And they pulled it off impressively in a hard-fought game at a very hostile, humid, and slippery (thank goodness nobody got hurt) gym. First off, I’d like to give Josh Perkins his well-deserved props. He has become the perfect point guard for this team with its wealth of talent. He is quite content to rack up assists in the games where everyone else is hitting shots; when Snacks is going off with a barrage from deep for instance, or when Rui and Clarke are shoveling in what’s being served up inside. But when necessary—when the Zags are being tested like they were on Saturday night—Perkins has proved that he can rack up the points as well. With what might have been Gonzaga’s worst performance from beyond the arc of the season, shooting a dismal 2 of 14 (14.3%) from deep, with starting wings Norvell and Kispert struggling to find their range, Perkins did exactly what he had to do in picking up the scoring slack himself—recognizing what was being given and taking it. Perk had 19 points (one basket coming nearly from the seat of his shorts as he was falling to the floor during one of the many slips that occurred on that sweating floor), was a perfect 5 of 5 from the free throw line, had 2 assists and 2 steals as well.
Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura continued their down-low dominance, both again in double digits. They had almost an identical stat line, going 7 of 10 from the field. Clarke had 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks. Clarke not only finished the season leading the nation with a field-goal percentage of 69.9%, but had a Gonzaga record-breaking total of 99 blocks (I think he got cheated out of at least one this season—I’m gonna call it an even 100). His excellent play earned him both the WCC Defensive Player of the Year honor as well as WCC Newcomer of the Year. Hachimura, the WCC Player of the Year, had 17 points and 8 rebounds. One of the things boding well for Gonzaga in everything to come is to see these two big men leading the fast break and passing to one another for an emphatic slam dunk. Any of the starters, point-guard to forward, can begin the fast break, handle the ball on the way and dish at the opportune moment. We saw it on one particularly strong play, where Hachimura got the defensive rebound, dribbled (he is very quick pushing the ball) up the court and hit Clarke in transition for a rim-punishing slam. Watching two bigs take off like that and beat both teams up the floor bodes very well for the team. And to see these two scoring so well and so consistently in every game, makes me think even if the Zags have some lack of decent outside shooting, (which won’t happen often because Norvell is too good a shooter, Kispert is great when he has the right looks, Perkins is excellent, and Geno is getting in rhythm as well), one or both of these guys is going to make up for any slack.
Geno Crandall, who is showing less and less of what I might call the “reckless abandon” that didn’t go so well with Mark Few’s game plan as he was acclimatizing himself during the beginning of the season, continues to show stretches of great poise, intensity and moments of absolute brilliance. His talent, utilized as a part of the smarts of the Gonzaga offensive schemes is, I believe, only beginning to more fully bloom. And I think it will come to fruition near the first day of spring. He was 3 of 5 against Saint Mary’s, hit his only 3 attempt, finished with 8 points and had the greatest assist of the game, tossing it up perfectly for Brandon Clarke who, sprinting toward the hoop, rose into the air and took that lobbed ball off the top corner of the backboard square behind the rim for an extraordinary slam dunk that even the fans in Moraga must have appreciated seeing and hearing. Though there were some exceptional assists on Saturday night, no one player has been garnering a great number in the last two games. It was a given for most of the season that Josh Perkins was going to be the leader with somewhere close to 10 assists a game, but his numbers have been down recently. He only had 1 assist at Pacific and 2 against Saint Mary’s. The assist leader has been Zach Norvell in both games, with 3 assists, but he shared the honor with Brandon Clarke against Pacific.
Rebounding wasn’t so strong in Moraga. The two teams both had 30 rebounds. Maybe the best and most hopeful thing watching this game, for me, was seeing Gonzaga find a double digit win despite significant struggles from 3-point shooting, decent but not great rebounding, too many turnovers (10 as opposed to 13 for Saint Mary’s) and struggles from Philip Petrusev on both ends of the court. Petrusev did, however, have a sweet fade away shot to finish the 1st half and reclaim the lead going into the locker room. Despite first-half troubles, and a collapse of their lead early in the second that found them nearly even with Saint Mary’s at 47 to 44, the Zags showed their dominant defense and offense by going on a 17-0 run, putting the game well out of reach for the opposition. Their free throw percentage, an all-important statistic going into March, went up another rung on the ladder. Gonzaga was 11 for 12 for the night, or 91.7% from the charity stripe.
That all being said, if the Zags want to win the National Title (which they definitely do) what we’re going to need more than ever is great play from the bench. We have had moments, particularly from Geno Crandall and Jeremy Jones. These two are consistently very good, veteran players, who can most definitely wreak havoc with the opposition on the defensive end, but can also provide great spark on offense as well. Should our solid gold point guard, Josh Perkins get in foul trouble, I don’t think the team would suffer too much with Geno in his place. Jeremy Jones, with his great athleticism can play big at 6’ 7”, weighing 213. One question as March Madness approaches: What happens if Brandon Clarke gets in foul trouble? As important as Rui is to the offense and the play of the team as a whole, Clarke, to me, is the solid gravitas of the team on both ends of the court. His absence from the court, I think, is the most troublesome scenario for Gonzaga. The Zags are so much more effective with him—since defenders attention has to be split between both Clarke and Rui when they’re on the court as a duo. And when the opposition is on offense, his presence as a shot blocker and general disrupter of flow cannot be overstated. Jones, though not quite at Clarke’s level, can do some of the same things on the defensive end and hold his own on the offensive end as well. I’ve seen him hop and block with the best of them as well is drain 3’s. Philip Petrusev, another big coming off the bench this season has shown inspired moments as well as questionable moments—and though he’ll likely get some play, how much will depend, I think, on which side of his Jekyll and Hyde game is out that night. He stepped into the road games in California this week cold and had some very rickety play both offensively and defensively. Look for that to improve in the WCC tournament. I have no doubt it will.
Gonzaga has two more games to do some polishing before the all-important big dance. The Zags first showing in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas is coming up on Monday night at 6pm and their second will be on Tuesday, same time, provided they win the first. Though they’ve beaten every team in the field during conference play, none of these games is going to be a cake walk. This tournament is the only chance teams like San Francisco, BYU, San Diego, Loyola, etc. who have all shown they can play excellent basketball have of getting into the big tournament. All the stops are going to be pulled. The Zags, who don’t want to lose, are going to get an excellent opportunity to hone their skills and further establish themselves as a premiere team in the country. It’s March! The madness is about to begin! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
~ Clark Karoses