Keith: Well, since we last convened it’s been a bit of a mixed bag if you’re a Gonzaga fan. The women handled their business in Hawaii and gritted out a tough win over Wyoming on Friday night, so their form has been a positive. But the men’s team had a howler of a week after the blowout of UCLA. What’s wrong with them and how would you fix it?
Peter: For me the main issue over the past week-plus for the Zags is that they have not been assertive enough on either end of the floor. Even though they were able to keep it close throughout the Duke contest, Duke, Tarleton State, and Alabama each completely dictated how the game played out, on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. That means Gonzaga spent its entire time reacting, and their whole system goes a bit sideways. There is plenty more going on with regards to individual players, defensive rotations, etc, but ultimately, its been three teams showing up to face Gonzaga, not Gonzaga showing up to face opponents. Against a team like Tarleton State, the Zags can figure it out enough to grind out the win. Against a good team like Alabama? A 16-point deficit at half is pretty hard to overcome in college hoops.
I don’t think we are necessarily at a point (yet) where too many big changes need to be made, but if we see another lackluster week of basketball, then something has to start happening within the rotation. Start giving the minutes to the guys who are earning it and light a fire under the collective rear end of everyone on the squad.
KY: Who might you be speaking of, Peter? Name names!
Tuck: I think we’re seeing two young teams grow, albeit in disparate fashion. The women are building through success. The Truong sisters have both taken steps (ableit Kaylynne is doing so in the absence of Kayleigh), the wings look fantastic and Melody Kempton has been phenomenal in an increased role.For the men, they also are incredibly young and new together still, even two months in. The men are learning a lot about their team. We’re also seeing the difficulties in coaching when you have such incredible depth. Having a long leash for some players rather than others loses its merit when guys are playing huge in their limited minutes.
PW: I think a lot of us in the fanbase, me included, took for granted how seamlessly last year’s squad hit the ground running—and also how rare that is in college hoops.
KY: I tend to agree that at the moment, there is a lot wrong on both ends of the floor with the men’s team. Ball security has been a massive issue in the last few games which have featured lots of unforced errors from Gonzaga at the offensive end. But for me, it is the massive underperformance at the defensive end that is the biggest issue. The communication on defense seems to be lacking, or at least the understanding with one another. The result of that is watching the Zags look like very uncertain as to what they’re supposed to be doing. Gonzaga has the personnel where they can play a very simple defensive scheme. Everyone stay home on their man and if someone gets beaten off the dribble, you still have Chet protecting the rim. That’s kind of the whole point of having him. There’s no need to dig, shade, or overhelp when you’re playing a team with shooters like Alabama. That approach made more sense against Duke. If Gonzaga can shore up the attention to detail on defense and play in a more cohesive manner, a lot of their woes would be fixed.
Agree on that last point as well, Peter. Last year’s team, in retrospect, pretty much played at its ceiling from Game 1 through the national championship game. I think this year’s team might have a higher ceiling thanks to the potential and depth of the roster, but they’re starting much further away from that ceiling.
PW: Yeah, and realistically, if the offense is taking time to put it all together, you can get easy points if the defense does its work. The defense apparently did not Google “How does Alabama score all of its points” prior to the game and that just ended up sinking them. The Crimson Tide shot lights out, but its pretty easy to shoot lights out from three if you don’t have a hand in the face.
KY: Gosh, Alabama beat the Zags with such a basic drive-and-kick game. Part of that is the Zags were beaten off the dribble very regularly, but that was exacerbated by over-helping which left lots of shooters open. I don’t really understand why the guards were helping so much on penetration. That would make sense against Duke which isn’t nearly as good of a three-point shooting team as Alabama, but against the Tide it didn’t make sense. It seemed as if the bigs were confused as well as there were multiple occasions against Alabama where a big and guard were both scrambling to close out on the same guy.
TC: There are a lot of facets of the game that this team and coaching staff can develop and nurture. There are so many untapped possibilities with nearly every position on this team in terms of Chet’s offense, the guardplay and rotations. I would love to see Few and the staff lean into how diverse this team can play.
KY: Has your opinion of the men’s team changed at all since the beginning of the season, and if yes, how so?
TC: I didn’t envision an undefeated season and frankly couldn’t stomach another year of that dialogue. I expected the Zags to be tested but perhaps not in this way. We haven’t seen the leaders respond to adversity the way they thought they would have and I think we’ve gotten more out of some of the young guys than we expected.
PW: Honestly, now that the dust has settled. Not really for me. We knew coming into the season that they would have their fair share of struggles as everyone gelled. We knew the non-conference slate was going to be a tough one. We knew that the WCC is having a career-year in general. We knew that this team couldn’t shoot three-pointers to save its collective life. Realistically, they only got boatraced for 20 minutes this season (the first half of Alabama). Tarleton State was one of the more confusing games I’ve seen in quite sometime, and I think a lot of people overreacted to the Duke loss, as if Gonzaga was getting its rear end handed to itself, but they only lost that game by three. But I’ll agree with Tuck that I don’t think we have seen the upperclassmen on this team be the leaders we need them to be with so many young faces.
KY: With four freshmen comprising half of the rotation, there were always going to be some growing pains throughout the season as they work towards reaching their potential. That has been the case, but like you guys alluded to the biggest surprise for me has been the inconsistency of some of the vets, particularly Andrew Nembhard. With his significant experience, I’m surprised we’re seeing the wide variance that we’ve seen over the last four games from his exemplary performance against UCLA to struggles late against Duke which bled over to the Tarleton State game and then the nadir of Alabama. I don’t expect him to perform at that UCLA-game level all the time, but he’s much better than what he’s shown since that game. He needs to be that regularly, as the Zags clearly take a big hit when he’s not on.
TC: The whiplash of UCLA to last night has been incredible to watch across Zags fandom. Few and company scheduled as challenging of a non-conference as possible. Losing to Duke or Alabama should not make you ready to call it a season. These are incredible teams that Gonzaga is competing against.
PW: To your point Keith, Andrew Nembhard was someone I was slightly mentioning above. I don’t by any stretch think he should be benched, but him playing 36 minutes against Alabama was borderline criminal considering how badly he played in that game. Especially considering how absolutely scorching Nolan Hickman came in the second half to staunch the bleeding for a bit.
KY: I would like to see less rigidity from Few in his rotations. I’m not calling for Nembhard to get benched either, I suspect he’ll be fine, but Sallis and Hickman have shown enough over the last few games to earn some more PT. I’m very curious to see what happens when Dominick Harris returns.
Looking conference wide, Joe Lunardi projected four WCC teams into the tournament field in his latest iteration of the bracket which goes back to Peter’s earlier point about the success around the WCC. It is, of course, laughably early to know how the field will look as we sit here at the start of December, but are three or four bids a realistic dream for the WCC this year?
PW: As long as BYU doesn’t keep dropping games to Utah Valley level of opponents, they are golden for an at-large bid. Saint Mary’s should be fine with the wins over Oregon and Notre Dame. I think the big question will be San Francisco. The Dons are the hot 9-0 but they don’t have the sexiest of wins, and they haven’t played an actual away game this non-conference slate yet. But it is entirely possible that they can sneak their way in there as well, especially if they pick up a road win against any of the normal big three. As it stands now, I don’t also think it is that crazy to think the Zags will drop a non-conference game, and that will obviously be a major resume booster for any team. Realistically, I think three teams will be the likelihood, but weirder things have happened in March.
TC: I believe there is merit for four but I do not see a real shot beyond three. I don’t see Gonzaga dropping any or multiple in conference games this season, and with that the quality win opportunities for Saint Mary’s and San Francisco diminishes. And because of how decent the middle and even the bottom of the conference is, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see these aspiring tournament teams drop one to a Loyola or Pacific. I think Gonzaga and BYU are clear tournament teams and I think San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara all have realistic shots depending how conference play shakes out.
KY: I think four might have been realistically on the table if BYU and Saint Mary’s got through their non-conference schedules with one or fewer losses, as that would have given USF a couple of opportunities to get high quality resume-building wins if the Dons could have nicked some a game or two off them in conference play. But the Gaels loss at Colorado State on Saturday was a missed opportunity which likely also has a residual effect for any teams who beat them moving forward. Saint Mary’s loss to the Rams was probably karmic justice for Randy Bennett behaving like Randy Bennett at the end of their narrow victory over Utah State two days prior.
PW: Classic Bennett Blow By.
KY: Some people never grow up.
TC: This WCC season is going to be so special. The Bennett antics are ramped up, the Cougars look good, San Francisco is sneaky really REALLY good and the Broncos look like a buzzsaw when they’re healthy. The rest of the conference better hope that LMU doesn’t figure things out because they have as good of a puncher’s shot as any.
PW: I’m stoked. Let’s bring it honestly. I’ve been jonesing for some competitive WCC games since 2005 beyond the standard of Saint Mary’s.