Though Gonzaga saw a few players return to action this season, it was quite a different team stepping on the court in November with some serious question marks. Besides the obvious question of how to replace the powerhouse, NBA-bound duo of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke (who anchored Gonzaga down low last season), this year’s team also had early question-marks concerning how to find quality minutes in the backcourt with the exit of Josh Perkins at point guard and Zach Norvell Jr. at wing. Further uncertainty surrounded who would be coming off the bench for quality minutes with the loss of the likes of Jeremy Jones and Geno Crandall. Perhaps it should no longer surprise us how well things come together under the expert guidance of the Zag’s coaching staff, and how well players have stepped up to fill these vacant roles.
What we’ve seen come to fruition after the first 12 games of the season is the trademark, balanced attack of a slimly rotated Gonzaga squad with very solid and talented starters and back-ups. Six players are averaging 10 points a game or more and a seventh is so close to the mark we might as well round him up (Ryan Woolridge at 9.8 ppg). The team is developing quite nicely on the defensive end as well, playing with a tenacity that, besides being very stingy about giving away buckets to opponents at any level, has blocked shots, caused numerous turnovers and shot clock violations and translated into offense through some easy transition baskets off steals.
In its offensive attack, Gonzaga always focuses on balance, sharing the ball and the scoring in a way that lifts up the whole team—often at the expense of some greedier-handed players’ statistics. Perhaps the best example of that offensive balance was the game in Seattle, against the uber-talented Washington Huskies with young, NBA talent in Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Nahziah Carter and company. This win saw every Gonzaga starter scoring in double figures, and the team as a whole showing what seemed like very serious veteran cool down the stretch.
Though the Zags were never able to fully pull away with a comfortable lead, they held a relentless grip on superiority throughout. The Huskies, despite strong play inside and moments of brilliance, tried in vain to string together significant runs that would weaken the Zags resolve. The Bulldogs were able to thwart their efforts with tenacious defense, a hard-nosed crashing of the offensive and defensive glass, consistent skillful play inside and in the mid-range holes in the zone, strong drives to the basket and unflinching confidence in the long ball. In other words, they did a little of everything—balancing the attack all over the court, utilizing every player.
Consistent savvy shooting the three has been and is going to be perhaps the most important part of that balanced attack this year. Everyone loves a three pointer of course—everyone loves to raise both arms up high, fingers in the classic gesture for OK . And I think Gonzaga fans are going to get more than their share of that love this year. It was two deep daggers late in the game; one from Killian Tillie with just under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, then another from Joel Ayayi with under thirty seconds (both from the same NBA-range spot, sneakers on the Alaska Airlines logo), that provided the final offensive punch to put an end to Husky hopes of upsetting their rival. A similar story put the game strongly in Gonzaga’s favor in Arizona, when Killian Tillie and Admon Gilder each hit three pointers within a minute and a half of each other between the 8 and 6 minute marks, cushioning the lead to 14—a margin the Wildcats would never quite supplant.
While Gonzaga has relied heavily on their inside game to carry them through many hard stretches last season and in years before, I believe it is going to be shots beyond the arc that keep us marching strong this year. That is not to say we’re weak inside and that Gonzaga is going to hoist up a crazy numer of 3’s in the dim hopes a few might drop. Each of the previously mentioned pairs of 3’s were the sandwich ends of shots at the rim. At Washington, Ryan Woolridge had 2 of his numerous lay-ins between the aforementioned 3’s. Philip Petrusev had an ESPN highlight-worthy dunk between Tillie and Gilder’s threes in Arizona. Our inside game is strong enough to provide the necessary boon to open up our outside shooting and vice-versa.
Gonzaga doesn’t, however, have anyone quite like last season’s dynamic duo of Brandon Clark and Rui Hachimura—dunking like crazy all over and/or ruthlessly swatting shots on defense. Don’t get me wrong, Killian Tillie and Phillip Petrusev are as apt and able a starting duo of big men as any college team (or NBA team for that matter) could hope for—and provided they stay healthy they’ll have plenty of highlights to fill their reel when the time comes for that. Rui and BC were something special down low together. Tillie and Petrusev would be the first to admit that, having learned a great deal from them both. The two starters this year, both from across the Atlantic, are extremely crafty forwards, with excellent discipline, strength and the ability to both block shots and throw down the occasional hammer. They differ a bit in their styles of play, but compliment each other perfectly.
Consider the Serbian first. Philip Petrusev is as legitimate an NBA prospect as anybody out there. He’s started every game so far for Gonzaga this year and has performed extremely well against all but one opponent (against whom he performed only swimmingly). In two of the three signature wins for Gonzaga, Petrusev had double-doubles with 22 and 15 in the OT win against Oregon and 17 and 10 against Washington. Against Arizona and the most certainly NBA-bound Zeke Nnaji, he was excellent again with 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting, adding 7 rebounds and 4 emphatic blocks. He’s the leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker on the team, averaging 15.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. When he does well, the team has done well and the only game in which he had less than double digits scoring (he had 9 points and 9 rebounds in the Battle for Atlantis title game against Michigan), Gonzaga lost.
It was against Michigan, and the Wolverine’s hefty John Teske (and very talented Isaiah Livers) that we saw Petrusev and Gonzaga flounder. He was bottled-up on offense and taken to school on defense. And like the whole team, it seems Petrusev came out of the loss with a great lesson and great resolve. It’s easy for a fan like me to look for a silver-lining in such a thorough thrashing, but I truly believe Petrusev and the team have taken the lesson to heart and manned up to face every challenge without shrinking. I don’t think there’s a member of Zag Nation out there who hopes we don’t see Michigan again this coming March.
Keith Ybanez, who put forth the criticism soon after the Michigan game that Petrusev’s style of play has “a little bit too much finesse and not enough attitude,” has seen a different Petrusev and a different Gonzaga team since that conclusion to The Battle for Atlantis. Though now and again he defers to craftiness at the expense of a strong, power move that would yield either a dunk, an easier bucket or a trip to the charity stripe, Petrusev has been strong of late. And that craftiness, which is going to get points at times when a power move would fail, get blocked or turn the ball over, seems no longer to be what he defers to. His game is solid of late and its simply a matter of his leaning toward craftiness/finesse or strength/power at the right moments—and having both available all the time.
That balance of finesse and strength was on full display against Arizona where Petrusev showed great rim protection with four blocks, punished the rim a few times with two handed slam dunks (once a bit too emphatically for the referees’ tastes and earning him a technical foul). I believe through facing the challenges of the likes of Zeke Nnaji, John Teske, and Isaiah Stewart, Petrusev is truly going to fully arrive at his best game of poise, patience and strength by March.
In regards to attitude, strength, ferocity, leadership and determination, the team is going to continue to see more and more from our beloved starter down low, Killian Tillie. Mark few calls Tillie his “problem solver”—perhaps due to both his excellent hands and anticipation defensively (he leads the team in steals), and his ability to score from absolutely anywhere and against anyone on the offensive end with excellent ball-handling, touch, power and range. Sharing Petrusev’s finesse and craftiness, the very skilled French big man and Gonzaga veteran has been and is going to continue to be an absolute force everywhere on the court, especially from beyond the arc where he has proved himself to be a more than significant threat. It was Tillie’s misfortune with injuries last season, and during the last NBA tryouts, that may have truly saved Gonzaga from being sub-par this season. Zag Nation let out a great sigh of relief when it heard he would be returning to Spokane this season, and it is everyone’s hope that this year will prove worthwhile for him; that he will be injury-free and will significantly boost his NBA stock. If he continues along at the pace he’s maintained since he started playing in the fifth game of the season, I have no doubt it will.
His all-around presence offensively against the Husky Zone, and defensively against Washington’s elite athletes, was the decisive factor giving the Zags the win in Seattle. He went 5 for 11 from the field (2 for 5 from beyond the arc), finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals, and truly earned the honor of ESPN’s Player of the Game. In the Michigan game where almost every Zag player struggled, he was the lone star on the team to score in double figures in any statistic. Facing up to the Wolverine’s, bulky, hounding defense, Tillie scored a season-high 20 points on 9 for 14 shooting (2 for 4 from deep). On the season, he averages 12.7 points, 5 rebounds and 36.4% on 3 -point attempts in limited minutes. He is perhaps the best defender underneath for the Zags—and all said, I think he’s just beginning to get his legs underneath him.
Maybe the biggest worry going into this season was replacing Gonzaga’s all-time assist leader and all-around baller at point guard, Josh Perkins—along with his back-up at point and Gonzaga shooting guard, Geno Crandall. But the two guys who’ve taken on those roles this season have, in my humble opinion, far exceeded expectations. Ryan Woolridge, a graduate transfer out of North Texas, has added a mature, slashing, drive-and-dish, disrupting element to the offense that has frustrated many a defense already. Almost every one of his baskets against Washington (where he scored 16 points on 8 of 11 shooting and had 3 steals) were lay-ins, many of them heavily contested and stupendously gravity-defying. Woolridge is shooting an outstanding 55.6% from 3-point land, perhaps largely because too many teams have made the mistake of discounting him as a threat from deep and sagged on defense. When UT Arlington decided to pack the paint whenever Woolridge had the ball, leaving him open on a regular basis, Woolridge took serious offense and expertly dissected their defense. He ended up with three 3’s and a season-high 19 points and stared down the coach of the opposite team much to the chagrin of both Mark Few and the UT Arlington bench.
On top of his considerable offensive production, including nearly 10 points and 4 assists a game, Woolridge is an excellent defender. He is quick, fast and anticipates extremely well, leading to numerous steals. Tasked with the job of covering one of the best point guards in the country on Sunday, Nico Manion of Arizona, with the help of Joel Ayayi and the rest of his teammates, Woolridge performed wonderfully, limiting the known expert shooter to a 3 for 20 night from the field, and a stat line with only single-digit points, strong only in his 10 assists.
Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga’s team leader in assists with 4.1 per game, gets time at both point (to relieve Woolridge) and shooting guard to spell Corey Kispert or Admon Gilder. Ayayi started the season as a substitute off the bench and surprised many with stellar performances in very limited minutes, filling almost every category of statistics’ sheets with numbers. It was largely his heroics that carried the team to victory in the last seconds of both the Oregon and Washington games. In the second game at the Battle for Atlantis tournament against Oregon, Ayayi made an acrobatic, reverse layup with 1:18 left in OT to even the score at 72, leaving it to Drew Timme to make one of 2 free throws in the final minute to seal the win. Ayayi’s reverse lay-in earned him 2 of his 13 points on the night, as he went 5 for 8 from the field, 3 of 6 from beyond the arc, and added 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block.
Ayayi’s heroics at the end of the game against the Huskies included another bold move by the young native of France. It was a particularly brave shot to take with 27 seconds remaining, considering that, besides it having been beyond NBA-range, Ayayi had missed a 3-point jumper with 1:11 remaining on the previous possession. Gonzaga ahead by a slim 3 points, instead of doubting himself as the shot clock ticked down single digits, he stepped into a shot without hesitation to hit what made any further attempt by Washington to win moot. His 40.0% shooting from beyond the arc, ferocious rebounding, excellent passing, creative scoring from anywhere on the court, and quality defense have earned him a starting spot in the wake of Admon Gilder’s knee problems. Consider his stat line against Arizona where he was 5 of 9 from the field, 2 of 4 from deep, with 6 rebounds, 7 assists 1 steal, and 15 points total including an incredible and-1 late in the 2nd half that stretched the lead and allowed Gonzaga to hold on for the victory.
Ayayi’s rise and continued health is a very welcome addition to Gonzaga’s backcourt that has been hobbled and is healing of late. He and Corey Kispert have been the only two players not to suffer from health problems this season. A Gonzaga veteran of 3 years and a team leader, the expectations for Corey Kispert this season are great. He has suffered, however, from a few cold shooting spells in games where, unable to dial in his range, he finished in single digits. After the season opening blowout of Alabama State where Kispert went 5 of 6 from deep and 10 of 13 from the field, finishing with 28 points, those expectations lulled a bit after games like the ones against Texas A&M and Michigan. In both, Kispert scored only one field goal. After shooting through these cold stretches as any pure shooter should, Kispert is back to his expert form, averaging 14.1 points per game and hitting threes at a clip of 40.3%, including an awesome 5 for 8 performance beyond the arc against Oregon.
Lately, Kispert has done what sharp-shooters like himself should do when faced with any difficulties scoring—he’s found other ways to score. In the games against Wasington and Arizona, we saw him being useful in many capacities offensively and defensively beyond his obvious talent shooting the long ball. He’s been rebounding extremely well lately, especially on the offensive glass, pulling in a number of weak side rebounds and earning some easy put-backs as well as utilizing his considerable vertical leap to take the alley-oop from Ayayi against Washington for a sweet dunk. In Arizona he and the team as a whole utilized the shot fake at the three-point line to repeatedly unsteady a defender and drive to the hoop for lay-ins. Leading the team in points and rebounds for the game with 18 and 8, the strategy of faking and threatening with the drive opened up some space for Kispert to hit the two three pointers he had at key moments in the game. His rebounding, defensive toughness, athleticism and offensive play both in and outside the arc are extremely important to a proper balance and success for this team against elite competition.
We can’t leave our discussion of Gonzaga’s backcourt without mentioning Admon Gilder. Though Gonzaga has a reputation as an internationally flavored team with players from France, Serbia and Lithuania, more representation comes this season from Texas than anywhere else. Admon Gilder, a transfer out of Texas A&M, along with Woolridge of North Texas fame and freshman, Drew Timme have added some of that state’s attitude and toughness to Gonzaga’s game. With perhaps the least attitude of the three, Gilder, a starter for the Zags until knee problems sidelined him and limited his game of late, has averaged an even 10 points per game. His 4 for 4 shooting from beyond the arc against Arizona was a consistent and necessary lift for the Zags in Arizona—both in the team’s recovery from being down early to go up by a point at halftime and to gain the considerable lead later that would allow them to narrowly hold on for the win.
Drew Timme, another Texan, has perhaps the lion’s share of attitude, at least according to Kispert in a pre-season television interview. A star high-school player, Timme, despite his youth, has become a consistent substitute for the bigs down low. His all-around toughness, excellent post play, and good defense allow Mark Few to give needed rest to Petrusev and Tillie without losing firepower on either end. He’s off to an excellent start and has proven himself toe to toe against some of the best bigs in the county, exercising calm composure and patience along with fiery aggressiveness. He averages 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. If he doesn’t make an early exit for the NBA, he’ll be an integral part of Gonzaga’s offense this season and hopefully at least another season to come.
The same goes for the local, Spokane-ite, Anton Watson who showed early brilliance and elite athleticism off the bench for Gonzaga. Lately, however, he’s been sidelined for what appears to be (I’m admittedly no doctor) a repetitive shoulder stinger and/or dislocation problem. It’s a very unfortunate problem because Watson had been a key element off the bench, adding frustrating length to the defense and elite athleticism to the offense in earlier games. He is able to play and substitute for almost any position and has every part of what could make a dangerous NBA player one day, except health. All of Zag Nation truly wishes him a speedy recovery and hopes he will return to the line-up very soon.
The very serious concern that I’ve avoided talking about so far for Gonzaga is free-throw shooting. The Zags have been extremely lucky so far to win as many games as they have while shooting such a low percentage from the charity stripe. Against Arizona, they were a dismal 17 of 30, or 56.7% from the line. In the loss to Michigan, it was 46.2% (Ouch). Overall this season, Gonzaga has shot 65%, which would, perhaps, be a disappointing figure for many high school teams in the area. This is obviously something to be concerned about and, no doubt, the coaching staff is acting accordingly. That Gonzaga has been able to win despite such poor performances at the line is quite a testament to what they’re doing well everywhere else, but eventually you can’t hide your weak points with strong points anymore. It is particularly distressing that the point guard on the team, a position on any team that needs to shoot good free throws since they have the ball so often (especially when they specialize, like he does, in driving to the basket through contact) Ryan Woolridge is shooting the poorest percentage on the team, with (I cringe to say) 54.3%. He did, however, ice the game in Arizona with the two free throws that made it an impossible 2 possession contest with just a few tics left on the clock. Maybe he’s got ice in his veins when it matters but I’d rather have some higher numbers whatever the case. Corey Kispert, as he should, leads the team at 78.6 %—and I watched in amazement when he was fouled on a three-point attempt against Washington and hit all three in a row as it seemed a rarity for anyone to get even one after another. In the wins against Oregon and Washington, the team shot at or very near 80 %, giving hopes to fans that things weren’t as bleak as suspected. But the poor performance against Arizona says issues there haven’t been put to rest and we’ll have to see how it pans out against the likes of North Carolina who might foul a lot as a strategy in the hopes of keeping the score in check.
In the same Arizona game just mentioned, another issue was exposed in the poor team performance down the stretch by a Gonzaga team leading 81-65 with 1:35 left in the game. How do you end up at 82-80 with a few ticks left, needing two free throws from a 55% free-throw shooter to ice the contest. You mess it all up—that’s how it happens! I have no doubt, however, that Mark Few will be sure to shore up those difficulties along with the woes from the charity stripe, and prevent potential heartbreak losses of the lead that have doomed a few of Gonzaga’s best squads to painful, heart-rending losses in March as potential trips to the final four slipped through our very able fingers (I won’t mention which team I’m thinking of—perhaps you remember one or more).
Those concerns aside, things look really good for the Bulldogs. Really, really, surprisingly good. The Gonzaga ship has weathered its worst stretch very well. It has passed through the roughest center of the storm, and though it has a few bruises and is in need of a some repairs, all aboard can see the break in the storm ahead—the Christmas break. We still have North Carolina on Wednesday. That’s always gonna be tough, even though its at home, and even though North Carolina looks like they’re even more hobbled than the Zags at the moment. I predict a really good outcome in that contest. I think North Carolina is going to foul us a lot and we’re going to be very decent from the line this time despite our recent troubles. If everyone is healthy—in particular, if Killian Tillie is able to play at near his best—I suspect this is going to be a blowout Gonzaga win. If he’s not playing or not playing well, I still think we win by 9, 10 or 11. I’m going to say 96-81 Gonzaga—maybe a bit pretentious me—but I’m gonna stand by it.
With the excitement of Wednesday looming, let’s not forget that before Christmas there is another contest scheduled that no Zag fan or player should look past, or look though. It’ll be the very tail end of the storm before the break, but it could get a little rough at the exit. The inter-city contest against Eastern Washington University (technically they’re in Cheney, but let’s call it inter-city like it is) is not going to be easy. EWU, while not an elite out west, has shown resilience and toughness and faced up valiantly against the likes of Boston College and Washington who by no means easily came away with wins against the Eagles. Belmont suffered a loss against EWU this season. Let’s not be another ranked team slapped out of the top ten by someone no one knows is very decent. No doubt the McCarthy Athletic center is going to be up and rocking for the North Carolina game on Wednesday—for the opportunity to finally get a W against perhaps one of the most historically prestigious teams we’ve yet to beat. No doubt about that—but once that happens, once the W is in the books, let’s make sure we get our heads back out of the clouds and set our eyes on clipping the wings of some high-flying Eagles here at home. Only that will make it a truly brilliant and jubilant Christmas where Gonzaga could find, under one of the many Christmas trees here in Spokane, a box with #1 in the Nation inside.