This Gonzaga team pushes the ball perhaps better than any Gonzaga team I’ve watched so far—and to say that they did it well against a team that pushes the ball as a trademark is something significant. Against a team with a fathomlessly deep bench (North Carolina utilized 17 different players in the game—Gonzaga played only 7), the Zags got out and ran and ran and ran Wednesday night—sprinting ahead on offense and backpedaling back on defense, again and again and again with very little to no relief from the bench. And they showed that it is with good reason they’ve got #2 next to their name on the television scoreboard because they’re not only one of the most skilled teams in Division One basketball, but also one of the best conditioned.
Of course, “numbers” also refers to statistics and Gonzaga put up some serious numbers in that sense as well on Wednesday night. I predicted we’d get 96 in the previous blog post, but 94 points is not too shabby against a team as well-coached and disciplined on both sides of the court as the Tarheels (I did get their 81 correct). It was disappointing to the fans on both sides, I think, not to see Cole Anthony on the court as it would, no doubt, have made this an even more exciting game had he been healthy. He’s the kind of game changer that could have evened the scales that, considering the injury difficulties Roy Williams’ club has suffered this early season, were tipped a bit toward the Bulldogs (though the Zags have a few injury troubles of their own). We were blessed to have a window of reasonably decent health to work with on Wednesday night, and work with it is what we did.
Filip (allow me to apologize for the many times I’ve spelled this Philip) Petrusev and Corey Kispert simply killed it in this game. Period. Exclamation Point! Some sportswriters, no doubt, will express disappointment with the number of rebounds they came up with, but when a team makes so many of the shots they take, the number of offensive rebounding opportunities goes way down. In other words, you don’t have an opportunity to go after a ball that goes through the basket—the ref gets that one—and boy oh boy was it ever going through the basket for these two Gonzaga stars.
Petrusev was 6 for 11 shooting from the field against some great forwards down low while Kispert, beyond outstanding, went 10 for 12 including 5 for 6 from beyond the arc. Petrusev wears number "3" which may seem more appropriate for Kispert, who wears "24" but hits so many triples in the course of the game. The important thing would be to keep a good thing going so I would say stick with whatever number you've got. Kispert showed his skills down low as well as from deep when, after too many of our bigs got into foul trouble, he filled in as forward (he’s listed as a forward even though he rarely posts up). He defended quite well all over the court and showed off some nice touch with the jump hook that all the Gonzaga forwards utilize so well (thinking of both Tillie and Timme).
Together, Petrusev and Kispert combined for 46 points, just a point shy of half of the Zags total. The Serbian big man added 3 blocks and 4 rebounds to his 20 well-earned points. For a guy who got a lot of flak for having too much finesse and not enough attitude in the post, Petrusev not only looked strong on Wednesday—but absolutely punishing. He finished through contact multiple times for and-1 baskets (there is a good reason he wears "3")—and made powerful moves toward the hoop to get fouled as well. On one such move, getting his shoulder into the defender and leaping for the shot—they had to check the defender’s teeth afterward on the sideline to make sure he hadn’t chipped or wasn’t missing any. He is truly coming into his role underneath and looking more comfortable every game against some of the best of the best.
Corey Kispert, who went off against Arizona for 18 points and 8 rebounds last Saturday, was leading scorer for the team once again against North Carolina with his 26 points, adding 1 block, 1 assist, 2 steals, 3 rebounds and 4 turnovers (sorry CK, I just wanted to keep counting). Any player on a Gonzaga team getting over 20 points is a rarity since the team always shares the scoring so well--but to see two reach the mark is rare indeed.
Strange alignments and series though, seem prevalent in the box score for this game. Numerologists might find some significance in such alignments. 11 is a great number. Not only is it a prime to mathematician type folks (prime numbers are ultra-cool and unique), but in spiritual number theory 11 is known as a “master number” signifying insight and enlightenment. There were a lot of 11’s in the numbers for Gonzaga on Wednesday, foreboding good things perhaps. Though we’d love to see this statistic a bit lower, maybe even in single digits, there were 11 turnovers committed by Gonzaga—pretty darn good against a decent defensive team. An even better set of 11’s comes from Admon Gilder, Ryan Woolridge and Joel Ayayi who all scored 11 points—pointing at balance among the trio of supporting guards on the night.
Of these Musketeers, Ayayi (who wears "11") went 5 of 11 (!) shooting from the field, Gilder 3 of 9, and Woolridge 5 of 6 (5 + 6= 11). Like Kispert, Woolridge was just plain money at point guard on the night. He hit his only attempt from deep, gathered 4 rebounds, and was just a good pass away from a double-double, with 9 assists. He continues to show elite talent at point guard on both ends of the court, and though he didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of trying to put the brakes on Cole Anthony like we thought he would have to (a challenge he very likely would have relished), he handled his defensive assignments with stern resolve. Whoever convinced him to come over to the Zags from North Texas is sure smiling to himself after this game.
Whoever got Joel Ayayi to come to Spokane from France has been smiling for quite a while now. Though he wasn’t as stellar from deep tonight, going only 1 of 5 from beyond the arc, he did get everything he needed for a double-double, with those 11 points and 10 rebounds. He was the only player with over 5 rebounds on the team, getting the only offensive rebound the Zags had all night (again, some of that has to do with the ball going in a lot) along with 9 defensive rebounds. He had 3 steals (1 for a sweet, fast-break flush), 2 turnovers and 1 personal foul—his 6 assists, combined with Woolridge’s 9 gave the duo 15 of the 18 assists for the team on the night.
Besides getting 11 of our 94 points, Admon Gilder ("1") had a strange string of 2’s in his stat line. 2 is, as you might expect, a love number according to some mystical circles—and Zag nation is feeling the love for this native Texan of late. After going 4 for 4 from deep against Arizona, he cooled off a bit and was 1 for 3 in the Kennel, but 4 for 4 from the free throw line (that’s what I’m taking about!) and he had 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 personal fouls (spooky, right?). "2," worn by Drew Timme, also happens to be the only even prime number.
Perhaps one of the best things about Wednesday night at the McCarthy Center, and it seems strange to say this, was that Killian Tillie sat most of the game. Tillie wears "33" which is, of course, 11 x 3--which may be foreboding of a championship game where Tillie sinks that many from deep. He's certainly capable of that. After a scary tweak of his ankle and perhaps some stress of his knee later in the 2nd half against Arizona, Tillie started against North Carolina, not allowing any pain he felt to stop him from participating in a game that meant revenge for the beat down the Tarheels gave last season’s Zag’s in Chapel Hill. And he played, as he always does, very well. He seemed slightly bothered, off balance and favoring his good side though—and got into some foul trouble early—using his hands, perhaps, when his legs weren’t responding as well as usual.
Gonzaga’s dominance through most of the game allowed Tillie to get back to what might be best for the time being; healing on the sideline. It’s a wonderful thing that Christmas is coming for so many reasons—one of them is so Tillie and Anton Watson ("22"--yep, 2 x 11) and the rest of the Zag players who need some mending can take a few days rest. Tillie’s shot is simply a thing of beauty and while it was wonderful to see him hit the shot he made from deep, I think I was more relieved to see him sit. I suspect he’s gonna look better than he ever has this season or last after the holidays give him a good chance to kick back into recovery mode after the early season knee surgery that kept him out of some of the first few contests. His numbers against North Carolina: in 15 minutes he was 3 of 5 from the field, 1 of 3 from deep, 2 of 3 shooting free throws, with 3 rebounds, 4 personal fouls and 9 total points (which is divisible by 3).
One other thing I predicted in the last blog post was that Gonzaga would shoot better from the free throw line. It wasn’t exactly a bold prediction considering the Zags went 17 of 30 for 56.7 % against Arizona. Against the Tarheels, Gonzaga was 15 of 22 from the charity stripe for 68.2%. Not great, of course, but better. As I mentioned, Admon Gilder was perfect from the free throw line—which is so good to hear lately of any Gonzaga player. Unfortunately, Ryan Woolridge continues to struggle from the line and lowered his already low FT percentage, as did Drew Timme. Both had wonderful games otherwise, Timme getting 3 of his 5 attempts from the field down low to fall and, like always, being a tough toughie all over the court. Together, however, he and Woolridge went 0 of 4 shooting free throws—and brought Gilder’s 100% back down to 50% in going 4 of 8 for the three combined.
Kispert made his single attempt from the line after the sweet and-1 he had (deserving the bicep flex he gave the camera afterwards)—getting a 3 point bucket the hard way. The lion’s share of free throws for the team came from Petrusev. He’s going to continue to shoot more and more free throws each week as he makes stronger and stronger moves to the bucket. He went 8 of 10 from the line and I don’t think there’s a coach out there who isn’t going to be extremely happy about those kinds of numbers.
I shouldn’t take liberty to say anything for Mark Few, but I suspect 75% shooting free throws as a team would be a number he could be happy about. Currently through, through these first 13 games, the Zags as a team are right at 65%. I think Gonzaga has to, as a long-term team goal, get that number over 70%—meaning they’re going to have to reach at least that 75% mark each game for a good while to right the ship. It might take until March, but I truly hope it’s in the works and I'll be paying close attention to those numbers.
Here’s a couple more really great numbers for the night. I said in the last blog post that 3-point shooting was going to be heavy in the scale of Gonzaga’s balanced attack. Wednesday night it was—and it was Corey Kispert for the most part, having a field day. The team was 9 for 18—a nice, round 50%. Overall, at 35 for 59 shooting from the field as a team, Gonzaga was just shy of 60%. Those are numbers to love. Those are numbers to cherish. So is 12 wins in 13 games—and the Zags got there on Wednesday night and in many of the contests this season with guts, tenacity and the ability to make the necessary changes to get better.
This group that Mark Few called a bunch of introverts early in the season (claiming that in his despair over the difficulty he felt working with the group, he had wanted to forget about the basketball season, take a long fishing trip and be found only much later in April) is becoming a communicative, cohesive, bonded group—they’re diving for loose balls on defense, making the extra pass for the best shot and doing everything else and whatever it takes to improve their game. It’s exciting to see the way possibility opens up with effort like theirs—that, despite despair, willfulness can usher in greatness and celebration.
We mentioned 11’s earlier as regards some of the point totals and turnovers. 11, in spiritual circles, is also indicative of taking notice. You see 11:11 on the clock, for instance—you’re supposed to pay attention to what’s going on and consider what’s going to happen because the universe is trying to tell you something—something perhaps a bit hidden that you might skip over if you didn't take a hint. If I were to wage a guess at what the universe might be hinting at, I’d say the Zags are being told something about the game on Saturday—and to take notice of the challenge they are about to face in Eastern Washington University.
These guys just up the interstate in Cheney are no joke (and we're playing them on 12/21--forwards-backwards, backwards-forwards). After beating Belmont earlier in the season, they scored 146 points against Multnomah on December 13th. At over 90 points per game, they have the highest scoring offense in the country (Zags were #3 last time I checked) according to one source—a statistic which, though impressive, should be taken with a grain of salt since the competition on their schedule isn’t quite up near the same level as Gonzaga has faced. They did get 80 against Washington—though Washington got 90 against them. But facing this team after a very hyped game against North Carolina, with all the ESPN cameras and the McCarthy Center going wild seems like something to be very wary of—with the potential for a serious energy level shrink being likely. Mark Few said as much in the post-game interview on Wednesday, and earlier called it a classic “trap game.”
No doubt the coaching staff will avoid putting a foot in the snare that Saturday could be. The Zags are going to come out and play their brand of basketball against these Eagles from EWU. Cross-town contests like this one are bound to get gritty and they know it. Don’t miss this one if you have a chance to watch. I think Gonzaga is going to take it very personally that EWU is racking up crazy numbers on the scoreboard and focus heavily on defense. They’re going to test exactly how effective they can be at snuffing the opponent out. I say they make this one into an ugly game—maybe not right away, but fairly quickly. I say Gonzaga by 23, with a hard-fought first half and a dominant 2nd: 93-70. Happy Holidays folks!!!
~ Clark Karoses